It is a cloudless, 70-degree day in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a crowd is beginning to assemble at The ICON Festival Stage in Smale Riverfront Park. It is the first day of the 2023 Homecoming Festival, hosted by hometown heroes and indie rock legends, The National.
The first few acts of the day range from experimental jazz to mellow, garage rock, followed by some of the biggest up-and-coming names in music. Bartees Strange is the third act of the day, and he is a captivating vocal powerhouse who was simply born to perform. The electric energy shared between him and the other talented musicians on stage is incredible to watch, and to hear his style shift from alternative rock to indie R&B to slow jazz is to be thoroughly impressed.
Bartees Strange is followed by Arooj Aftab, the first-ever Pakistani artist to win a Grammy award. She offers a haunting change of pace to the day, being a woman of color singing slow, heart-wrenching ballads among a collection of what the crowd lovingly refers to as “sad dad music.” The accompanying acoustic guitar, lilting violin, her unreal vocal capabilities, quiet power and dry sense of humor weaves a hypnotic tapestry.
The biggest name of the day so far is The Walkmen, a group who came up in the music scene around the same time as The National. Fans of Arctic Monkeys would find lots of similarities in their style, and anyone who is a fan of ambient grunge rock would find a new favorite band within The Walkmen.
Next up is punk and feminist icon Patti Smith, who begins her set with a swelling anthem that reminds the crowd of the world-changing power within their ranks. The audience is moved to silence as she reads an excerpt from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and moved to exuberance when she sings her biggest hits with a genuine passion.
The National takes the stage to end the day, but not before mayor Aftab Pureval makes an appearance and gives them a key to the city, a recognition of how their love for Cincinnati and success in the music industry has put the city on the map. After this honor is bestowed, lead singer Matt Berninger tells the crowd how beautiful it is to see them and dives into the first song off of their 2010 album, "High Violet," which they perform in its entirety.
They end the first half of their set with a goosebumps-inducing version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" that is sung only by the audience, with the Dessner twins accompanying with acoustic guitar. They bring Patti Smith back to the stage for a chilling rendition of "I Need My Girl," and then play songs from every era of their career. Eventually, they announce that they will be dropping a new album at the end of the weekend, and the attendees of the festival are the first to know about it.
The second day of the festival follows a similar structure, with the first heavy hitter of the day being the modern punk and feminist icon, Snail Mail, whose performance is humorous and passionate. Weyes Blood takes the stage next, wearing a glittery gown to match her ethereal presence and sultry vocal technique. She offers many different styles and plays a multitude of instruments. Her performance is enhanced by a montage of great movie clips playing at lighting speed behind her, creating a cinematic aesthetic.
The second to last performers of the night are one of the all-time greats for the crowd of primarily adults who grew up listening to "Cut Your Hair" in the 90s. Pavement claims that it will be their last show for a long time, and possibly for all time. The crowd loves watching the group of old, creative souls enjoy playing weird music for weird people, with their anarchic energy and ironic humor making it a delightful experience all around.
The National ends the evening by playing their 2013 album, "Trouble Will Find Me," along with other songs from their discography, but not before Berninger cracks a joke about his Ibuprofen finally kicking in, which is met by resounding chuckles from his target audience (a middle-aged crowd whose Ibuprofen also just kicked in).
The National is a group of incredible musicians, with the Dessner twins being some of the greatest names in modern music, Bryan Devendorf being one of rock’s most recognizable drummers and Matt Berninger being a passionate and poetic performer. Their performance takes on an entire life of its own; it’s as if they are merely inspired by the songs on the record and let the musical fusion on stage create an entirely new version of their art.
The Homecoming Festival was a love letter to Cincinnati and the indie/alternative rock music that it loves so much. Fans of music, creativity and shared joy must find their way to next year's festival, which will have a tough act to follow, but will inevitably be just as great.