Gig review: The National at First Direct Arena, Leeds

“Don’t listen to the fear!” bellows The National frontman Matt Berninger roughly halfway through his band’s cathartic show at the First Direct Arena in Leeds, as his bandmates bleed from the keening Day I Die into the twitchy histrionics of The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.

By Andrew Steel
Tuesday, 10th December 2019, 6:40 pm
The National. Picture: Gordon MacIndoe
The National. Picture: Gordon MacIndoe

“F*** Boris Johnson! F*** Donald Trump!” It’s clear on which side the Cincinnati native’s political allegiances lie, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. Since their formation, the alt-art-rockers have firmly rallied against injustice and bigotry in all its forms, and they’re not going to stop now.

It is, granted, only one of a few moments of philosophy scattered throughout the two-hour-plus performance but their frequent approach to their catalogue on stage comes underscored by defiant, righteous anger that is hard to miss. The band are here behind eighth album I Am Easy to Find but they deliver a near-career-spanning set that stretches back to their arguably most defiant political roots with 2005’s Alligator, from which frenetic anthem Mr November was birthed. Throughout, such tones are balanced with levity and concern – Berninger brings the show to a halt twice in order to highlight crowd members in need of medical attention, while he also steals a fan’s Radiohead t-shirt and drapes paper Christmas cracker crowns on guitarist Aaron Dessner.

Alongside over half-a-dozen new tracks – stretching from long time live staple Rylan through the U2-esque chimes of Where Is Her Head, which erupts into full-blown noise freak-out – the band roll out the expected favourites in aggressively bruising variations, with the dreamy Bloodbuzz Ohio dialled up to its namesake clarion call and beautiful ballad I Need My Girl given a low, feedback-thrummed makeover. Their knack for a suitably affecting piano anthem isn’t left untouched either; a mid-show run of Light Years, Pink Rabbits and I Am Easy to Find operates in pin-drop silence.

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In their final run, they arguably reach their crescendo for the night; the pounding drive of Graceless, backed with the triumphalist England, forever twined in local consciousness with that BBC montage of the national football team’s penalty shoot-out win against Colombia. Fake Empire, Terrible Love, a first outing for rarity Humiliation since 2014 – they all add to the heightened, elegiac euphoria that bleeds into a fantastic About Today.

As their customary acoustic acapella singalong Vanderlyre Crybaby Geeks unites the crowd one more time, ecstatic, satisfied joy settles around the place. Unlikely arena heroes, they may be, but The National roar all the same.