Matt Berninger surveyed the massive crowd in disbelief early Wednesday night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The National, suddenly placed in front of the largest headlining crowd of their 14-year career, had just finished playing “Mistaken for Strangers.” The song’s chorus preaches a yearning for recognition, but Wednesday night, it sounded like a faint, bitter memory of past hardship for the steadily ascendant Brooklyn band.
“This was where it all started. We’re so happy to be back at Barclays,” Berninger joked, in a mix of amazement and humiliation.
But the main tone throughout the band’s two-hour set was grateful celebration. There was a beautifully surreal quality to most of the show’s idiosyncratic highlights, whether it was the crowd clapping along to the morose premonitions of “Sea of Love,” or when Berninger stomped around the back of the stage, growling the coda to “Afraid of Everyone,” or when the night’s biggest crowd singalong centered around a line about eating brains. Such moments were their own triumphs, proof of the degree to which the National has presided over its unlikely arena-sized successes without the slightest notion of compromise.
Touring behind the newly released Trouble Will Find Me, the National dove deep into their own tendencies throughout a set that leaned heavily on new and recent material. The band’s inclination towards anxious melancholy and pensive insecurity was on display throughout, whether in the subtle musings of new songs such as “Demons” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap” or older crowd favorites “Abel” and “About Today.”
They didn’t need to sacrifice any aspect of their musicality in the cavernous Barclays Center. Berninger’s voice either slipped into sound, becoming the band’s lead instrument, or served as heartbreaking storyteller during delicate moments like “I Need My Girl.” The Dessner brothers’ guitar playing preserved their graceful balance of quiet texture and rock-star shredding, while Scott and Bryan Devendorf maintained the rhythm’s section’s sonic centrality despite the venue’s occasionally unfriendly acoustics. Abstaining from video screens and grand theatrics, there was little bombast or spectacle to be found in the band’s finely crafted set.
Two hours and 23 songs in, it appeared as though the National were saying their final goodbyes after climaxing with their normal set closer, “Terrible Love.” But after convening at the front of the stage, the band regrouped themselves in a rare configuration of acoustic guitars and backup singers, performing an unamplified version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” the closing lullaby to 2011’s High Violet.
The National have closed many shows in recent years in similar fashion, with Berninger singing without a microphone out into theatres and clubs around the country. On Wednesday night, the unplugged goodbye was a gesture of intimacy, an audacious, moving statement on a night that celebrated what happens when a band achieves grandeur without excess. Making a small concession to the magnitude of his surroundings, Berninger alternated between crooning faintly into the microphone and shouting unamplified into the open arena air, unsure exactly how loud he needed to sing in order for everyone to hear.
“Don’t Swallow the Cap”
“Mistaken for Strangers”
“Sea of Love”
“Afraid of Everyone”
“I Need My Girl”
“This Is the Last Time” (with Annie Clark)
“I Should Live in Salt”
“Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”