The National, Royal Festival Hall, review: Elder statesmen of indie take risks with new material

Charlotte Krol
The National performing at the Royal Festival Hall - Redferns

Nearly an hour’s worth of unheard material by The National was performed to devoted fans inside London’s Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. It was a daring, potentially alienating move by the Ohio five-piece who, for more than a decade, lingered little known on the outside of the success of their adoptive New York indie scene.

The National’s tale is one of a band that played the long game and won. They formed in Cincinnati in 1999 and released six albums before earning their first Grammy and first international Number One with 2017’s Sleep Well Beast. Barack Obama may have used Fake Empire, a song from 2007’s Boxer, in his 2008 presidential campaign, but it would take the melodic beauty of 2010’s High Violet to land the group in the charts and the mainstream. Acclaim has since been exponential, and with it The National’s confidence – and star power – has grown.

Thursday’s show was billed as a special evening with the band: a short film, a Q&A, and a concert of songs old and new that befitted the quintet’s elegant latter-day sentiment of lacy, orchestral rock. They performed material from their forthcoming album, I am Easy To Find, the “sister” piece to a Mike Mills-directed short film starring Alicia Vikander and soundtracked by reworked versions of the album tracks. That the group also invited a string ensemble and guest musicians to perform with them was testament to their evolution from indie’s awkward underdogs to its elder statesmen, both established enough to play with gig convention and lure a sold-out audience to the outcome.

Collaboration is the bedrock of I am Easy To Find, which on record features a plethora of female singers including Gail Ann Dorsey – a longtime musical partner of David Bowie – and Sharon Van Etten. It’s the first time in The National’s back catalog that frontman Matt Berninger’s weather-beaten baritone and quotidian tales of male inadequacy have dimmed in the limelight. 

On stage, this was unfamiliar though not unwelcome territory for the 48-year-old singer, who bowed regularly behind guest singers including This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables. Boxed-in by parameter neon lighting and block colour backwall tiles, Berninger and co moved barely an inch on new tracks such as Hey Rosey and Roman Holiday. By contrast, the music was dense, elegant and unfettered, playing out naturally like a filmscore. The new material’s lack of immediate hooks did, however, somewhat lend itself to periods of boredom with audience members checking phones and shuffling in their seats. Thankfully, songs such as the rumbling, harmony laden Where Is Her Head lifted their gaze.

It was telling that it took a cult number to turn the concert around. Live favourite Rylan was the evening’s pivot point. Fans began to peel from their seats, overjoyed to hear, finally, some familiarity in its anthemic choral chants and darting guitar lines.

Rylan offered the release the concert needed, heralding an encore of old favourites including Bloodbuzz Ohio and Fake Empire. As the supporting cast retreated, twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (alternating on guitars and keys) and rhythm section brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf relished the space now afforded to them. Berninger was back where he belonged – quite literally – in the arms of adoring fans. 

This was an evening of rich exhibits that varied in execution, only to climax spectacularly once the band’s returned purely to form. An elaborate event like this suggests, perhaps, that success has gone a little to their heads. But as Berninger said earlier in the evening, they’re “trusting the process” of experimentation, not the goal. The National are now taking the risks – and we must witness the results.