The former Cincinnati band brings "Boxer" back home
“I can’t stay,” crooned National frontman Matt Berninger on “Walk It Back.” “And I can’t come back.”
Of course, there was some irony inherent in Berninger delivering this line from a stage set on a gorgeous riverside park in the band’s former hometown of Cincinnati, a celebratory turn that appeared to prove definitively that you can indeed go home again.
The final day of Homecoming, a two-day, two-stage outdoor extension of MusicNOW, a long-running Cincinnati music event established by the National in 2006, featured an eclectic group of performers, ranging from mystic soul man Moses Sumney, who arrived for his mid-afternoon set dressed like he’d just finished instructing a Defence Against the Dark Arts class at Hogwart’s, to Toronto indie-pop band Alvvays, which layered its fuzzy guitar jams with candy-coated hooks, serving as a high-energy warm-up for the National’s fest-closing Sunday turn.
The National headlined both days at Smale Riverfront Park, performing a career-spanning set on Saturday and then opening Sunday by playing its third album, Boxer, from 2007, in its entirety before digging deeper into its growing catalogue.
In an interview in the weeks leading up to the concert, guitarist Bryce Dessner called the moody collection a pivotal turning point for the band, arriving on the heels of its more rock-oriented 2005 predecessor, Alligator.
“We — and Matt specifically — resisted becoming that band where we were going to make anthemic rock songs, so instead we made these strange ballads on Boxer,” Dessner said. “I remember turning it into our record label and they were almost confused by it. They didn’t reject it, but they were like, ‘Are you sure you’re done with this?’ And we were sure.”
This confidence exhibited itself in the band’s Boxer performance, beginning with the album-opening “Fake Empire” — a song that sounded somehow grander and less studied onstage than on record — progressing through a euphoric “Squalor Victoria,” which, despite Dessner’s resistance, evolved into a full-on rock tune here, and building to stately closer “Gospel.” The downcast ballad ended with a simple proclamation from Aaron Dessner: “That was Boxer.”
While much of the recorded Boxer is a buttoned up, brooding affair, the bandmates let their hair down a bit for Homecoming, even injecting “Ada” with a triumphant dose of brass borrowed from Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois — a welcome contrast to lyrics that found the narrator at his most despondent and removed (“I can hear the sound of your laugh through the wall,” Berninger sang in one crushing reveal).
Between songs, Berninger carried himself like he was reveling in an open-bar wedding, laughing away any miscues — “I’ve been fucking up songs because I’ve been thinking too much about dancing,” he said — and embracing a breezy stage banter that ran counter to the sometimes-somber material. “They give me one solo a night, and here it is,” Berninger said, joyfully shaking a tambourine before his bandmates eased into “Apartment Story.”
Though a limited singer — he’s more of a crooner, really — Berninger had a way of skillfully shading songs, allowing his voice’s craggier textures to reveal themselves on the slow, defeated “Start a War,” and injecting “Squalor Victoria” with chest-out confidence.
The band shape-shifted with similar skill, particularly in the non-Boxer material, which included shattered piano ballads (a stunning “Pink Rabbits”), propulsive, wine-drunk rockers (“Conversation 16”) and electro-tinged turns such as “I’ll Still Destroy You,” given an assist here by Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars, on which Berninger sang of molecules as the musical backdrop mirrored a particle accelerator breaking matter down into its most elemental form.
The daylong affair charted equally diverse ground.
Irish singer Lisa Hannigan specialized in hushed, pastoral ballads delivered in lullaby tones. Even when Aaron Dessner turned up to assist the singer, he didn’t increase the volume significantly, less playing the guitar than eliciting tones from it, carving out gentle six-string sighs that added shape and shading to the songs.
Brooklyn rock band Big Thief somehow hewed to the shadows despite the punishing late-afternoon sun, turning out a masterful series of songs born of romantic deceit and personal tragedy. “There’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do,” Adrianne Lenker sang on “Masterpiece,” sounding like a woman who had neared her limit. At times, this ugliness spilled over into the band’s music, squalls of feedback rising and dissipating as quickly as summer storms.
Soul man Sumney experienced more scattered success, with wispier compositions such as “Quarrel” wilting and washing out in the spacious open-air festival environs. Better was the unreleased “Rank and File,” on which the Los Angeles, California, singer and songwriter sang of “my transformation” as the music followed suit, Sumney employing looping technology to mutate audience vocals, hand claps and spoken-word snippets into something at once immersive and mystical.