Aaron Dessner of The National succinctly explains what’s so unusual about the concurrent Homecoming and MusicNOW festivals occurring in Cincinnati this weekend.
“I can’t think of anything like this, with sister festivals co-existing like this,” he says. “It’s an interesting idea to have a larger capacity festival (Homecoming) serving to support and house this smaller arts festival (MusicNOW). So you might see your favorite band play their songs on the stage, but then you can go see an experimental music show or other things.”
Both festivals are outgrowths of The National, the internationally acclaimed band founded in Brooklyn in 1999 by five native Cincinnatians: guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Aaron and his twin brother/guitarist Bryce, vocalist/lyricist Matt Berninger, bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf, Scott’s brother.
MusicNOW — the “smaller arts festival” to which Aaron refers — was started in Cincinnati in 2006 by Bryce, also an active Classical composer in addition to playing guitar with the band. The event was seen as an opportunity for Bryce to present and collaborate with artists who like to try new things. MusicNOW has featured such Rock, Classical, World music and singer/songwriter experimentalists as Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Grizzly Bear, Steve Reich, Bang on a Can All Stars, Kronos Quartet and Tinariwen. The National has twice performed at MusicNOW, which, while most closely associated with Over-the-Rhine venue Memorial Hall, had been held at Music Hall and Taft Theatre under the aegis of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 2014-17.
The larger festival, the debuting Homecoming, is something dramatically new and different — for both the band members and Cincinnati. It occurs Saturday and Sunday on two outdoor stages in Smale Riverfront Park. The National headlines each night with different sets, joined by critically praised featured acts from the Indie Rock world like Feist, Father John Misty, Future Islands, The Breeders, Moses Sumney, Alvvays and others. The band expects 8,000-10,000 people at Homecoming each day. MusicNOW, by contrast, will mostly be held this weekend at the 300-seat Harriet Tubman Theater in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, near Smale. (There is a Friday night MusicNOW concert at the Cincinnati Masonic Center, next to downtown’s Taft Theatre.)
But lest you think Homecoming is reducing MusicNOW to an afterthought, think again. It’s really MusicNOW that is driving Homecoming.
“There were months we were really on the fence about it,” Bryce says of how to balance the two events. “I am sensitive to keeping the identity of the (MusicNOW) festival, with a focus on really intimate music. So it was important to me to have available the Freedom Center theater, right adjacent to the park and functioning as a third stage for the festival. A lot of MusicNOW programming is happening there. That was a key component.”
Plus, Bryce says, he’d been wanting to expand MusicNOW for some time. This is his chance.
“To be honest, I’d thought of doing things outdoors at Washington Park in the past, given its proximity to Music Hall,” he says. “But it seemed tricky to pull off for space reasons.”
When Smale Riverfront Park opened in 2015, it presented a new opportunity for something larger.
Aaron sees Homecoming as a way to bring the full band into the plans.
“MusicNOW has been a very powerful, creative generator for us to try something new, try to work with someone you haven’t worked with or play with other musicians who don’t know your songs,” he says. “That’s led to some amazing things over the years. But at the same time, The National has grown into whatever it’s grown into, and we want to play for our fans. For us to play a larger concert as part of MusicNOW, and to bring in a bunch of our friends to do that, felt like a great opportunity.”
None of The National lives in Brooklyn anymore — Bryce is in Paris, Aaron in upstate New York, Berninger in Los Angeles, Scott Devendorf on Long Island and his brother Bryan in Cincinnati, where he’s been since 2013. So the idea of a musical gathering at a place that all could call home had appeal.
“The fact we’re all from the same place is definitely one of the reasons our band has continued,” Berninger says. “Having drunk the same water and being of similar background, we get each other. We feel lucky we’re still together, and we assume Cincinnati is part of that.”
While Bryce says that Bryan’s residence here was one reason for doing the Homecoming festival, the drummer isn’t so sure.
“I wish I could take credit for it, but no,” Bryan says. “I’ve always lobbied to play shows here, but it never occurred to me we could expand or add to MusicNOW in any meaningful way. But as soon as the idea was floated, we went, ‘Oh yeah, it makes perfect sense.’ Bunbury (the large outdoor Rock festival held in June at Sawyer Point and Yeatman’s Cove) is great and we’ve played (it), but it’s skewing younger and is a broader thing. We wanted to do our niche Art Rock, for lack of a better term.”
Bryan also feels like the event could help Cincinnati grow its reputation as a destination city for live music. “You’ve got to compete with the Louisvilles and Nashvilles of the world and move up,” he says.
“Niche,” by the way, doesn’t really define The National’s musical appeal anymore, if it ever did. The band’s popularity has grown considerably, especially following last year’s release of the Sleep Well Beast album. It won a Best Alternative Album Grammy, reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart and hit the top spot on the trade magazine’s Alternative and Rock charts. Its success is one reason the band needs a larger venue to play outdoors.
At the same time, Bryan explains, the band craves “destination shows” as a way of beating the tedium of touring.
“We like to do things that are not a straight show or straight tour,’’ he says.
Already, The National has something similar to Homecoming planned Sept. 29-30 for Queens, N.Y.’s Forest Hills Stadium, a 14,000-seat outdoor venue. Called There’s No Leaving New York, the recently announced event will also feature two different shows by The National, plus sets from Future Islands, Jason Isbell, Cat Power, Cigarettes After Sex and others.
Another thing making Homecoming special is The National’s festival-closing Sunday show that features a rare full performance of its breakthrough album, 2007’s Boxer, which contained the anthem “Fake Empire.” This is only the second time for it to be played in its entirety live and the band members say it will also be the last. The first time was last November in Brussels; the performance was recorded and issued as a limited-edition vinyl release last week for Record Store Day.
“It’s bit of radical programming,” Bryce says. “Even when we (originally) released it, we never played the whole thing live because we couldn’t, really. There are some difficult things to pull off.”
Berninger says Boxer was in many ways a landmark album for The National.
“It was the first time people really started paying attention to us,” he says. “So it means a lot to us and it means a lot to fans. And it’s fun to do — a fun way to change the whole carpet underneath us when we perform.”
Boxer’s “Fake Empire” is a song that has resonated, grown and changed with time. In 2008, it became a symbol for hope and a call to change as Barack Obama, who the band supported by playing live events, successfully campaigned for the presidency, using the song as the backdrop for a campaign video. Now “Fake Empire” means something closer to what Berninger had in mind when he originally conceived it.
“That song was written in frustration when George (W.) Bush was president,” he says. “It felt like people were not actually making choices based on reason and common sense. So ‘Fake Empire’ was about the bluster of how we represent ourselves as America (with) all our ideals. It felt like we were fooling ourselves back then. All of that still totally applies, and feels like it’s become more and more accentuated. It feels even more fake in many ways.”
Looking at Homecoming/MusicNOW as an overall arts festival, there are plenty of special events and collaborations beyond the individual Indie acts playing outdoor sets. Among them:
• The special MusicNOW Opening Night Celebration concert Friday at the Cincinnati Masonic Center. The event includes German electronic duo Mouse on Mars playing its new album, Dimension People, in its entirety. Also at Opening Night, Bryce and Aaron Dessner will play together as Red Bird Hollow (named after a trail in Indian Hill). Sam Amidon and Lisa Hannigan will be guests for both sets.
• The New Music ensemble Eighth Blackbird provides live music for Cincinnati Ballet’s Bold Moves program Thursday through Sunday at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The highlight is New York Ballet star Justin Peck dancing to his own choreography for Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades, which consist of seven instrumental ballads in the Folk music tradition.
• MusicNOW is a presenter of a 7:30 p.m. Friday Black Box Performance Series concert at downtown’s Contemporary Arts Center. Signals for Immediate Music features Ofir Klemperer, the Israel-born, Cincinnati-based composer and improviser.
• Also at the CAC, Scottish photographer Graham Macindoe’s images of The National working on Sleep Well Beast will be displayed Friday (starting with a 5-7 p.m. reception) through May 27. And on Saturday at noon, he’ll be there in conversation with Scott Devendorf and Matt Berninger.
• Icelandic singer Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir is a featured performer in the multi-screen music video by Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, which is currently on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum. As part of MusicNOW, the former frontperson of múm will give free noon performances at the museum on Saturday and Sunday.
• At 2 p.m. Saturday at the Freedom Center, Ireland’s dynamic New Music group Crash Ensemble will perform the 2008 chamber piece Schnee (Snow) by the ethereally minimalist Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. At 4 p.m. Saturday, Crash Ensemble will be joined at the Freedom Center by percussionist/multi-instrumentalist and composer Tyshawn Sorey, who received a 2017 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. (Sorey will also give a 6 p.m. Saturday performance with his trio.) At noon on Sunday at the Freedom Center, Crash Ensemble cellist Kate Ellis plays with Björk-influenced violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, and at 5 p.m. Sunday, Crash Ensemble performs with Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan.
• Eighth Blackbird’s 2 p.m. Sunday MusicNOW concert at the Freedom Center will feature a collaboration with singer/songwriter Will Oldham on composer Frederic Rzewski’s riveting, politically minded “Coming Together,” and another with Bryce Dessner on an interpretation of compositions by the late African-American Minimalist composer Julius Eastman. (Read more about “Coming Together” on page 23.)
• Bryan Devendorf selected Cincinnati percussionist Ben Sloan as festival artist-in-residence, and the two will perform together with A Delicate Motor at 4 p.m. Sunday as part of Homecoming. “He’s writing music specifically for the performance,” Bryan says of Sloan, adding the music will become available on a new streaming site in several months.
• Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra members will perform American composer Andrew Norman’s “The Companion Guide to Rome” at the Freedom Center on Sunday at 7 p.m.
Indie Rock, Classical, Jazz, Hip Hop, Avant Folk, Electronic music, dance, museum exhibits — the only thing that seems to be missing is theater. If things go well this weekend, don’t be surprised to see it at MusicNOW next year.
“To be honest, I’ve always had this dream that MusicNOW could evolve into something like a small Edinburgh (International) Festival,” Bryce says. “I think the city has such strong institutions, like the symphony, the ballet, Cincinnati Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center and (the University of Cincinnati’s music school) CCM, not to mention all the amazing venues. It’s rare for a city that size to have institutions of that caliber.
“So that’s the direction I’ve been wanting the event to go in for some time. We’re trying it this year and we’ll see how it goes.”
Homecoming runs Saturday and Sunday; MusicNOW runs Friday through Sunday. For Homecoming info: ntlhomecoming.com. For MusicNOW: musicnowfestival.org. For a preview of the artists performing at Homecoming Saturday and Sunday, click here.