The N.C. independent music festival took place April 4-6 and featured the likes of William Tyler (profiled today at BLURT, in fact), Love Language, Some Army, Cheap Time, Hiss Golden Messenger, Mount Moriah) Alligator Indian (pictured above) and tons more.
Photos/Text By Jordan Lawrence
The drive from Winston-Salem’s Reanimator to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is a weird one. The first is a lovable little record and gear shop that sits on the frontlines of N.C. burg’s revitalization of its once bustling warehouse district. The second is a well-appointed museum that rests in a residential neighborhood where you’re never more than few blocks away from a fancy restaurant or high-price boutique. The 12-minute drive between them spans urban reclamation and country club scenery, unsettling poverty and institutional wealth. It’s a jaunt that peels back Winston’s layers, revealing the way the city’s income — much of which stems from banking — has long been funneled away from its downtown and the cultural fringes that are striving to take root.
(Pictured above: Hiss Golden Messenger, Cheap Time, Eternal Summers)
That Reanimator exists at all is proof of the strides that the local music scene — along with the rest of the Triad, an area that also includes Greensboro and High Point — has made in recent years. Making the point more emphatically was this weekend’s third annual Phuzz Phest. Billed as the city’s “Independent Music Festival,” the lineup for this year’s event was the strongest yet. Pulling in some of the biggest names from the nationally renowned music community in the nearby Triangle — Mount Moriah, The Love Language, Lost in the Trees, Hiss Golden Messenger — and some exciting national acts — William Tyler, Cheap Time, Eternal Summers — Phuzz Phest paired them with well-weeded local talent. The result was a compact festival — the three-day affair took place at four venues, the largest of which holds 294 people — that felt like a big deal in terms of its impact on the city.
Take Mount Moriah (above), who were at their best on Thursday night when they headlined SECCA’s acoustically rich auditorium. Charging through buoyant country-rock — “Bright Light” was particularly lithe and powerful — and purposefully smoldering ballads — “Plane” soared, carried to catharsis by a slow-burning solo from guitarist Jenks Miller — they ably united thorny cultural issues with timeless Southern sounds. It was the first time Mount Moriah had ever played Winston, an announcement that singer Heather McEntire made while explaining the band’s affinity for the similarly surnamed Wake Forest University basketball player, Codi Miller-McIntyre.
They weren’t the only Triangle band to make their first Winston appearance at Phuzz, a testament to the connections the festival has fostered in its first three years. Lost in the Trees (above) made the same confession during its Friday set at Krankies Coffee, but their set was more than just their Camel City debut. It was the first show for their new line-up, which strips the once orchestrally minded outfit of its violin, cello and tuba, opting instead for darkly appointed art rock that nods to acts as varied as The Velvet Underground and The Bad Seeds without betraying the emotional delicacy of Ari Picker’s uninhibited narratives.
Raleigh’s The Love Language (above) also played Winston for the first time, hitting The Garage earlier on Friday. Playing his third show with the current band, Stuart McLamb led his players through chaotic garage rock versions of his fraught and feisty pop singles and offered a selection of songs from the group’s recently completed third LP. Driven by insistent bass lines, McLamb and new guitarist Andy Holmes twisted tones with psychedelic abandon, lending a sense of mind-bending tension to the outfit’s already powerful momentum. This distorted intensity only heightened the immediacy of McLamb’s performance. He shouted as much as he crooned, communicating profound romantic distress without resorting to abrasive antics.
Phuzz Phest was dominated by such driving rock sounds — particularly during Saturday’s outdoor display in the parking lot behind Krankies — but the event made room for avant-garde offerings as well. Nashville guitarist William Tyler (above) was simply stunning during a Thursday appearance at The Garage, though he was criminally under-appreciated by the back half of the crowd, who chatted loudly throughout the set. Playing selections from his new LP, Impossible Truth, he bridged the gap between the enthralling acoustic loops of Fahey acolytes and his own more expansive interpretation of folk tradition and pop precision. This was never more true than during a 10-minute rendition of “The World Set Free,” Truth’s closer. He started the song with rich acoustic blues before looping it and using it as the backdrop for fiery psychedelics and then slowly returning to patient picking once more.
Dark Prophet Tongueless Monk (above, top) represented the experimental end of Winston’s own rock scene and did so quite well. After playing bass outside with the passable dance-rock outfit Wilde Blood (above, bottom) Jacob Leonard sat down at a keyboard, picked up a guitar and united the two instruments with concussive drum machine loops and thunderously distorted vocals to create slabs of expressive drone, which he underpinned with oddly fetching vocal melodies. The results were hypnotic and lush, occupying a space somewhere between metallic menace and ambient beauty. Most of the Triad artists that took part in the festival displayed a knack for catchy rock songs, making DPTM’s exquisite set was a welcome change of pace.
(Pictured above:Elm Bolt, White Laces, Invisible Hand, Some Army, Spider Bags, Temperance League, The Mark Tobeys)
Phuzz Phest allowed such promising locals to share space with nationally recognized outfits whose sounds overlap with their own. For instance, it seems quite unlikely that anyone could be wowed by William Tyler and not find Leonard’s set equally impressive. Such events are crucial for a music scene seeking to advance its national profile and foster new talent, and Phuzz Phest was an example of how to do it right. It’s a small event right now, but it possesses the kind of boundless ambition and keen curation that could easily help it grow in the future.
Winston-Salem, be good to Phuzz Phest. You’re lucky to have it in your town.