The National’s 2023 Homecoming Festival Recap & PODCAST

The National: Homecoming 2023

Every once in a while, it’s good to come home again.

homecoming noun
home·com·ing /ˈhōmˌkəmiNG/

  1. an instance of returning home.
  2. the return of a group of people usually on a special occasion to a place formerly
    frequented or regarded as home.

t’s said that you can’t go home again, but on September 15 and 16, The National did exactly that, bringing a few friends along with them. After a 5 year hiatus, they brought back the Homecoming Festival to Cincinnati for two beautiful days of music at The Icon Festival Stage at Smale Park, an outdoor venue on the banks of the Ohio River. The lineup featured two nights of unique performances by the The National, Night One presented a start to finish performance of High Violet and Night Two a celebration of the 10 year anniversary of Trouble Will Find Me by giving it the same treatment, and a lineup of exciting performers curated by the band themselves: Patti Smith & Her Band, Pavement, The Walkmen, Weyes Blood, Arooj Aftab, Snail Mail, Bartees Strange, Julia Jacklin, Carriers, The Drin, Ballard, and Leo Pastel.

Cincinnati Mayor, Aftab Pureval, presenting a Key to the City to The National at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Often touted as a Brooklyn band, all members of The National hailed from the Queen City before moving to New York City where they formed as a group and found renown in the burgeoning Williamsburg indie scene. I’ve had the opportunity to see them play in other cities, but none ever feel as special as seeing them play in the city they grew up in, performing not only their fans but their friends and family as well. Homecoming feels like a love letter to Cincy, a dual purpose event designed to both expose Cincinnati to music that the band feels is important but also exposing the city to the musicians and fans who might not have visited otherwise. And the love the band feels is reciprocated, with “Cincinnati’s favorite sons” receiving the key to the city from Mayor Aftab Pureval just prior to their Night One performance – a key that Matt Berninger jokingly announced on Night Two that he would trade for a key to one of Graeter’s famous local ice cream parlors, because it hadn’t worked there when he tried it.

HOMECOMING on The Hot Mic Podcast


The National on day two of Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,


Prior to the cancellation of Homecoming 2020, the plan was to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of High Violet with a performance of the album at the festival, and this year the plans finally came to fruition. High Violet topped my favorite albums the year it came out. Possibly one of the last CDs I bought, it never left my car stereo over the course of 2010, repeating on an endless loop whenever I drove somewhere. Hearing it live reminded me how much I had loved every song, how I had analyzed and tried to interpret the lyrics as I listened over and over. The band made jokes about how they had not thought about the order of the album in a long time, and how it felt strange being constrained by the concept. As a fan of their live shows, this was most noticeable for me during Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, a song normally reserved for closing a show by playing it unamplified and with the audience singing along – this was still how they staged it, but it hit different occurring mid-set.

One of the highlights of the evening was Patti Smith joining the band onstage to perform I Need My Girl, providing beautifully layered lyrics with Matt, to dramatic effect. Another highlight was that the band made an announcement that a surprise new album called Laugh Track would be released that weekend. The audience was then treated to the first live performances of three new tracks off the album: Space Invader, Dreaming, and Smoke Detector. Other recent songs from the recent First Two Pages of Frankenstein were prominently highlighted during the set, but it also showcased songs from Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers, Cherry Tree, Alligator, Boxer, and Sleep Well Beast.

Night Two – Trouble Will Find Me

Spirits were high on Night Two, and the band still seemed excited to be in front of their city, so excited that when I returned to the stage after dropping off my show poster in my car between sets (each day had a singular poster designed by artist Aaron Lowell Denton which I could not resist adding to my collection), they had already launched into their first song 5 minutes before they were scheduled to go on. Trouble Will Find Me was considered one of their most introspective albums at the time of release, and the songs still felt personal 10 years later. The National sounded crisp and relaxed, played to the crowd, and seemed to have an anecdote to go with every song. The audience erupted for Slow Show, a song not played Night One, as well as when The National dedicated their song So Far Around the Bend (from the benefit compilation album Dark Was the Night) to Pavement, a song that in 2009 said they are “praying for Pavement to get back together,” a prayer that came true in 2010. Again, the second half of the set featured songs from throughout their catalog, but spotlighted newer music, premiering 3 more songs from Laugh Track; Turn Off the House, Deep End (Paul’s in Pieces), and Weird Goodbyes, and closing with Space Invader, one of the songs premiered on Night One.

Patti Smith & Her Band

Patti Smith & Her Band at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Patti Smith kicked off her set with a visceral performance of her 1988 song People Have the Power, which felt like a personal challenge for the audience to take action. After a 50+ plus year career, the 76 year old singer, songwriter, National Book Award winning author, poet, and punk rocker has nothing to prove, but still seemed as passionate as ever about her performance. A highlight of the festival for me was when she pulled out a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and read Footnote from it: “The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy! The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy!” Smith seems intent on reminding us that times change but much remains the same, and people must be forever vigilant against those who would take advantage of the marginalized. She made a touching dedication to Television frontman Tom Verlaine who passed earlier this year (before playing a cover of Television’s Guiding Light), and dedicated Because the Night to her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, of MC5 fame.


Pavement at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Pavement was one of my favorite bands during the 90s, but at the time I didn’t think anybody outside of my friend group and magazine writers knew who they were. Now, this was the one band other than The National that the other acts referenced being in awe of sharing a stage with. Back when Alternative Music was king, they were busy defining the modern indie sound, and have been one of the biggest influences on indie music in the 21st century. Remarkably, the band sounded better than ever – ironic that a “lo-fi” band sounded so clean and crisp live – makes me wonder what they could have created if they had the equipment and the technology affordably available to today’s musicians, although making do with what they had at the time was likely key to their innovative sound. The National may have to come up with another prayer soon, as the band announced, “Welcome to the last Pavement show for a long time. This is it.” Hopefully this was just and in the moment thought, but if so, I’m happy I got to see them one last time, and while still in peak form.


The Walkmen at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Like The National, The Walkmen had to relocate to New York City before coming together as a band, although in their case they had all moved there from Washington D.C. Part of the NYC new wave revival scene along with The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and TV on the Radio, they separated themselves by their use of organ and piano, creating a sound that could be brooding to the point of lethargic. 20 years later, The Walkmen, have maintained their form, playing off tempo songs and projecting unapologetically cool on stage. I had not seen them perform since their heyday, but Photog Brian was impressed by the energy of their performance, after seeing them a few years ago at a show.


Weyes Blood at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

This was the surprise set of the festival for me – I knew I had friends that were big fans of Natalie Mering’s solo project, and I had listened to a few songs before – but I was mesmerized by her performance from the moment she took the stage. Her costume was a cross between a choir robe and a superhero costume, bringing to mind the eponymous heroine from The Secrets of Isis I had watched reruns of when I was a kid. The video collages playing on the screen behind her, along with her interesting choreography, brought to mind the performance art pieces I had attended in college – during the song Movies, she moved across the stage while doing a backstroke through imaginary waters – but ultimately it was her lush vocals, thoughtful lyrics and atmospheric arrangements that hooked me. Her music is ethereal, introspective, a little psychedelic, and sometimes slightly creepy. After one of her songs she announced, “I just rocked out so hard I broke a string – I guess I’m playing extra sad today.” She closed the performance by throwing white carnations to the crowd during Movies


Arooj Aftab at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Grammy award winning performer Arooj Aftab probably did the most to broaden the musical palette of the festival; her mix of jazz, traditional South Asian music, and electronic sounds standing as a stark contrast to the other indie rock and folk acts on the bill, although according her she fit right in since her songs were about break ups and sucking at love. The music itself was vocal forward, full of violin, jazz guitar & bass, and put me in a meditative mood as I listened. While I did not understand all of the lyrics, I did not need to know what the words meant to get the emotion behind them.


Snail Mail at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Snail Mail (Baltimore singer-songwriter and guitarist Lindsay Jordan) was the performance I was most looking forward to seeing. After years of listening to critics give her acclaim and indie radio playing her on repeat, I was excited for my first opportunity to see her live. She did not disappoint. Performing as a trio, Snail Mail’s poignant indie rock songs were guitar driven, vocally clean and crisp, and simultaneously sparse and intricate. At only 24 she has been performing live for over a decade, and seemed confident and comfortable on stage. I am looking forward to catching her doing a full set the next time through.

Bartees Strange

Bartees Strange at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Offering another interesting mix of genres, Bartees Strange melded indie rock, hip hop, and jazz into an organic arrangements of sounds that was sometimes aggressively grungy, sometimes meandering, crunchy & noodling indie rock, sometimes new wave energetic, and sometimes soulful on the R&B side. The highlight of his set for me was his very different cover of About Today, a stripped down, electronic version that felt like a mashup of The National and The Weekend. Mid-set, Strange glanced around the cityscape spread out before him and said, “It’s expensive to live in DC – I’m always looking for a new place to live. Is Cincinnati affordable?” The locals lied and said no, it’s expensive. Some things are better kept a secret.


Julia Jacklin at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

An artist I was unfamiliar with prior to Homecoming, Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin mixes indie pop and alt-country into bittersweet reflections about life. My first impression was that she reminded me of Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten, performers I greatly enjoy. I was impressed by her strong voice and emotional lyrics, although I did prefer the more upbeat songs performed to the slower, more brooding ones. I also enjoyed watching her interact with the crowd after her performance, one of the artists that came out to watch the other acts – she was friendly and engaging with everyone who stopped to say hello and compliment her set.


Carriers at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Carriers has long been a collective of Cincinnati musicians brought together by Curt Kiser. At times The National’s own Bryan Devendorf and The Afghan Whigs’s John Curley have been parts of the band. The Carriers Facebook page calls the project Cincinnati soft rock – from their live performance that equates to meandering indie folk pop reminiscent to War On Drugs, with a touch of solo Kurt Vile.


The Drin at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Cincinnati post-punk band The Drin was the hardest rocking of the acts during the festival, performing with the swaggering bravado of bands like Sleaford Mods or Fontaines D.C. but with a sax and a big ass orchestral bass drum. They looked the part of a post-punk band; leather jackets, dark sunglasses, punk rock mullets and hipster mustaches projecting a cool that’s not really cool, and shoved aggressive music in Sad Dad’s face. I hope to see them again soon, next time in a dark venue late at night where their equipment does not quite fit, but they can fill the entire room.


Allen Lanz at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

“We are going to ease you into a wonderful day,” was the self proclaimed goal of Allen Lanz, which he performed admirably as the Day 1 opener, playing for substantially less than a full house on an early Friday afternoon. Atmospheric instrumental music made up of sax, trombone, bass, drums, and synth started off the day with a discordant sound that provided good vibes.


Leo Pastel at Homecoming Festival - Photo: Brian Bruemmer,

Avante-garde R&B Hip Hop artist Leo Pastel kicked off Day Two of Homecoming, another small crowd, but an enthusiastic one. Pastel says that his main goal with his music is to spread the love he feels inside of himself, which I felt like he achieved during his performance. His vibe was a great foundation to a great second day of performances.


Editorial Director at The Hot Mic / Website / + posts

Musician, concert photographer, writer, podcast host and founder of The Hot Mic Music Magazine.


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