The National Live At The Palais
The National aren't a particularly good live band, unfortunately. The delicate, contrary layers of rhythm and melody that shape their songs seem to fall apart on stage, each sound hovering near the others but hanging resolutely alone in the space, creating a flat confusion of instruments. There's no chemistry there, as though the seven men on stage were vague acquaintances - great individual talents who were just starting to play together, not a band of brothers that has toured relentlessly for the better part of a decade. It's the weirdest thing.
Matt Berninger is both the problem with and the salvation of The National's live performance. The lovely, wasted baritone in a tailored suit and waistcoat can't seem to hold his crew together; without his voice to guide them, they seem rudderless. They open with Runaway, one of many beautiful tracks on the breakthrough album High Violet, and Berninger's voice is choppy and abrupt. The tone is right, the tune is perfect, but the heavy, honeyed flow is absent; the thread that ties their ambitious compositions together is in pieces, so the aural magic is gone.
Berninger is something to look at, though. Cast in dramatic shadows, cradling the microphone in two hands with an idle, masculine grace, his is the kind of frontman you couldn’t dream up – too perfect, too charismatic for convincing fiction. If the sound of Anyone’s Ghost and Bloodbuzz Ohio failed to shake the soul, the sight of Berninger clambering from the stage and into the audience, bringing the demurely seated crowd to its feet, was a different kind of fascinating. He has that horrible, romantic, indefinable ‘it’ factor. And while his fractured, screaming accents on songs like Squalor Victoria (from the 2007 album Boxer) don’t really lift the music, they are necessary signs of life on stage. The rest of the band, gifted as they are, is a supporting cast; all eyes are on Berninger, the audience re-orientating themselves whenever he moves, following the sun.
There are a few moments in the set worth remembering; samples from four of the five albums The National have released over the years including a beautiful rendition of unassuming track Green Gloves and a stirring performance of anxiety-laced single Afraid of Everyone (dedicated to the victims of the Tucson shooting). Berninger’s lyrics ring out, too, filling the high, quiet Palais with his obsessive lines about love and waste. But in two hours, there is only one song that really soars, which (ironically) is probably too quiet for the vast numbers of fans in the dress circle. The National close their performance with an unplugged version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, with just two acoustic guitars and the band clustered at the front of the stage, leading the audience in a gentle sing-along that ebbs and swells around the chorus. Berninger pushes his voice as far as it will go, willing the crowd to follow him, trying to conquer an audience of 2500 with their softest, saddest tune. If you are close enough to hear, it’s a perfect ending, but for many people, I suspect, it gets lost in the translation.