The National top the charts with their latest album and Getintothis’ Rick Leach witnesses a staggeringly great performance as they play a sold-out show in Manchester.
Some things seem destined to happen.
Rain in Manchester, the increasingly surreal happenings of the Trump Presidency and contra-flow systems on the motorways to name but three.
We can add another to this list. The inevitable rise of The National.
With a long-burning career of nigh on twenty years behind them and now with their seventh studio album, Sleep Well Beast hot off the presses, garnering critical praise from all quarters as well as topping the album chart, it feels as if was only a matter of time for them to reach these heights.
Prior to this, the first night of two at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, they played two sold-out shows in Edinburgh. These similarly sold-out Manchester concerts preceded five consecutive shows in London. That the tickets to see them went like proverbial hot cakes the moment the dates were announced and before anyone had heard any of Sleep Well Beast, speaks volumes for The National’s ascendency into the super league of all-time greats.
And although The National are a band who have achieved that status, they seemed to have reached it without diluting their visions of dark and edgy Carver-esque tales, short stories of sadness and loss, fading hopes and dreams and love and heartbreak. If anything, Sleep Well Beast shows them distilling and further refining their angst-ridden narratives with a fierce intelligence that can only come with maturity.
It was with some faint, yet only slight trepidation that Getintothis headed down the M62 to see them at the Apollo.
Would they be able to maintain their high-octane performance from Edinburgh? Would they be able to translate the many high points of Sleep Well Beast in a live setting?
Would they be pacing themselves for the London shows or would Manchester itself make The National just too gloomy and introspective?
The National were all we wished and hoped for and more.
The sense of anticipation in the air as they came on the stage was palpable. The National seem to have generated in their audience a passion for their music that very few bands can match.
Clearly this in part stems from their live performances which shows themselves as a band who have no difficulties in letting go, consistently delivering a catharsis that maybe we all wish for.
Within a couple of songs massed voices were raised throughout the Apollo. We were all singing along, no matter whether we could hold a tune or not.
Matt Berninger’s powerful vocals as well as his unbridled stage presence is the driving factor, but without the duelling guitar work of twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner and bass and drums of (non-twins) Bryan and Scott Devendorf providing a solid underpinning then there’d be a risk that it might turn out to be a bit of an unholy mess.
There’s a grittiness with The National live that doesn’t always come over in their recorded output. That is no bad thing of course; you need that subtlety when you’re listening to a record alone. But live, with hundreds of others, well live, The National are a different kind of beast altogether.
They rightly played a lot of the new album, and boy, did those songs shine.
Day I Die is much more of a tighter and wound-up entity in a live setting than on the album and The System Only Sleeps In Total Darkness stunned us with its sheer abandonment, simultaneously collapsing at the end with the squalling guitars of the Dessner brothers yet being held together with the rolling drums and near-funk bass stylings of the Devendorf lads.
We know that Berninger will give us a show and give us his all; akin to Springsteen or Prince at their heights and he has that ability to take us with him, all of us. This show was no exception.
There might be mumbled vocals on Walk It Back; we might not always immediately hear what he’s singing save for the odd profanity but we know what he’s on about. He communicates to us, to us all.
We know this is a story of something deeper than most rock songs; we can see that this is suburban despair and desperation writ large. There’s an acknowledgement within this seemingly gentle tune that everything becomes more difficult rather than easier as you get older.
A couple of songs from Trouble Will Find Me made an appearance, I Need My Girl and Don’t Swallow The Cap both turning out to be tougher and making more sense live than they did on that sombre album.
They have such an extensive back catalogue and so many live favourites that many of them were bound to make an appearance; Afraid of Everyone, England and Bloodbuzz Ohio all were given an airing as was the great Fake Empire.
However good all of these tunes are then it’s the newer songs, the songs from Sleep Well Beast that steal the show. Turtleneck, a self-flagellating tale of anger and loathing, sees the crowd go completely wild. This is yet another one that shows The National are capable of so much and can take us to places that we’ve never imagined.
They end the show with an encore of Born to Beg, Slow Show, an utterly incredible rendtion of Mr November – complete with Matt Berninger heading straight into the audience, borrowing someone’s phone and taking pictures– and a stunning version of Terrible Love to cap it all off.
We file out of the Apollo open-mouthed at what we have just seen.
We know it can appear as sheer and simplistic hyperbole but we’ve witnessed possibly one of the best live shows we’ve ever been privileged to attend.
That was The National.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Kevin Barrett