THE NATIONAL // CASTLEFIELD BOWL, MANCHESTER
The National deliver a mixed set at Manchester's Castlefield Bowl to open their European summer tour.
On the third night of Manchester's Sounds Of The City open air festival music fans who defied the forecast of evening showers were rewarded with an immersive and exhilarating performance by one of American indie rock's keystone bands, The National. Opening their European summer tour with a one-off headline show ahead of some festival dates provided the band with a unique opportunity to showcase latest album I Am Easy To Find, while polishing up some old favourites, in front of an enthusiastic 8000-capacity crowd.
While many punters were still arriving the early support slot was filled by Nashville-based artist Adia Victoria. The singer spared no effort getting the crowd warmed up under the densely humid afternoon sky. Her sometimes-husky voice and sultry melodies, accompanied by occasional twirls and a sway of hips infused the performance with a powerful sensuality that contrast to the themes of songs like "Devil Is A Lie" and "The Needle's Eye". Finishing on the creeping groove of "Different Kind Of Love", Victoria makes it clear she's here for a good time, if not a long time.
When the headliners take to the stage there's a peculiar feeling of anticipation. Singer Matt Berninger appears to be in a light-hearted mood, ducking behind the piano as the crowd erupts in applause. The feeling shifts almost immediately to one of serious concentration as the band lead off with a string of songs from their latest album. It's always a shock to the system when an established band comes to tour new material. That initial excitement and apprehension about what they will play and how it will flow weighs on both the performers and their audience. In this set of 25 songs 12 come from I Am Easy To Find. It's a lot to take on and there are some sound issues throughout the first half of the set where Berninger's vocals are occasionally drowned out by guitars, synths and horns. There's a lot of words and a lot of voices and on no fewer than 3 instances the frontman concedes he messed up his part. Exchanging melodies and harmonies with 3 stunning female vocalists in Eve Owen, Mina Tindle and Gail Ann Dorsey gives the new songs like "Oblivions" and "Where Is Her Head" a much stronger sense of collaboration which stands out against some of the older tracks like "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Apartment Story".
There's a defiant sense of progress about the setlist too; not only are there a lot of new songs but there are fewer and fewer very old songs. One of the things fans love about seeing The National live is that, yes there are certain favourites they will always play but no 2 nights will ever be the same. The band change up their set for every single show and there's always some unexpected treats from the catalogue. In Manchester these included "Green Gloves" and "All The Wine" which bookended some amusing chat from Berninger about capitalism after he exchanged his seemingly unpleasant drink with a fan in the front row.
Another standard of The National's live show is the moment of insanity that ensues every time Matt Berninger wades into the crowd. It's as exciting as it is terrifying and yet he does it so regularly that the band almost don't notice, but that wingmen/guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner intuitively know when to occupy front and centre stage. "Day I Die" sees one such moment, after which Berninger appears quite dishevelled, his crisp white shirt untucked and his glasses skewed. Yet he returns again during "Graceless" where the microphone is all but lost to the crowd and his voice is barely heard over the shout-singing of those around him. His antics are especially jovial late in the set. During "The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness" he interferes with Aaron Dessner's guitar change and finds himself flirting with the edge of the stage before running and leaping into position for the opening lyric. At one point he coaxes a phone from someone in the crowd, taking it on stage to film his perspective before tossing it back into the melee.
The band close out the set with "Fake Empire" and a new crowd favourite "Rylan" just as the heavy sky starts to give way to a light mist. Berninger's protracted departure from the stage sees him handing a bottle of wine from his personal stash into the crowd, followed by some cups. "Now I don't even have time to pee before the encore" he complains. Not leaving without playing a final couple of songs from the new album, they push on with the encore as Berninger enters the crowd one final time during "Mr November". He emerges at the end of it a somewhat changed man, mainly in that he is unable to hear the band clearly or keep up with "Terrible Love" until well into the bridge, at which point the Dessner's take over and drown out whatever vocals remain to be heard.
Shenanigans have cost them time and as they set up the final songs, a typical crowd singalong with "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" the venue hits its 10.30pm curfew and all amplification is silenced. Lights come on as the crowd leads line after line, drowning out all but a faint tambourine on the stage that keeps time until the last note is sung. Rain falls heavier, the louder the chorus rises until finally the gathering disperses by mutual agreement. Another one-of-a-kind night for fans, if not quite an auspicious show to kick off this tour.
SETLIST: | THE NATIONAL : CASTLEFIELD BOWL, MANCHESTER - 10.07.2019
You Had Your Soul With You
The Pull of You
Don’t Swallow the Cap
So Far So Fast
Where Is Her Head
All the Wine
Day I Die
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
I Am Easy to Find
Hairpin Turns - (Tour Debut)
Not in Kansas
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks