“I remember the last time we played Cork”, Matt Berninger remarks bridging between tracks early on. “There was, like, twenty people there. It was in this same tent too. Man, they must’ve lost a lot of money that night…”
The show, in 2002, actually took place at the old Triskel Arts Centre in Cork and has become enshrined in musical lore around the city. The attendance was reportedly much closer to the twenty that Berninger mused on, though half the county will claim to have stopped in to watch the National touring their debut album.
The fervour that encapsulates the band during their joyous return to the south of Ireland is palpable and seeps into the crowd from the opening notes of ‘I Should Live in Salt’. The rapturous pace tears through ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, drawing one of the biggest cheers of the night. Careening into ‘Secret Meeting’ and ‘Sea of Love’, it is evident that the band are hyped up for the show.
Never one to shirk from interaction, Berninger treats the crowd to an energetic display, pacing the stage relentlessly between tracks. The shrieking chorus of ‘Squalor Victoria’ breathes life into a track that would have long been dropped from the set had it not been reinvigorated by transformative life performances. At later points in the set, he drops to his knees to allow the Dessner brothers and the pulsating drumming of Bryan Devendorf to enjoy the attention it deserves.
‘Abel’ has long been the fulcrum of a National set and Friday night proves to be no different as the packed tent erupts into a bellowing chorus of “My mind’s not right!” in time with the band. From here, the set weaves through some more relaxed moments with a stunning rendition of ‘Slow Show’ and new track ‘Pink Rabbits’, culminating with ‘About Today’ from the Cherry Tree EP and Boxer’s ‘Fake Empire’.
Upon re-emerging for the encore, Berninger’s trademark crowd-walk is brought back for ‘Mr. November’, ducking and diving into the crowd on either end of the stage, before taking up the mic again for ‘Terrible Love’. The show comes to a close with what has become a stationary aspect of the shows since the High Violet tour ended at Dublin’s Olympia in 2010. Electronics are jettisoned as the band pick up acoustic guitars and take to the front of the stage to engage in a fantastic, powerful version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’.
It is this closing number that really illustrates the beauty of the National. This is a band that has evolved from playing for twenty people at the Triskel Arts Centre to playing for 5,000 in the Marquee having, only weeks earlier, entertained 19,000 in Brooklyn. Yet to say that these shows lose any of their intimacy is simply untrue as the entire crowd is unified in their rendition of High Violet’s staggering closer. This is never truer than seeing Bryce Dessner run back and forth from the crowd at the end of the show to get Matt Berninger to sign an autograph for a jittery die-hard fan in the front row.
The show is not without its faults. The Marquee has always suffered from audio issues and this is no different. Luckily, it is vastly improved on previous years, though the pitch is still a little sharp in parts. Aaron Dessner’s attempts to engage the crowd between tracks fail completely as the audio on his microphone is lost among crowd chatter, while the piano on a number of tracks is completely drowned out. The audience, eager to participate, outmuscled Berninger’s baritone vocals on more than one occasion during the early tracks, though these early kinks were worked out as the band found a comfortable rhythm.
However, any fears that the crowd may have had that the Brooklyn quintet would struggle to make the transition from small, intimate venues to bigger arenas is allayed early on and replaced entirely with enthusiasm toward the end. Exiting the Marquee into the Cork night, more than one punter can be heard to be indicating that trips to Belfast and Dublin in November will be on the cards to catch the band in the Odyssey and the O2.
Despite their reticence in the face of their new found fame, the National seem to be coping quite comfortably. Jolted with feverous energy and enthusiasm, they are more compelling than ever.