This past weekend, I again found myself in lush and lovely Raleigh, North Carolina, for the 4th annual Hopscotch Music Festival. Even after becoming quite impressed by it last year, I wasn't sure that I could make it down for the sequel. But then I did. (Yes!) But only for the last two days. (Oh no!) These thrilling details are not important. What's crucial to note is that Hopscotch's combination of shrewd programming and compact location makes the music fest dream of catching a zillion disparate bands in a short amount of time more achievable and pleasurable than most any other event currently running.
The programming spans from cult-metal to SoundCloud buzz bands, from of-the-moment hip-hop to alt-rock and punk icons, at least giving the impression that the planners are more concerned with artistic import and eclectic variety than bottom line big-dollar draws. The best part is, you can bolt from any show at any time, for whatever reason, and be reasonably sure that you can find something else compelling. Something that you'll have no problem getting into on a whim! A write up by critic Gary Suarez on MySpace called it "America's (Secretly) Best Festival." There's so many to choose from at this point that the claim is a bold one. Yet, with two years under my belt it's one I can definitely understand.
Here's what I saw this year...
North Carolina natives Future Islands were the first band I caught on Friday. They play a version of first record MGMT electro-rock, paired with pretty bizarre vocal flourishes from singer Samuel Herring. Herring had a theatrical flair that extended from operatic over-enunciation to outta nowhere metal growls. He came across a little like Jack Black playing the Cookie Monster in a prestige biopic. As local boys made good, the crowd absolutely adored them. Our own local boys made just OK followed them. Holy Ghost! kept a loose and rave-y audience in motion with a set of solid 80s dance-rock with arena ambitions. Their lack of depth didn't really hurt their broad appeal, though their slightly more esoteric early single, "Hold On", hit hardest for me.
Outkast's Big Boi was originally booked to headline the first night's outdoor show in the surprisingly urban City Plaza, but had to reschedule. Kanye's one-time DJ, A-Trak took over on short notice. In a dance club, a skilled DJ can be total magic. Stick the same guy on a big-stage, as a headline performance? I'm beyond disinterested. ?uestlove, James Murphy, David Bowie, Jesus Christ, whoever. Without some insane level of EDM show stage production, a guy playing records behind a deck just isn't that visually compelling. Not that the lack of something to look at kept anyone from partying down.
These guys were sticking around...
...I was not.
This is just like Electric Zoo except nobody's dead. #hopscotch13
— I'm Gary (@noyokono) September 7, 2013
At the point where many young music festivals begin to take off, there's a magnetic pull of non-affiliated artists and organizations who schedule events to take advantage of the influx of potentially interested eyeballs. Think of unofiicial day parties at CMJ and SXSW for an entrenched example. "First Fridays" is a long-standing cultural concern in Raleigh rather than a purely opportunistic upstart, but an overlap on this year's calendar gave every street corner that feeling of random possibility. Some alt-rock band is over there pulling a crowd of a hundred or so into the street. A lively rapper is holding court late-night in front of a fancy chicken and waffles joint. On a cobblestoen side street, in the shadow of a place called "Cobblestone Hall", red-faced children frolick as a country-roots band with a stand-up bass play a song about cocaine.
33. The Sheraton hits 80+% of their "languid 24yos draping themselves across our lobby couches" quota each HS weekend. #hopscotch13
— Matt Kalb (@MattKalb_OrIsIt) September 8, 2013
Stumbling around, looking for something that was actually scheduled early to catch, I stopped in to check on Brooklyn post-rock/black metal dudes Sannhet playing in a small, dark club nearby. Their music veered wildly from one piece to the next, totally unpredictable in tone, totally uneven in quality. Loud, thrashing doom metal never quite cohered into recognizable riffs, leading to skepticism. But then, they'd pull a really tight motorik groove out of their ass, lock in to it for five minutes before breaking down again, suggesting that everything might just be the product of mostly executed intent. Good in patches but not consistent enough to resist the urge to bolt that Hopscotch usually rewards.
I'm not sure why Brooklyn post-punk band Hunters aren't a bigger deal. I mean, they've risen in status through hard work and constant gigging over the past few years, but aside from a stray Village Voice cover, I've never sensed a real crackle of critical adulation. Swearin', who played before them, seem to get more love among young rock-oriented writers on the Internet, right? And they were OK but honestly, in terms of locked-in performance, star power, and sex appeal, Hunters blew them straight off the stage. The band reminds me of those I might have seen at the Mercury Lounge in 2003, at a time when it was a more unchallenged hotbed for the best young bands as Brooklyn venues were still sort of finding their legs. Those bands now headline basketball arenas. I guess we'll see how it goes when their debut full-length drops later this month...
HOPSCOTCH FEST, I fuckin sneezed and ruined my entire fuckin back. I'm very sorry. I can't even wipe my ass. Forgive me. Ill make it up.
— THE SYMBOL (@ActionBronson) September 6, 2013
Action Bronson was scheduled to open for recently demystified, second-best Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt, but as a certified "big fella" his back was savagely tweaked by an over-peppered egg sandwich or something, leaving very available hip-hop pioneer Big Daddy Kane to fill the void. Kane, who made his name with Biz Markee and the ret of Queens' famous juice crew in the late 80s, looked incredible for a middle-aged guy and performed with vigor. He freestyled, worked the room, brought out a b-boy crew. It was hardly a tired performance. What I saw couldn't help but feel like a museum piece, though, a historical re-enactment of hip-hop's old-school. Still, you have to give the festival organizers credit for coming up with such an able replacement, if not one with a more electric relevancy.
For better or worse, Pere Ubu weren't interested in recreating much of anything. The 70s punk legends didn't look much at all like the Pere Ubu from my imagination until singer/only constant member David Thomas shuffled onstage, took a seat, and starting pulling from a silver flask. He looked understandably aged, shrunken from the glory days when he called himself Crocus Behemoth and the name made perfect sense. He looked a little like John Popper from Blues Traveler's dad, and a lot like the grouchy guy on your suburban cul de sac who yells at the Asian mailman. His stage banter was bizarre, and his mood was at a Harvey Pekar sourness level. As a larger-than-life character I've read about in books, this couldn't help but be slightly, unfairly diminishing. Hearing him sing in that weird electric goose honk, though? That was good. Most of the set focused on 80s or later pop material, which isn't totally my bag, even in a deconstructed form, with a casually dressed fella playing a silver faucet-esque theremin all over. Brief glimpses of their prime punk era, like a vicious version of "Modern Dance", made it kind of a crucial mess.
While this was happening, a weird lady pulled up a chair at stage left, stood on it, and furiously drew Crocus as if he were on trial for his life and she were the court-appointed sketch artist. This seemed unusual.
Her drawings were actually not that good. Though to be fair, I did not get a good look at her Merzbow.
I've ranted in this space about the sadness generated when an older band is trapped in amber, compelled to play decades-old albums front to back in order to sate our ever-growing appetite for nostalgia. I was talking specifically about The Breeders' Last Splash at the time, even. But you know...Kim Deal never stopped smiling. Not once. The band performed all of a really good record on Saturday night, plus the ace Beatles and Guided by Voices covers from their history, in fine form and bright cheer. So, while I still feel strongly that less, not more nostalgia is the only creative way forward for music culture, I can't lie to you and say that this was a bummer while it was happening. Because it wasn't. Do I think noted jerk Black Francis is a better artist for slapping together a new Pixies EP of highly dubious quality in 2013, after years of coasting on old creative fumes? Not exactly the fun corner to be backing.
Complicated thoughts afterwards, but uncomplicated, overwhelmingly good vibes during the set itself.
Kim Deal performing w/o the weight of a 1.0 Pitchfork score on her shoulders. #hopscotch13
— Jeff Klingman (@jeff_klingman) September 7, 2013
Spiritualized, the night's (and after the Big Boi cancellation, the entire festival's) headliner were created for moments like this. Grand, druggy, overblown, but always playing to the back of whatever space they're in, J. Spaceman's band were the biggest crowd pleasers of the weekend. The band takes basic pop elements, simple chords, soul-sick mantras, and repeats them over and over again until they throb like a heartbeat, something internal rather than external. The band is constructed to give these repetitions grandeur. Background singers provide melodic cushion, Oneida's injected drummer Kid Millions plays power ballad drums like it's the only thing that might get him pardoned from death row. As good as Breeders were, you have to note that Spiritualized were able to whip people into frenzy with "Hey Jane", a song they wrote just last year. That counts for something. Of course, it wasn't as good as "Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space" a song that came about an hour into the set, and that I've been singing to myself ever since.
But at some point if you want to catch a wide swath of bands, you just have to pull the trigger and go. So, shortly post "Ladies and Gentleman..." I left, content to float on a feedback cloud to the next venue. Little did I know they'd still be playing when I walked by an hour later, wrapping all of downtown in a smacked out guitar fog. (Note to city planners, this is actually super pleasant.)
The plan from there was to catch the underloved Detroit heroes and always surprisingly good live band, Jamaican Queens. For once in their lives, at least, they packed a room past capacity. For the first time in two years, I was unable to get in to a Hopscotch show. (Only once, and this was it! Think about that big-city festival goers.) It was a tiny upstairs space, but good for them.
Somehow Mount Moriah has Foucault playing pedal steel. #hopscotch13 pic.twitter.com/BHIoULfsRS
— Brent S. Sirota (@BrentSirota) September 7, 2013
The back-up plan was to catch perpetually underrated Sub Pop rocker Scout Niblett in the third, well-hidden theater space of the huge Memorial Auditorium complex. Only made it for the last song, which was delicate in spots, mammoth and crunching in others. It was a chunk of grunge as classic rock gold, and a fleeting moment well worth catching.
It's hard to gush about a live band's "restraint" without sounding like a haughty jazz critic, trying to rationalize a performance that his ego depends on him enjoying. But there was no strain in loving Low's set, my favorite of the weekend. It was so minimal and economically executed that it took maybe four songs to realize, HOLY SHIT are Alan and Mimi Sparhawk good singers. They aren't showy, melismatic singers by any means but in an actual opera theater, with every sound held in the air in a pristine state, the purity of their harmonies can't be downplayed. The Duluth, MN, band's 2000 LP Things We Lost in the Fire is one of my favorite records of all time, because it's all quiet mystery and ominous lyrical puzzles that never lose their power on repeat. The set, a suitably rocking tour through a 15-year body of work, made me kind of ashamed and confused that I haven't kept up with them very religiously since. With this level of talent and control, there just must be gems on all of their recent records, even if I've been weirdly aloof in figuring out which ones they are. I left the room determined to correct that.
Ballsiest Near-Immediate Walk Out Award:
The knowledge that a founding member of the Velvet fuckin' Underground is playing next door was enough to shake loose a big percentage of the room, who bailed on Low about a half-hour too early. After they'd finished though, there was no reason not to walk the 30 seconds it took to pop in for a bit of John Cale's set. Upon entry, greeted by a 71-year-old guy hammering at a keyboard, with fearsome studio musicians wanking to the high heavens behind him, an ominous row of guitars behind them, each waiting to be wanked upon in turn? Nope.
There are perfect songs from John Cale's solo career. Everything from Paris, 1919 is gorgeous. Vintage Violence is underrated. Any bone thrown to the VU mythology would have been a total thrill. But two minutes standing there, and, I dunno...had to bounce. According to this posted setlist, none of those things happened. Trusting the fight or flight instinct again proves its worth.
Instead, I found myself back around the corner at the Kennedy Theater, watching Alisdair MacLean from The Clientele perform in his gentle folk duo, Amor de Dias. The material from his two records with melancholy Spanish singer Lupe Nunez-Fernandez don't mean as much to me as something from Suburban Light, say, but they were gently great. MacLean mainly played virtuosic, positively floral acoustic guitar while Nunez-Fernandez sang, soft and sad. When he joined her, that voice, like a dirty wave on a British shore; It was a pleasure to be in a small space with it. The only negative thing I have to say is that the lobby staff continued to display cookies that weren't actually still on sale. Which...rude.
The only real choice at around 1 AM was a stop in to the Lincoln Theater to catch the platonic ideal of stoner metal, Sleep, and frequent the platonic ideal of stoner late-night concert going, the pizza slice and cupcake trucks parked outside. The California band are famous in certain circles for their cult-classic 1992 record, Dopesmoker, comprised of one hypnotic hourlong song. That might sound like a high, inaccessible bar to clear for enjoyment, but the band was easy to enjoy. What's so hard to understand about a towering Godzilla guitar riff? You walk in, you bang your head, you move on into the night. You get a cupcake with butter pecan frosting on your way out, but then you totally move on into the night.
Bye, Hopscotch. See you next year, I hope.
Set I Was Saddest to Miss on Thursday:
Having seen local heavyweights like Marnie Stern and Matthew Dear on multiple occasions, my late arrival in Raleigh was most tragic for a missed opportunity to catch Chicago singer/songwriter Angel Olsen, yet again. From the video above, it seems her twang was in fine fettle.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeff_klingman.