By Joey Whitehead
Who is the typical music consumer these days? Demographics suggest that teenage girls are pretty much the only people still buying music, which is why every petulant, big-haired, baby-faced adolescent male on earth is now in a mega famous boy-band (in case you were wondering). But while marketers are busy assembling focus groups and young pop vessels to lurch greedily at your expendable Christmas income, ‘The National’ are selling out back-to-back nights at the 02 Apollo seemingly without promotion. Dour suits, old faces, ‘grower’ melancholic musical textures and not a single dance routine. They are something of an anomaly in the current musical climate, where a premium is placed on arse-dancing and liquor sponsorship deals are considered acceptable lyrical discourse. The National are very much a band that lets the music speak for them, with huge critical acclaim for 2011 release ‘High Violet’ and current touring album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’, cementing their reputation as one of the best alternative acts around.
The National arrive on stage, and with a single snare hit, they are bars-deep in ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’. There’s something about this band that makes opening a set with a new, unreleased album track an okay thing to do. From the off, the audience is submersed in a high paced, nauseating embrace. The baritone growl of Matt Berninger subdues the crowd in a reflective trance. An opening gambit, including the stadium-sized anthems ‘I Should Live in Salt’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, passes without a single word of acknowledgement from the frontman, who glowers over the front rows, personifying grizzled silk. But you can’t accuse them of being unengaging. The final lines of ‘Conversation 16’ ring around the theatre and as the band seamlessly float from song to song. The classical pedigree of guitarist brothers Anthony & Bryce Dessner are never more apparent than during the delicate fingerpicking of ‘Hard To Find’ & ‘I Need My Girl’, as Berninger continues to spew red hot man-angst all over the colourful arrangements. Old favourites ‘All The Wine’, ‘Abel’ and ‘Slow Show’ are played effortlessly, but with total dedication from Berninger as he wrings out every last drop of emotion from each track. The final flourish of the set is barnstorming, with excellent visuals and stunning arrangements that create epic finales of tracks; ‘Graceless’, (set highlight) ‘About Today’ and ‘Fake Empire’. Upon returning for the customary encore, the band offer a debut to the forgettable upcoming ‘Hunger Games’ OST track ‘Lean’ to nothing more than polite applause. Straight away they made up for lost time with the reflective drone of ‘Humiliation’, punk satire of ‘Mr. November’ and slow-burning crescendo of ‘Terrible Love’. A solid account of what The National is about. The band leaves the stage after an intimate unplugged performance of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ and after a set that had so much emphasis on musical arrangement and richness of sound, the hollow sound of acoustic guitars give the final track a much needed modesty and warmth.
A drum-tight, rollercoaster set from The National played with mechanical efficiency. The whole package was shockingly well put together, from the lighting, to the set dynamics, to the performance of Berninger in which he managed to balance being totally aloof and heartbreakingly relatable. Their status is justified and Manchester eagerly awaits the next visit of New York’s finest party-poopers.