It’s day one of Ohio five-piece The National‘s festival in Donnybrook stadium, and the evening unfolds as it must have been imagined on the storyboard. Fans file in, accompanied by the dulcet tones of our own Lisa Hannigan and the irreverent John Grant, rounding off long weeks at the office and meeting up with friends they haven’t seen since the days of getting stoned in someone’s bedroom in halls when they first got into The National.
The venue is one of the most musically underused in the city, and it eventually becomes clear that few other settings would have done this performance justice. While the case can usually be made for indoor over outdoor gigs, this is one glaringly beautiful exception to the rule.
Grammy award-winning Sleep Well Beast is first up, before Lisa Hannigan joining the group for the gorgeously tender Nobody Else Will Be There. Berninger’s deeply gentle tones alongside Hannigan’s hushed timbre lulls the evening into fruition. It’s a gentle start to an evening filled with emotive punches.
Clear from the off is the unyielding fidelity to precision shown by each of the band’s members, and it is hard to think of a single fault in the more musically complex moments of the setlist. But it is Berninger’s vocal performance which shines, especially in the lower echelons of his register. Walk It Back is delivered with a sombre grace that feels emotionally rooted in every word delivered. I overhear a gentleman describe to his friend how, when he sings this song to his one-year-old, he changes the ‘fuck’ in the chorus to ‘feck’. The National may well have the best fans.
As evening turns into night, the effects of the poignant punches are heightened. The band welcome Lisa Hannigan for I Need My Girl where she delivers Berninger’s words as if they’re her own. The guitar line is precise and eloquent, and the song could have gone on for another ten minutes with no complaint from anyone in attendance.
Some of the best moments of the evening come from the blending of piano and vocals which eventually detonate into a cathartic release – Fake Empire is propelled in this way, before a brilliant brass finale. Mr November claims the bombast of the encore, and the evening is rounded off with Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks performed as a duet between crowd and band. Donnybrook sounds like a choir, and nobody is leaving early.
The National have honed their particular breed of emotionally weighty rock to reward those who have spent time with their music. Fans who pour over over lyrics are paid dividends and are as enamoured by new material as they are with earlier work. This wasn’t an evening for nostalgia, for thinking about music you used to listen to when you had more time. This night celebrated a group at the pinnacle of both their studio output and curated live performances.