This is Jasper’s 2nd year at Hopscotch, a three-day music festival in Raleigh that features an extraordinarily eclectic lineup of over 170 acts scattered at 14 venues in the downtown area. With a pointed inclusion of everything from folk singers, country bands, and indie pop to hip-hop, avante garde jazz, and death metal, the festival demonstrates a breadth and depth of selection that is quite simply astonishing. This festival also seamlessly blends a significant amount of North Carolina acts in with a wide-ranging group of national and international acts as well. Starting to see why it’s called hopscotch?
While we covered the festival last year a bit in Vol. 2 No. 002 in the context of Columbia’s festival scene, this time around we just want to give you a taste of what the whirlwind experience of Hopscotch is like. So…here we go!
(Note: I (Kyle Petersen) am using the “I” here, although staff photographer Jonathan Sharpe was along for most of the shenanigans as well. Check out a slide show of some of his photos from the day at the bottom of the post!)
I kicked things off at 8:30pm on Thursday with Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers, Pelt), a plaintive banjo player from Blacksburg, Virginia. (The first day’s line-up doesn’t get going until the evening, giving folks time to get off from work. Friday and Saturday are a different story.) Bowles actually has a stronger background in drums and percussion in indie and progressive rock bands, but picked up the banjo a few years ago and has become quite devoted to it, mixing the traditional clawhammer style with a strong progressive bent. Playing a mix of originals and covers, Bowles created a warm, nuanced sound that meandered easily through the attentive crowd in Fletcher Opera Theater, a 600-seat venue where every seat in the house feels intimate. (Fletcher is part of a larger performing arts triumvirate that includes Memorial Auditorium and the Kennedy Theater, making it one of the hotspots of Hopscotch.)
Next I bumped over to The Kingsbury Manx right next door at Memorial, a cavernous 2,000 seater that allows festival goers to really stretch out and for the bands to get seriously loud. A Chapel Hill indie rock cult favorite, KM mixes neo psych and folk with luxurious power pop, and live their is a laidback joy to their performance, with an assured confidence that gives their intricate, occasionally delicate songs a bit of a swagger. Their set left me feeling like, in another world, KM could be as big and as critically lauded as Wilco.
After KM, I sauntered back over to Fletcher, where the Chicago-based singer/songwriter Angel Olsen was running a bit late. I didn’t mind, though, since as soon as she started playing you probably could have knocked me over with a feather. Olsen rose to prominence (as far as I know) from her role in Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Cairo Gang, where she contributed some pretty otherwordly vocals, but I really wasn’t prepared for her vocal presence here. The inadequate comparisons I could come up with are to people like Antony Hegarty or Joanna Newsom, but neither does justice to the aching, sighing swoon that Olsen employs, moving in and away from the microphone so much and so skillfully that her distance from it was almost an integral part of the song. What she sang about was nearly as enchanting, reflecting on the nature of love and relationships with steely, sad-eyed lenses. This was a set to remember.
Sylvan Esso, a surprising collaboration between Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath and Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn, was pulsating next door (this was the first moment where I was really, really glad I brought earplugs), and I was able to catch the last few songs of their set as well. Their music feel like something that shouldn’t work--electronic dance music backing up free-form freak-folk songs in lieu of any other instrumentation--and yet somehow it does. It also seems like odd music to play live, but Meath and Sanborn were giving it their all, uninhibitedly dancing and swaying to the idiosyncratic beats and baffling choruses as if they’ve found their very own pop nirvana. And maybe they have.
After that I made my way over to the Irish bar Tir Na Nog, located a few blocks away from the glamour of those auditorium spaces, where it shares a block with the Pour House Music Hall and is right around the corner from Slim’s and The Hive @ Busy Bee; these four clubs form the other hotspot of Hopscotching set-hopping. Despite that fact, I was sitting tight at Tir Na Nog, though, for two of my favorite alt. country bands, both of whom happen to be from Raleigh.
The Backsliders were up first, a group that was a big part of the wave of 1990s alt. country acts that made it seem like the genre was going to be a much bigger force in the music world than it is today. Although some would argue that The Backsliders were one of the best of the lot, they didn’t have as much success as Whiskeytown or Old 97’s, and they disbanded in ‘99, and only recently reunited for a few live gigs. Led by Chip Robinson, still full of as much (maybe more?) piss and vinegar and rock and roll energy as ever, The Backsliders blasted through a set of their classics as if it were 1996 instead of 2013. The original lineup all looked pretty stoked to be playing again, as lead guitarist Steve Howell provided effusive, blistering solos and keyboardist Greg Rice favorably channeled Benmont Tench and Garth Hudson. Special highlight: Robinson invited up BJ Barham (of American Aquarium) to help him out with “Abe Lincoln,” a tune that AA recorded on their last album and that, last year at Hopscotch, Barham invited Robinson to join AA to sing on.
American Aquarium were up next, and clearly were feeding off the energy the Backsliders left on stage. The last couple of times I’ve caught them in Columbia, they’ve felt a little rougher after coming off hard stretches on the road--here, they were polished and poised, and gave the hometown crowd every little bit of awesomeness that their songs have got. Barham’s vocals, which many of the band’s detractors take issue with, were in particularly fine form. I also got front row seat’s to the Whit Wright experience, where the young multi-instrumentalist spent some heavy time on the lap steel before rotating back in the pedal steel guitar.
The last stop of the night was at the Lincoln Theater, a great mid-sized rock club where Kurt Vile & the Violators were a little late getting on stage, allowing me to catch most of their set as well. While I’m a fan of Vile’s work, particularly this year’s Wakin on a Pretty Day, I was hoping for a bit more guitar fireworks than I actually got. Live he pretty much sticks to the unhurried, spacious 70s rock sound filtered through 90s slacker indie rock vibe that he’s always gone for. His acoustic guitar work, just like on record, is what keeps you going here, as he wanders through his laconic songs not unlike J. Mascis does when he straps on an acoustic.
All in all, an excellent first evening, although disturbingly tiring given the onslaught of day parties and outdoor headliners that awaits us over the next two days...