Hopscotch without a plan (it can be done)
By Corbie Hill
My goals for this year’s Hopscotch were simple. I only had a few must-see bands; I purposefully kept it that way. I didn’t listen to samples of everyone playing or even chart an itinerary. I wanted to see Earth, The Caribbean, and Andrew Cedermark. Everything else I left up to chance. This would either be amazing or weird.
My friend Andy, who came down from Asheville for the fest, said we should catch Super Vacations. I said I was down. I ran into some editors of this fine paper on their way to see Steve Gunn. I said I was down for that too. It was nice to have no agenda, to simply react to stimulus. So I ended up in the Fletcher Opera house, sitting quietly in a polite crowd, listening to Steve Gunn. He plays long, patient acoustic songs with complex, sometimes illogical arrangements. The blues are foundational to his music, but that’s a bit like saying the biplane is foundational to the space shuttle. In 30 minutes I saw three songs, the third of which actually felt like it dragged on a bit. So I followed Andy’s lead to Slim’s for Super Vacations.
Inside it was packed: not to capacity, but close for sure. Slim’s is, per the name, a skinny little shotgun of a room. Super Vacations’ garage-surf-punk didn’t reinvent the wheel, but the Virginia band approached these 60s and 70s styles with talent and irreverence. Of the three garage-ish bands I saw on Thursday, they were the strongest by miles.
We returned to the opera house for Rhys Chatham’s G3, which he performed with local guitarists. My mind was already buzzing a little from the street energy and from Hopscotch excitement in general, so I got restless and we headed on after maybe ten minutes. We ended up at the Berkley Café for Hog. I’ve seen the band before, and these Durham metallers don’t disappoint. Berkeley was home to many heavy acts, and the room tends to treat these thick soundscapes (like Hog’s organic southern growl) well. The PA still clipped some with the vocals, which I believe happened last year as well.
Then we headed into Kings for Philly’s Grandchildren. The six-strong pop rock outfit merges and splices genres in unexpected and un-distracting ways. And they’re also a whole lot of fun, which isn’t usually something I go for. I tend to like my music self-serious and long-winded. So it says something that such a gleeful unit could speak to me.
And that was kind of the end of the first night. I caught Apache Dropout next and didn’t feel like the trio added anything to the garage rock aesthetic: nothing good, nothing bad, but nothing new. On Andy’s advice we went to Berkley for Oxbow. We waited a long time for the band to set up before rolling to Lincoln for venue headliners Black Lips, a band there’d been a bit of street buzz about. I stepped inside and made it to the middle of the room. I looked over the heads of sweaty, moshing people to watch the Lips’ slacker-garage. But I got really bored within maybe three songs. I felt like the band was all aesthetics and no foundation, and its sloppy playing seemed contrived as hell. So I stepped outside and called it a night.
It was a gorgeous weekend for a festival. It wasn’t too hot out and skies were clear and blue. So I started out with Guided by Voices. It was what you’d expect: powerpop-meets-pub rock guitars and driving Midwestern drums behind Robert Pollard’s drunken scissor kicks and unhinged gibberish. And – this would become a City Plaza theme – Pollard ranted a bit about “the mayor,” but his point was characteristically unclear (the next night, Wayne Coyne would threaten to burn the state capitol’s curtains with lasers).
From here I made it to Tir na nOg for L.E.G.A.C.Y. The Fayetteville emcee sported a wild gray afro and a sarcastic approach to the dirty south school of hip-hop. And the crowd was appreciative as it danced oh-so-whitely to his fine rhymes. Next I headed to Slim’s to give Brain F≠ a shot, but they were already done. It was hard to time it right, what with L.E.G.A.C.Y. starting late and Brain F≠ playing a 20-minute set.
But I and my posse made it to King’s, which had a line out the door, for Whatever Brains. These Raleigh locals blend various elements of garage and punk. The band isn’t afraid to let its songs fall apart when appropriate, while others rattle along like eighteen-wheelers in low gear. The difference between this approach and Black Lips’ purposeful sloppiness is the sheer heft of Whatever Brains’ songs. Like in basketball, a team can only show off once it knows the fundamentals. And Whatever Brains has an amazing grasp of the fundamentals.
I returned to the nOg where King Mez and Apple Juice Kid played, but I was too hungry to get a good idea of what they were doing. But I did eat some fantastic hot wings. Then next door for Braids, who closed their set as I arrived. There was a line to get into the Pour House, where they played, which was a rule for most of the fest.
I spent the rest of my night at King’s. Liturgy and then Earth, two of the finest bands I saw, played back to back. I’ve been pretty into black metal lately, but Liturgy’s unique take on the genre blew my mind. Theirs may have been the most emotional performance of my Hopscotch (I cried during the critical build of the last song). Earth’s set, the close of my Friday night, lasted a solid hour-and-a-half and incorporated the band’s entire career, including the mid-90s curio, Pentastar: in the Style of Demons. The live version of “The Bee Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull” was both more spacious and slower than on record, with drummer Adrienne Davies’ patience behind the kit absolutely astounding. Guitarist and focal member Dylan Carlson has always painted in texture, rather than structure. It was disarming to see how simple these songs actually are to play, yet realize that’s a strength. The beauty is in the construction of the textures and the superhuman patience to play as slowly as Earth does. Also, cellist Lori Goldston (who you’ve heard on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York) fucking shreds.
Superchunk seemed unaccustomed to such a massive stage, playing to thousands of people, rather than at to a few hundred at the Cradle or some room like that. The band held its own without lights or lasers, tearing through material both new and familiar to a receptive audience. I would say The Flaming Lips followed, but that would be inaccurate. Rather, the Flaming Lips stage setup followed. The setup even seemed to have an encore, during which Wayne Coyne wandered on and off the stage, clowning around.
When the band did start, it was a spectacular display of confetti cannons and seizure-inducing lights. I was close, front and left and not far from the crowd barrier. The excitement of seeing Wayne Coyne rolling over people’s heads with his massive space bubble (and nearly knocking out half the light fixtures) was tempered by the everpresent drunks with lousy concert etiquette. I don’t mind drunks at my rock shows – it’s part of the experience – but this wasn’t the kind of drunk I’m accustomed to. It was a slobbering thing with no sense of personal space. I stuck it out for nearly three songs. They opened with a track from the masterful Embryonic and let into “She Don’t Use Jelly.” But then they played “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” probably the worst Lips song out there. With its disorienting, cloying start/stop verses and lack of content – even for the band in question – I decided it was time to bounce.
Besides, I wanted to see The Caribbean. This DC band was playing to a very small crowd at Tir na nOg. The odd thing about the show, even considering that the nOg really isn’t that big of a room, is that The Caribbean seems like it would be best served in a very small room – like a bookstore or even a living room concert. The songs are so intimate and real. Nothing is romanticized and the subject matter is everyday life: consider lines like “you say ‘forever’/as if standing in line is provocation for a violent coup.” I love the band’s latest record, but I’m accustomed to hearing its quiet, astute message on my kitchen radio while I’m cooking or doing some other mundane, domestic task. It was a tad disorienting to see them on the same bill as the up-and-at-‘em Titus Andronicus.
I saw most of the Caribbean’s set before heading to the Berkeley for local blues-metal warriors Caltrop. I caught the last few songs, exciting numbers due to be on the band’s forthcoming release. Horseback followed with droning, patient southern black metal (it exists). Drummer John Crouch backed up both bands, a herculean feat.
Outside I ran into my friend Adam, who had played a day show with Greensboro’s The Bronzed Chorus, who said he was headed to Andrew Cedermark. I happily accompanied him. Cedermark’s record has seen a lot of play time at my house, and I was really excited to see him play.
Cedermark’s live show added a new dimension to the Virginia guitarist’s music. He comes to accessible musical results in counterintuitive ways, playing havoc with traditional song structures and releasing harmonious, natural-sounding feedback in the midst of what is nearly Americana. It was a pretty amazing set, right up there with Liturgy and Earth as far as my Hopscotch highlights.
I watched the rest of his set as my friends headed to Slim’s for Bass Drum of Death, and then I headed to Berkley Café for Duane Pitre Sextet’s acoustic drone a-la harp, string section, laptop, et cetera. I headed somewhere next, but I can’t remember where I was going. This was the one night I didn’t drink and it was still my most scattered. I spent so much time walking out of venues, standing in the street confused, and then heading back in to the very same venue. This was one of those times. I ran into my friend Margaret, who was headed to Krallice, so I followed her back to Berkley. I think I passed by the Berk doorman six times in four minutes. Anyway, Krallice was amazing and I should have stayed for the entire set. Where Liturgy’s black metal is spacious and expansive, Krallice is indrawn and oppressive. Pummeling blastbeats, dual shredding guitars powered by matched and monstrous Peavey tube heads, and an abused six-string bass filled the room. Sound that powerful, that aggressive, is mind-clearing for me. Maybe it’s the white noise effect, I don’t know, but it’s meditative and a bit euphoric.
My one regret of Hopscotch was leaving Krallice after two songs to go hear Titus Andronicus. Titus Andronicus did nothing wrong, they played quite well, but their set was not the full-body religious experience Krallice offered.