The National

This downbeat lot might not be typical stadium fillers, but frontman Matt Berninger’s near-mumble is well up to the emotional task of filling the venue

Matt Berninger: his intense performance is not an act

The National
The O2, Dublin

There's a loud thump coming out of the PA system during The National's concert at the O2 on Sunday night. Is there a loose wire somewhere? Has someone's amp blown? No, that dull thud is the sound of singer Matt Berninger bashing his microphone off his forehead. In his suit and spectacles, he might look like an angsty middle manager, but his intense performance is not an act – he's been known to draw blood from his head.

The National have come from Cincinnati via Brooklyn to become the most downbeat stadium band around. Berninger’s soul-searching baritone bears no similarity to a high-register rock-star yell, but his low near-mumble is well up to the emotional task of filling the venue.

Long-time fans (who were listening to the band before 2007 breakthrough album Boxer) will know Berninger was a great man for the primal screaming, and he redeploys it on an early National track Available, and also uses it to ramp up some of the songs from their last album, High Violet, and their current one, Trouble will Find Me. Sometimes it works, giving the songs just the right emotional leg-up; other times, particularly during the band's more deeply rumbling songs, it feels a little strained.

There's no holding back for guitar-playing brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner, and bass-and-drums brothers Scott and Bryan Devendorf. They use the bigger venue to widen the musical screen, each song a fascinating exploration of possibilities.


A three-piece brass section adds a certain pithiness, while a locally sourced string section makes a smooth counterpoint to Berninger’s microphone masochism.

Songs from the new album – including I Should Live in Salt; Demons; This is the Last Time; Sea of Love; and Graceless – prove the most expansive, but there's plenty of space for some of the best songs from Boxer and High Violet, including Squalor Victoria; Fake Empire; Bloodbuzz Ohio; Afraid of Everyone; and Terrible Love.

During the encore, Berninger digs himself into the crowd for Mr November – confessing to his congregation – and then gets the crowd to share the vocal load on the acoustic finale, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.
Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist