By: Mike Thomas
There are all kinds of milestones a band may reach that signify they have “made it.” Hearing that first song play on the radio, a first gold record or maybe a chart-topping single. These are all worthy accomplishments, true markers of achievement in the realm of pop music.
Then there are groups who can throw their own weekend festival, invite over a dozen of their high-level performing friends to join them and headline two nights in their hometown to 10,000 or so of their most loyal fans. There are milestones, and then there are milestones.
This past weekend, Cincinnati’s own The National hosted its inaugural Homecoming Festival in the Smale Riverfront Park, situated on the Queen city’s beautiful downtown riverfront. Joined by a handpicked selection of artists such as Father John Misty, Feist and Moses Sumney, The National closed out the proceedings both evenings, including a performance of its landmark album The Boxer in its entirety on Sunday.
The festival grounds for the event were laid out in a fairly linear fashion, with the majority of the action taking place on alternating sets on the West main stage and the smaller East stage. This was a relatively small affair in comparison to some of the buckeye state’s familiar annual fests–even the famously intimate Nelsonville fest has a larger footprint.
In spite of its small size, Homecoming retains the polish and professional gleam of its more established counterparts. Sets went on at the scheduled times without fail, porta potties were plentiful and relatively clean and food and beverage lines remained civil and manageable in length.
Great logistical execution will probably never be an advertising slam-dunk, but these are the things that can mar an otherwise great experience when taken for granted. In terms of everything working as it should, Homecoming delivered, which is an achievement unto itself for a fest in its first year.
Enough cannot be said of the choice of venue for this event. The Cincinnati riverfront area served as the perfect backdrop for a weekend of fun. The park’s grounds were immaculate, with views of ornately decorated bridges, the city skyline and the majestic Ohio River stretching out in panoramic splendor.
Great setting? Check. Food, booze and places to relieve oneself? Good to go. Now let’s talk music.
Bang-for-buck-wise, the festival was peerless. The selection of performers felt carefully curated, because it was. Not one act felt like filler, from the afternoon performances on the side stage to festival mainstays who will go on to perform in front of mega-sized audiences throughout the coming summer.
Saturday afternoon featured a set of solid performances from the likes of Baltimore rapper Spank Rock as well as folk-rockers Lord Huron. By the time Dayton rock greats The Breeders took the stage at 5 p.m., the crowd had grown substantially in size.
The Breeders delivered a fantastic set, including cuts from its magnum opus, Last Splash, as well as selections from its new album. Once Kim Deal and the gang were finished, few from the amassed crowd ventured away from the pit area.
Father John Misty would be next to perform there, and he was clearly a festival favorite. The pseudonymous Josh Tillman is enough of a draw to garner high billing at titanically huge festivals. Here, he took the stage to a crowd maybe 10 percent the size of those found at Coachella or Bonnaroo. Chalk this up as a huge win for his fans in attendance, who were privileged to see the artist perform in a relatively intimate setting.
And in attendance they certainly were. The singalong factor to songs from Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear album was off the charts. Tunes from perhaps the more cerebral Pure Comedy, on the other hand, seemed to garner a lot of crowd talk and phone checking.
The hot-take prone Tillman remained oddly quiet throughout the set; his banter amounted to no more than a couple of toss-away one-liners. Slotted for an hour, he played approximately 54 minutes–just short enough to question why he didn’t squeeze in one more number. Many in the crowd seemed to be left wanting more despite a technically awesome set from Tillman, which spanned his entire discography and was backed by a full horn section that was missing from his stop in Columbus earlier this year.
Between Father John and The National’s closing set, Julien Baker took to the festival’s East stage. Performing solo, the Memphis alt-rocker’s set was austere, yet captivating. Her performance of “Rejoice” was a show-stopper in a set that demonstrated her knack for powerfully emotional songwriting that has earned the artist many loyal fans.
Saturday night’s main event, though, consisted of The National on the West stage. As the sun began to set, Smale Park was brimming with fans of the group from near and far. The National took to the stage, and anyone who has been to one of its live performances knows what came next–vocalist Matt Berninger screaming himself hoarse over upbeat takes of the band’s hits and deep-cuts alike, throwing cups of water into the crowd and generally running around (and off) the stage like a madman.
Where this set diverged from the norm was the number of goofs and slip ups that seemed to transpire throughout the performance–muffed lyrics and bridges missed being laughed off. These moments did not detract from the experience but rather lent an air of intimacy that one might find at a party with friends when someone brings out a guitar. In a way, that’s exactly what this evening was: a hugely popular and successful group coming together at home with 10,000 of its closest friends.
At one point, Berninger left the stage to hug his mom and ended up accidentally dragging her to the ground into a big puddle of mud, all while singing. It was that kind of party.
Highlights from Sunday’s slate of performances included a set from Alvvays, whose fun and energetic pop had the crowd dancing away the chill of early spring air. The tune “Archie, Marry Me” was a clear audience favorite.
Cliché as it may be, Feist truly had the crowd eating from her hand during her main stage performance. Taking a decidedly anti-Tillman approach, she encouraged audience participation and chatted up the crowd at every turn.The praise of her knack for catchy songwriting is deserved, but not enough is said for the Canadian singer-songwriter’s chops on the guitar, which were on full display during her performance. This engaging and upbeat set was perhaps the highlight of the entire festival.
Capping off the weekend on Sunday evening was, again, The National, who took to the stage to play their album The Boxer from start to finish, similar to U2 taking The Joshua Tree on tour–a band’s signature album, the one that has come to encapsulate everything fans love about the group, offered up as a kind of thanks.
The antics of the previous night’s performance were forgotten. The group laid down a perfect performance, leaving everything on stage. For the assembled masses of the group’s adoring fans, a more perfect capstone to the weekend’s experiences could not have been imagined.
Later this summer, Bunbury will take over Cincinnati in true corporate-festival fashion. A lineup full of acts selected for maximum mass appeal and ticket sales will likely result in a sold-out weekend. This is fine and it’s sure to be a fun time, an experience all its own. Still, as festivals balloon in size and lineups become more homogenous, it’s refreshing to see that the bespoke, fan-oriented experience of a fest like Homecoming can still find its place.