Who Says There’s No Leaving New York? A Report From The National’s Homecoming Festival

More a family reunion for the Cincinnati-bred band than an actual festival, Homecoming was a wild party with occasionally tender moments. 

During the first night of Homecoming Festival, the music fest curated by The National in Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park last weekend, the group’s vocalist Matt Berninger dedicated “Sea of Love” to a nearby spot where he’d vomited years earlier. It neatly encapsulated the band’s mood for the weekend—one that alternated between squishy sentimentality and almost giddy excitement to be back home. All five members of The National originate from Cincinnati. The mutual reverence for the band and their hometown was on full display throughout both of their headlining sets—one on Saturday and another on Sunday, when they played their monumental 2007 album Boxer in its entirety.

While The National was the central force driving the proceedings, the band also assembled an impressive array of indie rock acts as support. “They’re all artists we really like… Future Islands are on our label, Feist is one of our old friends, we’ve known Father John Misty since he was in Fleet Foxes, Big Thief is one of our favorite new bands, same with Julien Baker…and The Breeders were a huge influence on us,” National guitarist Bryce Dessner recently told Billboard. “To me Cincinnati lends itself to something like this because it’s a beautiful small city that works better for this ambitious citywide programming, which is harder to pull off in Chicago or New York. Part of it is hometown love that’s fun to share with a broader audience. To put together a special event for people who know the band in other parts of the world to see where we’re from because it’s so essential to our identity and what we’re all about.”

Saturday began with a string of sets so uniformly impressive that the unexpectedly long lines, which stretched blocks past the festival entrance, were quickly forgotten. “I’m not gonna talk much because I just want to rip through tunes,” lead singer Ben Schneider said near the start of Lord Huron’s strong mid-afternoon set, with the sun making periodic appearances on a mostly brisk Ohio day. It was an approach mimicked by most other acts; with hour-long sets and a tight schedule, many artists utilized every minute they were allotted. Lord Huron were followed up by The Breeders, whose frenetic set may have been Saturday’s most energetic. As they barreled through songs old and new, Kim Deal seemed right at home, fondly recalling the recording sessions to their latest album, which took place nearby in Dayton.

Lord Huron

Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, took the stage around 7 p.m., playing a well-balanced mix of his first three albums with a few selections from his forthcoming fourth record, God’s Favorite Customer. Tillman’s stage presence is unique and divisive—dripping with sarcasm, punctuated with tongue-in-cheek body language. Highlights included moments as disparate as the breezy pop of “Real Love Baby” and the explosive theatricality of “The Ideal Husband”.

On the heels of Tillman’s set was Julien Baker on the East Stage of the park, with a sunset over the Ohio River as her backdrop. Baker’s set was stunningly intimate, and her vocal performance was a highlight of the weekend. While the crowd seemed restless in the opening moments of her set (which was the last one before The National hit the stage), you could hear a pin drop during several moments, most notably the chilling climax of “Turn Out the Lights.”

Julien Baker

The following National set was unique in its energy. For a band that is generally an airtight, well-oiled machine, Saturday night’s set was freewheeling, loose, and unworried. During the climax of the aforementioned “Sea of Love” performance, Berninger erupted in laughter. He frequently introduced songs with inside jokes and shoutouts to friends and family; the set sometimes felt like it was directed to an audience of twenty close friends rather than the roughly sixteen thousand that turned out. This led to nice moments, such as his introduction of “Wasp Nest” (which Berninger cited as his mom’s favorite National song) and a new song, the bare-bones piano ballad “Light Years.” Other times, the band felt uncharacteristically sloppy, falling short in their performance despite assembling a near-perfect setlist on paper.

Sunday brought markedly improved weather and an equally impressive lineup. Big Thief delivered a commanding performance near the start of the afternoon. While their setlist leaned heavily on new songs that the audience was clearly unfamiliar with, Adrianne Lenker’s vocals were characteristically haunting and her guitar work was top-notch. The mid-afternoon Future Islands hour was unbridled energy, with frontman Samuel T. Herring giving one of the weekend’s most purely magnetic performances.

Alvvays

Moses Sumney’s set was similar in spirit to Julien Baker’s from the day before—musically accomplished but largely powered by his delicate, haunted falsetto. His songs, ethereal and floating, may have been lost in a larger setting, but kept the crowd entranced. Despite the general darkness of Sumney’s music, he interacted with the audience with welcome levity and humor. Equally lighthearted were Feist and Alvvays, whose brands of sunny pop music lightened the mood of what was otherwise a heavy, somber lineup.

The National’s second headlining set, though, offered the show-stopping craftsmanship their fans have come to expect. It started with a performance of Boxer in full. The ornate compositions of that album, when blown up to a larger scale, improbably work even better than they do on the record. The album is calculated and subtle; at first glance, it may not seem like the type of thing that would resonate deeply with a festival audience. But Berninger and Co. infused the songs with refreshing flourishes (such as a nod to Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” during the outro to “Ada”).

The National

Once Boxer concluded with “Gospel,” the band made its way through a slew of classics, deep cuts, and newer songs that hadn’t been covered in the previous night’s setlist. Chugging, feisty renditions of “Graceless” and “Conversation 16” wound the crowd’s tension to new highs, while unexpected selections such as “Pink Rabbits,” “The Geese of Beverly Road,” and a show-closing “About Today” were as good as they have ever sounded.

While The National’s second set sanded off the roughest edges from Sunday, they still delivered something far more deeply felt than typical festival headliners. This seemed to be the weekend’s overarching objective: offering the grab bag of disparate attractions offered by most music festivals, but with less heavy-handed corporate intrusion and a more personal touch. At that, Homecoming was an unqualified success. FL

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