LIVE REVIEW: Hopscotch Music Festival 2011
Over the weekend, Raleigh, North Carolina welcomed the second annual Hopscotch Festival. With over 150 bands and close to the same number of southern comfort food delicacies, the Owl Mag delved into the great beyond of the Mason Dixon Line and came out all the better, if not fatter, for it.
On the first night of the festival, it can usually be expected that the first act isn't going to pull in a huge, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. This was a gross underestimation for Brooklyn's Dinosaur Feathers, who within 5 minutes of doors opening saw a packed crowd, a line down the block and a one in, one out policy. It wasn't surprising given the band's penchant for the Afro-Beats meets 60s pop leanings, a combination that seems to have proved unstoppable over the past few years (See: the often-compared Vampire Weekend). Perhaps, however, audience members had been tipped off and were really just there to watch the amazing balancing act of drummer Nick Brooks. Surely the PBR added something.
Last Year's Men
When bassist Gregg Levy approached a girl, who was fervently writing in a notebook, at the end of their set and asked if he could contribute to her musings, it was no surprise that his input was full of deprecation. “That last song really sucked,” he wrote “and actually Spider Bags really sucked.” That was the most that was decoded from creepy over the shoulder glances, but not much more was needed to see how SP's art truly reflects their life. On their 2009 LP, Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World there was present an acute awareness of life's obscenities and ironies told through southern-fried punk-pop. It's not shocking that the title evokes memories of Daria's Sick Sad World. In many ways, Spider Bags could be its soundtrack.
The Love Language
JEFF the Brotherhood
Running through the streets of Raleigh, making it in time to see Jeff the Brotherhood was both exciting and disheartening. Exciting because, in case you're skimming and didn't catch that, it's JEFF the Brotherhood. Disheartening because Slim's was so packed you had to settle for being enthralled by the audiences' various hairstyles and bald spots. Having to dart back out again to catch the Black Lips, this picture of the merch table was the only proof of the set. Hearing the roaring guitar intro for “Heavy Days” made the leg cramps and wind-tunnel look worth it.
The Black Lips
The Black Lips are raucous, dirty, and don't give a shit what the bouncers say. When a throng of girls hopped the stage, the Georgia boys not only used their bodies to physically block them from being removed, Cole Alexander berated the handlers yelling to the offstage shadows, “Go fucking start your own band. Then you can get girls on or off the stage. Go through all the work. Fuck you, man.” Yet, even these antics were tame for the quartet known for their near arrests and on-stage shenanigans. When their seemingly self-referential anthem “Bad Kids” came over the loud speakers, the crowd went absolutely, ridiculously, insane. Just the way they like it.
The next morning eventually came, and while not necessarily lost, but definitely looking for something to find, stumbling onto the Lincoln Theater block party was a happy accident made possible by Kurt Vile. The familiar two-chord “Ghost Town” blasting on a distant speaker worked like a dollar on fishing line. Walking through the barricade and passing the crowd, the large (and air-conditioned) Lincoln Theater seemed like an optimum choice, leading to one of the festival's most interesting experiences… and it didn't even involve a live band.
Entering into a dark room, there was something hardly witnessed during a festival: people sitting in complete silence. Eyes straight ahead, the crowd seemed entranced by a projection on a screen. It was the the Drive-By Truckers documentary, The Secret to a Happy Ending. The obsession with rockstars is always an interesting, if not slightly defeating, fascination, where their lives become fodder for outsiders based solely on speculation. The Secret provided a glimpse into a band often denoted only by soundbites of drunkenness or break-ups. The film examined the well known tales as well as looked what lay beyond them, proving grossly entertaining.
After staying a bit too long watching the film, the exit from the Lincoln Theater proved fruitful as Ben Sollee was about to take the stage. His country-boy persona and the daemons that come from battling such an identity, something he expelled upon before playing his song “Bible Belt”, were out in full force. So was his cello, which made for a very nice afternoon listening, especially for those lucky enough to snag a parking garage spot:
The Rosebuds, who happened to hold the title of the day party [The Rosebuds & Friends Block Party] were the last band on the outdoor stage. This quartet are darlings of the North Carolina scene, signed to the illustrious Merge Records, an organization that is the product of two other great NC-ers (who also lent themselves to the Hopscotch line-up), Superchunk's Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. The Rosebuds are an interesting story, made up partially by Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard, a couple who formed the Rosebuds the week of their marriage and put out their last album Loud Planes Fly Low at the culmination of their divorce. Working together as bandmates, there weren't any obvious forlorn glances, just pleasant harmonies, which provided a nice end to the afternoon.
Seeing Diamond Rings hadn't been on the schedule. Not that it was any sort of burden, it was simply trying to switch up the rotation for artists that hadn't been seen. Of course, that was before it came into view: the magical red couch pushed up against the walls of Five Star, tempting all the weary travelers. Of course, any rest was only momentary, for the moment that the 6 foot 4 inch performer took to the stage, everyone got to their feet. Diamond Rings is one of the best kinds of dichotomy because he seems to explore the very conundrum of their existence. Do things need to be either/or? With Ian Curtis vocals behind an electro-pop drum beat, gender, sexuality and appropriate dance moves… none of these things are off limits. Not the first, nor the last person to do so, but that doesn't make it any less intriguing (or so ridiculous catchy).
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Despite being plagued by sound issues, Unknown Mortal Orchestra gave a glimpse into why their mysterious presence is worth looking in to. There's a sort of desperat
e, tortured vocal that comes through from Ruben Nielson, whose voice seems miles away despite being within arms length. There is also a shyness to UMO, or at least a comfort in ambiguity, something that could be easily derived given the first word of their moniker clearly puts that point across. Maybe it was the exhaustion finally catching up, but the set felt as if it was being seen through a kaleidoscope, a lingering blend of colors and instrumentals and an eerie sense that even though the trio was standing right there before you, you couldn't really see them at all.
The Drive-By Truckers
Although the documentary involving Drive-By Truckers was a surprising highlight, it wasn't something that occurred until after seeing their live performance. Thus entering their Friday night set, there wasn't yet any knowledge of how “The Sands of Iwo Jima” was written about Patterson Hood's uncl,e George A (“It occurred to me that I only wrote about bad things. I thought, 'Why can't I write a song about George A.?' “) or having the experience of watching former member Jason Isobells' painful interview following his departure from the band and divorce from bassist Shonna Tucker. All there was was the knowledge that a new spectacle was at hand. When Hood took to the stage, hardly giving care to his bandaged hand, he moved with a gravitas, acting as the composer for the Rock Opera music to which DBT is often aligned. But on a stage lined with whiskey, if Hood was the theatrics, Mike Cooley brought a more subdued, yet still aggressive rockstar, pushing out endless riffs and fulfilling the historic position of rock 'n' roll wingman. Never having seen Drive-By Truckers also meant never having seen their fans in action. Seeing the film the next day, one fan commented that she often wore diapers to DBT shows so as not to “miss anything.” Give the impassioned crowd the night before, such a revelation hardly seemed shocking.
Guided By Voices
Every day a small prayer goes out to Saint Rita, the Patron Saint of Baseball. Sprinkling rose petals (usually into the wind or in the flower shop aisle, as the logistics of religious offerings has never been a strong point), a lengthy service follows: “Oh possibly heavenly being, thanks for messing up Robert Pollard's arm. Yeah, he threw the first no-hitter in the history of his University's teams, but let's be honest, Bee Thousand really needed to be made. Really.” Back in Raleigh, standing in amongst the throngs of people pushing forward, a man in a faded Guided by Voices Alien Lanes shirt looked up in awe at the stage and said, “It's like my prayers have been answered.” Taking personal credit for his happiness (the rituals worked), it wasn't hard to see that most in the audience were having the same sort of out-of-body experience. Men wiped away tears, children looked on horrified at their uninhibited parents, and Robert Pollard took swigs of J. Daniels between barking out titles and ripping through songs with such intensity it caused audience whiplash. Despite claims that this was their last ever performance, their act didn't seem to be that of a band who could possibly be ready to slow down. Let's hope it's not true. Looks like Saint Rita will have another prayer to answer.
Southern gentlemen look out over the balcony onto the City Plaza show.
Momentary panic set in when Mac McCaughan looked into the overhead stage lights and said, “Hey, can we turn down these lights. Fuc… I mean, fudge. Sorry to all the kids in the audience.” Did this mean that Superchunk's quintessential eff you song wasn't going to get its time to shine? You haven't really lived (or you haven't worked a shit job) if at one point or another you haven't turned on their classic song to get out some aggression. Superchunk ripped through an impressive set, filled with onstage acrobatics (lot's of jumping) and great songs like “Hyper Enough” and “Cast Iron.” As the set waned and the last three song marker was set, the outlook seemed bleak. And then it happened. The sound of the E chord rang out and there it was: “Slack Motherfucker!”
Ways you know The Flaming Lips are afoot:
1. Shirtless men in overalls are pushing balloons into a net at 8 in the morning.
2. Giant disco balls are normal trunk cargo
3. Wayne Coyne is everywhere. He must have come out and talked to the random City Plaza bystander at least ten times prior to the show.
Of course, calling The Flaming Lips a “show” seems like a slight misrepresentation. It's a performance, a spectacle, an imaginative playhouse from the mind of a madman. While their usual antics were certainly cramped by the limitations of the slightly small outdoor space, Coyne did his best to keep the energy up and refused to forgo his infamous “bubble” entrance. Mid-way through a performance, whose early songs recalled favorites like “Yoshimi”, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”, and “She Don't Use Jelly”, Coyne interjected, “Sometimes everyone just feels like they're going nuts. Like you may have a good life, a good job, but then you stop and think, 'Am I going fucking insane?'” He likened freakish behavior to the waning and waxing of the moon, noting the full moon hanging in the sky and then launching into a cover of “Brain Damage” by Pink Floyd.
The night also saw plenty of confetti, megaphoning, and a special audience sing-a-long to one girl pressed against the front row barricade. Lara, as her name was revealed, received a very special rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the form of thousands of cacophonous voices screaming through dinosaur suits and strobe lights.
Titus Andronicus was the absolute, hands-down, perfect way to end Hopscotch. The strangest thing about the band is that wherever they play it wouldn't be hard to convince someone that it was their hometown show. Sure, it can be attributed (and critiqued) for just a general appreciation of the communal act of screaming or the fact that there is something cathartic about screeching, “You will always be a loser!” at the top of your lungs. Yet, looking around the room at bodies sweaty, tired and entangled, yet still willing to hold one another up as Stickles launched into “Born in the USA” (a tribute, as he took a moment to mention that it was the eve of 9/11), it seemed that the appeal of Titus Andronicus seems to be to rally emotion from bleak, unexplored depths, to pair aggression with a sense of existentialism, to give a hard, fast bass line to unspoken fears. And, of course, the freedom of yelling at the top of your lungs doesn't hurt.
Of course, the plight of festivals is that with so many acts you can't see or even name them all. Other great shows included Rhys Chatham [and his 11 piece band], the Generationals, Disappears, Hospitality and Vivian Girls. With the overwhelming number of good shows, it only adds up to one thing: Hopscotch definitely has established itself as a festival capable of staying power. Thanks for the memories [and the delicious fried food and endless stream of beer] Hopscotch. See you next year!