Photos by Thomas Hammond
Hopscotch Music Festival; Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina; Sep. 8-10, 2016
I’ve been to each of the seven overwhelming weekends put on by Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival. And in that time, I missed some amazing stuff.
In 2012, with their outdoor set pushed late due to storms, I huffed it away from the legendary Roots crew — who I still maintain are one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, having caught them a couple years prior — after only a couple songs. In 2013, I caught only the last song by revered indie rock band The Breeders, an admittedly stellar rendition of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Last year, I passed up a chance to catch psych-rock progenitor Roky Erickson in order to split two other sets.
Hopscotch demands you make such hard decisions. Each night at this year’s festival, 10 clubs and an outdoor main stage in Raleigh’s City Plaza ran simultaneously; on Friday, the festival added one more large open-air venue in the Red Hat Amphitheater, the first time Hopscotch has used that space. All told, more than 120 acts performed across the festival’s three nights. Each day, countless more played the vast selection of official and unofficial day parties. Options were plentiful. Conflicts were everywhere.
But Hopscotch is not about regret. The daunting supply of talent is so well curated that it’s likely any educated choice — or really, even an uneducated one — will lead you to something good, and possibly something special. By bailing on The Roots, I ensured I’d see Nobunny, garage rock’s fiercely entertaining costumed trickster. Instead of catching The Breeders, I saw the blistering punk band Coke Bust lay waste to a basement space during an unofficial set. And in bypassing Roky Erickson, I saw Steve Gunn & the Black Twig Pickers melt down traditional notions of Americana before taking in the influential doom metal act Old Man Gloom. In each instance, I regret nothing.
I also harbor no regrets for having skipped Erykah Badu, the R&B and hip-hop icon that crowned this year’s lineup with a Friday set in Red Hat Amphitheater. Like The Roots, she went on late, a little before 10:30 p.m. after being scheduled for 8 p.m. — per Greg Lowenhagen, Hopscotch’s director, she missed her flight. There are many festivals where such a monumental disappointment would wreck the entire night, but with Hopscotch, the schedule is like a shark’s mouth: Whenever one tooth falls out, there’s another there to replace it.
And so instead of seeing Erykah Badu, I enjoyed a most interesting tandem of back-to-back sets, a testament to Hopscotch’s thrilling diversity. Heading to Fletcher Opera Theater (a sonically gorgeous space; seriously, buying a Hopscotch ticket would be worth it just to see the acts that play here), I started with part of a duo set by saxophonist Jim Sauter and drummer Kid Millions. It was one of the most visceral and abrasive free jazz experiences I’ve ever had, with Sauter layering corrosive effects onto his emphatic bleats as Kid Millions unleashed a torrential cavalcade.
I took my leave of this amazing volatility to run over to the other Hopscotch space in Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center, the 2,300-capacity Memorial Auditorium. Boulevards, the experimental R&B project fronted by Raleigh’s own Jamil Rashad, was owning the large space with boundless grooves and fearless charisma. Keeping the energy level redlined, Rashad, going shirtless with a pair of white jeans, threw himself around the room, jumping off towering speakers and bounding into the crowd. It was a blur of sexy sound and unrelenting vigor. (Lucky for Columbia, Boulevards bring their show to our own Jam Room Music Festival on Nov. 12.)
Indeed, the stylistic variance and jam-packed schedule always makes me want to gauge my Hopscotch experience in terms of these unlikely back-to-back encounters.
On Saturday, I saw Patrick Haggerty offer hilarious and poignant tales of the upbringing that led him to record the first openly gay country album, Lavender Country, in 1973, peppering the set with sparkling renditions backed by the Nashville rock band Promised Land Sound. Staying until the end, I immediately jetted to catch the last hour of Baroness, as the anthemic metal band used booming riffs and shout-along choruses to turn the first few rows into its own bellowing chorus.
Earlier that same night, I saw Tashi Dorji play with a piece of wood under his guitar strings, slapping and slashing at his instrument, often with help from a thin metal implement, goaded by his drumming partner Tyler Damon into an arresting crescendo of weird pings and aggressive static. It was one of a few sets that proved Hopscotch’s experimental tangents — a rarity at such a large festival — are as fervent and healthy as ever. Other such highlights included the pristine acoustic drones offered by Daniel Bachman & Friends; the soft-to-blaring display put on by the saxophone quartet Battle Trance; and the enormously droning rendition of “War Pigs” that guitarist Bachman mustered at the Three Lobed/WXDU day party with a band that included, among others, James “Wooden Wand” Toth.
But of course, this being Hopscotch, I skipped out on the Dorji/Damon Duo after about 12 minutes, running across downtown to catch Eric Bachmann, who offered songs — mostly from his 2016 self-titled effort, a beautifully arranged collection of emotionally wrenching folk tunes — with just acoustic guitar and two glossy-voiced female backup singers. The renditions were as delicate as they were devastating, a far cry from the sonic assault I had just witnessed.
The best tandem I saw came on the first night. I started in Fletcher with Lambchop, where the softly swaying, folk-leaning rock band was showcasing a new look, with leader Kurt Wagner warping his comfortably gruff croon with Autotune, lending additional hypnotism to his loping narratives. The minimalist results — augmented by simple beats, piano, bass and occasional guitar — were as strange as they were beautiful. I followed Lambchop with the brutal precision of the longstanding metalcore band Converge, which leveraged frequent dynamic and rhythmic shifts to make its manic breakdowns feel even more violent.
But this spectacular diversity would mean nothing if Hopscotch didn’t hold down the basic hallmarks that keep people coming back.
Some come for a festival that consistently delivers great indie rock — there was plenty of that, particularly at the Saturday OCSC/Third Uncle day party that featured searing sets from Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, The Rock*A*Teens, and Birds of Avalon (joined at different points by Kid Millions and Future Islands singer Samuel T. Herring).
Some come, increasingly, for hip-hop, an initial weakness for Hopscotch has become a strength — City Plaza sets from the ridiculously energetic Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals, and the somber but engrossing Vince Staples pushed rap in fantastically different directions.
Others come to celebrate regional talent — Durham electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, born at a 2012 Hopscotch day party, enthralled a crowd of thousands with its hypnotic merger of club thump and indie pop melody.
So yeah, I missed Erykah Badu. But I don’t feel the least bit bad about it.