Gig review: The National at First Direct Arena, Leeds

Matt Berninger of The National. Picture: Getty ImagesMatt Berninger of The National. Picture: Getty Images
Matt Berninger of The National. Picture: Getty Images
The National mine an internal monologue of doubt and insecurity with dark humour for an audience of much more than ‘Sad Dads’.

Towards the end of the main set, The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner reminisces about the Ohio-via-New York band’s first gig in Leeds 20-odd years ago – first on to an empty room on a bill of student bands, followed by a night sharing someone’s floor with a curious dog.

Given that tonight the band are holding a rammed Leeds Arena in the palm of their hand, and Dessner’s recent side hustles include co-writing for Taylor Swift, you hope their accommodation’s had a bit of an upgrade.

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The National’s brooding, widescreen rock, dense with confessional lyrics, may seem an unlikely arena filler at first glance – though perhaps not as unlikely as the fact that they include two pairs of brothers who are still on speaking terms after 20-odd years on the road (Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and the urgent engine room pulse of Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums).

But the key to their connection with this vast crowd is of course frontman Matt Berninger, who’s self-confessed “dishevelled professor” appearance belies his skills at commanding the room. You get the feeling everyone is here because of a personal connection with Berninger’s lyrics, which mine an internal monologue of doubt and insecurity with dark humour and wit, delivered in a cavernous baritone.

Live, the slow-burning songs reveal layers of unexpected hooks and emotional punches. And though the tour T-shirts proudly proclaim the band and their audience “Sad Dads”, there are plenty of female faces among the delighted throng when the charismatic Berninger goes walkabout in the crowd.

Tonight the National seem a band at ease with themselves, and one with their creative juices flowing, embarking on a two-hour-plus tour of their catalogue including unexpected treasures and brand new material.

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They have just dropped an unexpected new album Laugh Track – debuting its title song tonight – and the new, chaotic jam Smoke Detector reveals a raw, spontaneous side.

The band first find their fire with a Dessner guitar duel at the end of Tropic Morning News, before Devendorf’s drum patterns power up Squalor Victoria from Boxer and Bloodbuzz Ohio from High Violet.

They even dip back into debut EP Cherry Tree and then reclaim their early throat-shredding punk energy on Abel.

There are some soporific moments from the slower side of the catalogue – but plenty of lovely ones too (I Need My Girl, Green Gloves).

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England is an unexpected gem, sitting alongside Fake Empire in the closing run. When Mr November explodes gloriously into life during the encores you can’t imagine any fan, casual or devoted, is going home feeling sad.