The National's Homecoming festival merges with MusicNOW for a jam-packed weekend of music and art

Two stages at Smale; other venues all over town
If you like music, get downtown this weekend
If you like music, get downtown this weekend
Posted at 8:00 AM, Apr 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-25 22:37:28-04

CINCINNATI -- For the past 12 years, The National guitarist Bryce Dessner has had his hands full every spring putting on his avant-garde music festival MusicNOW at various venues around town. But this year, the classical composer/arranger and tireless promoter of cutting-edge sounds decided once was not enough. 

"I've been interested in the idea of doing a slightly more ambitious citywide event for a while," said Dessner, who plays in the Cincinnati-bred band alongside guitarist brother Aaron Dessner, singer Matt Berninger and brothers bassist Scott Devendorf and drummer Bryan Devendorf.

That expanded vision will come to life with the addition of the band's Homecoming festival, which will set up on two stages in Smale Riverfront Park outside the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center this weekend.

Homecoming will feature a roster of national and international acts, including Father John Misty, Feist, Future Island, Dayton legends The Breeders, Lord Huron and many others on Saturday (April 28) and Sunday (April 29). The rain-or-shine event -- which will find The National headlining both nights, including one evening where they will play their beloved 2007 album "Boxer" in its entirety -- will overlap with this year's MusicNOW for a smorgasbord of music and art.

The Breeders

"We'll have the (two) outdoor stages for Homecoming but also events at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, a concert with CSO musicians, a Cincinnati Ballet collaboration … it's like a mini Edinburgh festival feel," said Dessner, referring to the legendary annual three-week Scottish performing arts extravaganza. "The National has played MusicNOW twice in the past, usually in really intimate, special one-off shows, but we're on tour, so it made sense to me that if the band were to play I had to think of how we would do it." 

Luckily, Dessner found a "great space" in the riverfront park, which has never been used before for an event of this size, with a potential capacity of 10,000 for each day of Homecoming.

Though it will take good shoes and plenty of coffee, Dessner thinks a dedicated festival goer could potentially see just about everything during MusicNOW and Homecoming. It all kicks off with the MusicNOW opening night celebration on Friday (April 27) at the Masonic Center, featuring electronic rock icons Mouse On Mars, the debut of the Dessner twins' new acoustic duo Red Bird Hollow, Irish singer and MusicNOW veteran Lisa Hannigan and other special guests.

MusicNOW also will host daytime events on Saturday and Sunday at the CAC, Art Museum and Freedom Center, including pre-show discussions, a photography show and a performance of Andrew Norman's "The Companion Guide to Rome" by members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

"What we're presenting is an incredible lineup of some of the best music that's happening right now. Part of the beauty of these things is not committing to what it is before we know. We're just waiting to discover the experience, and I'd like to see it grow, especially the around-town stuff at different institutions," said Dessner, who will perform more than a half-dozen times over the weekend.

"To be honest, all this music is equally important, so I don't distinguish between rock bands, composers or acoustic ensembles. … Ideally we get audiences to cross over and see things they've never seen before."

In addition to encouraging fans to come out for amped indie rockers and label mates Future Island, as well as the National's old friends Feist and Father John Misty, new favorites Big Thief and Julien Baker and one of their biggest influences, The Breeders, Dessner gave a rundown of some of the other must-see sets: 

  • Mouse on Mars (Friday, Cincinnati Masonic Center; 6 p.m. Saturday, Smale Riverfront Park): "They are a seminal instrumental electronic duo from Berlin who have a new album that we all played on and they're really core to the festival."
  • Ben Sloan (4 p.m. Sunday, Smale Riverfront Park): The percussionist (and son of ArtWorks founding director Tamara Harkavy) will be this year's artist in residence, presenting "A Delicate Motor," his project featuring Bryan Devendorf. 
  • Crash Ensemble (2 p.m. Saturday, Freedom Center): "They're a group from Ireland who are one of the best small ensembles in the world. They're just unbelievable musicians and we're partnering with the Irish Arts Council to bring them over. They're performing a piece by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen called 'Schnee' that is one of the great masterpieces of music over the last 40 years. It's very hypnotic, a kinetic 21 minutes of music that is rarely performed anywhere, but it's very accessible even if you're not familiar with contemporary classical music."
  • eighth blackbird with Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bryce Dessner (2 p.m. Sunday, Freedom Center): "Frederic Rzewski wrote the piece they're performing, 'Coming Together,' a letter from a prisoner at Attica who died shortly after the riots there (in 1971) and Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) will narrate. It's an incredibly powerful performance they give, and the piece is a very important political statement and something I think is important to hear now, with the music by Julius Eastman, who is one of the seminal 1970s minimalist composers that people need to hear."
  • Kristin Anna (Cincinnati Art Museum, noon Saturday and Sunday): "Kristin is a super beautiful and interesting songwriter from Iceland who has been working on her album for 10 years with the former keyboardist from the band Sigur Ros." 

Dessner is particularly excited to present what he said are some of the most important female voices in music right now in a year when several festivals have been called to task for their male-dominated lineups. 

"It's important to us to have it be balanced, because sometimes festivals can be heavily male-driven," he said, pointing to such inspiring acts as electronic music wiz Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and indie rockers Alvvays.


"The arts scene in Cincinnati is so ascendant now and there are so many great spaces … the more people we can get to see the city the better," he said.

Click here for the full lineup, showtimes and ticket information. 

8-11 p.m. Friday, April 27

MusicNOW opening-night celebration at the Cincinnati Masonic Center

(Separately ticketed. Opening-night ticket includes admission to MusicNOW events on Saturday and Sunday at Freedom Center):

  •     Mouse on Mars
  •     Red Bird Hollow (Bryce and Aaron Dessner)
  •     Sam Amidon
  •     Lisa Hannigan
  •     Spank Rock
  •     Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir
  •     Other guests

Saturday, April 28

Homecoming at Smale Riverfront Park

  • 1 p.m. Saturday: "Electric/ Garcia/ Haven Counterpoints," featuring Bryce and Aaron Dessner 
  • 1:45 p.m. Saturday: Spank Rock  
  • 2:30 p.m. Saturday: Lanz Projects 
  • 3:15 p.m. Saturday: Lord Huron 
  • 4:15 p.m. Saturday: Sam Amidon 
  • 5 p.m. Saturday: The Breeders 
  • 6 p.m. Saturday: Mouse on Mars 
  • 7 p.m. Saturday: Father John Misty 
  • 8 p.m. Saturday: Julien Baker
  • 9 p.m. Saturday: The National  

MusicNOW at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

(Open to Homecoming pass holders)

  • 2 p.m. Saturday: Crash Ensemble performs Hans Abrahamsen's "Schnee" (pre-show discussion with Will Robin at 1:30 p.m.)
  • 4 p.m. Saturday: Crash Ensemble and Tyshawn Sorey 
  • 6 p.m. Saturday: Tyshawn Sorey Trio (pre-show discussion with Will Robin at 5:30 p.m.)

Cincinnati Art Museum

  • Noon Saturday: Kristin Anna 

Sunday, April 29

Homecoming at Smale Riverfront Park

  • 1 p.m. Sunday: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith 
  • 2 p.m. Sunday: Lisa Hannigan  
  • 3 p.m. Sunday: Big Thief 
  • 4 p.m. Sunday: Ben Sloan, artist in residence (featuring A Delicate Motor and Bryan Devendorf)  
  • 5 p.m. Sunday: Future Islands 
  • 6 p.m. Sunday: Moses Sumney 
  • 7 p.m. Sunday: Feist 
  • 8 p.m. Sunday: Alvvays 
  • 9 p.m. Sunday: The National performs "Boxer"

MusicNOW at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

(Open to Homecoming pass holders)

  • Noon Sunday: Yuki Numata Resnick and Kate Ellis 
  • 2 p.m. Sunday: Eighth Blackbird with Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bryce Dessner perform the music of Julius Eastman, Frederic Rzewski, Will Oldham and Bryce Dessner (pre-show discussion with Will Robin at 1:30 p.m.)
  • 5 p.m. Sunday: Crash Ensemble and Lisa Hannigan 
  • 7 p.m. Sunday: CSO String Trio performs Andrew Norman's "The Companion Guide to Rome" (pre-show discussion with Will Robin at 6:30 p.m.)

Contemporary Arts Center

  • Noon Sunday: A conversation with photographer Graham MacIndoe, Matt Berninger and Scott Devendorf 

Cincinnati Art Museum

  • Noon Sunday: Kristin Anna