Hopscotch on the Fly
By John Schacht
Can a truncated Hopscotch still be a memorable Hopscotch? Judging by my abbreviated (mostly) Friday-only experience, that answer is still, “indubitably.”
Arriving in the Friday lull between day parties and the Center City Plaza evening kick-off, the first music I heard were the lumbering, sinewy guitar lines of Built to Spill rumbling through downtown Raleigh. This was one of unspoken highlights from the first two Hopscotch festivals, and it’s no different this time – a city’s business center turned over to the business of musical pleasure. Coming from Charlotte, where music seems little more than an inconvenience to clueless city leaders, hearing the music of Public Enemy, Broken Social Scene, Panda Bear, the Flaming Lips or these Idaho guitar gods reverberate through these steel-and-glass canyons still provides a real frisson of excitement.
After Built to Spill finishes its workmanlike set, I retreat with Shuffle designer Taylor Smith to the Sheraton hotel bar. An English accent snags my attention, and I note the night’s headliners, 80s’ Velvets-meet-the-Ramones legends The Jesus & Mary Chain, throwing back a bit of pre-show courage. For those of us older than, well, The Jesus & Mary Chain, their fuzz-spackled droning rockers are a reminder that, given the past excesses of Reid brothers Jim and William, the fact that they’re alive, let alone delivering a set that gains in surety and momentum as it proceeds, is near-miraculous.
From the Plaza I make my way to the Fletcher Opera House, where The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman, accompanied only by bass and pedal steel, plays music whose fragility belies the steely personality at its songwriting core. Still, after the fuzz-and-thump of The Jesus & Mary Chain, the transition proves too steep for me, and I head next door to the cavernous Memorial Auditorium. I left before the Glenn Jones and Chris Corsano duet I’m later told was a festival highlight for many, but I do get to hear Jones describe a few of his stunning soundscapes. One of them, the awe-inspiring “Great Pacific Northwest,” is played with such aplomb and beauty that it seems the acoustic guitar is still part of the natural world it was hewn from.
Slipping back next door to Fletcher, I arrive just as Hiss Golden Messenger’s set begins with singer MC Taylor’s repeated refrain echoed by harmonies from the rest of the off-stage seven-piece band. Still trading refrains, they shuffle out to their instruments, an impromptu processional. Without even considering the faith-based speculations in Taylor’s music, it is no exaggeration to declare what follows transformative. William Tyler’s guitar – shading in pedal steel-like swells and moans, or providing rich fills in the finest Nashville sessions-men tradition – has graced these songs before, as have the warm keys of Megafaun’s Phil Cook (brother Brad adds additional guitar). But tonight, in this pitch-perfect sonic surrounding, the full band fleshes out HGM standbys like “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” and several new songs and takes all of them – and the audience — into the pocket again and again.
I headed next door afterward, this time for a few songs from Yo La Tengo. Ira Kaplan was telling the audience that he and his bandmates weren’t “big fans of most festivals,” but that Hopscotch was exceeding all their expectations and was actually “fun.” On this night, unfortunately, the Hoboken veterans weren’t. A mid-set break of quiet, mostly acoustic songs included a few new ones, none of which gained any traction with the crowd. I thought of waiting for Kaplan and company to plug back in and at least send me on my way on a wave of vintage feedback, but I had an appointment to keep with Damien Jurado at the Berkeley Café. Jurado’s been on my list of “must-sees” for years, but we’d never crossed paths. I turned the corner into the Café’s back room to join a solid crowd in spellbound silence hanging by the emotional threads in Jurado’s lines. For songs so quiet and delicate, Jurado’s stories of cheating couples and mentally ill siblings carry the emotional heft of Raymond Carver’s best stories; they devastate as they please. I finished my beer while fans stayed to chat and take pictures with the Seattle-based singer, and though I didn’t follow suit I said a silent “thank you” and headed off to find my hotel bed.
The following day Shuffle finished hosting its two-day day party at the Hibernian Pub, and along with my late breakfast and Bloody Mary I’d enjoy sets from John Howie Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff and Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes, among others. Mostly I crowd-watched along with Shuffle boss Brian Cullinan before we resumed our task of distributing, by car and by hand, the latest issue throughout the Carolinas. So my Hopscotch this year was just a day, and really just a portion of one at that. But in that brief time I was reminded again and again how fortunate we are to have a festival so good so nearby. And next year, one of my colleagues can pick up the distro slack; I’ll be here for every minute.