Coming home can be a very personal thing.
It usually involves some tears, a lot of food and statements like, “You look so different. Good, but different.”
For Ohio-bred rock group The National, inviting thousands of guests to celebrate their homecoming didn’t really change that.
The band returned to its native Cincinnati April 27-29 for Homecoming — three days of concerts, gallery openings, cultural conversations and local fare in Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park.
Unlike many music festivals, Homecoming was much more about the music than the “fest.” Sure, concertgoers sipped Rhinegeist and ate corn dogs between sets, but they also did far more contemplative swaying than crazy dancing.
That vibe gave the weekend a slower pace than your average big-ticket music fest, which may have disappointed those looking for a higher-energy event, but, for The National’s purpose, it fit.
The venue was sparsely decorated, with multicolored streamers hanging from tree trunks and the underside of the John Roebling Bridge, where non-ticket-holders leaned against the railing and listened for free. The footpaths on each side offered better views than most arena-style concert seating.
The park’s layout offered an impressive array of unconventional playground implements (mini climbing walls, steel slides and a metallic winged pig, among others) which kids — and a few adults — played on throughout the weekend.
Both Saturday and Sunday, the festival extended down the block to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center where attendees could participate in pre-show discussions, experience experimental jazz or listen to classical stylings from members of Cincinnati’s Symphony Orchestra.
Programming also reached the Contemporary Arts Festival and the Cincinnati Art Museum, drawing the opening of a photography exhibit and two performances from an Icelandic vocalist under the festival’s umbrella of “music, art and cultural connections.”
The National headlined both nights, playing a mix of songs from their seven albums Saturday night and closing the festival on Sunday with all 12 songs from their 2007 release, “The Boxer.”
The rest of the festival featured what The National called “curated support” from over 30 acts spread over five locations, including the two main stages in the park.
By “curated support,” it seemed like The National had composed a wish list of their favorite artists for the weekend’s performances. The lineup played less like a Pandora-esque association of, “If you like this, you’ll also like this,” and more like a long car ride with friends who can’t wait to show you some exciting, new music.
The result presented Cincinnati’s musicophiles with a blend of artists they would definitely know (Father John Misty, Feist) and a couple who they may have only recognized by name (Lord Huron, Future Islands).
Then, there was the third category: the artist who they likely didn’t know but would be eternally grateful to The National and the Homecoming fest for the introduction. I’d argue that this category has one, very notable, member: Moses Sumney.
Sumney just released his first full-length album, “Aromanticism,” last September. A couple days before its release, The New York Times wrote a feature on the 27-year-old with the headline, “Moses Sumney Does Not Sing Love Songs.”
He doesn’t. He sings about loneliness, singledom and isolation. And it’s achingly beautiful.
The Times also called his signature falsetto “immaculate” and “unearthly.” He’s been labeled as everything from Baroque pop (a fusion of classical and rock) to folk and indie rock and recently collaborated with James Blake, Sufjan Stevens and Solange.
He’s going to have a moment. It just hasn’t quite happened yet.
Thanks to that timing, Homecoming ticket holders got to experience Sumney’s captivating, atmospheric sound just feet away from the East Stage — the smaller of the two festival stages — during a 6 to 7 p.m. Sunday time slot.
He was accompanied onstage by just two musicians — an overall-clad instrumentalist who alternated between clarinet and electric guitar, and a violinist.
Sumney sang from three different microphones, each with different reverb effects, often layering his impossibly precise vocals to eerie, goosebump-inducing effect. Statuesque in all-black clothing and darkly tinted sunglasses, Sumney was both intimate and distant onstage.
He’s an introvert. He once told The Guardian that his soft, airy singing style stemmed from his tendency as a kid to sing under his breath.
Before performing the track “Make Out in My Car” during his Sunday set, Sumney confessed some of that shyness to the crowd.
“This is a song that goes out to anyone who has ever wanted to kiss someone but was too afraid,” he said. “Or me since birth and for the rest of my life…”
A wry laugh. A pause. Then the opening notes.
Despite that shyness, Sumney’s presence resonated and lingered so that, even leaving the festival several hours and three musical acts later, the final line of Sumney’s last song was still top-of-mind: “My wings are made of plastic, and so am I.”