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May 16, 2008
Standing on a mat which displayed the words "total cock" (exactly as such), Matt Berninger welcomed fans at Dublin's Olympia Theatre to the second night of The National's three-night stint in the Irish capital. The calm composure of the band's other members - brothers Aaron & Bryce Dessner, and Scott & Bryan Devendorf - was obvious from the beginning, and complimented Berninger's disoriented and sometimes raucous nature on stage (as he appeared to be the only member floating on a healthy dose of Guinness, an essential part of any show in Ireland). Once on stage the band wasted no time in delving into "Brainy," the third track on their latest release, Boxer, which was followed by "Secret Meeting," the opening track on the much acclaimed disc Alligator.

When Berninger takes the stage most fans of The National expect big things, perhaps in part as a natural response to the singer's tall stature and commanding baritone voice. For the most part, on stage Berninger is more reserved and less vocally dominating than most people would anticipate. In fact, at times it seems like he doesn't want to be up there at all. Sometimes appearing completely oblivious to the crowd, the venue, and his other band mates, the front-man is encapsulated in his music while performing. It's as if before your eyes he's reliving all the stories and struggles that inform and inspire his lyrics. Although erratic, of Berninger's performance the highs are never too high, and the low's never too low. That doesn't mean that he won't belt out manic screams when necessary ("Squalor Victoria," "Abel," "Mr. November"), and the other members of The National exude a bleeding authenticity as well, as the music encases them in the stories woven by the lyrics.

The venue was, quite simply, astounding. Unassuming from the outside, the Olympia Theatre displays the classic elegance and aesthetically pleasing charm of an early 20th century playhouse. Essentially, there could be no better backdrop for a band that intertwines classic and modern qualities so well. This cozy little nest does an admirable job of fusing intimacy and space, and proved to possess resounding acoustics in most areas. For the most part the Olympia contained a wide variety of people on Wednesday night, from young twenty-somethings to middle-aged hipsters, all equally drawn to The National.

Perhaps the best aspect for music lovers witnessing The National perform is that, unlike on the their albums, in concert Berninger's lyrics don't tend to tower above the rest of the band. Although their releases have been highly touted, seeing the band live actually brings out the musical complexity and genius of the Brooklyn-based band to a higher degree. While Berninger's voice is still recognizable, some of the bombasity is lost in concert, much to the benefit of the other band members, as listeners can more fully hear the music without being engulfed in the sincerity of Berninger's gracious words. That being said, even in concert Berninger's linguistic mastery of exquisite delivery is unprecedented. His subtle incorporation of taboo words and phrases effectively contributes to most songs, and somehow Berninger gets away with using these hidden gems almost stealthily, and when noticed they certainly add to The National's mystique.

The set list in Dublin was dominated by songs from Boxer and Alligator, and provided perfect ebbs and flows among the performance. Although sometimes lost on their albums, The National's ability to completely rock out is certainly apparent in concert, as songs such as "Apartment Story," "Squalor Victoria," and "Fake Empire" slowly built into finger-tapping, foot-stomping pleasures. Some major exceptions to the performance were classics such as "Green Gloves," "Guest Room," and "Gospel," three songs that conversely stand-out on Boxer.

In addition to their regular core, the traveling band also features the talents of violin/synth/keyboard player, Padma Newsome, who's largest impact emerges from the violin, but who's work on other instruments is exemplary as well. In concert his importance is tantamount, as he continually whips the crowd into a frenzy with his strings, and subtly compliments other songs with his various skills. Also contributing to the performance was a two-person horn section, which made songs such as "Fake Empire," "Brainy," and "Racing Like a Pro" that much more powerful.

As the transcendent notes of "Start A War" commenced The National's encore, faces in the Olympia Theatre started to crack a unique smile, as the crowd seemed to immediately acknowledge that they were witnessing something remarkable. The smiles appeared to stem not from utter enjoyment, but from release and tranquility. Over the hour-and-a-half set, the lyrics and notes of the precision-crafted music transformed the crowd's state of mind, and quenched their thirst for a novel approach to traditional rock music. By the time the band was done belting out the finale, "Mr. November," the crowd was instantly on their feet applauding, and most knew they wouldn't forget what they had witnessed for some time to come.

The National will be performing at this weekend's ATP Festival in the UK before returning to the US as an opener for the upcoming R.E.M./Modest Mouse tour. After that they will make several trips back-and-forth across the Atlantic for dates in the US and Europe through the summer, and will also be featured in the movie, A Skin, A Night, which will be released within the next month. The film is directed by Parisian filmmaker Vincent Moon, the lo-fi genius behind The Blogtheque website, which captures more-or-less impromptu performances by a host of talented acts, including The National.

SEE ALSO: www.americanmary.com

--
Brian Christopher Jones
A student living in Scotland and working toward a PhD in law.

See other articles by Brian Christopher Jones.

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