There aren’t too many artists who can make playing in the cavernous space that is the O2 Arena feel like they’re playing in your front room. Bruce Springsteen is pretty much the epitome, Elbow have slowly grown into it but The National? The band whose career has been built on sad, mournful indie-rock about destructive relationships and weird sex? Surely they’re the one band more suited to more cosily intimate surroundings?
Indeed the initial sight of Matt Berninger, the Dessner and Devendorf brothers and all the others who make up The National live experience (including tonight, Nico Mulhy and Sufjan Stevens) walking onto the O2 Arena stage still seems like an incongruous one. They’ve been the underdogs for so long, seemingly too self-effacing and humble to feel at home in a place like this vast barn. As Aaron Dessner says towards the start of tonight’s final show in the mammoth Trouble Will Find Me tour: “I think we are all surprised to be here. But we’re very happy”.
Yet, despite being a band so closely identified with Brooklyn, tonight seems rather like a triumphant homecoming – as Dessner explains, they were signed following a gig at the Buffalo Bar (the Islington venue threatened with closure to whom tonight’s rendition of Mistaken For Strangers is dedicated to) and The National’s journey to success has been slow and steady rather than meteoric, and seeing The National in full flow in an arena of this size somehow makes a beautiful sort of sense.
There’s almost too much emotion at times, too much intensity – and the connection that the band makes with the audience is immediate: from the roar that greets Berninger’s hirsute presence (described by one fan on Twitter as “looking like the world’s most beautiful homeless man”) in the live backstage video at the start right up to the spine-tingling acoustic swansong of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.
Berninger is an absolutely magnetic frontman – whether he’s clutched over his microphone or smacking it when the emotion becomes too much, he’s impossible to take your eyes off. Yet this isn’t just Berninger’s show – Bryce Dessner takes the lead in geeing up the crowd when he isn’t effortlessly peeling off some beautiful guitar solos, while Bryan Devendorf again proves himself to be one of the world’s most under-rated drummers. The surprisingly perfect acoustics of the O2 means that not a note is wasted, and quintessential ‘National moments’ such as the piano intro to Fake Empire sound utterly blissful – not to mention a glorious rendition of Afraid Of Everything in which green lasers seem to create a cage around the band, slowly following Berninger around the stage as he screams “your voice is swallowing my soul, soul, soul”. The effect is nothing short of breathtaking.
The setlist is pretty much perfect – as expected, they lean pretty heavily on Trouble Will Find Me, with Sea of Love sounding particularly powerful and the gorgeous melodies of I Need My Girl being a highlight. Yet the older material sounds just as good – a rare outing for Boxer’s wonderful highlight Guest Room, and an incendiary Abel (dedicated to Beringer’s brother Tom, whose birthday it was today – “stop living in my basement, Tom”). Yet the real highpoint was an utterly magnificent version of one of their most beautiful numbers, About Today. On record, it’s a fragile piano ballad, on stage it becomes transformed into an magnificently epic, six minute plus anthem, beautifully re-arranged by Nico Muhly. For a song originally tucked away on a EP, it’s surely now become one of their signature songs.
The encore was as special as anyone could have hoped for – a gorgeous Ada (which segued beautifully into a snatch of Sufjan Stevens’ Chicago, prompting a huge cheer from the audience) and a typically frenzied Mr November, before Berninger dived into the audience and promptly ran an entire lap of the O2 while singing Terrible Love. It’s little moments like this that prove that The National can transcend venues this size, and make everyone involved feel like the band are singing just to them. It’s a feeling magnified by the closing, now traditional, acoustic version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, with the sound of 20,000 bellowing “all the very best of us string ourselves up for love” producing undeniable goosebumps.
Traditionalists may miss the sight of The National in more down-at-heel surroundings but this was the perfect way to end a tour that has propelled the band to a new stratosphere. Hopefully it won’t be long until they return.