The National: a decade of Irish gigs to remember
Where were you when The National played the Cobblestone? As the US band gear up for their Irish tour this month, we look back at their gigs here down the years, with the help of the folks who organised them
Later this month, The National embark on a short tour of Ireland with shows in Cork, Dublin and Galway. Over the course of their career, the band have played Ireland on many occasions. Here’s a potted history of the band’s Irish gigs, with recollections from some key players along the way.
IRISH VIRGINS In December 2002, the band played their debut Irish shows in Auntie Annie’s in Belfast, the Cobblestone in Dublin and the Triskel in Cork as part of their first ever European tour.
Brian Bradley and Simon Johnston from Import Productions promoted the Dublin show. “The booking came about through Howard Monk, who played drums for Billy Mahonie who were signed to Southern,” recalls Bradley. “He had an agency called Knom that set up their European tour. Import had promoted Billy Mahonie in Dublin, hence the connection.”
Gary Sheehan, now head of programming at the National Concert Hall, looked after the Cork show. “I was aware of both Clogs and The National as their label, Brassland, had come across my radar. At the time, I think Clogs had interested me more with their neo-classical first album, which was great.” COBBLING IT TOGETHER There wasn’t much interest in the band before the tour. “The band were promoting their debut album and I was aware of it through my time at Tower Records and later Vital, which became PIAS Distribution,” says Bradley.
“If I’m honest, there wasn’t much pre-gig awareness. I recall it was approximately 38 out of a maximum capacity of 80. Jeff Martin supported. I think the owners of the Cobblestone were concerned about fire exits due to the amount of backline the band brought.”
The Cobblestone was and is primarily associated with trad, bluegrass and folk and seems an unlikely venue for The National. “We booked it as a last resort as we couldn’t get any availability in the other venues we used at the time. I wasn’t in favour of it, but we wanted to do the gig.”
“It was definitely a case of bringing a band only few had heard about,” says Sheehan of the Cork show. “There is something of a Cork mythology about the show which is amusing with distance. People have mentioned there were five people at the show though lots of people claim to have been there.
“In the end, I think the show sold 60 or 70 tickets. The irony is that this was the old Triskel venue, which was essentially a cinema space with nice comfy seats accommodating 90 people, so it was a great show in a very small room. Shirts weren’t lost, but profits weren’t made.”
PLEASURE PRINCIPLE Both promoters recall the band as a pleasure to deal with. “No egos, just a band who wrote great songs,” says Bradley. “They were absolute gentlemen. Knowing we lost heavily on the gig, they offered to crash on somebody’s floor to save us money. It certainly seemed at the time like they were in this for the long haul, but I didn’t think they’d reach the heights they did. I’m delighted they have.”
Sheehan, who will be doing a weekend of shows with the band’s Brassland label in the NCH in December, clearly recalls their work ethic. “What really struck me is that these were genuine people who cared about their work. The band had that American outlook; they knew it was about touring, building an audience, working with promoters to get the word out and so on.
“Looking back, that’s the single thing that jumps out as an indicator of what was to happen for them. That and the great songs on that album. They were and are culturally engaged musicians. There was a sense then that this was for the long run, perhaps, in the sense of being a band that would have a career that would sustain. But I don’t think I saw the sheer scale of their success. I think that came with Boxer in 2007.”
BACK ON THE AUL SOD It would be three years before the band played Ireland again, this time at Dublin’s Whelan’s in November 2005 after the release of Alligator.
It’s a show the band’s Aaron Dessner recalled clearly in an interview with this newspaper at his Brooklyn home last year.
“I remember back in Whelan’s in 2005 the audience singing along and it was one of the first times it ever happened. It created so much adrenalin to see how people were connecting with our songs,” he said.
From 2007 on, the band visited Ireland regularly, playing Oxegen (July 2007, 2008 and 2011), Electric Picnic (September 2010), Dublin’s Olympia (November 2007, May 2008 and December 2010), Ambassador (October 2007) and O2 (November 2013), Belfast’s Mandela Hall (July 2008) and Cork’s Live at the Marquee (June 2013).
They also played their smallest Irish show ever, in December 2010, when they travelled to Dingle for the Other Voices TV show. The show’s music producer, Aoife Woodlock, had first seen them at the Whelan’s show in 2005 (“my now-husband had moved from Yorkshire and told me I had to see them and he was right”) and was determined to bring them to Co Kerry.
“We attacked them from all sides,” Woodlock says of her efforts to persuade them to do the show. “I went as far as Brooklyn to see them in their home environs at a wonderful show in Brooklyn at the Opera House. Their record label publicist here at the time was Bernie Divilly, who was equal parts an Other Voices and a National fanatic, a winning combination for me. She was crucial in the picture. And I met Aaron through musical friends.”
Fortuitously, the band were due to play Irish dates on the High Violet tour when the show was recording in December 2010. “Without becoming an actual stalker, I kept pushing for the band to come. The three Olympia shows were their last dates on a gruelling tour before going home so dragging them to Dingle was doing to be a big ask.”
DINGLE STATE OF MIND There were some unusual requests in Dingle. “My favourite memory, apart from the show in the church, was Jarvis Cocker introducing himself to Matt [Berninger, singer] and saying ,‘man, it’s incredible here. We went out on this little boat this morning, there was a rainbow over the bay and the dolphin was swimming beside us. It was magical!’ Matt turned to me and said ‘cool, I’ve my family with me, can you arrange this for me?’ No problem!”
“I mean, there’s no reason strategically why we went off and did the Other Voices TV show, for example, after playing those shows in the Olympia,” says Dessner, who returned to Dingle two years later to curate a night for the TV show. “But that was us. We wanted to do it because our Irish friends told us it was cool, so we went and it was.”
“Having The National come play was a career highlight,” says Woodlock. “They are musicians’ musicians and they are the nicest bunch of guys you could have the pleasure of working with.”
LEAVE ME BREATHLESS The band’s next Irish show at the Oxegen festival the following summer was memorable for perhaps the wrong reasons. While the band had previously played the now-curtailed Co Kildare event twice, the festival’s audience and musical preferences had changed enormously by 2011. All of which meant, as Dessner recalls, the band found themselves “playing to no one in a field at Oxegen because we were put up against Beyoncé”.
“During the High Violet tour, we were still at a level where promoters could force us to do things,” says Dessner. “Now, I think we’ve graduated from that where we don’t feel scared any more of saying ‘no, we’re not doing that, we’re doing this’.”
The band switched Irish promoters after that show and Aiken Promotions have handled the band’s subsequent Irish shows at Dublin’s O2 and Cork’s Live at the Marquee.
Dessner believes the band’s growth is down to the bond which they have developed with their fans through their live shows. “Ireland is a good example of that connection,” he says. “We really cherish our experience and audience there because they’ve actually fuelled us. As you grow, you have to figure out how to keep that connection.”
The National play Live at the Marquee, Cork on July 14th; Festival Big Top, Galway on July 16th; and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, on July 18th and 19th ticketmaster.ie