It was a little chilly for a rock festival last weekend, but don’t tell that to the 10,000 fans of host band The National who showed up for the best new music event Cincinnati has seen in years. Spun off from guitarist Bryce Dessner’s concurrent MusicNOW Festival and produced in conjunction with Tennessee’s AC Entertainment (best-known for the annual Bonnaroo and Forecastle festivals), Homecoming was perfectly curated, well-executed, and overwhelmingly successful. Over the last 13 years, MusicNOW has played host to legendary composers, A-list indie rockers and boundary-pushing innovators. That expansive, genre-agnostic spirit was only slightly narrowed as the festival moved into the great outdoors, showcasing both big names and bright new lights from a large range of backgrounds.
Ultimately, this was The National’s party. Over the course of nearly four hours and two nights, the group, all originally from Cincinnati, touched on almost every corner of their celebrated career. Saturday night was carried by songs from last fall’s Grammy-winning “Sleep Well Beast” and 2013’s “Trouble Will Find Me.” Irish folksinger Lisa Hannigan and Cincinnati-based percussionist Ben Sloan (the festival’s first Artist in Residence — more on that later) joined the band on many songs to add texture and depth to their already-rich sound. Even by his usual standards, lead singer Matt Berninger was punchy and volatile onstage, bantering playfully with his bandmates between songs and throwing himself fully behind the weight of “Alligator” era classics “Abel” and “Mr. November.” “Cherry Tree” opener “Wasp Nest” and unreleased rarity “Rylan” were welcome additions, and a set-closing “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” singalong filled the chilly April air.
Sunday’s stellar set was a much more focused affair. As advertised, the first half included a full performance of their 2007 masterpiece, “Boxer,” and the lighting and video production echoed that record’s iconic visuals. Rarer, quiet classics like “Gospel” and “Ada” (the latter appended with a triumphant fanfare from Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago”) proved as vital as permanent set list fixtures “Fake Empire” and “Mistaken for Strangers.” “Boxer” is a record about stumbling into adulthood, trying to keep old commitments and connections while new ones rear their heads. Its subject matter is timeless, and Sunday’s festival-crowning performance proved just how gracefully it has aged.
The band wasted no time moving back to the present, though, slamming into “Sleep Well Beast” lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” which is as visceral and immediate as anything in their live repertoire. “Alligator” highlight “The Geese of Beverly Road” was a blissful comedown under the full moon, and during the encore, the band debuted the new piano-heavy song “Light Years.” “Cherry Tree” standout “About Today” has long been a showstopper with its Himalayan dual-guitar climax, and they could not have picked a better song to cap off the inaugural Homecoming. Together, the two sets provided an unusually broad look at the band’s post-2004 arc (the band didn’t perform anything from their first two LPs), and a triumphant return to their hometown.
But The National was only the nightcap to two magnificently-planned days of music. Female artists ruled much of the weekend — refreshing in an era where major festivals are still struggling to diversify their lineups. Nashville songwriter Julien Baker worked her sorcery on the twilit crowd with a gripping set of music drawing heavily on last year’s “Turn Out the Lights.” Paired with carefully-looped and layered guitar lines, Baker’s voice is one of the most compelling in contemporary music, and she proved more than worthy of her packed East Stage-closing set. Toronto jangle-poppers Alvvays had the same slot the next evening, and held the crowd in the palms of their hands with efficient (and excellent) reverb-soaked rock. Irish folksinger Lisa Hannigan was a near-constant fixture all weekend, appearing during both National sets as well as the MusicNOW programming, and her too-short Sunday set was augmented by guest spots from Aaron Dessner and Ireland’s Crash Ensemble.
Feist held down the Sunday subheadliner slot with a masterful, career-spanning set of hits which recast many of her indie folk standards as loud guitar freakouts. Dayton alt-rock greats The Breeders, fronted by the ageless Deal sisters, joyfully plowed through a set heavy on their 1993 breakthrough “Last Splash” and this year’s fantastic “All Nerve.” Saddle Creek signees Big Thief turned in an eye-opening and unexpectedly aggressive set of alt-country early Sunday afternoon which showcased unreleased material and singer Adrianne Lenker’s noisy, roaring guitar solos. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s recent record, “The Kid,” is an insular document full of alien rhythms and technicolor synthscapes, but she brought it to vivid life during her opening Sunday set on the massive West Stage. Smith’s hands (and often feet) never stopped moving as she coaxed an entire sonic world from her modular synthesizers and loop pedals.
Father John Misty referred to himself as the “lost Dessner triplet” and debuted music from his upcoming LP, “God’s Favorite Customer,” during his thrilling Saturday sunset slot. Gleefully profane Baltimore rapper Spank Rock got the party started as the crowd was filing into the park, and seminal German electronic duo Mouse on Mars later kept it going with an hour of thundering, danceable beats on the East Stage. Bryce Dessner performed with several intricate electric guitar counterpoints, including style progenitor “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich and Dessner’s own Grateful Dead-inspired “Garcia Counterpoint” from the 2016 “Day of the Dead” compilation.
Los Angeles singer-songwriter Moses Sumney emerged as one of the festival’s brightest stars on Sunday afternoon, staring down the blinding sun with an hour of his astral soul. Sumney’s “Aromanticism” was one of 2017’s sleeper hits, and it translated flawlessly to the Homecoming stage. Artsy Baltimore synth-rockers Future Islands delivered their usual masterful set, anchored by singer Sam Herring’s intense delivery. Herring’s manic dancing and often-unhinged vocals might not work if he didn’t sell them so thoroughly, his body a physical extension of the cathartic music.
Local percussionist Ben Sloan (an occasional member of Why? and the People’s Liberty grant recipient for the Price Hill Percussion Park) was named as the festival’s Artist in Residence, making his first appearance during the Friday night Mouse on Mars set at the Masonic Center and then joining The National for most of their headlining shows. His showcase set came on Sunday afternoon, in which he premiered a new half-hour suite of music composed specifically for Homecoming, aided by local ensemble A Delicate Motor and National drummer Bryan Devendorf. Sloan’s work was a left turn in MusicNOW’s long history of commissions, but a welcome one, and we must hope a recorded version will surface soon.
With all of this, there was, indeed, still a MusicNOW. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s small theater hosted additional programming each day just a block away from Smale Park, and many festivalgoers took the opportunity to spend some time out of the spring sun. Avant-garde jazz drummer Tyshawn Sorey had two sets on Saturday, one featuring his eponymous trio, the other showcasing two of his classical compositions for the Crash Ensemble. The second, “Autoschediasms for Crash Ensemble,” was conceived during rehearsal for the event and saw Sorey conducting group improvisations with hastily-written instructions. Sunday saw a capacity crowd (and a line out the door) for Chicago-based ensemble Eighth Blackbird, in town for Cincinnati Ballet’s Bold Moves. The group was joined by Bryce Dessner and Will Oldham for a program that included Frederic Rzewski’s intense “Coming Together” and “Stay On It” by the late Julius Eastman, whose underappreciated oeuvre is seeing a much-deserved renaissance.
For its part, Smale Park was the perfect setting for a festival on this scale, and hopefully AC Entertainment continues to use it for events regardless of Homecoming’s future. With the magnificent Roebling Bridge at its heart and the city and river as its borders, the park was easy to navigate and suffered from none of the bottlenecks so often seen at adjacent Sawyer Point during Bunbury. The park’s permanent water and playground features fit right in with the festival atmosphere, and organizers added decorative rainbow fringe to trees and light poles. There was also gorgeous installation art on each of the park’s grand lawns, including towering, colorful mountains in the shadow of the Roebling’s west face. Add in the illuminated marquee over Mehring Way’s entrance gates and incorporation of The National’s “Sleep Well Beast” visuals in signage and merchandise, and Homecoming came off as astonishingly well-produced for a freshman festival.
Calling it a first-year festival implies a second round, and indeed, ticketholders received a survey on Monday morning asking about the future of the event. Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon run the similarly-minded Eaux Claires festival in upstate Wisconsin, and Homecoming seems like the perfect transportation of that collaborative spirit to an urban setting. Regardless of Homecoming’s future, The National decided to go big when they came home, and they hit it out of the (proverbial and literal) park.