The merchandise stand told you in two words what much of the world thinks of The National; “Sad Dad” T-shirts and caps, ready to be bought in their droves by the Ohio indie band’s legion of middle-aged, bearded and balding male fans. Or not.
Kicking off their European tour at Dublin’s 3Arena on Thursday, the Cincinnati natives’ euphoric live show proved that anyone who labels them as merely “Coldplay for the ageing hipster” is vastly missing the mark.
Not least because The National – comprising Matt Berninger, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf – have utilised two decades in the industry to serve as mentors to a new generation of young, female talent: from confessional Gen Z singer-songwriter Soccer Mommy (this current tour’s support act) to chart-toppers Gracie Abrams (she and Dessner recently played a run of intimate shows together) and Taylor Swift, who has become their frequent collaborator. And the candidness of their music on the struggles of mental illness is a welcome presence in a world that regularly tells people (even more so, statistics indicate, men) to shut up and deal with it in silence.
The evening got off to a slow start, with Once Upon a Poolside from First Two Pages of Frankenstein (released earlier this year) showcasing Berninger’s talent for turning the mundanity of mental strife (the hours, then days, spent poring over ‘what ifs?’) into catchy, off-kilter lyrical hooks, but less so the musical range of the rest of the band.
It was a swathe of tracks from their older albums – Abel from 2005’s Alligator, featuring Berninger’s high-octave, repetitive refrain that “My mind’s not right”, an achingly romantic England, and jubilant singalong Bloodbuzz Ohio, both from 2010’s High Violet – that brought Berninger, and the vast crowd, to life. He is a surprisingly physical performer, with his suited, nimble frame constantly forced into irregular angles (think an American Jarvis Cocker), not least during his regular dives into the audience to crowd surf. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness (from 2017’s Sleep Well Beast – their last great album) pivots on Dessner’s frantic, aggressive guitar solo as well as Berninger’s increasing desperation (“I can’t explain it,” he insists, over and over).
But it was a gorgeously stripped-back closing rendition of fan favourite Vanderlyle Crybaby Greeks, performed acoustic after their mics were turned off, that reminded you just what the National are capable of at their best: invoking the kind of heart-rending, life-affirming live show that reminds you of the power, and beauty, of a teeming crowd.
Playing Leeds tomorrow, then touring the UK until September 27; americanmary.com/tour