by Max Miller
For my money, the best music festival of the calendar year doesn’t happen in New York or Chicago. It doesn’t take place on some sprawling lot with thousands of fans adorned in problematic headdresses and garish neon jerseys. It doesn’t cater to just one crowd, be it hyped-up EDM-freaks, twee indie kids or gauntlet-clad metalheads. It takes place across the city of Raleigh, North Carolina and, like the state itself, it’s an unassuming place where dozens of cultures get the chance to thrive and intermingle.
Hopscotch Music Festival celebrated its sixth year of operation from September 10-12. The fest, started by promoter Greg Lowenhagen and always held in the NC capital, continued in the tradition of inviting artists of every genre, both local and internationally-known, to perform for music-lovers in the city’s many great venues. In fact, with a slew of before- and after-parties, as well as many official and unofficial daytime showcases, Hopscotch is what I imagine SXSW must have been like before it blew up to its current mind-boggling proportions.
This was my first time actually making it to Hopscotch. Much to my chagrin, I was always out-of-town or busy with school or flat broke whenever the festival rolled through Raleigh each September. This year, with a photo pass around my neck (another first — I’m far from a professional photographer), I set out to make up for all the years I missed, and discovered the festival was everything I could hope for from such a shindig, let alone one a mere two hours away from my own home.
One of the clever aspects of the scheduling at Hopscotch is that the major headlining acts playing the main stage at City Plaza go on earlier in the evening, leaving festival-goers free to catch more acts at smaller venues into the middle of the night. By the time I had experienced the springy nerve-rock of Ought and the orchestral post-rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose fans soldiered on beneath umbrellas in the face of a sudden-but-fitting outbreak of rain, my first night at Hopscotch had hardly even begun.
In addition to City Plaza, the festival this year was spread across eleven other venues within a perfectly walkable handful of blocks of downtown Raleigh. Although Hopscotch features everything from experimental noise acts to rappers to extreme metal bands, each venue’s lineup was generally tailored so that an attendee could enjoy the evening at a single club. Of course, exploring the variety the festival has to offer was encouraged, too.
Leaving City Plaza midway through Godspeed’s set as the rainstorm mercifully let up for a moment, I headed around the block to the Lincoln Theatre, where Superchunk frontman, Merge Records co-founder and local legend Mac McCaughan played an energetic set with his current group the Non-Believers, a trio of younger kids whose reckless enthusiasm surely recalls Superchunk’s salad days. Afterwords, I made my way over to the Pour House to get my dose of metal for the weekend. The room was packed for local stoner-doom stalwarts Solar Halos, whose psychedelic riffage entranced the crowd. Following them was Boston sludge-slingers Forn, who do the legacy of such downtuned bands as Grief, Noothgrush and Thou proud.
New Orleans sludge titans Eyehategod were slated to headline the Pour House that night, but had to cancel. In their place was Richmond thrash revivalist supergroup Iron Reagan, who I’m sure were more than capable of filling EHG’s Doc Martens. I couldn’t say for certain, though, because I was headed back to the Lincoln to see Battles. Although bleary-eyed and exhausted by the time their 12:30 AM set rolled around, I had heard too many good things about the New York math experimentalists’ live show to miss it. They did not disappoint. Multi-instrumentalists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka aptly recreated the densely-layered synth, bass and guitar loops of their records in real-time, but the real show was drummer John Stanier, who keeps time like a mesmerizing metronome, and whose drums sounded more massive than any other live drums I’ve ever heard.
My second night at Hopscotch got off to a slow start, but made up for itself by the evening’s end. I arrived at the plaza shortly before San Francisco electronic musician Tycho and his band took the stage. Tycho’s chilled out moods, borrowing equally from dreamy indie and deep house, weren’t exactly my bag, and the set was plagued with technical difficulties that forced the band to stop for long stretches to figure out how not to overload the power supply. TV on the Radio were up next, headlining the City Plaza stage for the night. The unclassifiable group drew perhaps the largest crowd I saw all weekend, and although they are exalted by many rock fans of the ‘00s, they’ve never gripped me with more than passing interest. I left their set fairly early — it was time to head to Tír Na Nóg.
Although Friday night boasted many fine acts who would have been a pleasure to see, from Roky Erickson to Natalie Prass to Pusha T to Tashi Dorji, the lineup at Tír Na Nóg, a large Irish pub next door to the Pour House, ensured I would spend my evening there. Opening the bill were local rockers SMLH, whose synth-tinged numbers could land them in the same league as Car Seat Headrest or Alex G someday. Following them were New York’s Leapling, whose debut LP Vacant Page is one of this year’s more underrated rock albums. I use the term “rock” loosely, though, for Leapling combine chiming, minimalist guitars with sparse, melodic bass lines and jazzy drumming into a unique, dynamic sound that comes across even better live than it does on record.
Next came a solo acoustic set from singer-songwriter Mitski, who has steadily been gaining more acclaim for her immaculately-crafted songs of heartbreak and Millennial angst that resonate honestly while avoiding cliche or artifice. With only her acoustic guitar and classically-trained voice, she didn’t deafen the pub like the acts surrounding her, and the murmurs of the crowd farther in the back could be heard throughout her set. But for the group standing front and center holding on to her every word, the reward was a beautiful, intimate performance that left more than a couple people around me in tears.
The final act playing Tír Na Nóg that evening was Pile, Boston’s own masters of noisy, emotionally-jarring post-hardcore, and my personal favorite band. When I lived in Philly, I would never miss their appearances in sweaty, cramped house shows and basement parties. This was the first time I had seen them in a legitimate venue, and it didn’t diminish their unique energy one bit. Pile run like a well-oiled machine, and their parts, be it Rick Maguire’s country-tinged vocals, Matt Becker’s discordant guitar chords, Kris Kuss’s falling-down-the-stairs drumming or Matt Connery’s massive overdriven bass tone, sound as good live as they do on record, if not better. By the end of their set, the audience was stomping and cheering for more. The band acquiesced with an encore of the caustic, sardonic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever With the Customer In Mind.” With goofy guitar solos and silly lyrics, the song may be meant as a joke, but it was the perfect way to cap off such an explosive performance.
Hopscotch’s third and final night kicked off with a set by the Vibekillers, a local bar-rock band who wowed a small but dedicated crowd with a mix of originals and covers like the Kinks’ “The Contenders” and the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” They were followed by American Aquarium, a local southern rock group with a large following in the city — they’ve played Hopscotch many times over the past six years. City Plaza’s headliners for the final night were classic LA punk rockers X and country legend Dwight Yoakam. At face value, the two acts might seem diametrically opposed, but Yoakam was actually known for sharing bills with punk bands in the ‘80s, including X in their heyday. With X dressed like the folks you wouldn’t want to mess with at a biker bar and Yoakam’s band in rhinestone-encrusted suits, both groups provided solid, if not a little nostalgic, performances.
As the evening continued, my friends wanted to check out Ameriglow, the latest project of Greensboro’s Yakob Darden, formerly of Israel Darling. The group embodied classic American-tinged indie rock from what I saw of their performance, but midway through their set, one of my friends began to feel sick and ended up having to leave, taking my other buddy with him. Since I didn’t have a solid plan in mind for the night, I decided to wander around the city to different venues, checking out what the festival’s last evening had to offer. I wound up at Neptune’s, in the basement of Kings Barcade, for a set by Oulipo, a Raleigh-based experimental group who would often come through Asheville, NC when I was in college there. I had only seen them once or twice then, and was surprised to find they’d spiced up their sound with touchstones of cheesy ‘80s pop, including Vangelis-esque synths and “Careless Whisper” sax solos. Next, I headed over to Slim’s to catch Atlanta garage-punks WYMYNS PRYSYN, with the intention of sticking around for Philly’s own rising stars Sheer Mag.
When I made it to Slim’s, a narrow dive bar with a tiny stage in the back corner, the place was so packed I could barely find a place where I could get a clear photo of the band. WYMYNS PRYSYN eventually began playing their brand of workmanlike garage rock, and were matched in enthusiasm by at least one person in a rubber unicorn mask. However, as the distorted guitars blared and even more people began to cram around the stage, I realized that the weekend had left me weary. There were many great acts left that evening I could have seen: Chelsea Wolfe, Cakes Da Killa, Porches, Godflesh and even an impromptu solo acoustic set by Waxahatchee. But by that time, I realized I had gotten more than enough out of my weekend at Hopscotch Music Festival. The only thing I really wanted to see now was my hotel room pillow.
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