Tarheel residents Schacht (longtime BLURT contributor) and Mills (BLURT editor) weigh in on the annual event, which took place this past weekend, Sept. 5-7, at various venues in Raleigh, NC. Meanwhile, go here to view Jordan Lawrence’s awesome photo gallery, including the above shot of Spiritualized, from Hopscotch.
BY JOHN SCHACHT & FRED MILLS
JOHN SCHACHT: The fourth annual incarnation of Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival, noted in three previous years for its inclusionary blend of cult artists, regional heroes, hot up-and-comers, and big name headliners, hewed to its eclectic mandate again as artists like John Cale and Richard Youngs shared the bill with rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Alpoko Don, indie rockers Speedy Ortiz and Kopecky Family Band, and luminaries like Britain’s psych-rockers Spiritualized and the Breeders on their reunion tour.
But crowds were thinner this year, most noticeably at the City Plaza events. Losing rapper Big Boi just prior to the event didn’t help Friday night’s party, which featured repetitive, synth-heavy sets from Future Islands and Holy Ghost! But Saturday night was more of a head-scratcher. The Breeders reunion and their front-to-back-plus-extra-tracks version of Last Splash was enthusiastically received, but the Plaza was at best two-thirds full and the set ran as much on nostalgia fumes as genuine inspiration.
By the time headliner Spiritualized finished an epic two-hour set, there were maybe a couple hundred onlookers left in front of the stage, which only emphasized the Catch-22 of festival formats. Mixing the band’s newer streamlined material with classic fare from their earlier releases, Pierce and band – accompanied by two crucial back-up singers – were tight throughout, never more so than on a stunning version of the title track from 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.
But by then the crowd had already thinned considerably, rushing off to see Jamaican Queens or Horse Lords or rapper Fat Tony or Scout Niblett or the Overmountain Men or any other of a handful of worthy acts. Perhaps shiny objects like confetti or Jason Pierce rolling through the crowd in a bubble would’ve kept the audience’s attention. But such is the nature of the festival experience, which tends to reinforce our short attention span culture at the expense of seeing compelling acts build a full set story-line.
There were of course the usual memorable small-club gigs and day parties. Saturday’s Paradise of Bachelors day party at the WPA-era Raleigh Little Theatre was an outdoors treat, with sterling sets from the label’s Chris Forsythe and the Byrds-meet-CCR-meet-Crazy Horse new signees, Promised Land Sound, highlighting a seven-band bill. Though the sets were short, at least listeners had the opportunity to see them in their entirety.
That night, the converted church at Long View Center was a perfect setting for outsider soul artist Lonnie Holley, backed by guitar whiz Steve Gunn and Megafaun bassist Brad Cook. They set the plate nicely for Califone’s Tim Rutili, who introduced his own pick-up team of multi-instrumentalist Wil Hendricks, Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund and the Decembrists/M. Ward percussionist Rachel Blumberg. The new band delivered stunning versions of classic Califone tracks like “Electric Fence” and “Fisherman’s Wife,” while songs from the band’s new LP Stitches slotted in seamlessly amidst Rutili’s between-song existential banter.
Two friends showed up for that midnight set, but before a note was played they were off to see Pissed Jeans around the corner at Kings. That left around 50 people in attendance – or roughly the size of the living room audiences the band has been playing to on their latest tour. But nobody else left during the 90-minute set – maybe it was the lateness of the show or the too-tired-to-move terminus of a manic 3-day venue hopping binge. Whatever it was, it was beautiful, from the first note to the last. And I’m glad I was there for all of it.
FRED MILLS: 10 Things I Dug About This Year’s Hopscotch Fest…and one thing I didn’t.
1) The bands that played the Blurt/Schoolkids Records day parties. As we previously announced, our sister business Schoolkids Records was a co-host of the annual Guitartown/Sadlack’s kickoff party on Thursday, Sept. 4. We had four terrific bands playing on the S-kids stage that afternoon: Roseland, Caleb Caudle, Old Quarter and Magnolia Collective. (My friend Caudle was also backed up by Roseland for a particularly inspired set of twanging.) Then on Friday and Saturday, over at the Deep South bar, we co-hosted a day party that featured Onward, Soldiers, Brett Harris, Kenny Roby, Hank Sinatra and River City Ransom (Friday), then WOOL, Eros & the Eschaton, Some Army, Schooner and Oulipo (Saturday). For me, Some Army and Schooner were particularly revelatory, and I look forward to seeing them (and certainly all the others) again in the near future.
2) Suuns. This Montreal quartet dropped by the record store Friday afternoon (above) for a superb set of hard-edged dreampop—thanks, guys!—which in no way prepared me for their show some 8 hours later at the Berkeley café. From my woozily-scribbled notes: “Phased psych free form freakouts… trancey Krautrock supreme… Neu! lives!” Not even the drunk cadre of glow-stick waving, Christmas-light adorned loonies who pushed down in front of the stage in order to “rave” during Suuns stunning set could dampen the fun. I think I might have tweeted something along the lines of “right now, this is the best band on the planet.” I’m Fred Mills, and I approved that tweet.
3) Spiritualized: Wow. Arriving in darkness just after sunset, the band slowly revealed itself as guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and two female singers, plus Jason Pierce—seated, with a music/lyrics stand—also on guitar. The sound was massive yet intimate all at once, with tasteful lighting and occasional projections on the band and the backdrop. And when a familiar female voice announced languidly, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space…” the crowd on the outdoor downtown plaza roared its approval as a long, blissful slow waltz through the cosmos ensued. Dreampop collided with hard-rock romps, and a good time was had by all.
4) That dude sweeping up cigarette butts. It takes a dedicated service worker—or an overzealous one who took his marching orders a bit too literally—to wade into the middle of a rock concert crowd in order to clean the outdoor plaza of butts. This isn’t something you ever see at shows; the cleanup takes place after the venue has cleared out. But persist he did, not just along the periphery of the crowd, but pushing all the way into it until he was near the front of the stage. Head down, diligently sweeping this way and that into his collector, he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was, in fact, in the middle of a show. To the fans’ credit, they pulled back and parted wherever he went so he could do his job. I think he deserves a raise.
5) Dub Addis. A seven-piece reggae-meets-Afro-beat combo turned a modest crowd at Tir Na Nog into a roomful of believers. And the little girl, probably no more than 4 years old, who ran around the room doing joyful spins perfectly complemented the good-vibes sounds.
6) Shirlette Ammons T4GB. Militant-yet-personal hip-hop from this proud ‘n’ loud black lesbian MC—utterly riveting rhymes and tales. Special props to her band, too, and in particular to German rapper Sookee (also lesbian, white) who came up to guest on a couple of songs during Ammons’ Tir Na Nog showcase.
7) Helado Negro. A/k/a Robert Carlos Lange, his Latin-tinged, disco-tilting dance pop at times veered into neo-karaoke territory, as he was basically just singing over his pre-programmed music. But the man’s killer croon amply evidenced his vocal gifts, and he also had a heavy-lidded charisma that was impossible for the sparse-but-happy CAM crowd.
8) Street food. No, not the band Street Food, although I feel like that is a particularly splendid potential moniker. When I go to Austin each year for SXSW, periodic 5-minute stops for refueling has become my routine; instead of taking an hour and a half to eat at a restaurant, I’m able to spend that 90 minutes seeing more music. And so it was for Hopscotch. No slight to our local restauranteurs of course. But the food trucks and carts were serving up some pretty awesome grub all weekend long in Raleigh.
9) Zen Frisbee. Having had the good fortune to see this legendary band of Tar Heel nutsos back in the early ‘90s, I am pleased to report that their performance at Five Star some 20-odd years later was no less, uh, fun. It had more of a feeling of a family reunion featuring friends and neighbors joining in the festivities than a rock gig, although the band certainly delivered the rock goods. Solid meat and potatoes garage rock tempered by some quirky psych excavations, the ZF aesthetic remains: to thine own self, be true. These guys may be older, but they definitely ain’t wiser, and in my book, for a band, that’s a good thing.
10) Black Zinfandel. Confession: I was at the city plaza enjoying Future Islands—which could be characterized as “New Order reborn without the ego tantrums”—when I got a text from a pal who said that Thurston Moore was doing a surprise set around the corner at Kings Barcade. Figuring I’d have time to catch that and then zip back for the tail end of FI, I bolted… but by the time I arrived at Kings, Moore was done (it had been just a 20-minute noise/freakout performance) and Black Zinfandel was onstage. Two songs later, I was a belieber, er, a believer, in this group’s punk/garage stomp. Well, it doesn’t take too much punk/garage stompin’ to win me over, but still… elements of surf and vintage SST hardcore poked through as well, and I can safely say that the stuff-to-capacity Kings crowd was won over as swiftly as I was. Now where can I pick up a case of Black Zin, hmmm….?
And one more thing… No event like this can come off without a hitch, although if there were many, I didn’t hear about ‘em. Indeed, by some measures the only problem was the number of cancellations—among them, headliner Big Boi, who was subsequently replaced by A-Trak, who is a fine artist but nowhere near Big Boi’s stature. Still, consult the twitter hashtag topic #Hopscotch13 to see what folks were commenting on. Indeed, a couple of yours truly’s tweets concerned the abysmal sound that greeting concertgoers during The Breeders’ Saturday night set at the main downtown plaza. It was, depending on where you perched, alternately (a) sludgy, with indecipherable vocals; or (b) tinny and distant, like that AM radio you used to listen to under your pillow at night as a kid. I wandered around the entire plaza just to be sure; only when standing right at the stage, say within the first 20 feet or so, did the sound quality improve.
It was specific to the Breeders, too: the sound for Spiritualized (see comments, above) was, following some initial shakiness, expansive and dynamic; outstanding no matter where you were. Thus, my initial impression of the Breeders’ deficiency being due to a puny sound system was offbase—the root of the problem was clearly at the mixing desk. A friend commented that there have always been issues with mixing concerts’ music at this location, due to all the concrete on the plaza and the surrounding buildings which to me suggests that it was something that should have been planned for and pre-emptively addressed. (My friend also suggested that Hopscotch move future headlining shows to the nearby Red Hat Amphitheatre where such sound issues aren’t present.) I’m sure a number of people probably purchased the $40 tickets to see the Breeders and Spiritualized Saturday and didn’t partake of the entire Hopscotch fest, and my bet is that some of those people were tempted to ask for their money back due to the sub-par sound of the Breeders.