Who’s Bernie? The National dedicate not one, but two of their intricately crafted and unique tracks to a woman who ‘looks after us and so many other bands whenever we’re in Manchester’. The show is a sell-out and hoards of adoring, screaming northerners are here for one of the few dates of their tour, which reach only three UK cities. No time is wasted as the frenzy is whipped up by a split screen show of backstage preparations, the album artwork and the message ‘please standby’ flickering to ‘sleep well beast.
They play almost the entire of this year’s release “Sleep Well Beast” intermittently between the classics from the past five albums, pausing and restarting the drum pad beginning of ‘Empire Line’ announcing ‘someone needs help’ to make sure a dehydrated fan gets lifted out the ecstatic crowd. The lighting and projections are impressive to say the least – each song has a new colour wash. Strobing yellow accompanies Matt Berninger centre stage belting ‘I don’t have the drugs to work it out’ in ‘Afraid of Everyone’ with the twin Dessner brothers either side of him rocking on their guitars. Blood red complements ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ (being from Cincinnati) as Berninger wanders aimlessly and the guitars screech in unison.
‘I Need My Girl’ of 2014’s “Trouble Will Find Me” begins intimately with solo accompaniment and emotive vocal, but the Dessners duel building a thick texture, one brother armed with two guitars, banging one on the floor for effected feedback.
The Devendorf brothers are at the rear of the stage on drums and bass alongside two virtuoso instrumentalists who are on a raised platform flipping from backing vocals to brass and percussion. Trumpet and trombone are the highlights of numerous songs including the stabs in the new ‘Guilty Party’ over the magical guitar riff and, of course, the epic outro of ‘Fake Empire’, the last track before their encore.
Berninger owns the stage as a mad professor towering over his mic stand which he often throws across the stage. He moves from hugging himself and mumbling into the mic as if bored to kneeling and pressing his forehead to the stage and then to falling into the front of the crowd singing into excited faces. He throws multiple paper cups throughout the show up into the circle of the theatre as he steadily becomes intoxicated with the performance (and/or the booze). He is mesmerising and projects his voice as if reminiscing to himself.
The support duo rejoin the stage for the encore: ‘Born to Beg’ and ‘Slow Show’, as they leave the stage Berninger kisses and hugs them both, wrapping his legs around the male singer. Next, ‘Mr November’ – one song I’ve been dying to see live for years and it far from disappoints. The chorus is massive as crazed he shouts and wails ‘I won’t fuck us over I’m Mr. November!’. Blasts of coloured patterns flash on the overhead screen and he flits from the monitor to the floor to centre stage.
The finale is the anthemic ‘Terrible Love’ from 2010’s “High Violet” and the crowd is a kennel of wild dogs lapping up his charisma and voice. He takes a phone from the crowd and stumbles back to stage singing into the camera – footage I am eager to see. He is careful to return the phone and ends the huge performance looking exhausted, leaning on the stage hand and collapsing to the floor. As he sings ‘it takes an ocean not to break’, a white spotlight shines on his face as he looks to the back of the hall, his expression sincere and strong.
The National brought Manchester Apollo to life with a powerful and beautiful performance. Their balanced set list was flawless and their stage presence overwhelming. Bernie may remain a mystery to the majority of the audience, but to see such a forward thinking and monumental band live is an enlightening and unforgettable experience.