It’s testament to The National’s enduring cult status that they can sell out not one but two nights at one of Edinburgh’s biggest venues, all while still residing on the periphery of mainstream popularity. Though their last three albums have all sold well in the UK (peaking at numbers five, three and one in the charts, respectively), they’re still conspicuous by their absence on mainstream radio stations.
Irrespective of that lack of exposure, it’s clear the band are still hugely popular in the Scottish capital, as Usher Hall is positively fit to burst for the band’s arrival. Even folksy warm-up act Luluc are given a dose of Scottish hospitality by more than a thousand souls, who are getting into their stride in anticipation of Berninger and co.’s arrival on stage with their frosty beverage of choice.
After an impressive set from the folk duo which will undoubtedly have won a few fans over to their charms, the backdrop to the stage beams out a “Standby” message, prompting an expectant frothiness among the throng. When The National finally do rumble onto the stage, there’s a rapid acknowledgement of our presence from Berninger, before the band launch into four songs from their new album in quick succession.
Opening with material from an LP that’s only been out of the oven for less than two weeks and still hasn’t had time to fully percolate in the minds of its listeners is a risky business, especially with four of the fuckers one after the other. However, such is the silkiness of Berninger’s voice and such is the loyalty and devotion that the band command among their followers, they probably could have sang Yankee Doodle Dandy while tugging themselves off and no one would have complained. Despite the relative unfamiliarity of the material, the songs go down a treat, and we’re off to a flyer.
After that sudden introduction to some of the highlights from Sleep Well, Beast, the band backtrack to more well-trodden territory. A brace of songs from Trouble Will Find Me (I Should Live in Salt and Don’t Swallow the Cap) are followed up by one from High Violet (Bloodbuzz Ohio), and for a moment it looks as though perhaps The National are treating us to a delightful retrogression back to their roots. However, all such thoughts of that scheme are shelved when they hastily return to their latest offering.
In all, the band play the new album almost in its entirety. There is still plenty of room for crowd pleasers such as Fake Empire, Terrible Love and Mr November, and a few curveballs in Apartment Story, The Geese of Beverley Road and Afraid of Everyone. However, the omissions are glaring by their absence: no Slow Show or Ada, no Baby We’ll Be Fine or Friend of Mine, not a sniff of About Today.
With a band that have this much quality music, there are always going to be differing opinions as to missed favourites and could-have-playeds, and it’s certain the crowd went away fully impressed with Berninger and the boys. But despite the excellent performance, they certainly left us wanting more – though we can always console ourselves that perhaps next time they’ll wheel out Yankee Doodle Dandy.