The National have graduated from downbeat barfly band to something approaching the broad appeal of REM – in a modern day context. They drew an eager crowd to Iveagh Gardens, where the sun came out on support band Phosphorescent. In a live setting, the American band play an easy brand of semi-heavy, laid back country rock. Their sound caught the Friday evening mood rather well, though strangely their momentum stalled with one of their most recognisable songs, Song for Zula. They finished with the lurching cod-reggae of Ride On, Right On, which didn’t really work.
With six albums under their belt, The National have a sizeable amount of material to choose from. They concentrated mainly on songs from their two most recent albums, High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, opening with Don’t Swallow The Cap and I Should Live In Salt from the latter. These tracks were received rapturously, though Matt Berninger and co seemed, initially at least, to be a little subdued. It’s easy to forget how many strong songs the band have, as they tossed out highlights like Mistaken For Strangers, Bloodbuzz Ohio and Demons, the horn-accompanied band sounding flawless.
The pacing of the set seemed a little off at times. The frantic drumming of Squalor Victoria provided a necessary gear change, raising the intensity for both band and audience. However they then chose to dampen things down with admittedly gorgeous versions of I Need My Girl and This Is The Last Time. They delved back to their Alligator album, Berninger belting out Lit Up and Abel while the band played manic, almost Joy Division-like versions of the songs.
One thing The National have managed to do is write some emotional songs that avoid overwrought histrionics, and tonight they pulled out a few of these, Slow Show being a particular highlight, provoking a crowd of people to belt out the fateful line “you know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you”. Equally, their fine track England had a similar effect and it seemed that this less recent material connected a bit more than the newer songs.
They finished their set with Fake Empire, arguably THE song that introduced them into a broader audience, but then opened their encore with Santa Clara, a comparative rarity but a very ‘National’ song, all weary refrains about running to the river and throwing blue bouquets. Yes, one for the fanboys amongst us. The band didn’t hold back on favourites either, tearing through Mr November and Terrible Love as if their lives depended on it. The final singalong of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks saw Berninger disappear into the audience, the singer engulfed in the happy crowd.
Yes they used to be darker, then they got lighter… but perhaps if they had remained exclusively inhabiting dark places they could well have boxed themselves into a corner. As is, they have done something more interesting: they write popular songs with mass appeal that avoid cliche and don’t seem to wear out their welcome. At this rate, their audience will only grow.