Live Review: The National // Crystal Palace Park, London, 5.07.24

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If you asked me what I was expecting before walking through the gates of Crystal Palace Park in London on Friday, I would have probably described a totally different experience than the one I actually lived. I knew The National were very capable of keeping a crowd on their toes, but never like this. 

As the gloomy and rainy day progressed in London, I grew more and more worried that the weather would spoil the experience. However, in the end, it enhanced it. After all, it is the “sad dads” band. The National are capable of bringing together all ages, from teenagers to mid-50s, they were all there in that field, but for the duration of the show, it felt like there was no age difference at all. Everyone shed the same tears, sang the same lyrics and waved the same arms. At least that is what it felt like, I was them and they were me.

Right before the show started and the band captained by Matt Berninger walked on stage while swaying to ‘Slippery People’ by Talking Heads, the atmosphere quickly changed. Instead of starting with the usual ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’, The National decided to switch things up and start with the nostalgic ‘Runaway’ instead. In hindsight, it set the mood of the entire concert perfectly: nostalgic, melancholic and intimate. When a band reaches the heights of The National, it is easy to get stuck in a routine made of new tracks, new albums and new sounds, but Berninger and company know better than to forget their own roots. Indeed, this was a special show. Over 2 hours and 30 minutes of pure musical talent and incredible crowd work, alongside a couple of gems here and there. 

“You should take it, ‘cause I’m not gonna take it! You should take it, I’m only gonna break it!” the band and the crowd sang at unison as the second track on the setlist – ‘Eucalyptus’, from 2023’s First Two Pages of Frankenstein – came to a close, and Berninger started growing impatient while pacing across the stage, from one side to the other, it felt like watching a tennis match for a while. The first half of the show was characterised by fast(er)-paced songs and more eclectic moments, such as the classic ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ and ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, as well as by more niche setlist choices like the moving ‘This is the Last Time’ from Trouble Will Find Me. Despite this, the real jewels of the night were still yet to come. 

While I did not approve of swapping Boxer’s ‘Apartment Story’ for the same album’s ‘Mistaken for Strangers’, I always appreciate jumping into the tide of the past. After the fan-favourite ‘Conversation 16’ ended with The National’s frontman screaming “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, ‘cause I’m evil” into the wired microphone, guitarist Aaron Dessner announced the next couple of songs by describing them as some of the “oldest songs they’ve ever played live”. As the screen behind the band turned green, 2004’s ‘Cherry Tree’ started playing and I, along with the rest of the public, was left speechless. “Loose lips sink ships”, Berninger growled to the crowd while holding onto a wire on the stage with the chilly London breeze flowing through his blazer, while the band was getting ready to play another old song: ‘Lit Up’. One of the Dessner brothers explained that this song is for the most loyal fans and that it is the first song they have played as a band on their first UK tour. 

Even if, as a fan, I appreciated the effort and attention that they put into crafting this setlist, the crowd did calm down significantly during these couple of songs. Still now, I am not sure whether it was a good or bad thing, but this is the risk and danger of introspectiveness. To be left alone with your thoughts without many other participants. However, The National played it off well and the public definitely perked up as ‘Alien’ played followed by the almost 7-minute-long ‘Space Invader’, which saw the band leader go into the crowd to scream “quarter after four in the morning, my heart’s software gore”.

Between one song and the other, the most refreshing thing to see was the totally self ironic attitude the whole band had. Between pulling each other’s shirt collars and laughing at inside jokes that must go back decades, it was clear that, before being bandmates, they are all most importantly best mates. That is why they can afford to play lesser known songs, or to take a slightly longer break between a chorus and a bridge because Berninger forgot the words. But it is all part of The National’s charm, especially to not take each other so seriously, even if their lyrics are some of the most heartbreaking words I have ever heard.

‘Murder Me Rachel’, from 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, also took a hit with the crowd who went absolutely crazy over it. As the show progressed, ‘Pink Rabbits’, the grandiose ‘Graceless’ and ‘Rylan’ were welcomed by the audience, who also applauded and cheered for This is the Kit’s Kate Stables as she accompanied Berninger during the latter. This is also where things got so cinematic it felt like we were all in a movie. As the first notes of ‘England’ hit the speakers, it started raining so heavily it was hard to see the stage. And we all took it with irony and, frankly, a bit of poetry. “You must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain”, the singer uttered as he felt the rain drops fall on the edge of the stage and, not to be cliche, but this was the peak of the night.

As we all know, Friday was a very important day for British politics, as Labour was re-elected as the winning party in the country. Berninger is rarely a political figure, at least explicitly, but this once he beamed as he declared that ‘Eventually the bad always falls’, in reference to the Conservative government’s defeat. As he finished his introductory speech, he then announced that the next track was “for Joe [Biden]”, and the piano-led ‘Fake Empire’ began. The crowd erupted in loud cheers as the trumpet encore brought the song to the finish line, and Berninger and his band companions were enjoying the view of 15,000 people basking in their stage light. 

At this point, it was time for the encore. These last five songs have been the highest point of the show, as the heartwrenching ‘Light Years’ transitioned into the revolutionary ‘Mr November’, but it all got more raw and authentic during ‘About Today’. As Aaron Dessner grabbed the acoustic guitar, it felt like time stood still. During a live show, The National drag ‘About Today’ out for an extra couple of minutes by adding trumpets and strings and pounding drums, and witnessing that under the rain has been such a privilege. 

Surprising the crowd with one last song, Berninger turned the microphone towards the crowd and directed everyone like an orchestra. ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, from the album High Violet, is the perfect closing song. “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love”, the public sang at once, while the microphone was being passed between one person to the next. A couple had it, then a group of teenage girls, and then the woman who was standing right in front of me. As that microphone was passed between all these different hands, I could not help but wonder if we are all that different at the end of the day. The way our eyes glisten, the way we get choked up while thinking of a past love or a broken friend, we all feel so much. And The National knew that, because we feel, we are. And there is nothing better than being, existing, while in a crowd of nostalgic fans of a band who knows us all so well. The National were immense, and even the sky could not hold its tears. 

Words by Silvia Pellegrino


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