The National’s sixth studio album, Trouble Will Find Me, undeniably cemented their ascension to the mainstream, a trajectory spearheaded by the breakout successes of Alligator and Boxer, and escalated by the commercial success of High Violet. A natural progression to larger venues has in turn ensued – hold dear the memories of seeing them perform in intimate spaces, for those days are gone. The National are a fully-fledged arena act now. Yet, in spite of selling out the Marquee in Cork within an hour earlier this year, there are plenty of empty seats in the O2 for the band’s first appearance in the capital since their three-night stand at the Olympia back in December 2010. Not that it fazes them. “This is surreal – we’d have been happy in Whelan’s”, frontman Matt Berninger tells the thousands gathered before him.
An epic 24-song set-list makes for an expansive treat for fans tonight, including 10 of the 13 tracks from Trouble Will Find Me, perhaps to the dismay of the “I prefer the early stuff” contingent – however, early thrillers ‘Secret Meeting’, ‘Squalor Victoria’ and ‘Cardinal Song’ should quash complaints. Aaron and Bryce Dessner lead the charge of heralding the new, particularly impressive are the former’s commanding shift to piano for ‘Hard to Find’ and the latter’s dual-guitar adventures-in-feedback on ‘I Need My Girl’. Rhythmic siblings Bryan and Scott Devendorf bind it all together with precision on drums and bass respectively, and at the centre of it all is Berninger – the captivating, brooding, enigmatic leading man who pours every ounce of his soul into the microphone as he prowls around the stage. His enthusiasm to reach out to his adoring audience leads him to stumble over his monitor during ‘Sea of Love’, before clambering atop a speaker for the magnificent ‘England’, and eventually disembarking stage-left to traverse the barriers and join the crowd for encore performances of ‘Mr. November’ and ‘Terrible Love’. The excursion is at the expense of his vocal delivery; however, we can forgive pitchiness during this exercise in extreme crowd interaction.
Berninger, the Dessner Brothers, and the Devendorf brothers are joined by trios of both strings and brass musicians throughout. The additional personnel were recruited with the expansive instrumentation of Trouble Will Find Me in mind, but the more striking result is their impact on the backcatalogue treasures – a simply stunning rendition of ‘Slow Show’ and a mystifyingly moving revamped arrangement of ‘About Today’ make for key standout moments of the set, elevated by exquisite trumpet and trombone flourishes that fill the might of The O2. Berninger himself even bows down before the brass section in reverence of their emphatic execution of the climax to ‘Fake Empire’.
The National have a rare power to incite nostalgia for events you weren’t present for, mourning for a demise you weren’t aware of, and lamenting of a love that wasn’t yours to lose. As the lights fall and an acoustic mass sing-along finale of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ ensues to close the show, it’s evident that however impersonal a venue may be, that emotive gravitas will continue to permeate every chord struck and lyric sung for as long as they wish to share them.
Photo: Paulo Goncalves