AS the rain lashes down on a sea of huddled ponchos at the Kelvingrove Bandstand, The National frontman Matt Berninger goads the crowd “It’s meant to be beautiful tomorrow…..but fuck tomorrow!”
Of course, a lot can be said for the Ohio outfit making the kind of intelligent, melancholic indie-rock that feels almost at home under the batter of heavy Scottish rain. However, this is a majestic show that dispels any talk of the adverse weather conditions, from a formidable group who have expertly honed their stagecraft for over two decades. On the first of two nights in Glasgow, the Dessner brothers’ fastidious arrangements combined with Matt Berninger’s deep baritone and impassioned charisma make for an enthralling, moving and at times wholly euphoric live experience.
And having spent the last couple of years headlining festivals all over the world, it feels like a real coup to see them do their stuff in the intimate surroundings of the Kelvingrove Bandstand. It may take a few songs for the audience to warm up but you would be hard pushed to find a band who inspire the same kind of devotion as Matt Berninger and co and no amount of rain will quell the audience’s enthusiasm when they do fully take off.
The set is frontloaded with material from the band’s most recent album ‘I am Easy to Find’; a dense and explorative record that pushed their sound in new directions with collaboration and experimentation at its heart. More mellow and cerebral than the records which came before it, it saw Berninger share vocal duties with a cast of female vocalists, three of whom join him on stage tonight including support act This is the Kit’s Kate Stables. While the nuances of the record are less effective in the open-air amphitheatre, the new mix of voices is a refreshing addition with the syncopated, frantic and blossoming anthem ‘Where is Her Head’ providing a set highlight.
Even when Berninger withdraws from his position at the front of stage as the other vocalists take over, he is still the hurricane at the centre of the quiet around him; wine-swigging misery guts one minute to whirlwind theatrics the next. He is in magnificent, wisecracking form tonight, diving into the crowd for large parts of the set, borrowing ponchos and clutching the hands of his adoring fans before taking a wander all the way to the back of the amphitheatre during ‘Graceless’.
A surprise arrives in the shape of CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry who joins the band halfway through the set for ‘I Need My Girl’ (Berninger collaborated with the Glasgow outfit on their most recent album ‘Love is Dead’). Back in town for the electro-pop’s headline show at Summer Sessions this weekend, she remains on stage to join the band for a deeply moving rendition of ‘My Backwards Walk’ as a tribute to Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison. Guitarist Aaron Dessner tells the crowd: “I had the privilege to work with Scott on his last album. These songs are for him and everyone who misses him.” It is a beautiful tribute in a city where Hutchison’s legacy is engrained.
‘Brainy’ from 2007’s ‘Boxer’ makes way for a rush of anthems spanning their career, led by the Dessner twins’ soaring guitar melodies and Bryan Devendorff’s syncopated drums. ‘All the Wine’ from ‘Alligator’ gets an airing while the pulsating ‘Day I Die’ is anthemic and euphoric, giving fans memories they’ll never forget as they chase Berninger up the stairs of the arena. ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ unleashes more firepower, driving the momentum of the set forwards with muscle.
‘Fake Empire’ and the ‘I am Easy to Find’ highlight ‘Rylan’, a long-time live favourite that finally found a home on last year’s album, close the set in majestic fashion before an encore that features the achingly tender ‘Light Years’ follows. Leaving the crowd to carry ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ through to the end, it’s a stunning finale from one of the most powerfully consistent and enduring outfits of the last 20 years.
Photo credits: Craig McGee and Jamie Logie