The National live in London: two nights, no repeats, pure class

September 27 and 28, Alexandra Palace: The indie darlings “pull a Metallica” and let their catalogue shine

If fans of The National remember 2023 for anything, it’ll be as the year the band proved their need to exist… and their love of a surprise. Back in April, they dropped the resplendent but fragile ‘First Two Pages Of Frankenstein’, a record that documented their return from the brink having battled doubts and depression. Earlier this month, they dropped the surprise companion album ‘Laugh Track’; a much looser yet assured testament to their survival.

It’s the first of a two night residency at London’s Ally Pally and the band tell us they’re “getting really comfortable” having recorded there yesterday for the new series of Later… With Jools Holland. We’re expecting a simple victory lap set when guitarist Aaron Dessner promises that across these two nights that they’re “not gonna repeat any songs”, adding “that’s really exciting for us, but also really challenging”.

It’s a feat few bands could manage while keeping an arena of this size engaged. Pearl Jam are known to shake up their setlists, and Metallica pulled it off with aplomb when they headlined two nights at Download back in June. We remember the advice Michael Stipe of fellow slowburn indie heroes R.E.M. once gave The National. As frontman Matt Berninger shared with NME, “He told us, ‘If you’re going to be in a band that lasts a long time, you either have to write a lot of hits or none at all’. At that point we were like, ‘Oh shit, maybe we’re safer going down the none at all route…’”

The closest that The National come to a ‘hit’ is arguably ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and it lands on night one alongside the spoils of ‘Demons’, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ and a tender fan-sung closing of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’. We’re left wondering how they’ll fill another set without disappearing up their own arses, but their canon packs one hell of a bang.


The National perform at Alexandra Palace on September 26, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images)

Sure the stans are delighted by the embryonic early gems of ‘Cherry Tree’ and ‘Available’, but the beauty of being an albums band rather than hit-makers mean that they can dive deep into cuts from ‘Alligator’ and ‘Boxer’ equallt, alongside ‘High Violet’ and now-teetering-on-seminal ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ alongside the newbies with the mood never dipping. After all, it’s not as if there’s such a thing as a ‘casual National fan’ that they have to please: that’s like being a part-time Scientologist.

After each song, a drawing by artist Chris Riddell to represent each track is beamed on the big screens having sketched along live. It all adds up to enveloping us in this opulent world. ‘England’ is illustrated by a sad angel, broken and defeated on the streets of London crouching by a fallen Brexit banner. It hits a little harder when it goes straight into ‘Fake Empire’. The likes of ‘New Order T-Shirt’ and ‘Eucalyptus’ from 2023’s twin records breathe real life and momentum to the mood on both evenings, and it is one of celebration. The self-proclaimed “sad dads” beam with joy throughout, and banterful Berninger’s renewed focus and compulsion shines as he invades the crowd down and clings to them for dear life.

Aaron Dessner once told NME that during the indie boom at the turn of the century it felt as if “The Strokes were like the sexy varsity basketball team and we were book club”. Well the geeks have inherited the earth. We ask you, could Julian and co or Interpol have pulled this off? We doubt it. Only The National have the consistency of catalogue and the sheer musicianship to deliver such a marathon showcase of pure class. They are one of this century’s finest. Long may they reign.

Matt Berninger of The National performs at Alexandra Palace on September 26, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images)
Matt Berninger of The National performs at Alexandra Palace on September 26, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Baker/Getty Images)

The National played:

Tuesday September 26:

‘Once Upon a Poolside’
‘Tropic Morning News’
‘New Order T-Shirt’
‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’
‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’
‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’
‘Guilty Party’
‘Sea of Love’
‘Slow Show’
‘Apartment Story’
‘I’ll Still Destroy You’
‘Green Gloves’
‘Cherry Tree’
‘Laugh Track’
‘Mistaken for Strangers’
‘Smoke Detector’
‘Day I Die’
‘Pink Rabbits’
‘Fake Empire’
‘Weird Goodbyes’
‘Mr. November’
‘Space Invader’
‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’

Wednesday September 27:

‘This Isn’t Helping’
‘I Should Live in Salt’
‘Squalor Victoria’
‘Afraid of Everyone’
‘I Need My Girl’
‘This Is the Last Time’
‘Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces)’
‘The Geese of Beverly Road’
‘Wasp Nest’
‘Start a War’
‘Murder Me Rachael’
‘Secret Meeting’
‘Grease in Your Hair’
‘Turn Off the House’
‘Tour Manager’
‘Carin at the Liquor Store’
‘Conversation 16’
‘Light Years’
‘Send for Me’
‘Terrible Love’
‘About Today’


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