Wye Oak performing live at the Lincoln Theatre as part of the Merge Records showcase. Photo by Nick Johnston.
So, another year, another HOPSCOTCH. This time around, the weather gods weren’t exactly kind to the denizens of Raleigh, North Carolina, and the visitors and press that assembled to take in the festival’s delights. It rained pretty heavily for portions of Thursday and most of Saturday night; the latter’s weather being so bad that it cancelled some of the outdoor performances, and so inconsistent that I decided to name each downpour reprisal after a Die Hard sequel (my personal favorite was Rain Hard With a Vengeance around 11:30 pm on the last day). Yet, all in all, it was one of the best concert-going experiences I’ve ever had. Despite years of drunkenly claiming to friends that I almost went to Bonnaroo that one time, this was my first festival, and it prepared me well enough for future experiences, either at SXSW or at some other random place that I might wind up in. So, here’s the highs and lows of the last two days of the festival (read my first piece on Thursday night’s shows here), and my suggestion that you should go will come near the end.
-- The MOUNTAIN GOATS’ sets at Fletcher Opera Theater on Friday night were sublime, folks, both as a performance and a communal experience between artist and audience. John Darnielle, assisted by a choir of three male vocalists, was swinging for the fences with the metal covers set, and, in the opinion of this writer, hit a straight 1.000. I mean, he began with “Shot in the Dark,” went through some bizarre and wonderful tracks from a few Swedish groups, and rounded out his set with an emotionally crippling version of Ronnie James Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark.” It was bizarrely magical, and it didn’t reek of the horrible irony that these sets normally seem to. He didn’t think of it as elevating “trash art,” and his enthusiasm for the genre showed in the best of ways. The rarities set was just as good, and I don’t think it could have ended in any better possible way. Darnielle led the audience in a sort of sing-a-long to “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” with the house lights up and conservative ushers looking horrified both at how late it was and at the content of the lyrics. The show was the best possible outcome for a set that had long been advertised as one of the main highlights of the festival, and it was one of those experiences where, when my friends ask me about it, I'll stumble for words before telling them that they should have been there.
-- Any show at the Long View Center, a downtown church-cum-venue which I made sure to mention in my previous recap of my experiences. Julia Holter's set there was absolutely magical, but the feeling extended through to other bands (although, some, like AZURE RAY, vocalized their discomfort with the setting, which made their performance seem at conflict with the dimensions of the room). I've never been the world's biggest fan of FIELD REPORT, but their specific brand of acoustic sadness in combination with the setting really made their Friday night set sparkle in a very ethereal way, and the room seemed to swell together when they performed "Circle Drive". The medical love song took on the quality of a sermon when frontman Chris Porterfield listed off the flaws of biblical heroes, and the surroundings helped to drive home the point of the lyrics in a way that few other venues could. Likewise, it also assisted the electronic beauty of Polish composer MICHAL JACASZEK's work. Performing with a pianist and a clarinetist who alternated between a soprano and a bass, the sweeping scope of his thundering electronic compositions tested the limits of the audience's composure. It was a restrained and powerful set that defied the typical expectations of a festival like Hopscotch, and I feel pretty grateful that I got to see something like it. It seemed to weigh pretty heavily on the next band as well, SECRET CITIES, who were our North Dakota pick in this summer's 50 Bands 50 States feature. Before beginning a fun, poppy set of psychedelia, drummer Alex Abnos remarked that he felt like they "were the punk kids who crashed the real music party." Then again, we were all the punk kids who crashed the Jesus party, so it all works out in the end.
-- Speaking of Christ the Lord, the featured City Plaza shows didn’t suck! The sound was incredibly solid for THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN, and they managed to be incredibly energetic and fun. I don't know what I quite expected from them, but I found their set of career highlights ("Happy When It Rains," "Just Like Honey") mixed with some rarities ("Halfway to Crazy," "Some Candy Talking") to hit the spot, musically. The most surprising performance out on the main stage goes to BUILT TO SPILL, at least in my little mind. They were one of the most ideal choices possible for a Southern festival, and their set blended well with the nice weather on Friday night, too. The good vibes flowed, each scream and cheer from the crowd felt earned and earnest, and the band seeming to really enjoy themselves. Sure, they may now be elders in an indie landscape that now prefers bedroom chillwavers and Canadians who say "the kids" a lot, but they hold their own and the crowd ate it up. It seems that Built to Spill is built to last.
-- Best banter goes to Jim Reid of JAMC, who spent a lot of his set seemingly drunk and having fun. I don’t ever think I’ve heard the word “fuck” spurted so flippantly in the middle of the downtown area, especially over a loud speaker. Quip highlight from Jim Reid, after being silently chastized by his brother for all of his banter: "We're not supposed to talk when he's tuning up. Fuck… Come on, William. You didn't do this 20 fucking years ago." Well, Jim, to be fair, you guys never used to play sets facing the audience, either, so I guess the bad comes with the good.
-- The Trekky Records' day party which featured 50 Bands NC pick CASSIS ORANGE. You can read my summary of that show over here.
-- SUNN O)))'s festival-closing set on Saturday. I'd never seen them live before, and made me feel like I was in a David Lynch movie the minute I walked into Memorial Auditorium. It was electrifyingly loud and endlessly creepy, and the people close to the front seemed like they were going to collapse with excitement. By the end of it, my internal organs felt numb from just how fucking loud it was, and I firmly believe now that this particular kind of nausea is the only proper way to end a festival.
-- Watching Tuba Gooding Jr. of THE ROOTS put the horn of his Sousaphone over the head of another photographer in the pit. That was funny as hell.
-- This is more of a general note, but it's a good one. Cheap parking! It was only $7 a day to park downtown, right near City Plaza. Compare this to the possible amount of cash if the festival happened in a city like Boston. It gives me shivers even to consider it.
-- DANNY BROWN's set at the Contemporary Art Museum on Sunday night. I'm not going to write a truly negative review of the performance, because he was awesome when I got over there (I wrote the blurb when we chose him as the Michigan pick for 50 Bands, and still feel the same way about his music), but it felt like his set stopped extraordinarily early. I wish I could have seen more, but what I witnessed was pretty alright. I ran into a guy in a chicken mask who seemed to really be enjoying things, too, so all really was right with the world.
-- The Merge Records showcase at the Lincoln Theater, which featured WYE OAK as the headliner. I've never really understood the obsession with this group, and their obsessed and loud local following didn't exactly help. For a while, it looked like the audience was about to break out into a gang fight like in West Side Story, with the Librarian-Looking Chicks With Glasses almost pulling stilettos on the Drunk College Kids With Attitude who were bumping into them the whole night. I've never seen an audience so bitterly divided, even though they were trying to both enjoy the same fucking thing. About their music: it was "pleasant" as always, but one can only listen to music like that so much. It exists on some sort of level of indie-pop that I can never connect to, striving for some sort of "seriousness" that I don't think they can really reach. I mean, even Radiohead is starting to learn how to loosen their ties and have a little bit of fun. Why does it have to be a dirge with you guys?
-- I'll mention the weather again, only because it really limited my time to see The Roots. They were impossibly fun and free, and I was pretty pissed that I could only see them for the 10 or so minutes I did before having to leave. Goddamn rain delay.
So, all in all, HOPSCOTCH is a great experience. Cost-wise, it's incredibly affordable, with a VIP pass (including access to all venues in a speedy line and free admission to all day parties) running only $175, and the general cost of eating and drinking in the area running well below the typical rates. Compare that to the cost of one's average ticket to Coachella, which, for a GA ticket, costs almost as much. Add in travel and the cost for a hotel, and one could be potentially be paying silly amounts of cash. You may not get to see a Pulp reunion there anytime soon, but you will get to see bands that are absolutely worth your attendance. The time constraints and the pretty hefty distance between venues will always be a problem for anyone trying their best to see a ton of bands, but that's not exactly unique to it, being a festival. Downtown Raleigh has come a long way from the sort of silly experiences I found there when I was a youth, and it's vibrant and open in all of the ways that I always hoped it would be. It's the first real amount of unity I've ever sensed in that area, and the most welcome I've ever felt there as well. Check it out if you can - it's well worth the effort.
Nick Johnston of Emerson College was the summer music intern here at the Phoenix. We miss him already. Drop him a line on twitter.