Tonight, The National play the first of two sell-out shows at Manchester’s legendary Apollo. How is that possible? How does a band so very far away from the template of successful guitar bands come to occupy such a prominent position? Their one and only charting single to date stormed to the giddy heights of number 83 – and even that was twelve years ago. Granted, their last three albums have all gone top five, and the latest of them, Sleep Well Beast, debuted at number one earlier this month. They’re living proof that the appeal of music that was once described as ‘alternative’ is as strong as ever – and this particular band, now seven albums deep into their near-two decade career, are one of the undisputed leaders of the pack.
It is heartening to know that there’s still a very sizeable audience out there in an increasingly fractured, short-attention-span universe that longs for music that requires devotion and immersion from the listener to match the craft and detail of the band. The National’s latest album is liberally laced with some of Bryce Dessner’s most feisty and footloose guitar lines, lending it an immediate vibrancy. Twinned with frontman Matt Berninger returning on classic anguished form, and the Apollo is bristling with anticipation as they amble on stage tonight.
They somewhat surprisingly opt to open with four tracks from Sleep Well Beast, including the deceptively catchy ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ – the title capturing the essence of this band better than a thousand essays could. The bold choice to lead with new songs is dutifully lapped up by the crowd. But it’s only when launching into ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ from 2010’s High Violet that the momentum truly picks up. The band smartly consolidate the change in pace with ‘Afraid of Everyone’, from the same album – and Manchester voices fill the air.
Berninger’s stage character is as well refined and preserved as Iggy Pop’s, but in a polar opposite direction – for Berninger, it is red wine and poetry all the way, the thinking man’s thinking man. He’s flanked by the brothers Devendorf on bass and drums, and the twin brothers Dessner on guitars, making them a deceptively powerful beast on stage. With these bigger venues too comes a more advanced light show to boot – with moody purples and maroons exploding into shard of dazzling white lasers when the moment sees fit.
The band appear to be genuinely fond of Manchester, taking time out before ‘Apartment Story’ to pay tribute to Bernie, their local hero and friend who apparently has offered the band a floor to sleep on for many a tour over the last decade and a half. They take the obligatory moment to pay tribute to the many Manchester bands that have inspired them, although even as Berninger says it, he seems to realise what a cliché it is.
The new album’s biggest surprise comes with a track named ‘Turtleneck’, a blistering cacophony led by Bryce Dessner’s frenzied, uninhibited guitar solos. The track is a strong enough deviation from the norm that it caused a moment of divisiveness in the gents afterwards, with different voices proclaiming it to be both the best and worst song of the night. The former is much closer to the truth. The momentum of that track hurtles them into some fan favourites, including ‘Conversation 16’ and singalong-able ‘I Need My Girl’.
By the time they draw the main set to a close with ‘Day I Die’ and the great ‘Fake Empire’ from ten years ago, the Apollo’s Friday night fuse has been lit. A four song encore was the least that would have been settled for, and to open it they invite Zoe and Steve from opening band Luluc to join them for a rendition of ‘Born to Beg’, the last of the night’s slower moments. ‘Slow Show’ from Boxer follows, before the ultimate explosion of screaming and flailing that is ‘Mr. November’ from Alligator, the track penned about a presidential candidate many years ago that carries an extra sour taste in 2017. They finally conclude with ‘Terrible Love’, which they lift to near-anthemic status as Berninger plunges his way into the front of the standing crowd.
People may think of The National as an erudite, sophisticated band – but on stage they’ve always been sparky and confrontational. With muscular new songs now adding more spice into the mix, they truly are a live band worth your time.