As a non smoker I'm a big fan of the smoking ban but last night I saw it's down side. The National's front man Matt Berninger has always maintained a sultry persona as he drapes himself on the mic with a cigarette as smoldering as his lyrics, but without it he looked awkward and fidgety and almost ill at ease with performing. This, coupled with his bands insistence on rocking out at the end of pretty much every song made for a surprise drop in favor for the band that, until In Rainbows popped up, held the top spot for their stunning Boxer album.
First of all, lets get this in context. There may have been a drop in favor but that only took them down to 'not the best gig of the year.' Boxer is such a rich album and it translated badly live is all I'm saying. Like LG stated in his review of the Glasgow show, they seem to be forcing the issue of being a rock band by elevating many of the songs to full-on guitar frenzy finales when it really doesn't need it. Like an approaching tsunami Matt's vocals get buried by the overwhelming size of the music and when the lyrics are as strong as Berninger's it is not wise to lose them in swelling instrumentation. But as the front man drifts to the back of the stage the crazy violinist seems all too happy to take his spot at front and centre.
But as the show progressed they seemed to settle into it a bit more and their natural brooding power came out in songs like Daughters Of The Soho Riots and Ada. Alligator's songs were not treated to as much elevation and so had more of a complete strength to them. Fake Empire is an instant live anthem with Boxer's fantastic drumming raising the already frothing crowd to a clap-along high. This was maintained with the fierce Mr November where Berninger displayed a rare moment of animation by balancing at the front of the crowd and with the words "I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders," he really looked on the verge of launching himself into the sea of adoring hands.
This is a band nearing the top of their game musically but they still seem uncomfortable live. They need to discover who they are on stage like they have done on record so perfectly. Maybe they're better in Paris where the smoking ban is yet to kick in.