When Matt Berninger was a young man living in Cincinnati in the mid-’90s, he looked up to fellow Ohioan Robert Pollard, the prolific and hard-drinking frontman of Guided By Voices known for his hilarious, drunken monologues during shows. This past weekend, when The National returned to Cincinnati’s scenic Smale Riverfront Park to play two headlining sets for the band’s first-ever Homecoming festival, Berninger leaned on his GBV-loving roots, sloshing about the stage Saturday night amid a sea of tossed-off Solo cups and loopy one-liners.
Even for a guy known for swilling booze on stage, Berninger was in rare form, saluting nearby landmarks like Great American Ballpark by dedicating the furious National standard “Abel” to Pete Rose and punctuating it with a boisterous “fuck yeah!” During the same show, he playfully tangled with his mother in the front row, and then asked, “Will someone please get the mud off my mom’s butt?”
The National’s tendency to loosen the necktie and embrace shambolic rock and roll in a concert setting, contrasting with the more composed nature of its records, is what makes it such a great live band. But Homecoming offered an even less guarded view of the band, which was surrounded by family members and old friends the entire weekend. It felt like The National had permission to not be so professional for a few days.
Launched as the relatively conventional counterpoint to the Dessner’s long-running MusicNow, which has hosted improvisational and experimental performances by avant-garde and esoteric musicians in Cincinnati for more than a decade, Homecoming is the latest example of what’s become a burgeoning trend of artist-curated festivals. Similar to Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires, which was co-founded by Aaron Dessner and featured The National in its inaugural year in 2015 (and may again in 2018), Homecoming is an artisanal alternative to big-time corporate festivals, with their interchangeable lineups and increasingly impersonal experiences. A festival like Homecoming, meanwhile, feels smaller, more livable (especially when it comes to lines for drinks and bathrooms), and driven by the personalities of the participating artists.
The casual vibe of The National’s Saturday night set translated to many of the other acts on the bill. So many performances felt looser and more intimate than the typical festival gig. Ohio indie legends The Breeders freely interacted with the audience throughout their raucous set, with Kim Deal tossing off jokey non-sequiturs punctuated with hearty belly laughs. On the smaller east stage, Julien Baker stunned a sizable crowd into eerie silence as the sun set over the Ohio River, in spite of performing most of the show by herself with just an electric guitar.
At Coachella, an artist like Baker would get drowned out by the indifference of an audience hellbent on seeking out party jams. But at Homecoming, acts like Alvvays and Moses Sumney drew large, attentive audiences to the east stage, while Big Thief overpowered the west stage with an impressive, Crazy Horse-like muscularity, portending a bright future for the rising indie quartet.