National guitarist Bryce Dessner on the benefits of keeping a fest small scale
While mega-fests such as Lollapalooza labor with slower-than-usual ticket sales, the National's Homecoming, which takes place in Cincinnati's Smale Park on Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29, has adopted a purposely more scaled-back approach.
“I've been running MusicNOW [of which Homecoming is an extension] in Cincinnati since 2006, and it was started as an antidote to the large outdoor rock festival,” said National guitarist Bryce Dessner, whose band will headline Homecoming's outdoor stage both nights (the group will close out the weekend performing the entirety of its 2007 album, Boxer, on Sunday). “It started small in the basement of the [Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center] and … eventually evolved to where we were doing concerts at Memorial Hall, which is a beautiful chamber music hall in town. … This year it mixes more intimate, smaller programs [at venues citywide] … with two outdoor concert stages where the bigger rocker shows will happen. But even that the capacity is around 8,000 or 10,000, so we're not talking about Bonnaroo here.”
In the early days of MusicNOW, Dessner tried to keep the business encroachment to a minimum, even eschewing band managers and bookers for a couple years and relying more on artist-to-artist relationships to fill out lineups — something that has become an impossibility at the fest's current scale. At the same time, Homecoming's growing, eclectic lineup is still handpicked by members of the National, and its scope reflects their varied tastes.
As a result, Homecoming, unlike other outdoor festivals, which have come under fire for featuring heavily male, heavily white lineups, has remained a comparatively diverse affair. This year's event incorporates performances from artists such as Feist, the Breeders, Julien Baker, Moses Sumney and Spank Rock, among others. Dessner said this diversity was certainly a consideration, though it wasn't a difficult one for organizers.
“I definitely wanted the festival to feature strong artists across the board,” he said. “I think the most important voices in music right now, many of them are women and people of color, and I think it's important festivals reflect that. So I don't know if [that consideration] was deliberate in any way other than being obvious.”
Operating on a smaller scale, Homecoming also invites artistic collaboration. In addition to his sets with the National, Dessner is slated to perform alongside eighth blackbird and Bonnie “Prince” Billy on Sunday, and he suggested members of the National might turn up during other MusicNOW/Homecoming events throughout the weekend.
“The artists especially love coming to a smaller event where they can … maybe try something new, or a collaboration, or a work in progress or whatever it is,” Dessner said. “That's always been the idea behind MusicNOW, and this year that's just expanded a bit with Homecoming. It's like throwing a party for a lot of things you love.”