The National: The World’s Biggest Unknown Band – live at O2 Arena, London

Matt Berninger of The National last night at The O2 Arena
Matt Berninger of The National last night at The O2 Arena

When telling colleagues and friends that I was going to see The National last night, for their final show of their “Trouble Will Find Me” world tour, almost all of them gave me the same one word answer.


On this evidence* it seems that The National might just be the World’s Biggest Unknown Band.

Matt Berninger The National O2 Arena 6

Perhaps the first rule of The National is that you don’t talk about The National? You can probably guess the second rule…

This polarisation of fame is not a unique phenomenon. Band Aid 30 featured personalities that were famous to some but were otherwise obscure to the general public (no I don’t mean Midge Ure) including “YouTubers” that meant nothing to anyone over the age of sixteen, but who are legends in the school playgrounds across the UK. So too, The National who are a beloved institution amongst the hipster / indie community, if we can use those words without being disrespectful, and seemingly very few others. Indeed, with Wild Beasts, The National and Sufjan Stevens all present at the O2 last night, Hackney must have resembled a ghost town.

The National O2 Arena 3

Let’s just recap for the uninitiated what we know about The National:

  • They formed in 1999 in Cincinnati, Ohio,
  • There’s two sets of brothers in the band,
  • They’ve recorded six albums,
  • There’s a couple of documentary films about them,
  • And they’ve just sold out the 20,000 seat O2 Arena in London.
  • And all this without appearing on Graham Norton, or posting unwanted downloads into your iTunes account.

They have sold out the O2 Arena the old fashioned way. Writing and performing songs that people want to hear. They let the music, as the saying goes, do the talking.

The Nattional O2 Arena 7

Last night’s performance showcased songs mainly from “Trouble Will Find Me”, “High Violet” and “Boxer”. Berninger is a magnetic performer, flanked by a twin guitar attack from the Dessner brothers. The sound is fleshed out impressively by a brass section which works especially well on the more rousing Arcade Fire-esque songs such as “Mistaken for Strangers”, an early highlight.

Sufjan Stevens with The National O2 Arena

Joined onstage for the whole set by “Boxer” collaborator Sufjan Stevens, the band appeared genuinely humbled to be playing such a huge show at the O2 Arena.

“Thirteen years ago we played a sh*tty show in London – and got signed” explained front man Matt Berninger as he spoke of the band’s London connection.

The National O2 Arena

The set peaked with “About Today” and “Fake Empire”. The only way to top that was for Berninger to go walk-about, and this he did a couple of times during Terrible Love.

Last week Jack White played the O2 and tried to create the feel of a club gig by bringing his audience with him in spirit. Matt Berninger achieved the same thing in a more effective way – by joining the crowd himself, all the way to the back of the Arena. The audience lapped it up. All 20,000 of them…

* I’ll concede it was a small sample size. Probably wouldn’t be acceptable in a clinical trial to use that size sample and expect immediate clearance from the authorities. So strictly speaking the headline to this piece should read “The National: The World’s Biggest Unknown Band On An Anecdotal Level, But Not Scientific Basis, Which May Or May Not Be Confirmed After Further Tests”. I think the headline I settled on is snappier though, if less robust.

Set list:

  • Don’t Swallow the Cap
  •  I Should Live in Salt
  • Mistaken for Strangers
  • Bloodbuzz Ohio
  • Sea of Love
  • Demons
  • Hard to Find
  • Afraid of Everyone
  • Conversation 16
  • Squalor Victoria
  • I Need My Girl
  • This Is the Last Time
  • Guest Room
  • All the Wine
  • Abel
  • Slow Show
  • Sorrow
  • Pink Rabbits
  • England
  • Graceless
  • About Today
  • Fake Empire
  • Ada
  • Mr. November
  • Terrible Love
  • Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks






12 responses to “The National: The World’s Biggest Unknown Band – live at O2 Arena, London”

  1. marycigarettes Avatar

    how i loath that venue…sometimes i think because a rock and roll heart can enjoy music in real gutters,the beancounters assume were happy in any old shed…but i just don’t want to hear any more music in a venue that can double up as a sports venue or an exhibition centre…lately it’s become a rule of thumb for me.

    a serious aspiration would be to create the biggest waves by playing the smallest venues. scale is no longer the same as creating history…the velvet underground are maybe the purest/earliest example of that…size is everywhere now…it comes and goes and turns around with every wave of fresh uni students.

    i suppose bands rely on the money,since record sales aren’t the main deal anymore…but a visionary would maybe avoid that arena context…it kills the a fluorescent tube coming on after closing time….

    forgive me..i’ve written too much..that o2 arena really sends me off on one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I completely get where you are coming from.
      I had a comment on Twitter along the lines that the selfish part of one fan was sad they were now an Arena rock band.
      As a fan, you either don’t go (and it’s very much the exception rather than the rule for me to go to a large venue) or get down the front to make it as intimate as you can. Not possible for everyone in the arena that last one, mind you.


  2. J. Avatar

    Magnificent band, The National. Truly are. I’ve also experienced the same reaction when mentioning them. Often there’s the “oh, them …” reaction that you can tell is realy “who?”.


  3. emma shearer hackett Avatar
    emma shearer hackett

    Wonderful set that managed intimacy, warmth and depth despite the overbearing size of the venue. Gotta give a shout out for Wild Beasts who were phenomenal as the support.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Emily Avatar

    I was there last night too. I am still an emotional mess. I see upwards of 200 bands a year and no one affects me so deeply. They are very special indeed. I completely forgot I was in the O2 when they were on that stage.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. rossmurray1 Avatar

    Lucky, lucky, lucky. Jealous. Lucky, lucky.


  6. noisynoodle Avatar

    Imagine the size of the venues they’d have to play if everyone knew about them 😉


  7. Philip Walter Avatar

    We had the pleasure of seeing them in New Zealand earlier this year. One of the few gigs MrsPhil wanted to go to. Big audience too.


    1. Philip Walter Avatar

      I should add Elbow play a venue with a 1200 capacity when they come, Vector Arena is 10-12,000.


  8. DyingNote Avatar

    Hmm…strange when so many here in India are fans of The National.


  9. Mark Murdoch Avatar

    Totally agree that The National are a band I love that seem to fly under the radar a lot of the time. They are some of the finest exponents of beard rock in indie music today.

    They are always looking for an unexpected lyric, arrangement, riff or drum beat and are not always easy for a mainstream audience to swallow – which ain’t necessarily a bad thing.


  10. asofnowproject Avatar

    Ahhh, so jealous! Trouble Will Find Me is definitely one of my favourite records!


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