There’s no real mystery to how The National can sell out the Iveagh Gardens with relative ease on two successive nights. The US band’s trajectory in this country from The Cobblestone to Whelans to the Olympia and on to the O2 and various festival slots in-between makes sense when you consider how the band’s stock-in-trade melancholy, their lyrical references to habitual underachievement, correlate directly with the Irish psyche. Moreover, we side with frontman Matt Berninger, look up to him even, because he’s the underdog made good. His lyrics are idiosyncratic yet full of heart and devastating emotion, like an Irish poet. No wonder we lap it all up with gusto.
As a live act, however, can they pull it off as a bonafide headline attraction on an outdoor stage? Any such fears are quickly unfounded. Despite an exhausting tour-schedule they look ready for the evening ahead and quietly launch into ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ from Trouble Will Find Me as Berninger paces around the stage, all old-school dapper in tweed suit and waistcoat.
The following two tracks ‘I Should Live In Salt’ and a surprising outing for ‘The Geese of Beverly Road’ from Alligator early in the set reveal a band confident in their craft. But as the sun goes down, the band’s energy levels go in an opposing direction and the songs, thankfully, become more urgent and appropriate for the occasion. ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ takes it up a notch or two. Matt dedicates it to his younger brother Tom, who borrowed the song’s title for his affecting documentary on his relationship with his rock-star brother that is currently doing the rounds.
Further on, ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ and ‘Squalor Victoria’ show that The National can rock out with best of them yet, suddenly, we are back in introspective mode with the plaintive ‘I Need My Girl’. ‘Mr November’ is, of course, the highlight of the encore and it would be a let-down if Matt did not do one of his customary walkabouts during the song. And this he duly does, clamouring to the middle of the crowd before losing his mic and turning up on an elevated steel walkway at the edge of the venue. He’s hugged by middle-aged men, arms aloft, punching the air, lost in the moment, like that underdog fighter again who’s just beaten the world champion. For an acoustic version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ he’s quickly back on stage as if nothing has happened. It’s a measure of the band that they can throw in so many shifts in tempo in the course of the evening, oscillating between sadness and bruised optimism, all the while holding the audience’s attention throughout. In the end, a triumph.