Just into their second decade as a band, The National are finally coming close to getting the recognition they deserve. Appearances on Jools Holland and a thumbs up from Barack Obama have helped, but the Cincinnati, Ohia quartet's slow rise to mainstream recognition is built almost purely on a staggeringly consistent flow of material, including this years' wide-screen epic 'High Violet'. A reputation as one of the planets best live acts doesn't hurt either.
The band have taken Phosphorescent on tour and under their wing during their short stay in the UK, and you wouldn't begrudge a similar fate to the headliners befalling Matthew Houck's gang of Americana wayfarers. When performing as a solo artist, and often on record, Matthew's music has a rustic charm in keeping with fellow Athens, Georgia natives Neutral Milk Hotel that made him a surprising choice for a tour of 1000+ capacity venues under a band whose orchestration is inch-perfect, but each track has been reworked into beautifully layered and drawn-out wisps of melancholic alt-folk and working man's blues.
'At Death, A Proclaimation' is a highlight of a set from a band with a similarly impressive back catalogue to draw from, a bubbling jam the kind of which Jason Molina has been trying to write since forming The Magnolia Electric Co that rides on pulsing drums and ebbing three-note guitar solos Neil Young might eschew for being a tad too simple.
Few bands can raise the pulse so effectively with such a slow-burner, but supporting the band who do it best there is no chance of a show-stealing performance despite a uniformly receptive crowd. Pulling from the cream of their last four full-lengths in a near twenty-song set The National are at their best when they slowly build up an atmosphere and ring out paranoia, suspicion and sorrow from every note.
Sure, the triumvirate of 'Abel' 'Mr November' and 'Available', the latter a surprise inclusion from the bands' second album Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers and an indicator that lead vocalist Matt Berninger could easily switch from alt-country to hardcore if he gives up his day-job with a whirlwind of sandpaper screams bringing the track to a close, whip up the crowd the most but it is when The National are at their most restrained that they are truly in their element.
'Sorrow' and 'Lemonworld' are perfect examples from their most recent full-length. From start to finish neither move that far in terms of schematics and velocity but they are both mesmerising, peons to lost love that show how far the band have come in perfecting their craft, with the addition of plaintive rolling brass sections bringing out the emotional depth of both songs.
The setting helps too. Warwick Arts Centre may be much less popular than the similarly sized Nottingham Rock City an hours drive away but its layout and acoustics are much preferable for a gig like this, not to mention the superior (and cheaper) selection of beers and bar snacks. As the set begins to draw to a close with the spine-tingling 'England', lead by duelling trumpets and galloping snares, the light-rig and projections offer up the perfect atmosphere.
Finishing off, the band move away from the mics and play an acoustic version of 'Vanderlay Crybaby Geeks', 'High Violets grand finale. Resting solely on acoustic guitar and horns it is infinitely more powerful than on record, with Matt sitting on the shoulders of the audience as his every word is echoed by them.
The National's reputation as one of the best live acts in the world isn't one perpetrated by press releases and back-handed journalists. The capacity crowd at Warwick Arts Centre will tell you that. Every single one of them.