The National are built upon a simple foundation: life is populated by love, loss and ends in death. Pedestrian as this approach can seem, it’s carried them through 20 years and eight albums of soft reinvention, honing in on a point they finally seem to have reached on Wednesday night in Salford.
A concrete amphitheatre hemmed on the canal, Salford’s Castlefield Bowl is an unconventionally charming spot. Residents of the neighbouring apartment complex watch out from their balconies and trains rattle past intermittently. Frontloaded with material from I Am Easy To Find, a dense and difficult album even by National standards, the first half hour does little to motivate the 5,000 strong crowd, unaided by the late sunset hampering the otherwise dazzling light show. It takes a long time for the atmosphere to warm, with ‘All The Wine’ eventually setting a rush of anthems (from a band that have never had a singular hit) spanning their career, led by the Dessner twins’ blooming guitar melodies and Bryan Devendorff’s syncopated drums.
Guest Eve Owen is magnificent on the rollicking ‘Where Is Her Head’, taking over as Matt Berninger barters with the crowd, selling his drink for a fiver. He’s playful but wasted. By the time the sun sets he’s lost the plot, brandishing a grip-taped bottle of Oyster Bay like a club. On ‘The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness’ he gets some serious face-to-face time in, rolling across the barriers and stealing phones to sing into before throwing them back to the crowd. It’s sloppy but raucous, driving the momentum forward constantly.
‘Mr November’ and ‘Terrible Love’ take the band to their maximalist extremes, before the rock concert folds in on itself for the achingly tender ‘Light Years’, framed by gentle summer rain. Hitting the curfew, floodlights illuminate the bowl and the sound cuts out, leaving it to the crowd to carry ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ through to the end. It’s a textbook ending, from a band with few surprises but stunning consistency.