I noticed her perk up before she turned around. With a crown of glow sticks upon her head, sudden movement had a way of attracting attention.
We were standing in the line for booze at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum, where How to Dress Well had just played an emotionally intense set and Jamie xx was soon to lighten the mood. I was describing to someone else a conversation that I had with Mark McGuire the night before. This is what sparked her interest.
“Are you a journalist?” she asked, her intensity quickly focusing. “I want to set the record straight on something.”
She wouldn’t give me her name, but in case her headdress hadn’t tipped me off, she wanted me to know that she was one of the Glow People.
It was the third and final night of the Hopscotch Festival, and I had seen these people at various venues across town. They would congregate brightly together in the middle of a concert floor, like an obnoxious Voltron bug zapper, and then gradually shed their attachable glow sticks and launch them into the air. Of course, a glow stick that goes up must come down, and it was usually upside the heads of another audience member. This audience member, in turn, ignored the projectile, threw back it into the air like an inflatable beach ball, or submitted and put it on. This last option, I was now being told, was the desired outcome.
The Glow People had been in attendance at Sun Kil Moon’s performance the night before at the Lincoln Theatre – the one where Mark Kozelek called a chatty crowd “fucking hillbillies” and told them to “shut the fuck up.” Like a lot of people, this is what she wanted to talk about. This is the record that she wanted to straight: It was not the Glow People’s fault.
Someone somewhere had apparently blamed them for agitating Kozelek. These were vicious lies. The Glow People are a peaceful and respectful people. They travel to festivals across the country, spreading glow and good vibes. (This Glow person had traveled from Boston, where she had attended M.I.T. – a biographical detail corroborated by the class ring she flashed defensively in my face more than once.) In fact, the Glow People research their shows: Kozelek’s ornery nature had preceded him, and the Glow People were on high alert to not provoke him.
This thoughtfulness seemed slightly at odds with their preferred method of distribution.
“You realize that some people might find it annoying to get pelted in the head with a glow stick, right?” I asked her.
This did not compute. She told me that they just wanted to spread the glow. “OK,” I said, breezing past the general premise of glow’s unifying power. “But have you ever considered just handing it to people?”
Handing people glow didn’t engage and excite them the way that glow seemingly falling from the heavens did.
“Have you ever been to Bonnaroo?” she inquired. If I had been to Bonnaroo, I would get it. Everyone throws glow sticks at Bonnaroo. At Bonnaroo, there are only the Have-Glows and the Soon-to-Have-Glows.
By the time we reached the bar, she seemed no less exasperated. She paid for a drink and left. A minute later, she returned to continue our conversation. She wanted to emphasize that last point: Other festivals are different.
She had a point. Hopscotch is a weird and wonderful festival largely because no one group of people define it. It is not just for industry types. It is not just for teenagers with floral crowns. It is not just for the Glow People. And by being for no one in particular, it ends up being for everyone. In three days of music, I met all of those types, plus married couples, college kids, cratediggers, in-towners and out-of-towners. Come one, come all.
The festival is set up along the lines of SXSW, with a few notable twists. First come the day shows, which are planned across downtown venues and spaces by local companies outside of the Hopscotch structure – though they’re presumably coordinated with organizers to some degree. This means that they’re free and open to the public. And your VIP pass means about as much as WWJD bracelet.
The day shows funnel into a single headline show in Raleigh’s City Plaza. These pair Hopscotch’s biggest acts with a local opener. This year, each night came with a clearly defined aesthetic. Thursday was hip-hop (De La Soul), Friday was rock (Spoon and St. Vincent), and Saturday was ROCK (Mastodon, Death, and Valient Thor). Each one brought different crowd participation and behavior, and illustrated most clearly the festival’s big tent approach.
From 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., things got messy. Eleven venues hosted evening slates, with each boasting four to five sets. These ranged from dive bars (Slim’s, Pour House, Deep South) to larger rock venues (Lincoln Theatre, Kings Barcade) to more formal and staid spaces (Fletcher Opera Thatere) to a contemporary art museum (um, the Contemporary Art Museum). And with over 45 options per night, a lot of tough choices were made. Unlike SXSW, you usually had one shot to see a band. Someone could have gone to completely different list of shows than we chose and had an absolute blast.
But I know we did too.
De La Soul @ Raleigh City Plaza
Hip-hop legends De La Soul were the three-man Hopscotch welcoming committee, doling out verses and good vibes like it was twenty years ago. The only damper on the performance were the ominous clouds hanging over Raleigh City Plaza, which would eventually open to release elephant size rain drops on its audience, scaring a good deal of it away in the process.
Saint Rich @ Tir na nOg
Saint Rich are one of the more under the radar acts on the Merge Records roster, but give them time: They’re all only 15 years-old.
Actually, that’s not true, but these guys do look young. The four-piece’s set at Irish bar Tir na nOg was a steady stream of pleasant, twang-kissed rock.
The War on Drugs @ Lincoln Theatre
Thursday night at 12:30 presented an anxiety inducing array of choices: War on Drugs, Reigning Sound, Tim Hecker, Mutual Benefit, Lunice, and Diarrhea Planet. They were all playing sets. That is an insane bounty. There is no cornucopia in the world capable of vesseling this harvest. There was no right choice. There was no wrong choice.
Ultimately, we went with The War on Drugs, because Lost in the Dream is one of 2014’s finest records, and its success has launched the band to flagship status on the veritable Secretly Canadian Records. It’s a rare record – equally an artistic and commercial breakthrough – and as a general rule, you go see bands when they’re touring on those records.
And this set did not disappoint. Adam Granduciel – wearing his own band’s shirt in a total nerd move – is backed by four musicians, but close your eyes and War on Drugs sounds double that size. This band is a veritable Mannheim Steamroller. Its best songs have an awe-inspiring momentum, and as your cruising along in sixth gear, hair flapping wildly in the air, the band will suddenly throw it into seventh gear, and, holy shit, there was a seventh gear this whole time? Why did no one tell me there was a seventh gear?
See this band in not massive indoor spaces while you still can.
The Everymen @ Schoolkids Records
“I’m not a douchebag,” the Everymen’s frontman Mike V told his audience at Schoolkids Records. He was wearing sunglasses inside, he explained, because they were prescription. He turned to saxophonist Scott Zillitto, “I’m not sure what his excuse is.”
Zillitto shrugged: “I’m a douchebag.”
The New Jersey rock ‘n’ roll warriors had just come from playing an outdoor set at Slim’s, and the heat exhaustion was quite literally still on their bright red faces. Now they were playing a record store – with a bar! – a few miles outside the radius of most other day shows. But the specifics of an Everymen show don’t particular matter. I’ve seen them play all variety of venues and they’ve slayed each one. They’re like the Winston Wolf of rock: Give them 30 minutes to get there and they’ll solve all of your problems.
And while the band was always formidable, they have such a killer collection of songs to draw from with this year’s Givin’ Up on Free Jazz. If you can listen to Catherine Herrick and the rest of the gang rip into “Another Thing to Lose” and not be moved, then congrats, you are dead on the inside.
“We Are the Everymen,” read an early t-shirt of the bands. “You’re Welcome.”
They were probably fucking around, but that’s some real talk.
Pipe @ Slim’s
The concrete slab outside of Slim’s is not a place that any band wants to find itself on a warm afternoon in early September. It is an outdoor oven. But sure enough, there was Pipe, Merge Records O.G.’s, doing the Lord’s work at 4:00 on Friday and looking simultaneously like the least cool and most cool band on the planet. The music was sloppy and raw like Ron Liberti’s sweat-drenched, tucked-in white undershirt. I can only hope these guys cruised around downtown Raleigh after this set, giving upstart bands wedgies and stealing their drink tickets.
Spider Bags @ Slim’s
You could tell when Spider Bags had done something good based on the smell.
Fans of the Carrboro band had filled Slim’s to capacity, and if rubbing sweaty appendages with fellow patrons wasn’t your thing, a line of replacements stretched down the street. The sun was still high in the sky when the band started playing, but none of that natural light was making its way into the venue. Inside the narrow chamber of this bar, everything was dank and awash in a red glow. And when Spider Bags came to the end of a song and the audience applauded – or when attendees were just compelled throw their hands in the air – waves of body odor would assault you from every direction.
Playing the Churchkey Records party for the fifth year running, Spider Bags probably wouldn’t have it any other way. And it was for the best that frontman Dan McGee was quarantined on stage: No one would want to stand in closer proximity to that plaid-shirted sweat factory.
The garage rock outfit played most of this summer’s excellent Frozen Letter, trading its light twang for bigger grooves. And with Spider Bags recently coming off an East Coast tour, the songs sounded lived-in and formidable. “Summer of ’79” and “Japanese Vacation” boogied. The tightly wound “Back With You Again in the World” reveled in its lost ’90s radio hit glory. And album centerpiece “Coffin Car” tore down the house, whipping itself and the crowd into a frenzy. It was the kind of set that left you disoriented reacclimating to the outside world and the realization that it wasn’t 2:00 a.m. For an afternoon show, that’s about as high as praise comes.
If you didn’t make it in, don’t worry: McGee promised to be back for the party next year, and for all years to come: “We’ll be like those crows that haunt civil war memorials.”
St. Vincent @ Raleigh City Plaza
Spoon @ Raleigh City Plaza
Once the champion of selling yourself short, Spoon is no longer playing a game of small stakes. Britt Daniel and company are full-blown festival headliners. And luckily for Spoon, this couldn’t have come at a better time.
In the live setting, the band has a habit of dipping its older songs in the the aesthetic of its current record. That can be a mixed bag. When it toured behind Transference in 2010, it meant everything sounded like Deerhunter – droning and a little thin and lacking the snap crackle pop that defines Daniel’s best songs. But when it toured on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga before that, everything was given the full-bodied, bursting at the seams pop treatment, and Spoon put on some of the best rock concerts I’ve ever seen.
Thankfully, They Want My Soul is the latter kind of record.
With exception of guitarist Eric Harvey, the band emerged wearing all white and looking cult chic. (For the record, I would join this cult. Britt, send me the pamphlet.) Britt’s not much of a showman – thrusting the microphone out the crowd and pumping a fist in the air are his two main moves – but with a catalogue as deep as Spoon’s, he doesn’t have to do much.
The band would launch into “Knock Knock” to start and follow it up with “Rent I Pay” – probably the strongest one-two punch of swaggering rock that They Want My Soul has the offer. “Outlier”, “Do You”, and “Inside Out” rounded out the contributions from the new LP, which based on the crowd response, has been received well by the faithful. The remainder of the 17-song set went to “hits” (“The Underdog”, “I Summon You”, “The Way We Get By”, “I Turn My Camera On”), fan favorites (“Black Like Me”, “Don’t You Evah”), steel-booted jams (“Don’t Make Me a Target”, “The Beast and Dragon, Adored”) and Transference reclamation projects (“Got Nuffin”, “Who Makes Your Money”).
It’s that last song that was most telling. When Spoon can take a song that otherwise blends into the tapestry of Transference and turn it into something propulsive and slinky and dynamic, you know that it’s firing on all cylinders. Of the newer cuts, “Inside Out” was the clear standout. One of Spoon’s greatest strengths is taking its purest studio creations – “The Ghost of You Lingers”, “Paper Tiger”, “Small Stakes” – and giving them the kind of bolstered makeover that transforms them into live highlights. “Inside Out” is the latest to join that club. Speaking of which: They played “Small Stakes”.
And all was right in the world.
Sing it with me now: ma ma mow mow ma ma mow mow ma ma mow ma mow ma mow ma mow ma mow.
Mark McGuire @ Lincoln Theatre
Mark McGuire wasn’t facing the most enviable of positions on Friday night. The former Emeralds guitarist – and by all accounts, a pure and genuine soul – was slated in the Lincoln Theatre’s 11:30 slot, between the southern rock of Loamlands and the heart-splitting brutalism of Sun Kil Moon. These are two folk-based acts rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition. McGuire’s songs, on the other hand, are mostly instrumental, and where there are vocals, they’re buried low enough in the mix that might as well be recordings of orca whale mating calls. Then there’s the music itself: malleable and slightly new agey, patiently ebbing and flowing like the tide. And did I mention that he was up there by himself?
But if Mark McGuire came into this performance in front of mostly people unfamiliar with his music, he left with a room of new fans. This was one of the most immediately pleasing sets that I saw during Hopscotch. McGuire builds tracks with a battery of pedals and loops – some light guitar playing over a programmed beat, joined by some synth keys, joined by more guitar, joined by more synth… and then it’s time to shred. And when it’s time to shred, the skies open wide.
Honestly, someone set up a Kickstarter for a Mark McGuire “Guitar Hero” video game and my money is yours.
Sun Kil Moon @ Lincoln Theatre
“Please don’t be beautiful.”
I could hear a woman talking to herself during the opening moments of “Ceiling Gaze”, the final song that Sun Kil Moon would perform on Saturday night at Lincoln Theatre. “It’s going to beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, sounding almost distressed. “Fuck me.”
A few minutes earlier, Mark Kozelek had done it again: He had opened his mouth and said some things that had rubbed part of his audience severely in the wrong direction.
He had announced that Sun Kil Moon had one remaining song to play, which in turn engendered calls for “Ben’s My Friend”, the relatively upbeat song that closes the emotionally exhausting Benji. The track loosely charts Kozelek’s relationship with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard via a tale of going to see Gibbard’s band at a large outdoor venue in Berkley, and subsequently feeling jealous and old and, ultimately, inspired.
Kozelek informed the crowd that he would not be singing “Ben’s My Friend”. Instead, he started talking about how he would be interested in filling Chris Walla’s vacancy in Death Cab for Cutie. “I want to play guitar in Death Cab for a year. I’m tired of this indie rock shit. I will gladly play guitar for a year,” he vented. “Just because I want to play some stadiums. I just want to play in front of some fucking girls.”
This understandably bristled some of the woman in crowd, whose presence had been summarily dismissed. Murmurs arose. A woman let him know there were indeed “girls” in attendance. “But you’re all with ugly dudes, so what can I do?” Kozelek shot back, his tone oddly softening. “The guys with the beards fucking win.”
But let’s back up: Kozelk called the audience at Lincoln Theatre “fucking hillbillies” to start the evening. Maybe you’ve heard the brief snippet. Kozelek had been having sound issues with the venue. He came on stage, they couldn’t figure it out, and so he left. When he came back out, he was visibly agitated. The crowd, for its part, wasn’t even that loud, but there was enough chatter in the back to agitate Kozelek. “Everybody, all you fucking hillbillies, shut the fuck up,” he said. “We got important things going on up here.”
Some shushed others. That didn’t help. Some were less interested in appeasement. “Yeah, we like fucking bluegrass and moonshine!” a man shouted sarcastically back at him.
A few moments passed. “Everyone, please be quiet,” he pleaded. “This song is very delicate. We need to be able to hear each other.”
At this point, a few in the crowd were riled up, and Kozelek made a hard right from the soft approach. “We’re up here. We’re doing a thing,” he barked. “I’ll walk. I don’t give a fuck about getting paid.”
But Kozelek and his four man band (!) didn’t walk. They would forge on, and by the end of the third song, the crowd had settled down – or maybe the chatterers had taken off to chalk the streets like an angry middle school mob. The irony is that this third song was “Dogs”, a queasy and misogynistic roll call of Kozelek’s sexual escapades. This was not lost on the Sun Kil Moon singer. “I’m glad I won you back with a song about fucking and oral sex,” he quipped. Adding more plaintively, “Thanks for getting all quiet and peaceful and nice.”
For all hubbub about a “meltdown,” Kozelek would go on to play an entire set – thirteen songs in total. And, for what it’s worth, it was a gorgeous one. He drew mostly from Benji and comparatively unheralded collaboration with Jimmy Lavalle, Perils from the Sea. His band was tight and subtle – fading into the background on songs like “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”, coming to life for lumbering, menacing songs like “Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes” and “Dogs”. (Having two full drummers certainly helped the latter cause.)
A little over midway through the set, Kozelek put down his guitar, stood up from the seat, and moved to the middle of stage, where he would sing by himself. It was a weird sight to take in: The man known for his acoustic guitar play – the “moderately talented yet not so attractive middle aged man,” the “guy with a gut hanging out like jackass” – with his stomach protruding, performing like a washed-up Vegas lounge singer, exposed and vulnerable and kind of pathetic.
And, so, yeah, Mark Kozelek is a dick. That was widely reported prior to this weekend. That was also obvious to anyone who has listened to his records, which had mostly attracted a cult following in the decade preceding Benji. And for some, maybe that dickishness is a barrier to entry. If you’re one of those people, that’s OK: Not liking Sun Kil Moon is not a cross to bear.
For others, it’s perhaps a bit more complicated. This was the internal monologue I was hearing a few feet away from me during “Ceiling Gazing”: Someone wanting to hate Mark Kozelek, but at the same time, being overwhelmed by the beauty of his music and stark honesty in his words.
Mark Kozelek is not enamored with the world. He’s dissatisfied with his place in it. He’d rather be on tour with Death Cab for Cutie than playing a festival in North Carolina. And he’s going to tell you about it.
But, at the same time, the love on display in songs like “Micheline” and “Ceiling Gazing” is no less valid or meaningful an expression. If anything, they gain power in coming from someone who’s such an otherwise crass, foot-shooting curmudgeon. And speaking as someone who’s dealt with his share of death in the last few years, those two songs wrecked me on Saturday night. All of the noise and hurt-feelings surrounding what he said before this performance won’t diminish that memory.
Flesh Wounds @ Kings Barcade
There’s a track on Flesh Wounds recently released self-titled debut called “Smokin Crack with My Friend Jeff”, and, honestly, that sounds like a more relaxing activity than taking in this scorching set at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon. I mean that in the best possible way. After the mellow and emotional experiences of the preceding night’s Mark McGuire and Sun Kil Moon sets, this was the ice bucket water board challenge we needed.
You know the scene in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” where the titular hissing alien bursts through John Hurt’s chest? That’s pretty much what every Flesh Wounds song feels like. The Carrboro garage rock band leaves bodies in its wake. Its songs rarely pass the two-and-a-half minute mark, but it makes each of those 150 seconds count in tightly wound riffs and singer Montgomery Morris’ shrieks.
Let’s talk about Morris for a moment: The man is insane. Over the summer, I had a chance to talk with him about Flesh Wounds’ “Bitter Boy” 7-inch for Merge Records and the late 50s / early 60s R&B influences ingrained in the band’s DNA. He was convivial and charming. On stage at King’s Barcade, he was possessed. The closest analog is Russell Crowe in “Virtuosity”. His eyes would bulge. His face would wash over with mischievousness. He would look like he was about to punch someone in the face. It was impossible to avert your eyes from him.
“This song is about how much I hate Chapel Hill,” Morris said at the start of the set, slinging shade and introducing “Kennel Cough”. During the band’s final song, he would leap into the crowd in attempt to crowd surf. This failed miserably. Undeterred, Morris sprang up from the floor and set off a full-fledged mosh pit. After a few minutes of pin-balling amongst pit’s larger inhabitants, Morris was up, surfing through the crowd. All the while, the rest of Flesh Wounds – now a four piece live – played on.
“People are trying to put us down,” Morris claimed at one point. “BUT FUCK THAT.”
I don’t know who these people are, but they’re losing.
Ex Hex @ Babes in Boyland
Ex Hex took outdoor stage Girls Rock NC’s Babes in Boyland block party just as the sun was beginning to tuck behind its rafter. The trio was playing with its back to the sun, but all three still wore sunglasses, because shades are cool, and Ex Hex are the coolest people that you wish you knew.
“With this group of songs, I was thinking a lot about what music sounded like when I was in fourth or fifth grade and getting into songs on the radio,” Mary Timony told BYT back in March. “I was trying to write songs that would fit on Casey Kasem’s Top 40.”
It sounds like she’s done a pretty good job actualizing that idea for Ex Hex’s forthcoming debut, Rips. The set drew almost entirely from that record, and its vibe was loose and warm: the guitar chugged, drums kept a steady beat, and the breezy harmonies kept coming. It was an unapologetically uncomplicated, good time – a transmission from some out of time glam rock station.
Of course, Timony still rattles off solos with the best of them, and the band is a significantly tighter unit than it was in early spring. But as she’s done for the past twenty years, Timony makes being in a band look, first and foremost, like the most fun thing in the world, particularly when she and bassist Betsy Wright meet in the middle of the stage to duel guitar heads. As for Wright, her more classically soft voice is a nice compliment to Timony’s weathered register, and her contributions slide in right alongside Timony’s. (The bubblegum power pop of “How You Got That Girl” might even be the catchiest song in the Ex Hex arsenal.)
Throughout all of this, Merge co-founder stood Laura Ballance stood to the side of the stage, bopping along in shades and holding an umbrella for the sun. Leave it to her to make that look cool.
Mastodon @ Raleigh City Plaza
Mastodon have gone from a band that could conceivably make a badass record inspired by “The Hobbit” to a band that looks like it could land staring roles in “The Hobbit”. These are some regally gnarly guys.
Its headlining set in Raleigh City Plaza started new (“Tread Lightly”, the opening track of its recently released Once More ‘Round the Sun) and ended old (14-minute Leviathan classic “Hearts Alive”). In between was a mix of both, which the crowd devoured. Mastodon inspires a mosh pit of epic size and intensity, even when its in the shadow of a Sheraton Hotel and Jimmy John’s sandwich shop.
Krill @ Kings Barcade
“I feel like the daddy of the world,” Krill singer and bassist Jonah Furman sang during Krill’s great Saturday night set at Kings Barcade.
He certainly dressed for the part. And as someone with 45 year-old dad’s sense of fashion taste, I felt a kinship with that. Oversized polo, jeans, and Asics running sneakers? Feeling it.
Krill’s music is wonderfully off-kilter. Furman stretches and twists words in a way that’s slightly demented. It’s rhythmic section as a whole never lets a song gets comfortable. There’s a lot of personality in Krill, and that goes a long way.
How To Dress Well @ Contemporary Art Museum
Tom Krell wasn’t looking for a fight on Saturday night, but he wasn’t shying away from one either. “Let’s make this really loud so the people in the back trading MDMA shut the fuck,” he told his band between songs at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum.
But some light murmurs in the back aside, How to Dress Well’s performance was magnetic: Krell and his band splashed with kaleidoscopic light against the museum’s white back walls, filling the space with a sound both intimate and booming. A tall and thin 6′ 3″, Krell’s frame is imposing, and he uses it physically in the live setting – steady movement and the occasional dramatic thrash paired with copious sweat. His band is staid but equally intense and focused – or, “dialed-in,” as he would describe them when we talked prior to the performance.
Later in the night, I would see Krell in his own zone, slightly more unwound, crowd-surfing during Jamie xx’s set.
Jamie xx @ Contemporary Art Museum
There wasn’t an official Hopscotch closing party, but Jamie xx’s DJ set at CAM may as well have been it. There we were, all under one roof raving – or at least those able to get in initially.
I can only imagine what the price tag on a Jamie xx gig is – more like Jamie $$, amirite? – but it’s worth every penny. His set up was simple and played well to the blank canvas of the venue: Buckets of monochromatic light illuminating the space behind him and often the whole of the room. The set started with straightforward disco before moving to more adventurous material. Whether a nod to nearby Merge Records or not, he also worked in Caribou’s “Can’t Do With You” to much fanfare.
The British producer closed with his own “Girl”. It may be the least celebrated of his trio of singles – the flashier “All Under One Roof Raving” and “Far Nearer” garnered much more attention – but with its also the Jamie xx song that you want to hear at 2:00 in the morning, a behemoth of a track capable of bringing out the Glow People in all of us.