The National live: red wine-fuelled agitation that speaks to every hard day

Irish audiences lay themselves bare for visiting rock bands . . . and then there's The National.

Matt Berninger of The National in London recently. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The National

Big Top, Galway


By the time Matt Berninger slams his microphone to the floor during Afraid of Everyone, after not so much prowling the stage as pacing like a damaged zoo animal, the crowd is with him.


Irish audiences lay themselves bare for visiting rock bands, but there is perhaps no other non-native band that is "of us" as much as The National. Their lyrics pierce our broken hearts: "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe / I never thought about love when I thought about home." England is basically an appropriated emigration anthem: "You must be somewhere in London / You must be loving your life in the rain." The National practically play it over Skype, crying into a bag of Tayto. And Berninger's red wine-fuelled agitation speaks to every hard day at the office, every annoying friendship, every failing relationship. He encases frustration and intensity like a tank does petrol. He runs on it.

Throwing his drink into the crowd during Squalor Victoria, it's easy to be captivated by Berninger, and it would be easy to cast the rest of the band aside in his shadow if they weren't all such fantastic musicians. The simplest ideas are the hardest – a baritone vocal, a good drum beat – and they chisel songs out of structures that should be pedestrian, and polish them before smashing the lot, because who wants ornaments anyway? Towards the end, as the crowd sings in unison "we're half-awake in a fake empire", you could be forgiven for thinking they had written these songs for us. The band are on fire, they storm through tracks, and the sound is on point.

The National play fantastic shows, but are also a band that teeters on the edge. There's always that risk, and it's not a manufactured one, that things will fall apart. And they're at their most brilliant when leaning over the cliffs. In Galway, they're right on that magical threshold. Trouble Will Find Me's subtleties play out with great beauty. But it's an old one, Abel, that encapsulates all the contained fury that this band has. The National play the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, on Friday and Saturday

Una Mullally

Una Mullally

Una Mullally, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly opinion column