Live Review: The National, First Direct Arena Leeds, 8th Dec 2019

IMG_20191208_211406-01It seems odd to think that in a busy year for gigs, this was perhaps the one I was the least excited about leading up to it. I’ve been a big National fan for years now but due to various misfortunes and twists of fate I kept missing out on seeing them live. Then, when I finally get my hands on a ticket, they go ahead and release the deeply disappointing I Am Easy To Find, and in a flash much of my enthusiasm died away. In breaking their winning streak of great albums I felt certain that the quality of their live shows would similarly suffer. I grabbed a spot front and centre at Leeds arena hoping to be proven wrong.

Talking to the people around me it seemed as though folks had turned out as much for the support act as The National themselves. Fans had come from far and wide to see Jenny Lewis, and I soon understood why. With a soft country twang that just warmed your heart, upbeat disco vibes to get you moving, and a few dreamy interludes to get lost in, Jenny had a bit of everything. It wasn’t just the music that won me over however, it was the way she made the most of her time onstage. Many opening acts, especially in big arenas, often feel very small and lost. Jenny’s performance was the kind to make you forget she was the opening act. From her neon lit keyboard and sequined jumpsuit, to the giant balloons sent bouncing into the crowd and the fact that a man dressed as a bottle of tequila carried her offstage, she made every aspect of her set a spectacle befitting an arena crowd. Easily the best support act I’ve seen all year.

The giant balloons continued bouncing around the crowd during the intermission, and a few fans saw an opportunity to write requests on them and send them towards the stage. Though none of them survived unpopped by the time the show started, somehow the message must still have gotten across, as the band pulled out a setlist that was pretty close to perfect. While the new material definitely sounded better in a live setting, it often still paled in comparison to older tracks. Thankfully there was less of a focus on new material, and the tracks they did play were the record’s highlights like ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ and the title track ‘I Am Easy To Find’. If anything a greater emphasis was placed on tracks from Trouble Will Find Me. As well as the record’s bigger hits like ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ and ‘I Need My Girl’, the night also brought out a couple of deeper cuts. The much requested ‘Pink Rabbits’ was a real crowd pleaser, as was a rare outing for ‘Humiliation’ in it’s first live performance for about 5 years.

Fair to say I was pleasantly surprised the song choices, and the lighting and stage set-up was an unexpected treat to boot. Despite being right at the heart of the action I still found my eyes darting between the various screens to catch all the unique camera angles and trippy effects. Probably the most surprising aspect of the night however was the level of audience interaction. I’m used to singers heading down to the barrier once or twice at a gig, but Matt Berninger basically lived down there, interacting with fans and being passed all manner of trinkets. It took a little getting used to at first, especially when worrying about his mic cable stretching all the way to the back of the room (seriously Matt, wireless is the way forward), but in the end it made the night feel like an even more unique and special experience. The National superfan stood in front of me all night vying for Matt’s attention eventually got his wish and they ended up spontaneously switching shirts. He ended up wearing the fan’s Radiohead shirt (back to front I might add) for the remainder of the night.

Somehow one of the most disappointing records of recent years led to hands down one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. I had the pleasure of hearing pretty much every song I could ask for; from classic hits like ‘Fake Empire’ to recent favourites like ‘Day I Die’. I even left with a newfound appreciation for songs I’d previously neglected, like their closing song ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ which they performed unplugged and had the crowd sing along to. I still find myself singing it even now. As a final gig of the year, and indeed the decade, I couldn’t have asked for anything better.