The National at Leeds First Direct Arena on 8 December

The National enter the stage of the swelteringly hot Leeds First Direct Arena accompanied by adulatory applause, a video screen that reads PLEASE STAND BY, and a crooning Johnny Mathis track.

“It’s a great night for heartbreak / A wonderful night to be sad…”  It’s true that if we were in need of some collective catharsis this evening, we came to see the right band.  Lead singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics mine the grey areas of the human soul in ways that connect deeply with his audience, and tonight inspires rousing, life-affirming sing-a-longs to one melancholy, heart-on-sleeve chorus after another.  

The band kick things off masterfully with Rylan, a much-loved song which has been in their live set for several years and finally finds a home on The National’s most recent album, I Am Easy To Find.  Berninger immediately comes right to the front of the stage, as close to his adoring fans as possible, and throughout the gig he maintains an intimate connection with us, frequently jumping down into the pit and wandering amongst us, never letting the intensity of his performance slip.  He accepts cardboard signs, song requests and small gifts from the crowd, wearing some and displaying others around the stage. He’s a generous front-man, energetic and passionate and charismatic, his skinny frame and lanky, limp-limbed posturing reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.

When someone faints during Oblivions due to the airless, stifling heat of the Arena, Berninger is genuinely concerned and immediately stops the performance.  He brings the house lights up to allow the person to receive medical attention and passes out cups of water to the front row, before restarting the song from the beginning.  “Take care of each other; be good,” he reminds us. He’s funny too, stealing a Radiohead tour t-shirt from a guy on the front row and wearing it backwards throughout the five-song encore.  “F… Boris Johnson; f… Donald Trump!” he yells, to our delight. “Don’t listen to the f…… fear, it’s all bullshit!”

Berninger’s baritone voice has always been a whispery, guttural thing, and its growl lends an introspection and tenderness to The National’s albums.  But tonight it is undeniably at breaking point, rasping and straining through The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, barely there during I Need My Girl, and tunelessly hollering the chorus of Graceless.  Somehow it scarcely matters, since the crowd is singing every note anyway, collectively holding up the tune.  And anyway, there is something so moving about the fragility and earnestness of Berninger’s delivery; No Guilty Party and This Is The Last Time are especially heart-wrenching, with the sincerity and emotion in his performance making up for the lack of vocal richness.  “Jenny, I am in trouble / can’t get these thoughts out of me / Jenny, I’m seeing double / I know this changes everything.”

I do wonder, though, if Berninger’s struggling vocal chords are partly why The National have been collaborating with guest artists on their latest record, and why acclaimed British singers Kate Stables (a.k.a. This Is The Kit) and Eve Owen are forming part of the touring band tonight.  As Berninger talk-sings his way through the set, their voices are the gold that fills the cracks in his. Stables and Owen take the lead on some verses of Oblivions, I Am Easy To Find and Where Is Her Head, but are otherwise tucked quite far down in the mix, which is a pity; their warm and melodious tones sit well with the band’s overall palette and deserve a bigger feature.  During a sensitive, piano-led performance of Light Years, their soft harmonies evoke ethereal, ghostly desolation: “Oh, the glory of it all was lost on me / ‘Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you / And I would always be light years, light years away from you.”  

I would go to Leeds Arena any day of the week just to hear Bryan Devendorf play the drums.  As one of the most distinctive, inventive rock percussionists in the world, he and his bassist brother Scott provide the bedrock for The National’s incredible wall of sound.  Tonight, there are three drummers on stage, and Bryan leads them in relentlessly pounding out tumbling, propulsive and unexpected polyrhythms that drive the energy of the whole show.  England is a particular highlight, a powerhouse percussive performance; the arena walls must be quaking.  The drummers’ pummelling is perfectly matched with the frenetic video art on the screens above the stage, and the slickest light show I’ve seen in ages; simple but powerful.

Also essential to The National’s signature sound are the searing riffs and screeching distortion of twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dressner’s guitars, which tonight provide layer upon layer of sonic brightness and metallic fizz.  At the end of Mr. November, the Dressners step forward, one on each side of the stage, and shred like their lives depend on it; a thrilling cacophony.  Bryce Dressner’s piano on Hey Rosey and Light Years is, by contrast, delicate and precise.  Meanwhile, a trumpet and trombone duo contribute a syrupy soulfulness to one of The National’s best songs, Pink Rabbits, that feels like the clouds parting and the sun coming out.  Similarly, About Today builds so gently and exquisitely that when the brass part eases in just as Berninger murmurs, “How close am I / To losing you?” I get a lump in my throat.

The epic 24-song set list ensures that no fan favourites are excluded, including anthemic numbers like The Day I Die, Don’t Swallow the Cap and Fake Empire.  The National now have such an impressive back catalogue of lyrically-intriguing, intricately-arranged material that there isn’t a single dud to be heard all evening.  The final number, as tradition would have it, is a quirky, acoustic lullaby called Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks; the audience is primed and ready to take over the lead vocals, and Berninger conducts them in a sweet sing-a-long.  As the harsh house lights come up and we all file out of the arena with sticky shoes, every single person looks sweaty and happy and spent.  No wonder The National have slowly, quietly, almost without anyone realising, become one of the biggest and best-loved bands in the world.

All photographs by Mark Wheelwright.

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