Reflections on September’s Homecoming Festival 2023

Plenty of eyes—and ears—were on Cincinnati, aka the Queen City, on Friday and Saturday, September 15th and 16th for The National’s Homecoming Festival. Known as indie rock’s favorite “Sad Dads,” The National, whose members—two sets of brothers Dessner and Devendorf plus lead lyricist and singer Matt Berninger—all hail from Cincinnati, but made it bigger in Brooklyn. Once again, The National headlined both nights. Polarizing as they can be in some circles, the band has amassed an almost cultlike following among their devoted fans worldwide. All but one of the bandmembers have been residing in other cities or countries for the last several years—so the Homecoming moniker fits.

As with their inaugural Homecoming in 2018, The National curated the festival, filling 14 slots with musical acts mainly from within their orbit for an eclectic lineup. The two days and nights brought welcome diversity across ages, cultures, nationalities, genres, and styles to festival’s single stage this year. With one stage to congregate around, it felt like a very human festival in both scale and performance qualities. (The last Homecoming in 2018 had two stages—plus additional venues for the band-affiliated MusicNOW Festival that ran concurrently that year. The pandemic forced cancellation of the Homecoming scheduled in 2020.)

Homecoming 2023 took place at the outdoor Andrew J. Brady Center, a few blocks west of the prior festival’s Smale Park location. The Center’s indoor venue areas hosted The National’s merchandise sales (exclusively) and food-and-beverage vending, plus a VIP area upstairs. Displays of some photos of The National plus a selection of their collectible graphic screen-printed concert posters were also for sale, staged as mini exhibitions.

The band have always seemed keen on promoting and touring with emerging artists that appeal to their own varied tastes and sensibilities. It’s a respectable approach. They also brought in some of their favorite acts, including bands that inspired and influenced them: Pavement, The Walkmen (a band that, according to trivia questions-and-answers projected onto the stage in between acts, Berninger had prayed would get back together)—even Patti Smith, who also joined The National onstage for “I Need My Girl” vocals.

Presenting such an eclectic roster of artists arguably was risky attendance-wise. No doubt The National’s fan base would turn up in force. But would, say, two or three musical acts of interest be sufficient to sway others to purchase a one-day or two-day pass? Despite some competition near and further afield—Oktoberfest Zinzinnati a few blocks north and the Bourbon and Beyond Music Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, 100 miles south—attendance seemed solid overall, if somewhat sparse in the early afternoons (Friday in particular). I encountered many out-of-towners who’d arrived from Nashville, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Racine, Wisconsin. Some had traveled internationally, from Montreal, Halifax—even London, England.

Weyes Blood, aka Natalie Mering, combined elegant movements with her singing in one of the festival’s more theatrical performances.

England-born and Washington, D.C.-raised Bartees Strange delivered some searing, rockin’-blues­–tinged guitar licks and vocal prowess. Perhaps he’s best known for covering National songs on his Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy EP. He’s also opened for The National on selected tour dates.

Weyes Blood, the performing name of Natalie Mering, epitomized the word “ethereal.” She glided around the stage, a white-magic counterpoint to Stevie Nicks’s black-lace wiccan ways. Or maybe a less New Age-y Enya. She proclaimed that her last three tracks would be “the rave portion” of the set. That it was still daylight didn’t matter. The audience responded favorably, cheering her on as she tossed roses into the audience, twirling and flinging the flowers with abandon amid a few candelabras onstage. Her singing was soothing, captivating, lovely. She summoned other young female artists, such as Mitski, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, and possibly, Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw, who aren’t afraid to bring theatrical tastes and elements and occasional dance moves to their performances. At Homecoming, many young women turned in solid performances, including Australian-native Julia Jacklin and Snail Mail’s 24-year-old Lindsey Jordan.

Arooj Aftab (left) with Shazad Ismaily on bass guitar, and Darian Thomas on violin, captivated the audience.

Arooj Aftab was another noteworthy artist that surprised and delighted the audience.
The Pakistani American singer composer/producer won a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance in 2022 and more recently appeared on another festival roster: Big Ears in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her vocals soared and mesmerized. In an unexpected moment, she paused briefly, slouching slightly—almost breaking the magic vocal spell she’d cast— and in a humble and human moment, revealed that she’d performed in NYC just the night before and had had an extra drink or two afterwards. We’d never have known it from her captivating performance.

In addition to her impassioned singing and speaking, Patti Smith read poetry from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl during her performance with bandmates Lenny Kaye, Tony Shanahan, and Jay Dee Daugherty.

Patti Smith, who played with her longtime bandmates Lenny Kaye, Tony Shanahan, and Jay Dee Daugherty, was a highlight, a force. She could do no wrong, singing classics from “Pissing in a River” to “Gloria,” reading from Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, imploring people to take their freedom, covering Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” A projected selection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic photos graced the stage’s backdrop. (No, not the ones that caused a kerfuffle at the Contemporary Arts Center here back in 1990, culminating in an obscenity trial.)

Homecoming was also occasion for a couple of surprise announcements—one cheerful, one potentially sad—from two bands: On Friday night, The National’s Matt Berninger and the Dessner twins collectively announced from the stage a brand-new album release: Laugh Track, which dropped digitally at midnight the Sunday after Homecoming. (One thousand signed, limited-edition, pre-press vinyl copies were available for purchase via some sort of ticketing system.) On Saturday night, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement mentioned that this could be the last-ever Pavement show. If so, they ended on a high note.

Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and band announced that their Saturday night performance at Homecoming could be their last-ever show.

A few local acts, including The Drin and Carriers, rocked the stage with good showings and contrasting styles. Both have been generating some buzz in the area and beyond in recent years. The Drin doled out heavy beats and grooves, a usual drum kit (played here by Dakota Carlyle) fortified by Cole Gilfilen’s giant, standalone “concert drum” and droning early synths overlaid with Dylan McCartney’s semi-snarling vocals, sounded not unlike early Joy Division or other goth and/or post-punk influences.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I regret having to miss two of the festival’s fourteen acts: Leo Pastel, a local artist about whom I’d heard good reports from in-the-know folks; and Ballard, primarily a collaboration between LANZ, aka Benjamin Lanz (also The National’s trombonist, occasional percussionist, etc.) and saxophonist Kris Allen playing some jazz-tinged instrumentals run through modular synthesizers as part of the recording process. After hearing some of Ballard’s recent recorded tracks, it would have been interesting to see how that played out live.

Carriers brought sweet, warm, alt-folk-rock tunes that sounded fresh, non-formulaic. Frontman Curt Kiser played his guitar(s) and sang with a genuine earnestness and devotion to his craft. Kiser also contributed some playing of assorted instruments (keyboards, etc.) on The National’s latest albums, The First Two Pages of Frankenstein and Laugh Track, its “companion” release mentioned above. Carriers also recently signed to the Brassland label (co-founded by Alec Hanley Bemis and National bandmembers Aaron and Bryce Dessner).

The National’s Matt Berninger feeling the music during the band’s Friday night performance.

The National were in fine form both nights throughout their 90-minute sets. Their music translates well live, helping retain their hot-ticket status. They played their High Violet ­album—which had been slated for a ten-year anniversary reading for their canceled Homecoming 2020—in its entirety on Friday, followed by a mix of older and newer tracks. Saturday saw a whole-album performance of 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me for its tenth anniversary plus another varied setlist. Friday’s performance was pure, exuberant fun—a bit raw-edged but not untethered, while their Saturday showing felt more formal by comparison.

Spirits seemed high at the festival. It was a joyful occasion onstage and off. A homecoming reunion among locals—friends and family, including several of The National’s kin and kindred spirits joined in an outsized singalong. Several folks from the local music scene turned up. Among the people I spoke with—mostly couples who had traveled to Cincinnati for the first time—several commented on how pretty the city and setting were. I felt proud to be a local, and a witness to this very human Homecoming.
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