Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Mon 9 Dec
When telling folk I was off to see The National, I found I couldn’t pinpoint a tune by the Cincinnati group they knew, yet despite operating on the periphery of the mainstream, the expanse of the Motorpoint was pretty full. Jenny Lewis supports with a decent 45-minute set, bringing some of her Vegas glitz and hairspray. Red Bull And Hennessy has that floaty Fleetwood Mac vibe, and she is somewhere betwixt Karen Carpenter and Abba on Do Si Do. She’s carried off stage by a snowman to finish.
A humungous crew then executes a double quick changeover, before The National are introduced with an onscreen STANDBY message, Dylan’s Things Have Changed and a live feed of the band in monochrome pumped in the wings. Singer Matt Berninger is an intriguing presence from the start: loping around the stage, delving into the audience and testing the limits of his mic cable with some epic wanders to the back of the arena, his morose voice like a more soulful Ian Curtis.
The Devendorfs are the sturdy rhythm section, aided by additional drums and percussion; the Dessner twins bring the melodies, with pretty guitar lines and classical piano taking some of the finer points which Coldplay ape, but elevating them to higher art. Eve Owens and This Is The Kit’s Kate Staples add some femininity to this masculine bunch, touring band expanded to around 10 with brass and keyboards, to ably represent their latest, faintly divisive album.
You Had Your Soul is a pounding intro, with sharp urgent bursts of stuttering guitar opening out into a widescreen picture. Rylan is composed and sleek, Oblivion’s three-way vocals, Pyramid Song piano and military tattoo drums are mesmerising. The crystalline chiming guitar on Where Is Her Head builds into a pristine wall of sound like Broken Social Scene in full flight, Matt’s brief stream of consciousness vocals almost toppling the song. The newer songs are in full UHD, compared to earlier albums in shades of grey.
The deceptively simple ballad Light Years deserves the rapturous reception afforded to classics cherrypicked from their other seven albums: Bloodbuzz Ohio with its Frippertronic infinite guitar, Berninger’s voice barely above a croak before brass and piano combine to a transcendent, shortlived climax. Slow Show prompts a big cheer and audience handclaps; Fake Empire represents the hope before dawn – Obama used elements of it on the campaign trail – and The National are democratic champions of hope over fear, evident from Matt’s lyrics and audience engagement.
Graceless is delivered with more menace than on wax, and encore highlight About Today is as devastating a broken love song as Love Will Tear Us Apart. The band line up at stagefront for an acoustic performance of Vanderberg Crybaby Geeks: mariachi horns sounding akin to a colliery brass band, crowd singing along semi-a capella. A glad-to-be-glumfest to savour on a Monday night.
words CHRIS SEAL photos KEVIN PICK