The National Live at Ally Pally


Cards on table: I wasn’t gonna do a review of this one. If there is a band that has been extensively reviewed and talked about on this blog, it is The National. But then I thought that a night watching a band as special as The National, with some very special people, in a place as grand as the north London venue deserves to be recorded. And what’s the point in having this blog, if I don’t write a review of the band that inspired it in the first place?

So, here goes. After work finished last night, I headed over to one of our favourite Arsenal boozers, The Library. Situated on Upper St, it’s just far enough from the stadium that it’s not stoopid busy on a match day. On a normal Wednesday night, it turns out that it’s actually pretty fucking quiet. I got a beer and awaited the arrival of James and his girlfriend Lizzy, as well as Jo and her dad, John. They all arrived eventually, beers and Caucasians were drunk and then we headed over to Piebury Corner. Which gave James and I an opportunity to launch a chorus of “We’ve got Dennis Bergkamp!” as we tucked into pies of the same name.

Picadilly Line, Finsbury Park, the train to Ally Pally. The walk up hill, needing a piss. Water excreted, more fluids- in the form of beer, cider and rum- taken on, we go and find a spot.

8:45 a Sharon Van Etten track is filling the Great Hall, the screens are flashing blue. The lights go down. The music stops. The band appear on the screens, they are backstage. They turn and walk away from the cameras, they are walking towards us. They are onstage. Months we have been waiting for this gig. It’s here now.

Don’t Swallow The Cap is a confident opener, the sound (a big worry for some) is bang on, crystal clear. Though, at its conclusion, James remarks that Matt sounds like he’s got something stuck in his throat. I Should Live In Salt follows and then, and then… then, three years I’ve been waiting to hear this track live, Mistaken For Strangers fills the air. That should, I guess, have been the lift off point for the gig for me. But it wasn’t. I felt a bit disconnected from what was going down on stage. It’s not that I thought the band were struggling in a bigger arena, but I think The National’s music has a real intimacy to it that was getting a bit lost in such a vast venue. Maybe I would have felt different closer to the front, I don’t know.

Anyway. Bloodbuzz Ohio is rapturously received, and then Sea Of Love really does mark the jump off point for me. It is one of those songs that feels like it could have been written for, written about, you. I guess The National have a few of those songs, don’t they? A real highlight of The National’s performances when we’ve seen them has been the holy trinity of Afraid Of Everyone- the stand out track from last night, for me, Conversation 16 and Squalor Victoria. Last night, that trio was split up, with Hard To Find inserted after Afraid Of Everyone. Trouble Will Find Me’s final track was a bit of a comedown after Afraid, particularly for James. But when normal service resumed with Conversation 16 (I will always love bellowing “Cos I’mmmmmm Eeeeevil!” in Jo’s ear) and an extended drummed intro to Squalor as Matt wandered offstage, presumably for a piss, all was forgiven. We raised our “Heavenly glasses to the heavens”. Or, for those of us no longer holding glasses, we just raised our fists.

Incidentally, the intro to Squalor Victoria really reminds me of You Could Be Mine by Guns N’ Roses, is it just me? At this point, I confess confusion. I’ve just looked at Setlist FM and it tells me that This Is The Last Time and I Need My Girl were played before Squalor and Conversation 16, but I don’t remember it like that. And neither does Jo. Whatever, This Is The Last Time is a majestic, soaring piece of work.

We (I) got a bit of a treat then as Matt tore into Available with a ferocity that was, frankly, quite unnerving. I’ve loved this track ever since I first heard it but had no hope, or expectation, of ever hearing it live. From there the band smoothly segued into the coda from Cardinal Song before taking us on a bit of a tour around Boxer (Slow Show another of those songs written for, and about, you). About Today had, I’m fairly sure, a few eyes moistening around me. Which is about right, because it’s a stone cold classic. John went for a cigarette at that point, and that was the last we saw of him till after the gig. Which was a shame because he missed out on Pink Rabbits, the lyrics of which I finally understood properly for the first time last night. A real gut punch of a song.

Graceless was a real highlight last night, Matt bending at the waist to force his words out as the band, propelled by Scott Devendorf’s bass line, crescendoed around him. That was one of my favourites when I first heard the new album, it still is. Lean, a song which The National have written for the new Hunger Games movie followed and then, the final track of the main set Fake Empire had everyone singing along, the Dessner brothers somehow playing their guitars whilst scraping the sky with them.

When the band reappeared, the line “the lilywhite skies of humiliation” had me thinking, in an amused fashion of Tottenham Hotspur. The only track from Alligator, Mr November saw Matt out into the crowd and then after just over two hours of brilliant music, it was almost over. Terrible Love came and went in a flash. And then it was time for the goodbye song. When we first saw The National, in Berlin, nobody seemed quite sure about the words to Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, or that they should actually be singing along to this song. Three years, and several shows later, it seems the audience is a lot more comfortable with it. And it really sounded, last night, like everyone was with the band. As the final line, “I’ll explain everything to geeks”, gave way to a massive ovation, I looked around. Arms aloft everywhere. It must have looked amazing to the band.

We gathered our thoughts, and John and headed off to the bar for one last drink before splitting up into small groups. Thinking back to it now, though I would say that this show wasn’t quite on a par with either the Roundhouse gig earlier this year, or Columbiahalle in 2011, it was still better than most. I was stood next to James for all of the close to 135 minutes the band were on stage and we barely spoke all night.

If you’re going tonight, and you haven’t seen them yet, then you’re in for a real treat. Enjoy it!

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