It’s just over two years since brooding rock favourites The National played at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre. By the time the words “Please Stand By” appear on the stage screens just after nine o’clock, the audience starts to chant and clap: as far as they’re concerned, they’ve waited long enough.
Footage of the band making its way to the stage emerges shortly after and is met with loud applause and cheers from the sold-out, 3000 capacity audience. The biggest is of course reserved for frontman Matt Berninger, as he appears on the screen, drink in hand, slowly meandering behind the rest of the band and already deep in thought.
When they eventually make it to the stage, Berninger wastes little time on his drink before leaping to the microphone and opening with a trio of songs from the band’s new album, Sleep Well Beast. New material rarely proves the highlight of a gig, but openers ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ and ‘Walk It Back’ prove the recent critical acclaim of the band’s first Number One album is well justified, with the songs already feeling like well-loved classics.
Prowling up and down the stage, drink in hand, Berninger caresses the microphone as he roars through Boxer classic ‘Squalor Victoria’, Alligator’s ‘Abel’ and High Violet’s ‘Sorrow’, the latter two making their debut on their latest tour to the delight of fans now in the midst of one of the best set-lists the tour has arguably seen so far. As you would expect for such well-loved, evocative National classics, the audience sung every word, receiving nothing short of a rapturous reception.
As well as being a night that mixed old and new, it’s also a night that brings surprises, with the stunning ‘Geese Of Beverly Road’ from Alligator getting a rare outing. “We love you, Manchester!” the brothers Dressner shout, before telling the audience what a special place it is to them. It certainly must be: as the opening notes to “Love Vigilantes’ are played, the audience were treated to one of the finest New Order covers to grace a stage in recent years.
Powerful renditions of ‘Fake Empire’, ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ and set closer ‘Terrible Love’ reveal a band still very much at the top of their performing abilities. Favourite ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ soars through the theatre and seated fans stand in the upper circle for this and ‘Mr November’. Berninger energetically shouts his way through both as all the wine he’s consumed inevitably starts to take its toll. His darting up and down the stage is just as quick, even though he jokes he was “out of breath” before sipping some more of his drink.
Connecting with the audience throughout - whether on his knees, prayer-like, during the slower songs, caressing his microphone or jumping energetically into the standing-audience pit below during the likes of ‘Mr November’ - Berninger has lost none of the charisma that has undoubtedly made him one of the best frontmen of recent times. The National’s performance in Manchester on Saturday may very well go down as one of the best on the tour to date.