Hopscotch 2011: An exercise in difficult decisions
By Jordan Lawrence
Hopscotch 2011 was big, monstrously big. There were 151 bands playing official festival sets, and between the headlining shows at City Plaza, the nighttime club gigs of the festival proper and the unofficial day parties that ensure you’ll leave ill-rested, 59 different concerts rocked downtown Raleigh this weekend. It was both a gift and a liability. I saw 53 bands over the course of the festival, and there’s a solid handful I’m kicking myself today for missing. It was a dense overload of options, a well-curated wonderland of music where you are most always seeing something good – and always missing something else. That’s the point.
The Hopscotch Music Festival was started by local paper the Independent Weekly in 2010 and named after a choose-your own adventure book. Like those books, Hopscotch feels real and vital because of the consequences of your actions. You’re not going to see a great band by skipping a bad band. You’re skipping an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime performance to catch another amazing, once-in-a-lifetime performance. And whichever one you pass up, you may have passed up for good.
On Thursday, I walked out of Fletcher Opera Theater (side note: seeing bands as weird and diverse as Steve Gunn, Rhys Chatham and Swans in this amazing space was the treat of the festival) before I could see the Necks. From Australia, the Necks are a sublime jazz trio that utilize the space between notes as much as the notes themselves, resulting in entrancing, long-form expressions. Playing in the best sounding room in town, their tones would surely have been clearer than ever, allowing me to investigate all the little intricacies of their sound. And I missed it.
But by missing it I caught Apache Dropout, a scuzzy Indiana psych-garage band that put out one of my favorite 2011 LPs. Live they melded their quick songs together and bent their tones without mercy, creating thick technicolor fuzz that was a little scary and a lot of fun. It was one of the best sets I’ve seen this year, and yet I’d only rank it fourth for the weekend.
Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio was a marvel in Fletcher. With a team of local and national guitar greats that included Horseback’s Jenks Miller, William Tyler and David Daniell, Chatham conjured up the legendary avant-garde piece that he wrote in 1978. Playing an E chord until its overtones overwhelmed the space, they created the most affecting wall of sound I’ve ever heard, an enveloping force that you couldn’t help but get lost in.
Legendary experimental rock outfit Swans absolutely crushed Fletcher the next night. Building dark clamor out of clanging percussion and scathing distortion, the six-piece proved why they’re still relevant after almost 30 years in existence. I pried myself away during the middle of their two-hour set to catch the droney Seattle metal act Earth. The gorgeous, spacey tones of their cello-and-guitar-bound melodies had a profound effect on my admittedly tired mind. I zoned out and fell deep into their music’s power, sitting calmly for their entire set.
Earth’s performance was among the best I’ve ever seen, but today, I find myself second-guessing my decision to stay put. I could have flown over to the Lincoln Theatre and caught part of The Foreign Exchange’s lush R&B. I could have scooted over to the Pour House and jumped around to the spark-plug garage rock of Vancouver’s Japandroids. Or I could have just headed back over to Swans and caught the rest of another set that was among the best I’ve seen.
I find myself obsessing over what I missed more than what I saw. Every one of the last three days has been filled with music from noon until the middle of the night. I saw all the bands I was physically able to stand, and there was so much going on that I still feel I should have seen more.
Saturday night, I found myself in City Plaza watching The Flaming Lips. I don’t even like them that much, but I was consumed by them in that moment. They marched confidently through their potent psychedelic jams as huge balloons burst into confetti over an audience that was surrounded by the skyscrapers of downtown Raleigh. It was a wondrous spectacle, one I was proud to see take place in the city I live in. There were plenty of things I missed to be there at that moment, but I wouldn’t give it up for any of them.
The true success of Hopscotch is that the moment was mine to create. I could have left there after only a few songs and seen any of the other artists playing at that second, but I didn’t. My decision ended up in one of my favorite memories of the fest, and I’ve already talked with people who had an equally affecting time by choosing to leave. Hopscotch sets up the options and then lets you do as you will. This year, there were few bad choices to be found.