(J. Neas reports from his native North Carolina on last weekend’s inaugural Hopscotch Music Festival.)
Living in the South can be a frustrating endeavor when it comes to getting great concerts. Bands often seem to think that the region consists entirely of Washington, D.C. and, perhaps, Atlanta. But thankfully, Greg Lowenhagen and Greyson Currin of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Independent Weekly decided that it was time to fix that. Thus, they helped to create the Hopscotch Music Festival that happened in Raleigh this past weekend. Aquarium Drunkard was on the ground for all three nights of the fest.
Earlier this year, AD spoke with Currin and Lowenhagen about the festival. “[The Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) scene] is what it is. It’s the product of a few separate, but connected, small but mid-size cities. It’s not New York. It’s not that big, obviously. But in terms of the size of these towns, it’s an extremely productive and passionate group of musicians,” said Currin when I asked him about the city’s scene in comparison to larger cities that are the more typical hosts for a festival of this size. Currin is also a staff writer for Pitchfork Media and I posed this question to him as someone who would have a sense of how the Triangle stacked up. “Something to keep in mind is that for every band like Bowerbirds or Megafaun or the Rosebuds, Love Language – bands that are on the national radar – there are literally hundreds of bands in this relatively small community and they’re playing every night. That’s the essence of this scene here.”
“We’re talking about the rich history of music in the Triangle with the strong independent labels based here and the early 90s scene and the scene now. We wouldn’t be having Hopscotch with out it,” said Lowenhagen. As a former resident of Austin, Texas, Lowenhagen, too, has been exposed to great live music scenes. “[The music festivals] we have do a great job of highlighting the local music, but we thought those bands could use even more of a push to say ‘hey, we’re here; the Triangle’s here; this is an amazing area for music.’ The way we wanted to do that was bring in these national bands, pair them up with the local bands here, and give them a different stage to shine on. As we’ve seen, I think the attention for the festival has been wonderful. In terms of exposure, it’s exceeding our expectations.”
The festival is unique in that it does feature the local talent fairly heavily. Any other festival that would be bringing in acts like Broken Social Scene, Panda Bear and Public Enemy as headliners would be apt to fill in the spaces with other national talent. That wasn’t what Lowenhagen and Currin had in mind, though. “Part of the plan was selfish on my end,” said Lowenhagen. “I lived in Austin and in Chicago and the music choices there are great. When I got back to Raleigh, there were great choices, but just not the same and I thought the city was ready for this. There was a bit of a void here; a hole to be filled.” The plan was to bring the party back home. For all the local people who had probably traveled to Chicago, Austin, Portland or any other major festival cities over the years, here was a chance to rock in their own backyard. “Meanwhile, we also get to promote the bands we get to cover in the paper.”
“We wanted this to be different. We wanted to make this a legitimate music festival,” said Currin. “The best way to do that seemed to be to find some outdoor space [Raleigh City Plaza] and center these clubs around it.” The festival was in the downtown area of Raleigh where every venue involved is within walking distance of one another; a rare thing sometimes in the sprawling urban South.
The festival, in all of those terms, was an unqualified success. Thoughtfully planned and executed, it gave amazing access to a rich and diverse set of bands. Though some of the clubs involved were a little further out than others, none of them were a prohibitive distance for walking, but the festival still had free shuttles running from club to club and bike taxis were plentiful and frequent throughout the weekend. The day parties, too, gave an opportunity for non-festival ticket holders to get a chance to see some of the event’s bands as they played day sets.
Thursday night had more bands that I was unfamiliar with than the other nights, so it gave me a chance to circle about with just an ear to hearing people I didn’t know. Asheville, North Carolina’s EAR PWR brought its dancey and energetic electronic sound to the Berkeley Cafe and warmed up the early evening. Later on, at Tir na Nog, Cults brought an enjoyable mix of guitar laden soft-psychedelia to the stage. They were followed by Best Coast who plowed through a great set of their garage and weed influenced power-pop. I finished my night early at the Pour House checking out San Francisco’s Sleepy Sun who blew me away with their heavy stoner-rock with mixed male/female vocals. Similar to, but different enough from, another favorite band of mine from recent years, Black Mountain.
Friday night was a bit more involved, though I started back at Tir na Nog to catch an old local favorite, the Kingsbury Manx, who are always a treat live. I scrambled to the other side of the block and The Hive to catch Active Child from Los Angeles, a synth-heavy and almost operatic performance that felt like a lost John Hughes soundtrack. It was one of the highlights of the weekend. Afterward, it was back to Tir na Nog for The War on Drugs’ set. Lead singer Adam Granduciel has his Dylan-sneer down perfectly, and the set was another highlight for the evening. I had resigned myself earlier in the night to missing some of the bands that overlapped each other, but encouraged by Ryan from Muzzle of Bees, we hurried over to the Berkeley Cafe to try and catch the end of Fucked Up’s set. On the way, we passed Kings and its sizeable line trying to get in to see Atlas Sound. I’m not sure if I spoke to anyone over the weekend who actually saw Atlas Sound – once you were in, people obviously weren’t coming out and capacity was reached.
At the Berkeley Cafe, we arrived in the middle of an awesome spectacle as Fucked Up’s Pink Eyes was already down on the floor with the audience, stretched out microphone cord trailing him. as he stalked around the floor singing with abandon. Later on, items such as a cooler, the head of an eagle mascot costume and even organizer Greg Lowenhagen himself would end up in the midst of the outrageous scene. Their next to last song was the blitzkrieg of The Chemistry of Common Life opener “Son the Father,” an absolute avalanche of a song that wound the show to a fever pitch. As we left, thinking that might be the end to the night, word came that Richard Buckner’s set was still going over at the Pour House, so we headed there to find the legendary songwriter playing to a crowd of maybe 40 people. He stayed on stage until at least 20 minutes after last call, a low key and fantastic end to an intense evening.
Saturday was the only night I attended the ‘main stage’ performances at Raleigh City Plaza. Raleigh’s The Love Language opened the stage with an awesome set of songs from their fantastic album Libraries. They were followed by Los Angeles’ No Age who probably ruined my hearing for the rest of the evening. It was a caustically loud and fantastically enjoyable show of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine inspired post-punk. Then came the set I’d been most looking forward to all weekend – Public Enemy. The legends opened with “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” and then announced that in honor of the album’s 20th anniversary, they were about to perform Fear of a Black Planet in its entirety, soon launching into the song that followed “Brothers..,” and probably Flava Flav’s finest moment, “911 is a Joke.” They interestingly stayed clear of the album’s “Pollywanacraka,” but still did the troubling “Meet the G That Killed Me.” They paused and did a stint of songs from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Yo! Bum Rush the Show and some newer material before returning to finish Fear of a Black Planet. It was a truly awesome performance, made even more intense by the rain storm that broke loose and soaked a crowd that didn’t even hesitate to stay put for the show.
I kicked off my club shows night at the Lincoln Theatre for the last part of Balmorhea’s lovely set. Though I didn’t get to hear a lot, it was a truly beautiful set of music from the Austin, Texas band, with elements of chamber music and experimental noise among others. Raleigh’s Lonnie Walker played over at Deep South and put on a great set of rollicking rock and roll. Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven then took over at the Lincoln Theatre and completely enraptured a large crowd that you could tell part of were there to see them but the other part probably waiting for Tortoise to come on afterward. They got a large ovation for their dynamic performance and undoubtedly made new fans in the process, always the biggest upshot for bands at these festivals.
I finished the night at a show that, for me, summarized everything that felt amazing about Hopscotch. It was Megafaun at Kings who were already a few songs into the set when I arrived. They did amazing renditions of songs from their forthcoming Heretofore EP, inviting Django Haskins of the Old Ceremony up on stage with them for one of those, a cover of a song by the Db’s, and then had Haskins and Hammer No More the Fingers’ Joe Hall up to ratchet up their classic “Lazy Suicide.”
Watching this obvious collusion of a bunch of local artists at work was one way to look at the amazing vibe of this festival, but it was the encore that truly encapsulated it. Coming down into the audience and encouraging them to come in as close as possible, the band led the bar through a singalong of the traditional “Ain’t No More Cane.” It gave me goosebumps to stand in the bar, singing along, and hearing the voices of obviously nearly the entire venue coming together as the band stood, figuratively naked with no plugged-in instruments or microphones, Then they launched into another self-penned classic, the gorgeous “Worried Mind,” and as the audience repeatedly echoed the lines of “come on, ease your mind, oh, come on ease your mind; come on, ease your worried mind,” it felt like a baptismal of cynicism. This is the kind of moment you live for at a concert; something that transcends the venue, the songs, the band and the audience. And it couldn’t have ended the first Hopscotch Festival any more perfectly. words/ j neas