The National @ Place Des Arts – 21st June 2019

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You can measure a bands success by the model on their album artwork.  

Not really, but you can for The National.  Their self-titled 2001 debut featured drummer Bryan Devendorf in a swimming pool.  Fast-forward to album #8, this year’s glorious I Am Easy To Find, and you have Hollywood A-lister Alicia Vikander.  Enough said!

Venue sizes have been increasing steadily over that time too, to the point where tonight at a sold-out Place Des Arts feels like an intimate show in comparison to the other stops on the North American leg of this tour.  The roar that greets the arrival of the band suggests that the Montreal fanbase isn’t even close to getting bored of the band either, and the fact they remain on their feet for the entire duration of the 2-hour show proves the point.

Its been a little over 10 years since I saw The National, way back in May 2009 at Metropolis, and not a huge amount has changed in their live show, besides, obviously, the content.  However, although never ones to rely on theatrics and visual eye candy, there is now unquestionably an energy to frontman Matt Berninger that wasn’t there back then, which, in turn, has created a much livelier crowd experience.  On the wonderful Don’t Swallow The Cap, he drops down from the stage and roams into the first few rows of the crowd, whipping them up into a clapping frenzy.  

During Where Is Her Head, he grabs a cell phone from someone in the front row and roams the stage, filming all the band as he goes, and does it all over again on the slow-burning The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness.  The crowd-roaming reaches a whole other level on the classic Mr November, as Matt reaches almost halfway to the back of the room, before bolting to the side and trying to climb up into one of the side loge boxes from below!  Alas, it’s a step too far, so he drops back down, and races across to the other side of the room to complete the circuit of the Parterre as the machine gun drums send the place into a frenzy.  It’s an energy you can certainly never fully appreciate if you only listen to the records.

It’s much more than a Matt show, though.  Over the years, the band have refined their sound too, creating the oft-ethereal, oft-thunderous sonic backdrops that, again, you have to see live to truly appreciate.  The Dessner twins are the engine room for that, with Day I Die sounding particularly powerful tonight thanks to that riff that screeches to the point of piercing eardrums.  They get some help in the form of a cameo from Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, who pitches in on the spooky Bloodbuzz Ohio, before returning for the last 4 songs of the encore.  Opener Hannah Georgas, together 2 other vocalists, contribute throughout the set too, taking the solo section of You Had Your Soul With You, as well as providing angelic harmonies on Hey Rosie, I Am Easy To Find, and Not In Kansas.

Other set highlights include the touching Green Gloves, still absolutely gorgeous 12 years after arriving on the 2007 Boxer record, which then gets even more representation in the form of the goosebump-inducing Brainy (no joke: I actually shivered) and then Apartment Story which follow immediately after.  The show wraps up in mellow fashion on Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, with just acoustic guitars, tambourines, and 2,990 singers, as Matt turns his mic to the sold-out crowd to take care of lead vocals.  They are more than happy to oblige.  It’s a spectacular finale. 

The show is summed up perfectly right after Pink Rabbits by one of the Dessners, midway through the set: “thank you guys so much, this is a beautiful thing!”

Couldn’t have put it any better myself!

Set List

Quiet Light
You Had Your Soul With You
The Pull Of You
Hey Rosey
Don’t Swallow The Cap
Bloodbuzz Ohio
I Am Easy To Find
Where Is Her Head
Light Years
Green Gloves
Apartment Story
The Day I Die
Pink Rabbits
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
Fake Empire


Not In Kansas
Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

Review – Simon Williams
Photos – Steve Gerrard

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