The National warm hearts and inspire action on a chilly fall evening at the Mann Center - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The National | photo by Michelle Montgomery for WXPN |

Indie rock foretellers The National returned to Philadelphia on Thursday night, where they ushered in the beginning of fall with their Sleep Well Beast tour at the Mann Center. With opening sets by Phoebe Bridgers and Cat Power, and a forecast that called for a rain that never really came, the night was a reflective experience brought on by the political undertones of the day and a warming sense of community.

The night was opened by singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who is touring behind last year’s critically-acclaimed Stranger In The Alps. Bridgers went on right before 7:00 p.m., as a slight breeze swept through a slowly filling amphitheater. As she broke into her second song, the swelling and anthemic “Georgia,” the seats filled both her voice and the audience. The set was quick but potent, including “Me And My Dog,” Bridgers’ contribution to boygenius (her new band started with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker). It ended after a half hour with the meditative “Scott Street,” which she just released a music video for earlier this month.

Cat Power | photo by Michelle Montgomery for WXPN |

It was an evening of powerful voices at the Mann Center; right between Bridgers’ lofty soprano and Matt Berninger of The National’s daunting baritone was late 90’s / early aughts indie icon Cat Power, which is the on-stage moniker of singer-songwriter Chan Marshall. Her band was dark and piano-driven, including just a drummer, guitarist, and keyboardist; but her gloriously drifting alto carried the audience to their feet. Cat Power’s new record, Wanderer, is out next Friday, October 5th, and she performed a couple of the album’s singles, such as the uplifting “Woman” and the Rihanna cover, “Stay.” Marshall has a history of revamping her own songs, playing the Jukebox version of “Metal Heart” instead of the 1998 version from Moon Pix (which just turned 20 years old this past week). After a rousing version of “Manhattan” form 2012’s Sun, Marshall received a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

After a half-hour countdown of Sleep Well Beast iconography on the projector, The National took the stage to play the record’s opening track, “Nobody Else Will Be There.” Their set opened with a four-song punch from the Grammy-winning Beast, which completely holds up live a year after its release. The third of these was “Walk It Back,” which negatively samples a nationalistic Karl Rove interview from 2007. Politics seemed to loom over the whole evening, with Berninger dedicating “Bloodbuzz Ohio” to a Democrat running for senate in his home district against a 30-year Republican incumbent. When someone in the audience seemed to yell, “stick to the music,” Berninger retorted, “Do you know what band you came to see, motherf*cker?” 

The National | photo by Michelle Montgomery for WXPN |

Musically, the show sounded massive and apocalyptic, with the Dessner brothers Aaron and Bryce trading U2-leaning guitar solos on “Guilty Party” and “Carin At The Liquor Store.” Songs from 2013’s incredible Trouble Will Find Me, such as “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Graceless,” slid in perfectly between the experimental and electronically-tinged Beast cuts. Berninger was in top form, carrying himself and the microphone down through the audience during faster songs like “Day I Die,” walking across box seats and encouraging the crowd to move closer and tighter together. The slower and more emotional songs contrasted brilliantly with the ragers, like the lamenting “I Need My Girl” and “Sorrow,” for which the band brought Phoebe Bridgers back out to sing lead. The band also performed their contribution to the Dessner-curated Dark Was The Night Red Hot benefit, “So Far Around The Bend,” for the first time since 2009.

Towards the end of the night, Aaron Dessner recalled the band’s early days and playing at the Khyber Pass in Philadelphia before the band played “new old song,” the fan-favorite “Rylan.” Berninger then told a story about mishearing a fan at one of these early shows, apologizing for his earlier “motherf*cker” statement, but still encouraged everyone in the audience to vote before the band played the political “Fake Empire” to end their main set. With everything that had been cycling in the news that day around the Kavanaugh hearing, the Boxer opener felt MASSIVE, especially with the furious horns and the stormy rhythms supplied by the Devendorf brothers.

The National | photo by Michelle Montgomery for WXPN |

After a brief break, the band returned for a short encore which started with a cover of Cat Power’s “Maybe Not” (which Berninger said is one of his “top 5 healing songs” and thanked Marshall for it). It ended with three classic National set-closers; the rollicking “Mr. November,” “Terrible Love,” and of course, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the last of which was rendered to an acoustic singalong with Berninger miming the lyrics. It wrapped a communal bow on such an enveloping show by one of indie rock’s most consistent and beloved bands. As summer ended, and with winter right around the corner, The National provided some much needed warmth and comfort for a welcoming and engaged audience.

Sleep Well Beast is out now on through 4AD. Check out photos from the show by Michelle Montgomery in the gallery below.

The National setlist
Nobody Else Will Be There
The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness
Walk It Back
Guilty Party
Don’t Swallow The Cap
Bloodbuzz Ohio
I Need My Girl
So Far Around The Bend
Conversation 16
Slow Show
Empire Line
Dark Side Of The Gym
Day I Die
Carin At The Liquor Store
Fake Empire

Maybe Not (Cat Power cover)
Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

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