So what happens when a band like The National, beloved for theatrical concerts where the audience sings along to every one of Matt Berninger’s sad lyrics, tours with an album such as their latest release I’m Easy To Find, a more arty, less commercial sounding record?
My initial impressions listening to their new album with it’s sixteen tracks, clocking in over an hour, can be quite hard going at times and not as an immediately gratifying a listen as say Trouble Will Find Me and Sleep Well Beast. It isn’t a bad album by any means and is worth sticking with as it certainly has it’s moments, with Rylan and Kansas easily being it’s standout tracks.
Berninger uses a rotating cast of female vocalists on many of the tracks, stepping aside on some to the point where his distinctive voice is back-seated to a quiet harmony. Live this is delivered by Eve Owen and This Is The Kit’s Kate Stables joining the frontman at centre stage, which works well and gives their sound more depth and warmth.
So tonight Leeds gives welcome to the arrival of one of America’s finest alt-art-indie exports, looking around the First Direct Arena it looks busier than usual, with all the top tiers open along with the VIP booths with everyone seeming in great spirits.
Not before long the huge multi-screens that cover the stage are powered and lit up showing the band backstage graciously making their way which raises a rapturous roar all around the Arena.
Berninger walks out with a huge grim on his face, beer in hand whilst waving to the crowd, he has certainly evolved as a performer since the early days where he seemed more tentative, barely looking at the audience as he mumbled through the set, now he interacts with fans, even leaping into the audience.
Kicking off with new track Rylan, this song sounds the most like The National’s traditional sound, with moody piano and could easily be a leftover track from Trouble Will Find Me, the audience seem to agree as it’s welcomed with huge cheers.
I do find Matt Berninger’s deep and brooding voice a guiding force that sets the mood to The National’s shows, it allows for such a great atmosphere and his appreciation constantly shows as he thanks fans between songs.
I can’t fault the band for wanting to play their new material on a tour, they’re obviously very proud and want to showcase it. I’m sure running through their classic tracks each night can be a chore at times but the inclusion of songs from I Am Easy to Find made the show drag at times, especially when played after each other. They play through a string of new tracks including Rosey, Oblivions and Where Is Her Head, but it’s the songs from Alligator, Boxer and Trouble Will Find Me that have the audience ecstatic, fans favourite I Need My Girl especially goes down well with Berninger dedicating it to his wife.
The Dessner brothers, Aaron (Guitar/Keyboards) and Bryce (Guitar) pretty much keep to themselves, playing in their own little bubbles, they do exchange occasional smiles with each other from across the stage, and seem intuitively connected. Meanwhile Bryan (Drums) and Scott Devendorf (Bass) are an uncompromising rhythm section and are the musical backbone of the band, interestingly both brothers started out playing violin when young, moving onto playing in the handbell choir before taking up their respected instruments.
When the band play through tracks from arguably their finest album Trouble Will Find Me, with This Is The Last Time starting an influx of smartphone users capturing the moment, with strobe lighting mesmerising the whole arena.
They ease into the brilliant Pink Rabbits (a love song about a relationship that has fallen apart and come back together) with it’s brooding but warm piano, Berninger sings ’I’m so surprised you want dance with me now/ I was just getting used to living life without you around’ which is followed by The National classic, Fake Empire closing out proceedings, with it’s distinctly political slant it couldn’t be more fitting with our impending election, singing ‘We’re half awake in a fake empire’.
The band return after a short break to play a handful of further notable encore tracks, the familiar chugging guitar of Terrible Love and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, both from the 2010 album High Violet, the latter having the whole arena involved in a singalong with Berninger’s arms aloft as if he was directing an orchestra.
Clocking up just shy of two hours, this has been an absolutely scintillating performance, and I’m sure as everyone heads for the exits they feel The National have earned every penny of tonight’s ticket price.
Live Review & Photography of The National at First Direct Arena, Leeds on 8th December 2019 by Mark Bromham. To view more of Mark’s work please visit his photography site here: www.howayman.photography/livemusic