Last year, The National played three dates in Dublin which marked them out from the pack. A slow-burning legion of fans culminated in those three nights to produce a palpable feeling of a band on the cusp of greatness. This week, they returned play another three nights. If the band were hoping to repeat last years’s tremendous success they would have to pull something special out of themselves.
Friends and acquaintances raved about those shows last year. Some were fans, some had never heard the band before the gig. They were zealously converted. I’d heard about Matt Berninger, the singer who was an unsure frontman and his crowdsurfing at the last series of gigs that was so out of character for his usually reticent self. I heard how their musicianship was second to none. Last night, The second night of The National’s three at the Olympia Theatre this week, I went along to see what the fuss was about.
The truth is I’m none the wiser about The National after last night’s performance. The gig was hampered by poor sound (I was not alone in thinking this – uber-fan Ian agrees) – it was like listening to a band play behind a sheet of glass. The drumming was extremely low in the mix, the guitars never rumbled around the room, the brass was a pleasant addition on a standout like ‘Fake Empire’ but was largely lost in the mix. Berninger’s vocals are slightly mumbled at the best of times but his voice only barely carried from the stage to the middle of the room.
Pockets of singalongs from fans could be heard (prompting Berninger to tell the crowd “You’re louder than last night!”) but the gig never seemed to take off despite the best effort of a minority. Parts of the set were clear highlights like ‘Squalor Victoria’, ‘Start a War’, ‘Secret Meeting’ and ‘Mr. November’ showcasing how a band with such understated live presence can at times, lift the roof off. In other parts, it felt like the band had a reserve they chose never to use. I was left frustrated. Maybe it was an off night, maybe The National couldn’t convert me zealously, maybe I just didn’t get the appeal? One things for sure, I neither hated them or loved them and ultimately, to be caught in the middle was the most disappointing thing.