The National Can Go Home Again

Bryce Dessner dishes on the long-awaited return of the band’s Homecoming festival.

The National’s Homecoming festival, which comes to the Andrew J Brady Music Center’s outdoor stage September 15 & 16, is the concert you’ve been waiting for … for exactly three years, four months, and one week, in fact. The second edition of the Cincinnati-bred band’s multi-act event was originally scheduled for May 2020, but the pandemic had other ideas. All told, they had to cancel not only Homecoming but 39 other shows around the world. And while The National ultimately released their ninth album (First Two Pages of Frankenstein came out in April) and have been back on the road, the return of Homecoming, which debuted in 2018, was by no means guaranteed.

“There was a question for a while if we would do it again,” says guitarist and songwriter Bryce Dessner, whose more experimental (and longer-running) MusicNOW Festival came back to Cincinnati in 2021. “But we really felt like we wanted to reconnect with home. The band’s in a really good place. We’re excited to finally do it.”

In addition to a dozen other artists, Homecoming will find The National delivering a pair of jam-packed headline sets, featuring full-album sets commemorating the 10th anniversaries of 2010’s High Violet (previously scheduled for the canceled festival) and 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me.

While The National rose to prominence as residents of Brooklyn, Cincinnati still defines them. It’s where the five members (and two sets of brothers) became friends as students at Cincinnati Country Day and/or the University of Cincinnati, where they first began to play in bands, and where they grew up on the Contemporary Arts Center, CCM, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as well as the likes of Bootsy Collins and The Afghan Whigs. “We almost become more Ohio as we get older,” says Dessner. “All of our families are there. And there’s just a sweetness about being there. Something in the air. Even that feeling of the summer humidity.”

The height of the pandemic was a time of both challenges and opportunities for Dessner and The National. With Bryce in France and his brother Aaron living in upstate New York, it was the longest the twins had ever been apart in their lives. “So that was pretty dramatic,” he says.

But it was still possible to write and record, including music for The National, movie soundtrack work, and Bryce’s classical composing. The brothers also found themselves a decent side hustle when Aaron produced and cowrote Taylor Swift’s Folklore album, with Bryce contributing orchestration. It won the 2021 Grammy for Album of the Year and has been followed by additional collaborations: Swift appears on Frankenstein, and Aaron joined her onstage when the Eras Tour came to Paycor Stadium.

Making a new record in the time of COVID was also rocky, with lead singer Matt Berninger in particular suffering from writer’s block. But the stress and tension of that time is in the rearview mirror now that the band is back to playing together and in front of other people. “For me, playing a concert and going to a concert is kind of the same experience,” says Dessner. “You do that to be present in an almost ritualistic way, where you get to really be in communion with sound and with the other people around you and with the musicians on stage.”

He says he appreciates still being able to make music for a career. “I have a keen sense of time, especially having small children and having parents who are getting older,” he says. “None of this is forever, and so I’m grateful for the time I get to play music with my friends.”

The Homecoming Court

Patti Smith reminds Dessner of growing up in Cincinnati around the time of “the whole Mapplethorpe thing” (Smith’s memoir Just Kids is about her friendship with the artist) and also of living in New York. “She’s kind of like the goddess of New York,” he says. “The patron saint of the arts there. It’s really amazing to have her performing with us.”

Smith opened The National’s first headlining show at Madison Square Garden in August, as well as their concert in Toronto. The band first met her in 2009 at a benefit for New York City’s Tibet House, where The National debuted some of the songs from High Violet. “I remember her standing right in front of us in the rehearsal space and kind of dancing with Michael Stipe,” Dessner says. “And then afterwards, they were like, This is good. You guys keep doing this. So that was very important for us.”

Smith performs on September 15.

Pavement is one of the bands members of The National listened to the most “in the van” in the early days, says Dessner. “Matt always says we wouldn’t be a band without Pavement. Aaron and I don’t necessarily agree, but we love them. We got to do some shows with them several years ago, which were just super amazing. Obviously Steve Malkmus is a guitar hero of ours.”

Pavement performs on September 16.

The Walkmen only recently started playing shows again for the first time since 2014; their frontman, Hamilton Leithauser, was actually supposed to perform at Homecoming in 2020. “The Walkmen in the early 2000s sort of came up before us, and we used to open for them,” Dessner says. “The intensity of their live performance, especially their drummer [Matt Barrick], was hugely inspiring when we made the Alligator album. They kind of showed us how to play in a club and really make people listen. They’ve always been friends, and we love what they do. So it’s cool that they’re back out on the road.”

The Walkmen perform on September 15.

Arooj Aftab is a rising Pakistani-American star who won a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Performance (and was also nominated for Best New Artist) in 2022. She writes, produces, sings in both English and Urdu, and makes use of electronics as well as harp, violin, and classical guitar. “She’s like a total rock star, with charisma and stage presence that feels like Madonna or something but making music that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard,” Dessner says. “We listened to her Vulture Prince album nonstop in my house.”

Aftab actually joined Dessner for a show with his contemporary classical Dream House Quartet in April. Earlier this year she also released an acclaimed record with jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and prolific multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. “She has almost the energy of a jazz musician, in that it all feels kind of effortless,” says Dessner. “It’s quite surprising and sort of mantra-like, at times with a psychedelic feeling. It has this kind of free-flowing sense of liberty that I find really infectious and beautiful.”

Arooj Aftab performs on September 15.

Taylor Swift might join The National onstage. Just kidding (we think).

The National’s drummer, Bryan Devendorf, has been back living in Cincinnati for a decade and took the lead on finding local bands to play the festival. Carriers is the longtime nom-de-rock of ex-Pomegranates frontman Curt Kiser), and Devendorf was one-half of Kiser’s rhythm section (along with Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley) for the band’s 2019 debut album, Now Is The Time for Loving Me, Yourself & Everyone Else. “Curt is great,” says Devendorf. “He’s capable of writing deeply meaningful songs and is a skilled collaborator in the studio, with an amazing ability to pick out beautiful harmonies and synth hooks.”

Expect Devendorf to join Carriers for at least some of their Homecoming set on September 15. He wasn’t sure if Curley would be in the group as well, “but that would be amazing.”

Kiser gets credit for turning Devendorf on to R&B and soul man Leo Pastel, having first played him “Woah,” a 2018 track featuring another local artist, Muwosi. “I was really into it,” says Devendorf. “Then I checked out more and loved what I heard. ‘Oxytocin’ is fantastic.”

Pastel performs on September 16.

The Drin is a six-piece band that originally started as a solo project from Dylan McCartney, whose lengthy local résumé as both a songwriter and a drummer includes The Serfs, Crime of Passing, Vacation, Mardou, and Chuck Cleaver. But Devendorf actually discovered The Drin’s latest album, Today My Friend You Drunk the Venom, via Pitchfork magazine, which gave it a stellar review. “It’s nocturnal and awesome and evokes everything I like about recorded music,” he says of the album.

The Drin perform on September 16.

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