The National – O2 Academy, Bristol – 24 November 2010

Ten great gigs from 2010: #6

Frontman Matt Berninger at Route du Rock, Paris, 2007. © Bertrand Degove / La Direction.

The wider public consciousness has beckoned The National more and more of late. This year’s High Violet is no great stylistic leap forward, but listeners were right to lavish it in both critical and commercial success – it carries off their trademark melancholy with a new grandeur.

Whether their live performance trumps the experience of their recorded back catalogue comes down to taste, but there’s no doubt that their concerts offer a character distinct from their albums. The quintet includes two pairs of brothers, and there’s something almost artful in the mere sight of frontman Matt Berninger flanked by the Dessner twins on guitars.

The rhythm section (or the Devendorf brothers, as they’re known back home in Ohio) is joined by a pair of brass players in adding a bombast that can rarely be achieved on record, especially in anthemic efforts ‘Fake Empire’ and ‘Terrible Love’ – during the latter, Berninger stands atop the barrier, supported only by the adoring – occasionally wandering – hands of ecstatic fans. It takes his imminence to distract the majority from singing along to every word.

If one thing’s clear in Bristol, it’s that The National can boast a charismatic frontman. Self-effacing, his banter with the crowd and the Dessners is as funny as it is personable, and amplifies the warmth of the band’s music. His baritone is as pure live as on record (bar the occasional yelled chorus) and the band’s unamplified, remarkably intimate rendition of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ sends the hoarse crowd away happy.

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