You might think that, as someone who has seen The National at least ten times, I might not have much left to say. You’d be wrong. Even I’ll admit, though, that as I walked away from my last The National show prior to this one, I briefly considered that I might need to take a bit of a break. Some of the magic was disappearing. I was still totally in love with the band, and could still see how storming their sets were, but I had seen them so many times that there were no longer any surprises. Nothing felt new.
And then came I Am Easy To Find.
The album has sat firmly atop my listening pile since it’s release earlier in the year. It has been the refresh that I, and arguably the band, needed. It has retained the elements that make up The National; the sombre beauty, the unexpected musical explosions, the lyrical majesty, the obsession with relationships and their hardest parts, the unrivalled percussion patterns. But it adds to these a chorus of voices, a bank of brilliant collaborators. And while this album has its naysayers, those who have connected with it can often be heard saying that it’s their best work since Boxer. And I have connected with it; it’s their best work since Boxer.
Obviously, and predictably, the chance to see these songs live was too much to resist. I probably didn’t need to get tickets to three of their shows on the tour, but whatareyougonnado? With London and Leeds shows still to come, though, I doubt very much that either of these will live up to the magic of one of Manchester’s loveliest venues. There’s something special about standing in the Castlefield Bowl as the sun starts to set, the lucky bastards who happen to live in the flats beside it sitting on their balconies and getting a free show. And this was the best show I’ve seen there.
With Gail Ann Dorsey and others sharing the stage, the new songs flew. They opened with four of them. ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ suffered from some early set sound difficulties, ‘Quiet Light’ saw those issues start to settle, and by the time we hit ‘The Pull of You’ we were firmly in orbit. It’s a track that has sat around the middle of the pack when discussing my favourites from I Am Easy To Find, but in a live setting it is absolutely top drawer. All those fans who’ve complained that Matt has got less screamy as the years have gone by will have revelled in his performance of the verse that starts with the lines ‘Maybe we’ll talk it out inside a car/with rain falling around us’. It was a moment that only be described as ‘Peak Matt Berninger’, and the song was possibly the highlight of the night. ‘Hey Rosey’ closed out the opening quartet of new songs and it was another lovely moment that demonstrated all that is good about this new, collaborative direction.
Sighs of relief were audible from those who had come for the greatest hits when they followed this opening with ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio.’ And I don’t think those fans can have possibly gone home upset about a set which included ‘Pink Rabbits’, ‘Fake Empire’, ‘Mr November’, ‘Terrible Love’, and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.’ For me, the oldie which most stood out was ‘All The Wine’. It’s rarer than all of those I just mentioned but is a career high point that deserved revisiting.
But again and again it was the new songs that really stood out. ‘Oblivions’ was as powerful live as it is on record, ‘Where is Her Head’ was an energetic standout, and ‘Rylan’ (while not completely new) was one of the most rapturously greeted songs of the set. Opening the encore with ‘Not in Kansas’ proved to be an outstanding decision, too, bringing everyone to a state in which they could succumb easily to the songs that closed out the night. It was a beautiful few minutes.
So yeah, the magic is back. Elements that I had found to be slightly missing in the shows I saw last year and the year before were on show again. Matt looked happier than he has in a while. And the chemistry between the band and their new collaborators was an absolute joy to behold. I’ll see you in London and Leeds. And maybe one more show, too, I suppose.
Words and photos by Fran Slater