Giving It Some Heart

Let’s be honest: seated gigs aren’t usually the highlight of most indie fans’ calendars. It’s often difficult to create an atmosphere in a venue where the audience are restricted in space and feel like passive spectators, but The National overcome this possible difficulty with ease. The US five-piece perform honest songs with few frills, they wear their hearts on their sleeves but this is also the reason why they’re one of the greatest bands when it comes to engaging an audience and building a stimulating ambience in any venue.

You can tell that The National are a real band as their singer, the down-to-earth balladeer Matt Berninger, prowls the stage with a wine glass, full of agitation. While they’re a band who are very much about the music, they seem to have also developed a mighty stage presence. This is all helped by some fabulous lighting that alternately soaks the band in darkness and bathes them in light, constantly grabbing the audience’s attention and raising shivers down their spine.

The National have always been a special band, but tonight they’re on top form, transforming the cavernous room into an intimate setting where they share their liquor-soaked tales of love and lost and everything in between. The Royal Festival Hall suddenly feels like your living room when it’s inhabited by songs whose appeal is a sense of familiarity. There’s a great mix of songs; ‘Mistake For Strangers’ is the first tune that really sets the crowd into rapture, while ‘Squalor Victoria’ manages to be an ecstatic highlight later into the set. Several songs make their way into the mix; ‘Runaway’ opens the show with ruminating vibes and some rich brass, I imagine it’s a grower but it’s an odd choice of opener. ‘About Today’.

There are also some real treats from the band’s back catalogue; ‘About Today’ closes in show and resonates through everyone’s brains for days afterwards. Played live, it transforms into an epic emotional voyage that has you hanging on Matt Berninger’s every whisper. ‘Available’ is a song that the band admit they haven’t played in the UK for a long time, it seems less well-known than most of the material tonight, but once the crowd get into it, it goes down very well, with Berninger staggering around the stage, seemingly overcome with vitriol. ‘Mr November’ is always a highlight with its impassioned chorus and great melody, while ‘Green Gloves’ is dedicated to John Hughes, giving it an extra emotional level.

The Royal Festival Hall is packed and the audience are eager to join in from the outset, with pockets of clapping punctuating the silence in the hall by the second song. The one difference that the seating seems to make to the gig is to make the audience feel less camaraderie, but this is soon resolved when the audience finally give in to one man’s repeated pleas to stand. A Mexican wave of bodies soon erupts; not only is it a spectacle to behold, but it makes the experience far more enjoyable as everyone begins to dance and sing-a-long, freed from the confines of their seats. The band seem amused by the whole thing, but appreciative of the response.

A combination of the band’s fantastic showmanship and the unforgettable moment when the entire hall stands to attention makes this a truly memorable gig. The National put on a great show just by playing their music with heart and soul and it’s testament to their skill that they manage to delight such a large crowd with this triumphant return to the UK. Let’s hope they don’t leave it too long before the next show!