The National have come a long way since the days of New York City’s Mercury Lounge. Not only are they currently touring worldwide with songs from their most recent album Trouble Will Find Me but they are also garnering interest from cineasts with the oddly endearing documentary Mistaken for Strangers shot by Tom Berninger brother to lead singer, Matt. The film is so much more than a profile of their unprecedented rise to the top; at times it reminded me of the off-kilter Cinema Verite style of Werner Herzog – who in a strange twist of fate appears in the audience during one of the filmed performances. The fact that The National’s gig is apparently one of only three gigs he has ever attended, the other two being Prince and Rammstein, suggests that they both share a common interest in the sublime. The film is an unwitting reveal of the reality of family dynamics; competitiveness, misunderstanding, disconnection and fierce loyalty. If this were a generic piece of indie fiction, the soundtrack would doubtless be littered with hits such as Fake Empire, Mr. November and About Today.
Such universal themes also translate to the band’s live performances and this was reflected in an impressively wide audience demographic at The Usher Hall in Edinburgh. Naturally, beards and checked shirts flooded my line of sight, but they were worn proudly by sons, husbands and fathers alike. I was even treated to the sight of a young woman, heavily pregnant – a far from enviable condition in the sweltering July heat – but undeterred from seeing the Ohian band.
The set itself was a crowd-pleasing mix of old and new, well planned, evenly distributed and delivered with enthusiastic relish. Berninger in particular is a fascinating contradiction when it comes to performance style, moving between tortured vulnerability and aggressive catharsis in a matter of seconds. During a 2010 interview with Pitchfork, he admitted that “it’s odd, very vulnerable, and slightly embarrassing to be standing and singing and playing music in front of a bunch of strangers. None of us are showbiz types, or entertainers or extroverts, so when we’re performing, we close our eyes, think about the songs, and just sink into the music.”
This self-assessment was certainly evident on the night, but despite his internal retreat on-stage, which manifested itself in vociferous pacing and bowing of the head, there was a palpable sense of connection between band and audience. As is typical of the pacing of a National gig, the steady build eventually careered towards an out and out frenzy as Berninger made his way through the standing area, soaking himself in the adoration of eager fans whilst barely missing a note. It’s quite a spectacle, yes – and seemed to cause significant concern amongst several members of security – but somehow avoids descent into gimmickry. It’s hard to feel any kind of cynicism when exposed to the sound of two thousand patrons aligning themselves with the sentiment, “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love” – a strain from the collaborative closing rendition of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks; which has become less of a staple in The National’s setlist and more of an ode to their unwavering fan base.
Aside from some technical hitches resulting in a slight distortion of the usually harmonious layers of instrumentation, the band’s visit to the North was well met, leaving behind a buzz not only in the ear but the heart.
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