The National


I first listened to The National’s music at my brother’s place in Leeds not long after the band’s third album Alligator had come out. Heading out afterwards into that Saturday afternoon’s bright sunlight I couldn’t stop singing the “sunglasses” line from the record’s opening track ‘Secret Meeting’. And that’s how it is with The National, and how it has been for me ever since: in song after song, there are lyrics of great wit and originality that lodge themselves in my head.

Travelling to Ardwick Green to see the band perform tonight, I think back to that day and also to the night a few years later when I saw the band at The Academy during the tour for its fifth record High Violet. A night immortalised in my gig memory bank, the five-piece seemed inspired, and as I gushed at the time on social media, the sound was so perfect that it was as if the engineers had spent all day sound-checking.

On the surface, very little has changed about the band since those times. The line-up of rich-baritoned singer Matt Berninger, the two Devendorf brothers (on bass and drums) and the Dessner twins (on guitars and keys) remains, and the songs are as moody and majestic as ever. Still, I’m a little apprehensive about tonight, perhaps because I know that first gig can’t be topped, my stubborn brain wallowing in a hazy 2010 nostalgia.

Out in support of new record Sleep Well Beast, the band’s seventh full-length, tonight is night one of a two-night mini residency before the band moves on for a four-nighter in London. I suppose the band is in the privileged position of knowing that its sizeable audience, combined with the affordable long-distance travel options the twenty-first century has given us, means playing a small number of scattered cities is fine: the fans will come anyway, and from far and wide.

Manchester, though, as Berninger explains tonight, is one of the band’s favourite cities. Now, if I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a performer announce from stage that their favourite bands are from here… but with The National it’s not too difficult to notice that The Smiths and Joy Division in particular might have a special place in their collective hearts. It has also been reported, for example, that drummer Bryan Devendorf, who to my untrained ear has an unorthodox creativity in his playing and is probably my second favourite drummer behind Jeremiah Green of Modest Mouse, was heavily influenced as a kid by our local hero Stephen Morris.

‘Apartment Story’ is quintessentially The National in its themes of love and self-doubt in NYC and is dedicated tonight to “Bernie”, who, the band explains, gave up her floor and looked after the band on visits to Manchester back in the day. The new songs blend seamlessly with the older ones, with particular Sleep Well Beast favourites being ‘Carin at the Liquor Store’, which references Berninger’s wife as well as novelist John Cheever, and the stately post-party love song ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’.

The National

Visually, The National live in 2017 is quite the production, and for me the psychedelia projected on screen from multiple stage cameras is a resounding success. Drummer Devendorf is wearing a banana-coloured cap jarring markedly with the rest of the band’s attire. My imagination tells that he was banned by Berninger from using a drum riser on this tour and is wearing the cap in a brilliant act of revenge.

Berninger goes into the crowd to sing some of the words of the troubled and insecure narrator of ‘Conversation 16’, before Steve and Zoe from support band Luluc join for an encore of ‘Born to Beg’. ‘Slow Show’ is the favourite song of a friend who is with me tonight, and I look to my left as the first line is sung to see him beaming. I’m not aware that the band any longer plays songs from its first two albums, but this fourth-album song on which Aaron Dessner first plays acoustic guitar tonight then moves to keys, is interesting in that it takes the refrain of its coda from a sketch of a song that appears on the band’s 2001 self-titled debut album.

The set ends with the POTUS-themed ‘Mr. November’ and the hushed intensity of ‘Terrible Love’, one of my favourite songs. As dimmed house lights come up and low music is piped through the PA post-show, I reflect momentarily on how, as impressive a gig as tonight has been, the nostalgia of that 2010 favourite gig of all time limits its potential in my mind, and unfairly so. But a sweet melancholy after seeing The National feels just about perfect, almost as if it’s a sentiment the band might want me to have if I am to truly understand the essence of what makes it tick, and I’m very glad I came to see such a dear and special band for a second time.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.