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Monday, September 12, 2011

Raleigh's Hopscotch Music Festival turns two

Posted By on Mon, Sep 12, 2011 at 4:56 PM

Flaming Lips (Photo by Enid Valu)
  • Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne (right) gives Hopscotch a mega(phone) shout-out. Photo by Enid Valu.

“This will be one of the great festivals for years to come,” Wayne Coyne, the chief shaman of the Flaming Lips, told several thousand merry revelers in Raleigh’s City Plaza Saturday as the three-day Hopscotch Music Festival wrapped up its second year. Amid the giant balloons, lasers and strobe lights that turned the buildings downtown into a psychedelic big top under a dome of perfect Carolina night-sky, even the most cynical observers weren’t going to naysay Coyne’s confetti-covered prediction.

This year, the smorgasbord of music manna kept its new-festival smell by adding venues and new artists to the same aesthetic established last year. Curator Grayson Currin, the music editor of Raleigh's Indy Weekly, took pains again to bring the broadest possible range of national and international music to the Carolinas, mirroring it with the region’s own varied and fecund music scene. That added up to 151 bands at official shows, including five Charlotte entries (Yardwork, Temperance League, Jon Lindsay, Brain F= and Dylan Gilbert). Throw in just as many (or more) acts at day parties and after-hours gigs, and the result tested one's show-going endurance but proved rewarding at almost every stop.

Anywhere your musical whims went, the Hopscotch aesthetic was on display. On Thursday, I strolled over to the beautiful Fletcher Opera Hall, a new venue addition this year. Among sets by acoustic folk-blues wizard Steve Gunn, avant-jazz trio the Necks and Dinosaur Jr legend J Mascis was Rhys Chatham’s magical 1977 piece “Guitar Trio,” this time featuring the composer and nine mostly local guitarists (among them Polvo’s Ash Bowie, Horseback’s Jenks Miller, and Birds of Avalon’s Cheetie Kumar). The piece consists of a single chord played for nearly 30 minutes, with a bassist (Annuals’ Mike Robinson) and drummer (Mount Moriah’s Lee Waters) providing propulsion.

That might sound like a typically cold and academic exercise in the avant-garde, but as the “HOLY SHIT!” texts filling up my phone confirmed, it was instead a transcendent exploration of musical dynamics as emotionally fulfilling as any great rock song. In fact, its “in service of the song” ideal proved a helluva lot more compelling than any tired “Freebird” guitar-hero bullshit. I bumped into Lambchop guitarist William Tyler the next night, who compared the experience to playing in a Gamelan ensemble: “All those guitars riding one chord — I loved it!”

Later that night I caught a great set of avant-pop from one of the few openly gay indie-rock acts — Jamie Stewart’s Xiu Xiu — in the warehouse district (another area Hopscotch expanded into this year), and ended an already rewarding first night strolling the 50 feet between Tír na nÓg and the Pour House. At the former I watched Fan Modine, the resurrected orchestral pop ensemble of Carrboro’s Gordon Zacharias, and at the latter Cold Cave’s grinding goth-rock. Fan Modine’s nonet began its set as a septet because two musicians had to rush over after their gig with Love Language — such is festival life for the music-makers, too.

The next day Shuffle, the regional music magazine I edit, co-hosted a day party along with Arbor Ridge Studios, featuring regional roots rock acts Schooner, Tomahawk and Brett Harris, among others. That night I caught Guided By Voices last-ever reunion show at the Plaza and a hard-core case of 90s nostalgia. Seeing front man Robert Pollard drain most of a fifth of tequila proved weirdly comforting before I headed back to Tír na nÓg. There I caught up-and-coming regional rapper King Mez and the Apple Juice Kid, the instrumental hip-hop project of percussionist extraordinaire Stephen Levitin, who morphed the joint from a daylight roots-rock pub into a glo-stickers’ heavenly grotto.

By Saturday, shows and friends and drinks and venues began stacking up like accordion folds, so co-sponsoring Hopscotch’s day-long “The Rosebuds & Friends Block Party” outside the Lincoln Theatre was both foot-blister balm and a banner day exemplifying the festival’s genre mish-mash. I had the pleasure of introducing Durham poet/artist/rapper Shirlette Ammons and her uber-funky white boy band the Dynamite Brothers to the crowd (guest artist Juan Huevos and Shirlette spitting innuendo rhymes at each other was a hoot), and then sat back in the shade to enjoy sets by up-and-coming dream poppers Youth Lagoon, local college faves Hammer No More the Fingers, and cello wunderkind Ben Sollee.

Having seen our host band The Rosebuds half-a-dozen times over the years, I headed around the corner to catch the Tennessean William Tyler at the air-conditioner-less Lump Gallery. There, between a set of Klezmer (courtesy Phil Blank & Jordan Hutchinson, a.k.a., Soup) and Hiss Golden Messenger’s criminally underappreciated 70s’ rock, Tyler’s unique take on Fahey plucking and Appalachia roots enveloped the overheated crowd like a cool mountain breeze. In what probably amounted to culture shock, I then caught the last half of Superchunk at the main Plaza just as they unleashed my favorite song of theirs (“Driveway to Driveway Drunk,” if you care) before Coyne and the Lips delivered what was for them a middling set but for the brilliant setting that night.

My festival ended with incandescent sets from punk rockers Titus Andronicus and the Budos Band, a visceral bookend to Hopscotch’s eclectic mandate. The former summoned the ghosts of Strummer and young Springsteen and turned an overflowing Tír na nÓg into a delirious pogo-pit, while the Staten Islanders lathered the packed Pour House crowd into an equally sweaty frenzy with their booty-shaking, 007 horn soul. My younger and more energetic colleagues then headed off to an after-hours gig scheduled to kick off at 4 a.m., but for me the festival was over. When I finally collapsed onto my hotel bed, the weekend had already taken on the fuzzy-snapshot quality of half-remembered dreams. I had memories, of course, but Coyne, with his usual knack for emotional truths, had put into words what every Hopscotch attendee was already thinking about: Hopscotch III.

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