Photo by Maria Sanfillipo
By Noelle Badalotti
This past weekend downtown at Smale Park, fans from far and wide gathered to witness the “homecoming” of Cincinnati native band, The National. The Homecoming Festival has been long awaited as Covid pushed back its return in 2020. Fans, who have been anticipating this festival since 2018, could not have asked for a better return.
The doors to the venue opened at 11:30 and concert goers began trickling in immediately. The sun was hot and the turf was uncomfortable to sit on, but dedicated fans rushed to claim their spot at the barricade with no hesitation. And they stayed there, the entire sweaty day.
As 1 P.M. rolled around, the first artist took the stage. Allen Lanz, originally billed as Ballard, was the first act of the day. Fans gathered around as the group utilized jazz instrumentation as well as electronic sounds to create their unique melodies. As their 30 minute set came to a close the crew immediately began setting up for the second act of the day, The Carriers.
This band immediately switched up the vibe of the whole crowd. This local indie rock band had the audience dancing and bobbing their heads. A stark contrast from the brooding and intense music from Allen Lanz. The crowd grew larger as the set carried on and everyone seemed to be having a fun time. The crowd was definitely geared more for this type of music, and you could tell by the way they reacted to the music. As the Cincinnati band finished up their set the crowd at the barricade began to grow. These fans were going to see The National, and they were going to be close.
The next performer to take the stage was Bartees Strange. He came out and immediately had the stage presence necessary to handle the growing audience. His music was smooth and genreless. Touching on notes of R&B, indie rock, and pop could appeal to almost anyone in the crowd. This was also the first artist of the day that there were people singing along with the songs, he really built on the swelling energy of the crowd. Strange also spoke to how much he viewed The National as such great inspirations to his own music. He has actually released a full project of covers of The National songs. Anyone could tell that performing at this festival meant a lot to him, and he really showed out to prove it. Engaging in banter with the crowd and really controlling the stage, he had an extremely playful and intent set.
Following this set was Arooj Aftab. Aftab’s bewitching and melodic music took hold of the audience. It was very surprising to see a Pakistani artist on the ticket for this festival, but it was really such an enjoyable set. She had even made a comment about how she knew this crowd was going to be full of “indie dads” and she was surprised to be there. Regardless, she brought a kind of rockstar energy to a set full of melancholy tracks. The use of the violin in this set was truly something beautiful and magical. The violinist was so talented and he wore his passion on his sleeve. The visual of such intense emotion behind such beautiful music made the experience all that much more enthralling. As she disseminated her bouquet of roses into the crowd, she thanked The National and brought her set to a close.
It is now 5:30 P.M. and indie alt rock band The Walkmen take the stage. This definitely seemed up to par with what the audience wanted to hear. At this point the crowd had doubled in size from the first set, and so many people were dancing and singing along. The band came out in black and white suits, really channeling their inner Beatles. WIth their upbeat and fun tracks it was hard to not get into it, even if you had never heard their music in your life. The lead singer had mentioned that they had been at this a long time and were starting to feel old on stage, but they could have fooled anybody. Running back and forth on the stage, interacting with the crowd, jumping into the pit, you would guess that these guys hadn’t seen a day over 30. At one point in their set they started throwing whole baguettes into the crowd, just really having fun with it and showing off their personality. The band took the time to really dig into their discography, playing some deep cuts from their first band practice over 20 years ago. Lead singer Hamilton Leithouser brought the same amount of energy from the first song, to the last song, and every track in between. This set was a lot of fun and brought back that 2010s indie rock feel in the most nostalgic way.
The lines to get into the festival are long at this point. The turf is still burning hot, and bodies are starting to get more tightly packed. Anticipation buzzes through the air and you can hear chit chat of predictions of what The National will do for their set. This all turns to cheering as Patti Smith’s band takes the stage. Applause erupted throughout Smale Park as the icon appeared in front of us. She led her set with “People Have the Power” and you could tell even though she is 76, she was still here to rock out. Her outspoken activism was evident as in the first moments of her set she screamed to the crowd “The people have the power to love, the power to vote, the power to dream!” She continued her set by reading an excerpt from the poem “Footnote to Howl” by Alan Ginsburg. It was here that in a crowd of hundreds of people, everything felt personal. Her nose began to wrinkle as she read this poem with such passion, it was hard to feel like she was not reading directly to you. The rest of her set felt just as intentional as the beginning, dedicating every song to someone or some cause that was dear to her. She mentioned the earthquakes in Morocco, first responders, her late husband Fred Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and even covered a Neil Young song, and dedicated another to Tom Verlaine. As the sun began to set over the Roebling Bridge, Patti finished out her set with her famous cover of the song “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo”. The crowd knew every word. The energy was through the roof and the scenery was stunning. She commanded the stage in true rockstar fashion as she thrashed her hair back and forth and had the crowd jumping with her. It was truly an honor to watch this legend, this poet, this absolute inspiration do what she does so well.
The sun had set at this point and the crowd was packed from the barricade to the back gate. This is what everyone was waiting for all day and the energy was palpable, pure excitement everywhere. The lights of the stage came on and a roar erupted on The Banks. Mayor Aftab came out to grant The National a key to the city as a thank you to what they’ve done for Cincinnati, bringing music and life to the city with this iconic festival. The National is a native Cincinnati band of UC graduates that has gained Grammy level fame, if anyone deserves a key to the city it is these folks. As Mayor Aftab cleared the stage The National took over. They took their three hour set time to play their entire album High Violet front to back. This is something that is rarely seen in live music. Blue and purple lights cascading over the band, and the crowd grew with joy and excitement as they introduced every track. You could tell this performance meant a lot not only to the fans, but to the band as well. They had planned on performing this album in this way in 2020, but Covid had taken that opportunity away from them. The intensely sad and dramatic songs swirled around the air of a crowd that appreciated more than any other crowd would. Patti Smith came back out to perform their song “I Need My Girl” in a beautiful and haunting rendition. The National was theatrical and intentional with their entire set. Towards the end, they announced that they are putting out a new studio album called Laugh Track. Fans were elated and there was such a happy energy ringing through the air. A beautiful end to a beautiful day of music in downtown Cincinnati. Time to do it all again tomorrow.
With the triumphs of yesterday’s portion of the festival still ringing in the air, it was time to run it back. There was a different vibe to the crowd and the venue this time around. The audience was significantly younger, which brings a very different energy to the festival. From the jump, everything felt a little bit more exciting.
The beginning of the day was slow, like the previous days. Leo Pastel kick-started the day wonderfully. He had a unique, fast paced, sound that kept the audience intrigued and set a cool vibe for the beginning of the festival. After his quick 30 minute set, Cincinnati local band The Drin took the stage.
The Drin really switched up the mood from the smooth and agreeable sounds of Leo Pastel, and brought in heavy guitars with drowned out vocals. The Drin were there to rage. The indie fan crowd seemed a little confused with what to do, but the deeper into the set, the more people were feeling it. Not quite the mosh pit that the music deserved, but people were having fun nonetheless. They brought unique sounds to a post-punk instrumental that was really fun to listen to, but also really fun to watch them play.
Following The Drin was Julia Jacklin. She came out, guitar in hand, ready to absolutely serenade. Her lyrics were complex, poetic, and relatable paired along with a melody that physically made you have to sway. She announced that this show was to be the last of her North American tour, and she was excited to head back home. But not before she performed a jaw-droppingly beautiful set for the city of Cincinnati. It was during her set that you could begin to see the crowd start to grow, intrigued by her beautiful voice. Her boygenius level songwriting even evoked some tears from audience members. Her whole set was truly angelic.
This day’s lineup seemed a little more consistent as far as genre goes, keeping most of the artists in that indie wheelhouse. Moving further into the day the band Snail Mail took the stage. Lead Singer, Lindsey Jordan, did such a fantastic job of interacting with the crowd. Not only was she extremely talented, but she was also hilarious. In between every song she had the audience laughing. The way that Lindsey’s vocals and lyrics paired so beautifully with the immersive sonic backdrop, as provided by her band, made you never want the set to end.
Unfortunately, Snail Mail’s set did have to end. However, this gave artist Weyes Blood the opportunity to transport us with her ethereal vocals. The stage was adorned with lanterns and pillar candles as she emerged in her flouncy white gown, a real life angel. As her mouth opened to sing her first notes, it sounded like real life cherubs were appearing in front of us. The Kentucky native artist debuted her visual directed by Adam Curtis to pair with her track “God Turned Me Into a Flower”. Her haunting vocals flew like a breeze through the air as she performed her hit track “Andromeda” and closed out her set with the song “Movies”.
At this point the crowd was thick. If you looked back from the front barricade all you could see was a sea of heads. This was all in anticipation for the band Pavement to take the stage. They had disbanded some years ago, and had come back at the end of 2022 to begin a comeback tour, this show was the last slated set for that tour. Even though the members of Pavement were older, which they mentioned throughout the show, they brought the energy like they were 20 years old. Jumping, screaming, and rocking out, they filled their hour and a half set with all their biggest hits and some deep cuts. With hit songs like “Spit On a Stranger” and “Cut Your Hair” Pavement’s iconic sound carried through downtown Cincinnati. Towards the end of their set the band announced that this would be their last show ever. And anyone could tell, they spent the last moments of their set really soaking up every moment and having fun. For many people, this was their one and only chance to see their favorite band, and they also found themselves soaking up every minute. The other artists of the day also knew how special of a moment it was to be seeing Pavement perform, as every single one of them was lined up in the wings watching.
As the sun set, it was time for The National to perform for their second night in a row. Similar the night before, they planned to play an entire album front to back. Saturday night, however, they played their album Trouble Will Find Me. They began their set with their track “I Should Live in Salt” and they were off. Track after track, the fans were loving it. For many in the crowd, this was an extremely influential album for them, and many credit it as their favorite The National record. This album, in contrast to the one played the night previously, had a much more unique musicality. Weird time signatures and surrealist lyrics were the hallmark of the evening. The band came back out at the end for their encore consisting of new songs to be released on the new album they had teased that Friday night.
As the lights came down, The National left the stage, and fans started filing out of the venue, there was still a buzzing in Smale Park. Everyone still enchanted by the events of the weekend, dazed and starstruck, they made their way home. A perfect end to a wonderful weekend of music and community.