The third annual Hopscotch Music Festival began, officially, at 8:30 p.m., but bands had begun playing through preceding eight hours, filling sanctioned but officially unaffiliated day parties. The first day offered a bounty of local talent—and enough work-and-school-skipping festival goers to fill rooms for them—playing mostly straightforward styles.
Chapel Hill’s Cassis Orange, helmed by songwriter Autumn Ehinger, opened my day (though Americana singer/songwriter Caleb Caudle played the very first day party set a few blocks away) with simple but effective pop, matching Ehinger’s chirping Casio keys to the twangy ‘90s-indie crunch of guitarist Will Hackney (also of Midtown Dickens). Jenny Besetzt, an upstart band from Greensboro, N.C., followed with a stirring set that drew plenty of influence from British indie, floating Johnny Marr guitar jangle over a driving Joy Division-y bass. In these daytime slots, I was most impressed with the Chapel Hill sextet Some Army, whose rich, sophisticated pop carried the poise of later Wilco. The band leaves no negative space in its arrangements, but still manages never to crowd singer Russ Baggett’s weary tenor.
It is perhaps its greatest asset and its biggest obstacle that Hopscotch Music Festival places so much emphasis on experimental and otherworldly sounds. It certainly offers variety: I saw 13 bands in the festival’s first day, and they ranged in style from calm, sophisticated indie rock to mosh-inciting hardcore punk, but the most exciting sets carried no easy description.
Megafaun’s Phil Cook, playing solo to open the festival-proper, offered a compelling trip through old-time folk, which, in its elegance, seemed perfectly suited for the large Fletcher Opera Theater. In its rootsy familiarity, though, it gave little hint to the next two sets I’d witness.
Experimental guitarist Chris Forsyth and electro-acoustic whiz Koen Holtkamp (of the Thrill Jockey soundscapers Mountains) collaborated on a long-form kosmische piece that made room in Forsyth’s cosmic Americana comfort zone for Holtkamp’s electronic throb. As it built into a final, entrancing crescendo, the sound emanating from the two players seemed to stuff the former church sanctuary at the Long View Center to capacity. Its organic, improvisational feel, consistent pulse and spacey, psychedelic tones suggested some of the collaborative recordings issued by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden and the late jazz drummer Steve Reid.
Jon Mueller, who is probably best known for his work at the drum seat for the Bon Iver side-project Volcano Choir, led his experimental ensemble Death Blues at the rock club The Lincoln Theatre. Mueller’s an impossibly nuanced drummer, able to coax cascades of overtones from the simplest set, but in Death Blues, he’s a muscular, primal rock pounder in the league of Battles’ John Stanier. With hammered guitars, bass, auxiliary percussion and group vocals, Death Blues offered an otherworldly incantation suggestive of primitive rites and Swans’ more recent output.
The notion of spirituality—grappling with it, understanding it, mutating it—continued into Matthew E. White’s set. Much ado has been made of the Richmond, Va. auteur’s solo debut, Big Inner, and last night he recreated its gospel grandeur and symphonic majesty with the aid of more than 30 backing musicians. In this setting, White’s understated, sometimes mumbly vocal was never a shortcoming, becoming instead a quiet, soulful and sincere instrument that allowed a feeling of intimacy in the largest production Hopscotch has ever put on. As the set ended with the 10-minute “Brazos,” White led his band into an exuberant, joyful revival.
With these sorts of mind-mangling or spiritually arresting performances, it’s hard to feel excited by anything less than extraordinary. Sweden’s Holograms, who played an energetic set of synth-augmented very much in the vein of Iceage, were tight and incited much activity from the audience. California hardcore headliners Trash Talk did likewise with their tight, vicious performance. These were great sets, but somehow felt less so relative to their predecessors on my schedule.
So maybe it was a product of diminished expectations or just the raw enthusiasm of hundreds of people jumping, shouting and sweating at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum, but Thee Oh Sees won the night. Drawing from their propulsive, Krautrock-informed Carrion Crawler/The Dream, Thee Oh Sees played with abandon, stretching songs in new directions as the audience repaid their energy with reckless enthusiasm. Without bright colored stage lights, and in the collective fog of sweat, the Museum made Thee Oh Sees’ set feel like it was happening at a semi-legal loft, somehow large enough to hold multiple hundreds, rather than at the headlining slot of a major festival’s first night.
Because Hopscotch is booked with such an inclusive schedule—where the heaviest of metal shares room with the brightest of pop, the most expansive psychedelic wanderings with the most concise hip-hop—it’s easy to find something to like. It’s a rarer feat that it’s so easy to find something ecstatic.
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Phil Cook and His Feat
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Jon Mueller's Death Blues
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John Mueller's Death Blues
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Jon Mueller's Death Blues
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