First of all, before I get started on Hopscotch Music Fest, I will have to admit that this will be my last Nailgun post, as I’ve moved away from Charlottesville. It’s been so nice writing this summer, though, and I really appreciate all the support I’ve gotten and wonderful people I met over these last three months.
This year, Hopscotch was September 5-7 in Raleigh, N.C. I saw 32 shows total last weekend (35 if you count the “afterparty” at Magnolia House on Sunday), and I figured it would be tiresome if I went through every day of the fest in chronological order, so instead, I’m going to write a list of my ten favorite things from the festival. There’s no logic to the order, really, but here goes…
1. Charlottesville. Strange item to start off a list about a music fest in Raleigh, I know. But the reason I’m even writing this post is because so many people from Charlottesville make their way down to Raleigh every year for Hopscotch. There were times when I’d look around a small venue at the end of the night, and see up to five or six people I knew from town. I guess this must just mean that people in Charlottesville have excellent taste in music. I also caught Invisible Hand playing a day show on Thursday, and they killed it as always.
2. Downtown Raleigh: I see now why the city of Raleigh is one of the reasons why Hopscotch constantly gets rave reviews from everyone who visits. It’s cheap and highly walkable, the venues being at most twenty minutes away from one another, though it’s on average closer to five or ten. There’s a wide variety of venues, too, from the small, dark, rock and roll bar Slim’s, to the tiny Bee Hive, to the Fletcher Opera Theater and Memorial Auditorium, better for sitting quietly and appreciating subtle music.
The locals are sweet and accommodating, and after the first night, it really does start to feel like home. Us Nailgun writers ended up going to this one restaurant, Mecca, three times over the course of the weekend. They have hush puppies stuffed with barbecue on their late night menu, and $2 PBRs.
3. The lineup. Well, what a surprise, of course this would be on the list. But Hopscotch’s lineup is so diverse that it’s easy to customize the festival. I ended up seeing a whole lot of noise and metal bands, and making friends who seemed to have the same taste in music as I did. Though this didn’t mean I entirely self-selected as a pretentious fake metalhead: I was also able to catch some artists I normally wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see, like Nathan Bowles or The Breeders.
4. Inter Arma and other pleasant surprises: Performances at Hopscotch this year were merely solid at their worst, and mind-blowing at their best. It didn’t feel like a single artist was phoning it in or not trying to impress the audience. This means that more often than not, an artist would completely exceed my expectations, even if they were already quite high. Saturday was the best night for this. I started out by seeing Spiritualized at the City Plaza (where I had seen Future Islands play the day before with less-than-stellar sound), who played for two full hours and nearly brought me to tears. J. Spaceman’s voice sounded as good as ever, as he sat on his chair looking fragile and godlike in all white. The band cranked up both the “gospel” and “noise” aspects of their sound, and played versions of some songs that may have been even more beautiful than the originals. (“Ladies and Gentlemen,” with your Elvis sample, I’m looking at you.)
And directly after Spiritualized, I rushed over to the Lincoln Theater to catch most of Inter Arma‘s set. They’re a metal band from Richmond, who released their latest album, Sky Burial, earlier this year. I liked the album for its epically long songs with shifts in tempo and genre, and had been meaning to see the band live for a while. I arrived at the venue ten minutes after they began playing, and they delivered probably my favorite performance of the festival, even on the heels of Spiritualized. First of all: the visuals. All five of them, all long-haired metal bros headbanging and soloing in perfect unison. The frontman leaned over the crowd, lit with red lights, crazed expression making his growled vocals all the more believable. And, the music. I instantly understood why they were opening for stoner metal pioneers Sleep, with large sections of their songs played heavy and loud, taking their time to immerse the crowd in the repetition. Then, all of a sudden, they would launch into a quicker-paced section of the song that combined classic thrash riffs and elements of newer genres like black metal. They’re touring with the Brooklyn black metal band Woe right now, and I highly recommend taking time to watch them play.
5. New bands!! It fills my cynical old heart with such joy to see new young whippersnappers playing good old rock and roll. Jamaican Queens (of Detriot!) and The Beets (cute garage rock!) and Sannhet (new black metal from Brooklyn!) all made me smile.
6. The crowds: Unlike the crowds at Pitchfork (the only other large music fest I go to), which tend to be full of high schoolers on Molly wearing flower crowns, the crowds at Hopscotch skew older, and it’s clear that the vast majority of people are there expressly for the music. When you’re seeing up to twelve shows a day, it’s nice that you don’t have to fight people to stand up at the end of the night, unless you want to. (The one exception to this was, of course, Pig Destroyer, where I had to move to the side because I forgot all their fans were dudes twice the size of me). Watching people watch Merzbow was always interesting as well, especially the woman who took off her shirt. For Merzbow.
7. “Celebrity” sightings. Though maybe eight bands could be playing at one time every evening, Hopscotch still feels like a small festival. Included in this is the fact that you spot people from bands everywhere. I had a good long conversation with The Beets at the same venue Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy and Merzbow came to watch four metal shows on Saturday. I wasn’t going to, you know, chat up Merzbow, but it’s a great thing to see a culture of musicians interested in each others’ work. Especially since I also saw Hunt-Hendrix at the Wolf Eyes and Wolf Eyes + Merzbow show, and the noise fan in me freaked out just a tiny bit. And maybe the best moment of all was seeing a confused Merzbow get carded at Slim’s for those Saturday metal shows, by a bouncer who did not recognize him at all.
8. Speaking of Merzbow… He was the “improvisor in residence” at this year’s festival, meaning he would show up basically unannounced and play sets or single songs with artists throughout the course of the weekend. This means that I saw him play four times, even though I missed his set with Evoken. Do you know how much indie street cred I have now from seeing Merzbow, Thurston Moore, and John Moloney (of Howlin’ Rain/Sunburned Hand of the Man/Chelsea Light Moving) play together? I think I automatically win every argument about noise music for the next five years. He spent the whole festival improvising electronically, and with an instrument he likely built himself, out of what appeared to be a metal film canister, and springs from the inside of a guitar, which he played with a piece of scrap metal.
With each artist he collaborated with, his compositions took on different aspects. With Wolf Eyes, his harsh noise was given more body and structure, though sometimes the noise would start compounding on itself as Nate Young screamed along to the improvisation. And the next day, his noise took a back seat to Thurston‘s guitar work and John Moloney‘s skillful drumming.
9. Day parties: Hopscotch can be exhausting, what with the day drinking, and the standing all day in bad shoes, and the live tweeting. Which is why my nap in the outdoor amphitheater of the Rose Garden while Birds of Maya (a Philadelphia psychedelic jam band containing Purling Hiss‘s Mike Polizze) played was secretly one of my favorite moments of the festival. The band had sound issues, playing outside in the middle of the afternoon, but just imagining how ass-kicking their performance would be in a tiny venue late at night while I dozed off was enough for me.
I didn’t sleep all day, though. At day parties, I was able to catch a lot of bands I wouldn’t have been able to see at night, including North Carolina rock and roll favorites Naked Gods and Spider Bags, both of whom put on loud, fun performances at Slim’s. The Beets played Slim’s during the day as well, winning me over with their earnest adorableness. In the dark bar, they were able to set up their trademark old-school lightbulb light show, giving their Nuggets-inspired lo-fi tunes the atmosphere they needed.
10. Sleep: My god, whoever put together this festival really knew how to end the weekend. Usually by the last day of Pitchfork, I’m lying on the ground, really just too tired to give a fuck about the last headliner of the weekend. But no, instead, my face got fucking melted by the stoner metal kings. Basically everyone I had run into over the course of the festival gathered in the Lincoln theater for this last show. Sleep are extreme metal, in that they have distilled the doom-laden riffs of Black Sabbath and extended them until they are all-engulfing and hang in the air until they are almost tangible. Then, when you think it’s never going to end, Al Cisneros starts singing or Matt Pike wails on his guitar for just long enough, before launching back into the crushing doom. It’s a classic format, this push-and-pull of the audience, that has been adopted by newer bands like Inter Arma, and still completely effective.
(And, shoutout to James, Carolyn, and Amanda: our late-night pizza party would have been #11. If Mikal Cronin would have shown up, it would have definitely made the list…)