Bum pinching, festival vibes and inevitable crowd-surfing – it was a special night at the Cork marquee. The colourful circus tent sits invitingly in the middle of food stalls and picnic tables, as swarms of people ramble around getting last minute beers before the biggest event of the Marquee season begins. It may have been sold-out but there is no panic, no jostling as everyone moves into the venue with ease while the guitar riff rings out for the opening song I Should Live In Salt. The National are on-stage in what feels like a small, intimate venue; it already looks like it’s going to be a night to remember.
The Cincinnati band have a reputation for being a superb live act and we can see why. They immediately command the room, hitting the ground running from the first note to the last. Front man Matt Berninger brims with charisma and, with their immaculately crafted songs, this certainly isn’t a case of style over substance but the perfect marriage of both.
While they open with a new song, it is soon clear they aren’t here to promote their latest album ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ but instead play a mix of songs from ‘Alligator’, ‘Boxer’ and ‘High Violet’. In fact, they leave out Demons and Don’t Swallow the Cap entirely.
But that’s no criticism. Nobody who witnessed this 2-hour set could have felt hard done-by. Conversation 16 kicks off a sing-along from the crowd which never stops (“I was afraid I’d eat your brains”). The stage is a hive of activity, the band are fully immersed in the performance and even when Berninger’s voice starts getting husky, it doesn’t hold him back. You can feel their dedication and passion, and that’s what a live show is all about.
They’re an energetic powerhouse live – much more rock than chilled-out indie. The crowd lose it with the drum-heavy intro to Squalor Victoria and their songs off ‘Alligator’ get some of the loudest responses of the night – especially the guitar-heavy Abel, which is one of the best live songs this reviewer has ever heard, and possibly the same can be said for the crowd judging from their whooping applause.
Then just when we think we’ve witnessed the highlight, something better happens. Slow Show is astounding – the incredible brass section add an extra punch – and four thousand elated voices singing “I know I dreamed about you for 29 years..” is a special moment.
Berninger mentions how much they love coming to Ireland – “We had the most amazing moment as a band in Whelans in Dublin”, he says with his laid-back Cincinnati drawl. Then it’s straight into Fake Empire for what is definitely the third highlight of the night, and that’s before the encore!
They return with another crowd favourite, the flawless Terrible Love, as well as the beautiful Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. Of course no National gig would be complete without Mr. November, with Berninger’s now famous clamber into the crowd. This time however, the grabbing hands of worshipping fans mean we completely lose the vocal for the second half of the song and are left to sing our own rendition, but after a night like this, it doesn’t matter. “Thanks for pinching my bum” he says when he finally resurfaces.
The National are one of the finest live bands around today. We already know they’re skilled songwriters and talented musicians, but their passion, and how they project it to make the audience feel like an important part of the show; that’s what holds it all together.