Most summer festivals are about securing the biggest mix of A-list headliners, up-and-coming acts and baby bands and spreading them out over as many stages as possible. Usually, the same big names repeat from event to event as June melts into July into August. But at this weekend’s inaugural Homecoming Festival in Cincinnati, The National did something different: they curated an event featuring bands they love, respect and admire, inviting many musicians to join them onstage and turning the festival into both an unabashed mash note to their hometown and to the power of music to inspire and surprise.
The bonus for the 16,000 who came down on Saturday (Apr. 28) and Sunday (Apr. 29) for two days of rock by the river was a postcard-perfect setting and the chance to hear their favorite band play two loose, eclectic gigs, including only the second, and final, full performance of 2009’s Boxer album on a night that also featured the live debut of the brooding new song “Light Years.”
In between, fans caught rousing sets by local heroes The Breeders, the first sets of the year from Future Islands and Feist, and crowd-pleasing performances from Alvvays, Big Thief, Father John Misty and singer/guitarist Julien Baker.
Homecoming was situated in a picturesque park in downtown Cincinnati — where all five members of The National grew up — with the two stages straddling the iconic powder blue Roebling Bridge, a subtle call-back to the band’s adult pilgrimage to Brooklyn, whose famously similar bridge was designed by the same architect, John A. Roebling.
The launch of Homecoming also coincided with the 13th edition of guitarist Bryce Dessner’s new avant garde music showcase MusicNow, giving most attendees their first chance to hear some of the most creative, envelope-pushing sounds being created by musicians and composers from across the globe.
Some highlights from the weekend:
MusicNow Kick-Off Is All In The Family
The festivities got off to a thrilling start with an all-star collaboration at the city’s Masonic Center on Friday (Apr. 27) night during a two-hour MusicNow preview that opened with folk singer/fiddle player Sam Amidon playing some high and lonesome gothic bluegrass with National guitarists brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner. The twins then segued into a hushed set of fingerpicking acoustic guitar instrumentals during the debut of their new duet group, Red Bird Hollow, named after a popular hiking trail in suburban Cincinnati.
In one of her may appearances across nearly half a dozen stages over the weekend, frequent National collaborator Irish singer Lisa Hannigan joined the brothers — playing the same brand of guitar and dressed in similar blue shirt and black jeans outfits — for an icy ballad that brought the crowd to a hush. On a weekend where the mix of male and female-fronted acts and performers were noticeably higher than just about any other festival in America — not a coincidence, Bryce Dessner told Billboard earlier — vocalist Kristin Anna Valtysdottir joined another guest, drummer Ben Sloan, for a collaboration with the brothers that brought to mind a kind of meditative Icelandic Patti Smith.
The night came to a raucous close when legendary German electronic duo Mouse on Mars took the stage following a five-minute lead up featuring remotely-triggered percussion instruments played by robot pistons accompanied by flashing lights. Once the two men emerged behind their laptops and samplers, the sound exploded into a kind of EDM-meets-Grateful Dead drums and space jam, weaving in elements of African high-life guitar, slurry jazz and spacey electronica. In a precursor to the warm vibe of artistic collaboration that would mark the weekend, in quick succession rapper Spank Rock hopped out for a few uptempo, beat-heavy songs, followed by Amidon and Hannigan crooning over watery beats and Valtysdottir and the Dessners as the music swung from a chaotic swirl of beats and horns from longtime National brass section Lanz Projects to a warm reggae bounce.
Saturday Chill Warmed Up By Fiery Sets
Whatever was on Lord Huron singer Ben Schneider’s mind, he kept the talking to a minimum during his band’s early afternoon set, telling the crowd shivering on an unusually chilly spring day that he wasn’t going to talk a lot because “we just want to rip through some tunes.” Which they did, ripping, as promised, through the geographically appropriate “Wait by the River.”
One of the bands Bryce Dessner was most excited to book were sister act Kim and Kelly Deal (aka The Breeders), who formed just up the road in Dayton, Ohio. And the always ebullient siblings didn’t disappoint with a set that mixed songs from their just-released All Nerve, with 1990s classics that had Father John Misty bopping along on the side of the stage.
“We recorded most of that record right there at Candyland Studios in Dayton, Kentucky,” guitarist Kelly Deal told the crowd as she pointed across the river before the reunited group bashed into “Divine Hammer” and a fiddle-assisted “Driving All Night.” In a nod to the sibling rivalry that has long fueled the group, Kim Deal announced near the end that Kelly would sing a song, “because mom said she had to,” to which Kelly replied, “It’s about time Kim!” before jumping into the rip-snorting “I Just Want to Get Along.”
Though it had a bit less mystery than their MusicNow set, Mouse on Mars delighted a lounging-in-the-grass daytime crowd on the second stage with some glitchy, groove-driven techno, the perfect counterpoint to the vampire folk from Father John Misty, who looked like the world’s hippest undertaker in his long black coat and his lanky Jack Skellington dance moves. The often-arch singer swooned around to “I Love You, Honeybear,” “Mr. Tillman,” “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” and other favorites, as well as during the live debut of “Disappointing Diamonds are the Rarest of Them All,” from the upcoming God’s Favorite Customer. Typically talkative, Misty kept his between songs chatter to a minimum, letting his hands do the talking as he mimed a bored masturbation gesture while crooning the line “What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?” during “Pure Comedy” and eliciting a howl of support with the helplessly hoping prayer “I hate to say it but each other’s all we got.”
Guitarist Julien Baker put on kind of primal scream guitar clinic on the East stage, where thousands of fans laid out under blankets on a hill as she passionately wailed the chorus to “Happy to be Here” and elicited a group hug of support as she strummed through the lyrics about about abandonment and self-acceptance on “Rejoice.”
The quiet, rapt attention the audience paid to Baker’s relatively sedate set was an example repeated multiple times over the weekend of the Homecoming crowd’s seeming willingness to check out new or unfamiliar acts and treat them with respect and enthusiasm, not to mention not drunkenly overtalking them during sensitive moments. Okay, except for that guy in the VIP who kept shouting out Kim Deal and bassist Josephine Wiggs’ names during the Breeders set. He stunk.
The National kept the collaborative vibe riding during their headliner set, brining out Hannigan for the driving opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” and the weekend’s artist-in-residence, hometown drummer Sloan for a thundering “Guilty Party.”
“This is so beautiful,” singer Matt Berninger said while looking out at the crowd that filled the grass in the urban park situated between the city’s baseball and football stadiums. He then paid homage to his younger brother, Tom — who famously directed the not-that-flattering 2013 documentary about the group, Mistaken for Strangers — saying, “This is about my brother Tom…he’s not here, as far as I know. He doesn’t know it’s about him and he probably can’t figure it out.” He then dipped into “I Should Live in Salt” form 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me.
Berninger, with a blue solo cup always in hand as the night got looser, took a moment before “Sea of Love” to reminisce about the spot not far from the stage where he recalled “barfing” 25 summers ago. He didn’t help the cause of erasing that unpleasant memory, when a short time later, he charged into the crowd and seemingly tackled his mother by accident. “Can someone brush the mud off my mom’s butt?” he pleaded, explaining that he accidentally knocked her to the ground and wondering why his dad wasn’t there to help. “He’s supposed to catch you,” he said in a joke that sounded like it should be a National lyric.
Hannigan returned for a suite of songs that included “Afraid of Everyone,” “Dark Side of the Gym” and “I Need My Girl,” during which she took the second verse without changing the title’s pronoun, an homage to Berninger’s wife and daughter. The set closed with a breakneck “Day I Die” featuring Sloan pounding note-for-note alongside National drummer Bryan Devendorf, as well as the crowd-favorite (and Cincinnati-reference-heavy) encore “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Mr. November.”
Sunday, Sun’s Out, (Big) Guns Out
With MusicNow events at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Contemporary Art Center and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center all weekend, perhaps none were as emotional or impactful as “Coming Together,” a landmark collaboration Chicago’s acclaimed Eighth Blackbird classical ensemble and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka singer Will Oldham). After Blackbird performed a moving four-song suite of Bryce Dessner’s pastoral “Murder Ballades” the group was joined by Billy for composer Frederic Rzewski‘s mesmerizing “Coming Together,” a haunting, stirring minimalist piece about the 1971 Attica prison riot.
Wearing crisp white pants and a matching shirt, with his fingernails painted black and heavy eyeliner framing his haunting eyes, Billy repeated such phrases as, “I am in excellent physical and emotional health,” over and over, as his performance rose from dead-eyed to frantic, accepting, angry, confident and defeated, with the accompanying players matching his intensity on vibraphone, woodwinds, violin, cello and piano. The results left the 300 in attendance in awe as they stood, some with tears in their eyes.
Outside, as the sun beamed down on a perfect festival day, Big Thief singer Adrianne Lenker dispensed with stage banter, let her dark mop of hair dangle down into her eyes and leaned hard into “Orange,” “Shoulders” and the propulsive dark pop single “Shark Smile.” Before debuting the new song “The Toy,” the four-piece laid down some murky Neil Young and Crazy Horse guitar greatness on “Not.”
On the other side of bridge, Sloan set up a drum kit in the middle of the field for a percussion seminar that had his mother, family and friends (and a few hundred others) looking on with pride and amazement. He then hopped on stage to join National drummer Devendorf for a set of beat-driven funk from their group Delicate Motor as part of Sloan’s weekend-long artist-in-residence designation.
Not showing any signs of the rust from a four-month live layoff, equally funky Future Islands bolted out of the gate with “Ran,” “Beauty of the Road” and “A Dream of You and Me,” with singer Sam Herring displaying his signature unpredictable stage-stalking dance moves as the band pumped out 1980s new wave grooves for him to croon and growl to. As high-energy as that was, Los Angeles singer/songwriter Moses Sumney brought an entirely different groove with his ethereal, heat mirage blues, singing in a precise falsetto over quiet, meandering arrangements that once again got a very respectful, attentive look from the audience.
Feist‘s set — her first in five months, take that, Future Islands — came off as if she’d never gone away. Wearing a long neon red dress, the singer immediately won the crowd over with “My Moon My Man” and “A Commotion,” on her way to a moving cover of Nina Simone’s “Sealion” and a solo acoustic strum through fan favorite “Mushaboom.” And don’t tell her pals in Broken Social Scene, but Feist played the live solo debut of the title track from that Canadian collective’s 2017 album, “Hug of Thunder,” joking that’s it’s a “little side project” of hers. In case you were wondering, she did play “I Feel it All,” but no one seemed bummed that she left out her signature hit, “1,2,3,4.”
Before The National closed the event with the Boxer, yet another female-fronted band, the excellent Alvvays, put on a 1990s shoegaze dance party with a super-fun set that included “Hey,” recent hit “Plimsoul Punks” and their breakthrough, “Archie, Marry Me.” You can’t go wrong with a set that opens with the roiling “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers,” and the National nation couldn’t help but shout along to those two favorites during a set that once again featured help from Sloan and Hannigan on tracks such as “Green Gloves” and “Slow Show.” Singer Berninger slipped into full punk rock mode for “Squalor Victoria,” during which he screamed at the top of his lungs, tossed his mic stand in the air and flung one of his many drink cups across the stage.
After moving through the original 12-song album, guitarist Aaron Dessner said humbly that it was “surreal to be here,” looking out at the huge crowd in front of him. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” was, as it should be, a dark squall, while Mouse on Mars’ Jan St. Werner brought his glitchy, icy electronics to “Walk it Back.” The encore kicked off with the first taste of the meditative ballad “Light Years” and the weekend came to a close with the 2004 rarity, the somber “About Today.”
The takeaway? The National came home, showed the world what they’d learned on their travels around the globe, shared some of the riches with their friends and family and set the stage for an annual ritual of renewal, discovery and surprises in the place that’s still home in their hearts.