Hopscotch Music Festival; Raleigh (various venues); Sept. 5-7, 2019
Hurricane Dorian did its best to douse the celebration on the first night of the 10th Hopscotch Music Festival.
The threat of forceful wind and rain as the outer bands of the storm churned above downtown Raleigh forced organizers to move the first headlining concert. Initially slated to play on a nice temporary stage in City Plaza, surrounded by a picturesque downtown cityscape that lends a nice, natural reverb to whoever plays there, Sleater-Kinney and Kurt Vile were shipped a 10 minute drive away to The Ritz, a cavernous warehouse of a rock club with lackluster acoustics and aggressively expensive beer.
It was the right call — as the blown-over crane I glimpsed on my Uber ride back downtown demonstrated. It was also a definite downgrade.
But Kurt Vile and Sleater-Kinney would not be quelled. The former led his band through a fortifying set that injected electrifying energy into its laconic grooves without forfeiting their relaxing charm. Keyed by the high-kicking verve of guitarist Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney dispensed sharp, angular hooks and riffs, offering ample thrills for fans of catchy, well-sung pop and kinetic indie rock that is at once controlled and chaotic.
The crowd — smaller than it would have been in City Plaza, but still packing the smaller Ritz — responded in kind, nodding and dancing with rapt attention.
The streets downtown were mostly vacant, but when I arrived at Kings, a full house was engrossed by the tectonic grooves of the local metal trio Solar Halos (and another scintillating female guitarist and singer in Nora Rogers). And there was an equally enthusiastic crowd later in the same room when the Japanese metal adventurers in Boris masterfully oscillated between leaden, coarsely rumbling atmospherics and agitated, Hulked-out-Zeppelin conflagrations.
Featuring more than 120 acts playing the main festival at night — in clubs across town and in two big outdoor venues — and afternoons filled w…
When a festival allows you to jump to and fro amid such unexpected but illuminating musical complements, it doesn’t matter that you have to throw on a poncho and play Jim Cantore running between venues. You show up anyway. And you still get wrapped up in the powerful performances and enthusiastic audiences.
When the sun emerged on Friday and Saturday, Hopscotch came into full bloom. The packed slate of day parties were as lively and diverse as ever — the Friday trio of raucous garage and punk rock at the annual Que Viva party at Slim’s (highlighted by Spider Bags and Midnite Snaxxx), left-field Americana weirdness at the Three Lobed/WXDU Annual Ritual of Summoning at Kings (especially the engrossing, drone-y collaboration from Nathan Bowles and Ryley Walker), and the parade of one-off, unannounced improvisational team-ups at the Resonancy: Ripples event at Neptunes was especially enjoyable.
Back on its regular headlining stages at City Plaza and the Red Hat Amphitheater, Hopscotch offered the kind of big festival thrills fans have come to expect in the latter half of its first decade — from the boundary-averse country-as-drag performance from Orville Peck (a spectacular choice to fill in for Purple Mountains following the death of that band’s leader, David Berman) to the enormously purgative choruses and bass drops of CHVRCHES to the still-pitch-perfect chemistry of the reunited rap duo Little Brother.
But the real excitement remained where it always lies, in the “club” shows that stretch past midnight in a diverse variety of rooms — an aspect that didn’t feel diminished despite Hopscotch only using nine such spaces where it has previously stretched into the double digits.
There are few festivals where you can take in the jazz-mutating drumming and speak-singing of the legendary Milford Graves in a sublime acoustic space like Fletcher Opera Theater. Or witness the insanely propulsive Middle Eastern rock of Mdou Moctar and the superbly charming Brazilian psych-pop of Boogarins back-to-back in a great-sounding small rock club like Kings. Or enjoy Ryley Walker’s delightfully twisty art/folk-rock and incisive between-song snark in a swank modern church.
And the South Carolina acts I saw definitely held their own. Charleston’s Brett Nash and Columbia’s ET Anderson, collaborating as ET Nash, excelled with recklessly careening psych-garage energy during their daytime set, and when the same players gathered later to back Charleston singer Niecy Blues, the result was some seriously mind-tingling modern R&B.
There were a few logistical hurdles — this year’s staff was never consistent about which pass got you in where — and not every act was a masterful choice — Dirty Projectors, largely eschewing David Longstreth’s recent electro weirdness for a lukewarm rekindling of the band’s aughts-era indie pop precision, felt especially regressive at such a forward-thinking festival.
But such quibbles hardly seem worth it. For 10 years, the Carolinas have enjoyed one of the most adventurously, thoughtfully programmed festivals in existence.
Long may Hopscotch reign.