Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival 2012


photo 2 e1347256434639 Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival 2012

Slap-bracelet koozie // Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

There’s some vestiges of Magellan that still run through our blood, but the pioneering spirit in music has a habit of leading to dead ends, or sending us around in circles, or retreating toward the safety of civilization. Loathe as I am to say, there is a large circle of people who will never read this — people who don’t possess that need for discovery at all, and who see music as a passive or incidental thing in their life like the hum of cicada or the refrigerator kicking in at intervals. I know several wonderful people like this, where music for them is something that happens in the background, mixed in with the din of life.

But for the admittedly small circle of people who not only seek out unfamiliar music, but actively search in the deepest abysses of the unknown, Raleigh, NC becomes a new frontier. This year’s Hopscotch Music Festival, presented by The Independent Weekly, featured 175 bands, many of which were local to Raleigh, Durham, and the Chapel Hill area, spread out over 15 venues in downtown Raleigh for three days. It was brutal to try to see more than four full sets by bands each night, but some of the day parties made scheduling less of a suicidal thing. On Friday night, the choice was Dan Deacon w/ cell phone participation, The Mountain Goats covering metal songs on piano and offering a rarities set, and Yo La Tengo joined by drummer extrordinare/improvisor in residence Chris Corsano. Just brutal.

But conflicts aside, Hopscotch felt the baby bear sized, like I imagine SXSW felt back in the day, only there’s no pressure of trying to get signed to a label or trying to cow tow to industry moguls. The bands that played here are very much about their art — they are 90% through their Kickstarter campaigns like the Moz via desert psych band Toddlers, they are re-releasing old LPs that no one cared about when they were initially released in the 70’s like Arnold Dreyblatt who guested with Megafaun on Saturday night, and they are challenging the notions of song structure because that’s what excites them, like Bill Orcutt who plays the living hell out of his guitar with all the fire of his soul and it sounds like beautiful garbage.

The bands I saw at Hopscotch couldn’t love what they’re doing more, because there’s no other viable option. This is where their explorations took them — free improvisation drumming, table-top guitar looping, doom metal, noise rock, all sugared up with a party by The Roots in the rain on Saturday night at the Raleigh City Plaza.

At the end of the weekend, every audible noise I heard started to sound like music: The hotel’s A/C in the morning, a truck idling at a stoplight, and no joke I thought that the sound of two industrial pavement cutters echoing in a parking garage was an actual band playing. There’s plenty of insider echo-chamber happening at Hopscotch, and if I had a hazard to guess, record label employees, record store workers, alt-weekly scribes, and other artists made up a decent percentage of the attendance. In that sense, maybe Hopscotch is the Comic Con of music festivals: it’s for total nerds who all look like J Mascis with shorter hair, but it’s a festival that could convince people who don’t have that Magellan in them, that whatever’s in the background of their life — from pop music to cicadas and refrigerators – can be a singular, spiritual, and definitively musical experience.

-Jeremy Larson
Managing Editor

Before the recaps, check out some photos of many of the bands by photographer Alex Broadwell and myself on the next page…

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Hopscotch Music Festival: Photos

by Alex Broadwell & Jeremy Larson

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More photos and recaps of Bill Orcutt, Oren Ambarchi, Matthew E. White, The Mountain Goats, Sunn O))), and more continue on the next page…


Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival

charlie parr hopscotch 2012 larson 2 Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival 2012

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Charlie Parr – Fletcher Orchestra Hall – 10:00 p.m.

Parr’s midwestern “O” fell out of his mouth in the in-between-song banter, so it was corn-whiskey, grass-in-mouth real CBGB by way of cold winds and winters. Parr plays boney bluegrass with roughhewn voice and style like he was a poet before he was a player. His songs aren’t so much stories as they are dreams: dreams about being Jesse James, maybe a dream about riding in the real Batmobile, only to find out that it’s just a model in a museum somewhere, dreams of true friends comin’ ’round. Phil Cook from Megafaun joined him on mouth harp for a couple songs at the end. It was silent in the orchestra hall, Parr wasn’t quite sure how to react to no one having a hoe-down: “That’s the problem with listening to what I say, I keep talking.” Nah, no problem.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Matthew E. White – Fletcher Orchestra Hall – 10:00 p.m.

A full realization of the Matthew E. White’s Big Inner on stage, with well over 30 musicians from Richmond, VA behind White: horns, strings, choir, and the core Spacebomb band, the house band for the newly-minted Spacebomb records. Maybe it was the horn swell on “Will You Love Me”, or the dance party that broke out during “Steady Pace”, or White adopting some 8va energy through the set, but the whole performance was perfect. The Fletcher Orchestra Hall was packed with friends and fans, each holding a custom hymnal with lyrics to White’s songs in it, and he had the congregation feeling it.

I’ve went on at length about my love for White’s debut, and what more can I say other than hearing the scores of these songs come to life in concert hall was divine. It was like we were watching a taping of a TV special from the 70’s, a big bandstand special — White’s all-white suit didn’t help to shake this image from my head. His talent as an arranger was on full display, and the community of musicians that surround White was inspiring — so many legit musicians on a stage all trained and reading music! It’s not a sight you get to see at many rock festivals, and the whispered AM voice of White with the warmth of the horns just pried smiles from me all night long.

bill orcutt hopscotch 2012 larson Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival 2012

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Bill Orcutt / Alan Bishop / Chris Corsano trio – King’s Barcade (Three Lobed Records Day Party) - 12:00 p.m.

There was a guy who just clutched his girlfriend at one point. There were two dudes in matching red t-shirts who tweaked out right next to each other. On stage were three guys — guitarist Bill Orcutt of the Miami noise-fucks Harry Pussy, bassist Alan Bishop of Sun City Girls, and drummer Chris Corsano, Hopscotch’s “2012 Improvisor in Residence” — who wanted to peel their own show poster off the back wall. It was like a drunk kid playing around in metal shop in high school: Blast beat drumming, fusion, no real discernible song structures like a cross between Boris and Dillinger Escape Plan. Orcutt and Bishop would yawp off mic, scream into it, and generally just try to wrought as much chaos as possible. By the time the last song rolled around, what would otherwise be unshaven crack-rock blues song sounded like Karen fucking Carpenter compared to the rest of the set. “Here’s some signed condoms,” Bishop said as he threw a handful into the audience, “Go fuck yourselves.” Can someone please post a picture of a condom?

oren ambarchi hopscotch 2012 larson Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival 2012

 Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Oren Ambarchi / David Daniell / Chris Corsano –  King’s Barcade (Three Lobed Records Day Party) - 1:30 p.m.

When Chris Corsano slid into the kit on the ascent of Ambarchi and Daniell’s guitar looping and experimental clutter-noise panic attack of the drone wars, he started bowing something. It wasn’t a cymbal. The snare drum, I guess? The three figuratively bowed on, sending notes from all over the spectrum bouncing into the bar, breathing and expanding, pushing and pulling. Later, Ambarichi would open for Sunn O))) in a more expansive and louder set, but this was the gem — watching the three eye each other through the continuous 25-min song that was played with sharp focus.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Guardian Alien –  Neptune’s Parlour (Thrill Jockey Day Party) - 3:15 p.m

Hopscotch 2012 may have assembled three of the best drummers in music right now: Chris Corsano, Kid Millions (Oneida), Greg Sanuier (Deerhoof), and Greg Fox. Fox, erstwhile blast-beat drummer of Liturgy, is now with a new band on Thrill Jockey, Guardian Alien. It’s Fox’s show, even though there’s Turner Williams Jr. (on the Klingon-lookin’ shahai baaja), Bernard Gann (guitar, and also of Liturgy), and Eli Winograd (bass) who looks like he’s straight out of Soulfly or Korn the way he crooks his hat sideways and holds his bass like a military rifle across his chest. In the cramped space of the basement of King’s Barcade, the sound wasn’t clear at all, so as opposed to being rapt by the trance of the instruments around him (like you get on their record), it was just a chance to watch Fox play his kit from about ten feet away. He shifts from being in the pocket, to playing out of any time signature time, to doing tiny drum rolls on the rim, to muscling his way through every surface on his set. He’s alive back there, shape-shifting and leading the band around him into brave new worlds.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Field Report –  Long View Center - 10:00 p.m. 

Cut from the cloth of Wisconsin alt-country band DeYarmond Edison — Justin Vernon’s band pre-Bon Iver — lead singer Christopher Porterfield creates a whole separate ecosystem that still functions under the Eau Claire/Minneapolis/Milwaukee collective of musicians that spawned from Bon Iver. Field Report are sweeping and sincere in a way that other fauxlk bands are, but the band is like a 200-trick pony. There’s always an unexpected bend on their country roads, not dangerous, but just enough to keep you awake. The lapping folk is underscored with those Bruce Hornsby synths that balance the rural country twang with a gilt-edged cosmopolitan thing. Performing in a church — and dressed in suit coats with 40% of them wearing bolo ties — they never sounded hammy or starved for shout-choruses. The worst parts of pat pop folk were stripped down to the songwriting that sidles in more with a Midwestern campfire than a Pac NW or Southern one.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

The Mountain Goats – 12:00a.m. @ Fletcher Concery Center

If there’s a sort of overarching theme to Hopscotch Fest, it’s that experimentalists can have fun too, you guys. Not that John Darnielle moves in the same circles as of the other musicians talked about here (his self-deprecating tone on stage about how his chops aren’t up to par with some of the metal bands he was covering kind of spoke to that) but his all metal covers set aligned with not only what Hopscotch angles for, but what all festivals should angle for. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience to sit in a concert hall and hear Darnielle cover Gorguts, Ozzy, Darkthrone, Dio, and play a set of rarities the likes of which he rarely trots around the paddock. All the stories behind the songs were there — including one of his best to date, “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident”, a track he rarely plays because he “fucks it up a lot” and I don’t know if he’s really ever played “Chino Love Song 1979” but he did — and Darnielle’s maturing voice with the beautiful acoustics of the hall breathed new life into the lo-fi charm of all his many old recordings (Check out the entire setlist here).

But the all metal covers set was a highlight. Done without a breath of irony, Darnielle employed his three-man chorus (the one employed on last year’s “High Hawk Season”) to sing back-up harmonies while he defanged black/power/heavy metal tunes on a grand piano. Most were deep cuts from bands buried in the canon, including one from In Solitude who is way off the map. Of the more popular tracks, Darnielle turned the absolutely ludicrous Nightwish song “Bare Grace Misery” into a palatable ballad, and turned the palatable Dio song “Rainbow in the Dark” into a revelation of inner turmoil and sadness. When he sang, “Do your demons, do they ever let you go,” it felt especially poignant. A Ronnie James Dio lyric drilled right to the heart of most of The Mountain Goats’ catalogue — something Darnielle would never write, but the sentiment lives in the subtext of so many songs. He said of the song that “Rainbow in the Dark” was “the greatest song ever written” and that too: Done without a breath of irony.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Spider Bags – Raleigh Times Day Party - 12:30 p.m.

With each new year there comes a new band that fine-tunes that garage rock/classic rock mesh. The trio sound-checked/opened with a jam on “Helter Skelter”, in a sort of a “hey, uh, hi we’re playing now” kind of thing. It was 12:30 p.m., but you had to get a beer to listen to Spider Bags play — it was sleezy, twangy, scuzzy rock ‘n’ roll, but polished just enough to feel like they were once big and now are playing the county fair circuit — and I mean that in a good way. Dan McGee and Gregg Levy would square off with and play just a few inches short of a hug away from each other, then McGee would hoist his guitar up in the air like a total shit, but it was fun. They played mostly stuff off their new album Shake My Head, including an extended closing jam of “Keys to the City”, where if you didn’t finish your tall boy by then, you would have just flung it around your head and danced about on the pavement.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Oneida (w/ Chris Corsano) - Martin St. Day Party - 1:30 p.m.

Kid Millions (drummer and founder Oneida) and Chris Corsano on one stage was pretty sight, and the 15-year-old Brooklyn psych-chameleons focusing more on a groovy, muscular set backed by Kid Millions and Corsano was the cherry on top. Oneida has morphed and molded over the years as its members move in and out of other projects, but the day party set focused on more angular krautrock grooves than free form noise experiments. Not that the latter would have been a bad thing, but it was hot afternoon, and they found the right balance for it. Corsano joined Kid Millions later in the set, and added was just enough intellectualism to Millions’ full-body workout to make the waves of rock swelling feel just a little less predictable. Kid Millions goes so hard behind the kit, and flails and sweats while the rest of the band just sways in the narcosis of their own drones, but that’s the cool cognitive dissonance of Oneida. Corsano just gave Millions the edge this time around.

the roots hopscotch 2012 larson 5 Highlights from Hopscotch Music Festival 2012

Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

The Roots – City Center - 10:00 p.m.

After a rain delay, The Roots played a short set, but probably the most fun set of the weekend. They teased Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”, Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache”, and ripped through almost exclusively new material, highlighted by both “The Seed” and Black Thought being especially unrelentless on every track. The stage choreography was so cheesy and fun, all mostly led by guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas. ?estlove, yet another legend-status drummer playing Hopscotch, stayed in the pocket and out of the spotlight for the whole set, but everyone up front danced and jumped, and played around with each other so much there’s got to be that one cool guy with the hair pick who just grins. It was a perfect choice by Hopscotch to nab The Roots as a headliner on Saturday — they drew a big crowd despite the rain, it brightened up the mood, and propelled the final push to the climax of the whole weekend…

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

Sunn O))) – Memorial Music Hall - 12:30 a.m.

There were 18 cabinets on stage, 12 amps, two guitarists, one Moogist, and Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar on vocals. Fog machines worked overtime to mask everything on stage, including Attila, who was wearing his own mask, something like a more sterile Leatherface mask. The guitarists conducted each other, disciplined, staring across the stage looking for the signal to change notes. They held the picks aloft like a cock-rock guitarist would, only the downstroke took about five seconds and when the pick hit the strings you could feel it in your nose hairs. The band swilled red wine out of a bottle. Attila looked like a goddamn nightmare. All four guys dressed in black druidic robes which felt alternately mystical and Emperor Palpatinean. It was agitation music — or more theatre, really — aimed to stir up the calm physical and emotional pools that, in opinion of Sunn O))), are growing stagnant just sitting in there.

The philosophy/tagline of a Sunn O))) show is “maximum volume yields maximum results,” which isn’t inaccurate. The endless sub bass ur-dirge and absurd Db and Hz levels that Sunn O))) played produced maximum, albeit varied results. Most of the time I was immersed, with the sound from the speakers literally shaking my entire body in my seat. It was transcendent, sexual, violent, meditative — something that made you want want to kiss or kick someone (you just didn’t know), or try and sink into the ground and live among subterranean bass tones forever. Some people in the crowd raised their hands up at various intervals during the show, like this was a doom metal Pentecostal revival. Most were pasted to the seats.

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Photo by Jeremy D. Larson

But, sometimes I just fucking laughed — which in hindsight I think is OK! Because at 1:45 a.m. the whole suspension of disbelief starts to wear thin, and Sunn O))) turns into a guy wearing a trick-or-treat mask, and the whole stage looks like a regional theatre production of the third act of A Christmas Carol. But, again: This is OK! This is just kinda what happened — and it totally just came out of me in a very organic kind of way. Maybe some people left because they couldn’t take the volume or the pitch black mood, or some left because they were bored. Sunn O))) were bastions of patience and focus while they worked on stage, playing songs either without tempo or around around two beats per minute —  and even that may be a little fast.

Maximum results were achieved, and between me cackling and being terrified and closing my eyes and being able to feel my rib cage vibrate, Sunn O))) created a singular experience. It’s music with the highest stakes, and the greatest risks. It’s unforgettable and it proved to be the ultimate Hopscotch band: focused, experimental, technical, and spiritual. Like the fest, it’s another mythical wonder that turns up when you take that first, brave step into the wild frontier of music.