Hopscotch 3: World-Class, Locally Grown
By Jordan Lawrence
I first saw “The Legendary Roots Crew” six years ago at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. I was a freshman, and they were slated to play during Homecoming week. I didn’t know much about them apart from the fact that they played live-band hip-hop, and that they were novel, talented and therefore essential. What I saw was among the more tremendous displays of virtuosity I’ve ever witnessed. Black Thought’s flow was smoky and smooth, but simultaneously vicious, slipping into my brain only to claw at the neurons. “Captain” Kirk Douglas’ guitar work was a marvelous amalgam of funk rhythm and melodic acumen, twisting and tangling but never loosing its driving beat. That Roots set remains one of my most cherished musical memories – a key spark to my interest in writing about it for a living.
And yet, on Saturday night in Raleigh I found myself walking away from The Roots barely two songs into their set. After missing out on the disco magic of Escort and waiting for more than two hours in the wind and rain of an unfortunately timed storm for the legends to appear at City Plaza, I was hobbling down Salisbury Street on bruised and blistered feet, eagerly anticipating another essential experience. The overwhelming weekend that is the Hopscotch Music Festival pauses for no band, even one as innovative and influential as The Roots. That’s why it’s one of the best festivals around.
Dominating 15 venues on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the third annual iteration of Hopscotch was bigger and better than it has ever been. Owned for one final year by Durham’s Independent Weekly before the paper changes hands this fall, Hopscotch brought more than 170 acts to downtown Raleigh, spanning an array of genres and musical philosophies, offering entry points and deeper explorations into most any style someone would care to experience. It was an extravagant onslaught where another unforgettable set always felt like it was just around the corner, pushing patrons to see as many bands as possible.
For a reviewer, it’s almost too much to contextualize. Should I spend a few hundred words exploring the opposing notions of theatricality championed by Nobunny and Sunn O)))’s Saturday night sets? It would be worth it. In a ratty bunny mask, a leather jacket and some stylish black briefs, Justin Champlin and his ace backing band were perfect garage rock provocateurs, fusing bubblegum melody and rock & roll muscle and transforming Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum into a joyously moshing mob scene in the process.
Sunn O)))’s unique visuals bred terror not joy. Emerging from a column of green smoke in the middle of the cavernous Memorial Auditorium, robed guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson summoned bone-rattling, mind-crushing clouds of blackened distortion before singer Attila Csihar appeared. Fading in and out of the fog with a ghoulish mask accentuating his robed appearance, he moaned through guttural incantations and tapped a metal totem against the mic, adding a sense of demonic ritual to the already overwhelming proceedings.
Or would you prefer to discuss the importance of religion in music? Hopscotch has you covered there as well. Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger interwove folk-rock swagger with philosophical frustration during its Friday night set at Fletcher Opera Theater. Bolstered by the cutting country fills of guitarist William Tyler and the delicate atmospherics of Megafaun’s Brad and Phil Cook, singer M.C. Taylor dug a serrated croon into his complicated Christian faith claiming that “Jesus shot me in the head” and that “Heaven is the cruelest of them all.”
Playing Fletcher a night earlier, Matthew E. White mined similar religious conflict, but unlike HGM, he retreated to Christianity’s faith-empowered simplicity to escape from life’s weighty problems. Backed by about 30 musicians, his rendition of “Brazos” was a wash of swirling strings and swelling horns as he struggled to find solace in a religion so fraught with contradictions. “Wade across the Brazos,” he sang in rich, understated tones, “Walk the water like Jesus/ We’re going to need the Lord’s help tonight.” The song closed with a resplendent, resounding chorus singing, “Jesus Christ is our Lord/ Jesus Christ is our friend,” an affirmation that there is a strength only belief can provide.
Ever a fan of complicating faith even further, The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle incorporated Christian imagery into songs sourced from a traditionally anti-Christian realm. Sitting down at a grand piano following HGM, he played a set of heavy metal covers that he arranged bolstered by a three-piece male choir. He sang lyrics about transforming flesh and made appeals to Satan, singing with a sincerity that made the lines feel like revelations. For the last song, the choir sat on Darnielle’s only back-line item – a church pew – as he transformed Dio’s hokey, hammy “Rainbow in the Dark” into a tender portrayal of crushing solitude.
Such stylistic tangents are the hallmark of world-class curating. Pallbearer’s melodic sludge, the primal, percussive cataclysms of Jon Mueller’s Death Blues, and Corrosion of Conformity’s era-mashing riff rock pushed metal in different directions. Glenn Jones and Hopscotch’s official “Improviser in Residence,” Chris Corsano, blended folk-leaning guitar intricacy and avant-garde rhythmic subtlety into something hypnotic and beautiful, standing out among a host of enthralling collaborations – Chris Forsyth and Koen Holtkamp, Arnold Dreyblatt and Megafaun.
More impressive still is the way in which Hopscotch’s loftiest heights never stray too far from its local foundations. Hopscotch is a North Carolina festival with an indelible North Carolina imprint, a point proven by two exceptional performances at Saturday’s twin Hopscotch block parties.
In front of the Raleigh Times bar, Durham bar-punk legend Red Collar threw down the best set I’ve seen them play in years, moving with the unbridled intensity of their early days while maintaining the world-weary bravado that has come to mark their thrashing E Street style. Closing with the pounding, math rock-inflected “Tools,” they were joined by the Durham rapper Toon, who strengthened the performance with his fiery flow. Locally sourced and up-to-par with Hopscotch’s imported acts, the set proved once more that area talents do not receive festival slots as charity.
A block over, the Megafaun & Friends day party was a display of what local bands and international talents can create together. In its headlining set, Megafaun was joined by Chris Corsano on a second drum kit, along with William Tyler and War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel, transforming the group’s experimental folk into psych-blasted arena offerings. Closing with “Real Slow,” the players unraveled into a triumphant, long-form jam before delivering the final verse, pleasing an enormous crowd with a sound that one would never point to as “crowd-pleasing.”
A few hours later, I thought back to Megafaun’s set as I rushed away from The Roots. I wanted to see them again, to find out how six years – and three Hopscotches – had changed my approach to hearing them. But I believed I could find another moment as good as that one. At Hopscotch, that faith is rarely misplaced.