Despite coming of age as a band in New York and subsequently dispersing to both coasts and Europe over the course of the next couple decades, the five members of The National are still Midwestern at heart.
“I got married on the Brooklyn Bridge, but the whole time I was there, I was like, ‘This one sucks compared to this,’” singer Matt Berninger said between songs, gesturing to the dramatic bridge spanning the Ohio River behind the audience at the band’s own festival. “Like, the Roebling is way better,” he joked to laughs and cheers from the audience.
The National named their festival “Homecoming” because it takes place in their hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. The first iteration of the festival took place in 2018, with a second one scheduled for spring of 2020 that was canceled due to the pandemic. For fans both local and international, both those who were supposed to attend in 2020 and who weren’t, this weekend’s festival felt like coming home.
“I think there is something about the line ‘I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees’ from ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio,’” said attendee Luke Houchens. “Sometimes the circumstances carry us away from each other, but I think there’s always, like in this case, it’s the music [that] brings us back together.”
Notably, “Bloodbuzz Ohio” was the only song for which a noticeable amount of the audience raised their phones to take a video.
The lineup at the festival included local Cincinnati bands like Carriers and post-punk band The Drin; younger artists who have been influenced by The National like Bartees Strange, Snail Mail, and Weyes Blood; contemporaries the Walkmen; and the band’s own heroes, like Patti Smith and Pavement. Though the crowd skewed toward local attendees from Ohio and Kentucky, people from as far as Israel, Australia, and the UK made the trek to the Midwest.
“I think Bartees Strange, one of the performers yesterday, said that ‘We’re all here because of one thing: We all love The National,’” said Houchens.
During the first night of the festival, The National played their 2010 album High Violet in full during the first portion of their 2.5 hour headlining slot. For many, it was emotional. Megan from Louisville, Kentucky said she cried like a baby and remembered asking her partner, “Is there makeup just running down my face?” afterward, she said.
“You listen to The National all these different areas of your life right? It’s like this background to all this stuff going on and then it’s here,” she said. She mentioned perennial concert-closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” which is also the last track on High Violet. As usual, the band led the crowd in an acoustic singalong for the song.
“Every other person was singing the same words that meant so much to you in those times. That wrecked me—it felt like a very much ‘everyone sharing an experience together,’ which I think, especially with Covid and everything, everyone was really isolated and felt really alone. And so to have this be the bookend of that, everyone singing the same song…[and] it’s a song you’ve listened to like a thousand times.”
Though she’d been to many other The National shows, this one felt different. “Every show is good, but this is such a love letter,” she said. “If that’s not too cheesy.”
Adeline from Columbus, Ohio recalled discovering the band in high school in a “very depressed stage” of her life. She was looking forward to hearing The National’s 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me in full on the second night of the festival, having listened to “This is the Last Time” on repeat during her drive to the show.
“I feel like their music connects with so many different parts of my life, so I’m kind of expecting to have this reel going in my head of all these moments in my life—like the lyrics, piecing them all together,” she said.
The National has a “sad dad” band stereotype, which they’ve begun to embrace as a brand. Along with Homecoming and Trouble Will Find Me t-shirts, the merch booths at the festival also sold blue shirts emblazoned with “SAD DAD.”
Matt from Oxford, Ohio, said he doesn’t like the “sad dad” generalization, but it does “[harken] back for me to the time just before I was married, just before I had all my kids and all that stuff,” he said. “Reminds me of being a little younger and maybe a little bit more hopeful.”
Matt’s brother had introduced him to Boxer when he was younger. “When President Obama was elected and they played ‘Fake Empire’ on the stage as he came out, I remember being overcome by, ‘My god, it’s such an awesome tie-in,’ and I’ve been a fan ever since,” he said. Matt was seeing The National live for the first time, he and his wife leaving their four kids home with the grandparents for a birthday/Father’s Day/anniversary/partial Christmas present.
Edmund, another dad, was looking forward to losing himself in hearing Trouble Will Find Me live. “It’s a breakup album for me; it was for my previous breakup, and I just got divorced,” he said. “It should be a little cathartic.”
Several attendees remarked on the relaxed vibe of the festival, with people sitting and milling around the viewing area for the single stage. In the Andrew J. Brady Music Center adjacent to the performance area, attendees cooled off from the sunny September day, posed with a “Paul” mannequin head from the National’s latest albums’ cover art, and stood in line to get limited stock of the brand-new album the band announced on the first night of the festival—Laugh Track.
The band seemed to loosen up and be very present both nights, said Houchens. “You could feel it from their stage energy too; it seemed like they really revered the moment.” The band pulled out rare tracks, playing “So Far Around the Bend” from the charity compilation Dark Was the Night. They dedicated the song to Pavement after having manifested their lyric, “Praying for Pavement to get back together.” The National also played “Available” off of their sophomore album, which they hadn’t played for over nine years, according to setlist.fm.
They filled out the rest of The National’s two 2.5 hour sets with a smattering of other songs from across their catalogue, including tracks from the then-unreleased new album. The only songs repeated over the course of the two nights were “I Need My Girl,” played the first night with Patti Smith and the second night as part of the full-album set, “Terrible Love,” “Space Invader,” and songs from their April album First Two Pages of Frankenstein.
The band got comfortable on stage, talking to the audience more than normal. Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval presented the band with a key to the city on the first night of the festival, and Berninger talked about it at the next night’s show.
“All morning I was trying it on all the Graeter’s and nothing,” he said, referencing the Cincinnati ice cream chain. “It DID NOT WORK. So if anyone has a key to Graeter’s 24 hours, I’ll trade ‘em a key to the rest of the city.”
Guitarist Aaron Dessner warned the audience that they hadn’t played some of the songs on Trouble for a long time. After the last song, he told a joke he’d promised to share. “That’s actually my favorite song on that record, but it’s called ‘Hard to Find’ and then we always call it ‘Hard to Play’ because it’s the trickiest of them all,” he said.
“It’s more of a pun than a…” Berninger chimed in, then realized, “…That’s not a pun.”
“It’s not even funny, but we think it’s funny,” said Dessner.
“We laugh, we always laugh, every time,” said Berninger wryly.
“This is why we play in a sad rock band and not a comedy show,” said Dessner.
Laugh Track is out now.
All photos by Ben Gastright.
Read our previous festival coverage here.