COVER — Rock City: Phuzz Phest thrives in a post-industrial playground

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Stuart McLamb (right) with the Love Language received a hero's welcome at Krankies on Sunday.

The Tills from Asheville had just wrapped up a well received set at Krankies and fans streamed out onto the porch just before 10 p.m. on Friday, with the air redolent of roasting coffee at the venerable cultural space reinvented from an industrial shell.

Some congregated on the porch for fresh air; others made for the patio to smoke cigarettes, while a line queued just indoors for free cups at a water cooler. Their ranks comprised stalwarts of Winston-Salem’s tight-knit scene — musicians, artists, craftspeople and other maker types — a smattering of young professionals and a healthy cohort of music bloggers and fans from the Triangle. Greensboro, the Triad’s largest city, was underrepresented in comparison.

A rail line passes along the western property line of Krankies, cutting diagonally with the slope through the remnants of the massive Reynolds Tobacco Co. works that is in the midst of a transformation into a biotech hub upon which the city’s future is staked. Onward it goes, over to the north side of downtown to join Peters Creek, where it passes the shuttered Hanes Hosiery Mill.

The trains barrel past Krankies a couple times a day, horns blasting so loud that outside conversations must be paused.

On Sunday afternoon an out-of-towner would exult to the drummer from the Virginia punk band the Nervous Ticks: “I love these freight trains. But you probably see this all the time in Richmond.”

Kool Keith, like Elvis, favors scarves.
Kool Keith, like Elvis, favors scarves.

Philip Pledger, who cofounded Phuzz Phest in 2011 and has taken responsibility as principal organizer, told me that if the festival had one common thread it would be a blue-collar ethos of hard work and resourcefulness among the bands. With the limited means of audience members in mind, he has made it a point to keep the festival affordable. With 50 bands stacked in overlapping sequence at three core venues over three days, the full pass came to $50, while a day past cost $21. Compare that to $150 for a three-day wristband for Hopscotch, coming up in Raleigh in September, or $299 for five days and five nights at Moogfest in Asheville later this month.

The staggered schedule timed bands to start on the hour at Krankies, 20 minutes after at Ziggy’s and 40 minutes after at the Garage. Allowing for about 20 minutes for breakdown and set-up between acts, you could dash to another venue and catch the last third of another act while preparing for still another show — clocking one and a half of three shows if you worked to maximize your opportunity. The logistics were manageable enough, and the range of choices prevented festivalgoers from being held hostage to any given act that didn’t excite them.

Following the Tills, Ex-Cult from Memphis were setting up their gear in the dimly lit confines of Krankies, which somehow feels like a massive industrial stomach thanks to the rudimentary lighting, low ceilings and support posts. A cadre of photographers, most of whom were equipped with more sophisticated cameras than me, stood ready for action.

Without ceremony, the band launched into a pulverizing set of raw, loud rock and roll. True to their billing, they mixed lo-fi, reverb-laden garage rock with the immediacy of ’80s hardcore, dressed up with a fringe of psychedelic weirdness. The singer, whose crew-cut contrasted the scruffiness of the rest of the band, addressed the audience with a vacant stare. The two guitar players lunged and the bass player stalked the stage like a panther. One of the guitarists climbed up on a table to play a solo. The singer waded into the crowd and instigated a mosh pit, then deftly extricated himself. Altogether, it made for a really good time.

TOW3RS performs on the sidewalk outside Reanimator record shop.
TOW3RS performs on the sidewalk outside Reanimator record shop.

White Fence, hailing from the garage-rock scene in San Francisco, embellished the theme, although they were somewhat less spectacular than the previous band despite expectations built around them. They dressed rather modish with collared shirts and sweaters, and drew a higher quotient of females to the front of the crowd than their predecessors. Fronted by Tim Presley, who windmilled and pointed his guitar like a rifle, White Fence called to mind mid-’60s British hard rock somewhere between the Yardbirds and Cream. Their set was occasionally downbeat and drone-y with both psychedelic and country overtones.

I ducked out of Krankies before the end of White Fence’s set to catch Mount Moriah’s 11:40 set at the Garage.

Word of the Durham band’s growing stature as a force in the North Carolina music scene has spread, in part, through favorable exposure from INDY Week and a guest spot on North Carolina Public Radio’s “The State of Things.”

The room was buzzing with anticipation before the band had even finished its soundcheck. A boisterous contingent of Wake Forest University students mixed with appreciative musicians, including Justin Williams, who performs under the moniker Twelve Thousand Armies, and Stuart McLamb, the Winston-Salem native who fronts the Love Language. The Garage’s oversized fan cooled the sweltering air.

A few songs into their set, it was apparent that this band really is all that. Singer and guitarist Heather McEntire puts a convicted, soulful reading into songs that should quickly find a place in the state’s alt-country canon, while guitarist Jenks Miller’s playing is natural and unforced, a gale force of piercing wails and tremolos.

To make the experience all the better, the band’s earnest spirit incorporates a charismatic stage presence, embodied by McEntire’s playful lunging, occasional remonstrating by jabbing her index finger in the air and shaking her arm as if to loosen her shirt cuff.

The conclusion of Mount Moriah’s set prompted a frantic rush for the door and people power-walking down Trade Street. A collective sense of inebriation was setting in, something like a thirst for the tonic of sheer stimulation to ward off the tug of sleep. Word had circulated all evening that TOW3RS, a one-man EDM sensation from Chapel Hill, was not to be missed.

A flash of the wristband elicited a nod of approval from the doorman, and they surged into the low-ceilinged confines of Single Brothers bar. Half of them rushed the bar and the rest made a beeline for the backyard, from whence a sensuous disco throb pulsed into the night.

Almost completely encircled, Derek Torres, the current incarnation of TOW3RS, struck poses like a bullfighter or a 1920s silent-movie actor, letting his brown suede jacket slide off his arms and then sliding back into it. He used a small, plastic stepladder as platform and swung a mic stand slowly like a crane against a city skyline.

Taking stock of the entire visual impact of his performance, it’s easy to overlook Torres’ silky croon and elegant songcraft, but the pleasure of the experience rises from that essential juncture. What makes TOW3RS extraordinary is the almost utter lack of guile in his performance.

With a natural wind whipping under the outdoor sheds in the yard beside Single Brothers, the scene arrayed around TOW3RS resembled a decadent salon with cigarettes deployed as a fashion accessory and booze flowing plentifully. Justin Williams lounged indulgently on a picnic-table bench on the inside of the circle, while Mitch Easter — Let’s Active founder, producer and all-around elder statesman of the North Carolina music scene — stood nearby smiling appreciatively. Others danced frenetically, responding to TOW3RS’ beck and call.

If rock and roll can be saved, it will be by turning convention on its head. Dispensing with a band might seem like heresy — although probably not, four decades after the advent of hip hop — but in TOW3RS’ case it allows the artist to invest totally in the gesture and visual impact of the moment and in the vocal as sacrament of communal sharing, creating a continuous stream of excitement.

The tracks themselves — ranging from cinematic mash-ups of space-alien flick soundtracks and sinuous takeoffs on Roxy Music to what sounds like a disco remix of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” — are all artfully matched to TOW3RS’ lyrics.

One of several songs from TOW3RS’ set that remains stuck in my head three days later is “Ours,” a screed against the 1 percent with the infectious declaration “I want to see them suffer like me” that by all rights should be the radio hit of this summer.

I was so taken by TOW3RS’ set that I found myself watching him again on the second day of the festival as he performed a 4 p.m. show on the sidewalk outside Reanimator record shop. He reported that he had torn an ACL the previous night, but was sufficiently medicated to continue. Although not quite as energetic as the night before, his performance was no less visceral. With a crowd gathered around him on the sidewalk of Patterson Avenue, the incantatory meditation on the nature of corporate power and personal agency suffused in “Ours” took on new meaning against the backdrop of a Reynolds Tobacco Co. smokestack and the modern BioTech Place — emblems of the old and new orders.

Boogarins from Brazil played Phuzz Phest after an appearance at South by South West
Boogarins from Brazil played Phuzz Phest after an appearance at South by South West

The second day of the festival hit a clean run of impressive acts from an invigorating 6 p.m. set by Jews & Catholics at Krankies onward. Approaching their 10-year anniversary, the unorthodox marriage of Eddie Garcia’s radiantly loud guitar playing and Alanna Meltzer-Holderfield’s somber-dramatic bowing on stand-up bass has helped the Winston-Salem band build a steady and faithful following.

Throughout the weekend, Garcia had been avidly watching bands, and as an audio engineer and producer at 88.5 WFDD he had played an integral role in promoting the festival through profile spots on several of the bands aired during the run-up week.

The Nervous Ticks, made up of a singer-guitarist, a standing drummer with a kit fabricated from a washtub with an attached tambourine and a second singer, dispensed raw, primal punk. Their music was punishing in the best sense of the word.

Like Jews & Catholics, the bo-stevens are something of a fixture in the Winston-Salem music scene. But while Jews & Catholics fit comfortably in the lush and loud noise-pop niche that is a close cousin of the garage-rock genre favored by the festival, the bo-stevens anchor the roots-music scene that is Camel City’s other lodestar.

When they hit the stage at the Garage at 8:40 p.m. on Saturday, the crowd was relatively light, but grew steadily in size and exponentially in enthusiasm.

Richard Boyd is as down to earth and friendly a man as you would ever want to meet, while possessing a fine voice that can convey the damaged warble of George Jones or the soaring vibrato of Roy Orbison with ease. He grew up revering the country music played by his dad, who cut a record at a studio on Trade Street, right around the corner from the Garage, back in the day. The crack ensemble behind Boyd includes Greg Bell, an electric-guitar player whose restrained solos have the cleanest tone this side of Bakersfield; Jeff Shu, an exquisitely affecting pedal-steel player; Billie Feather, who can slap the hell out of a stand-up bass and twirl it in an incredibly entertaining way; and Karrie Sheehan on drums.

Following the bo-stevens at the Garage, Loamlands steered the proceedings back into current alt-country territory more native to the festival. At first blush, Loamlands bears striking similarities with fellow Durham act Mount Moriah in that both bands revolve around a musical partnership between a female singer-guitarist and male guitarist while displaying a progressive political sensibility and an infectious sense of fun and positivity onstage.

The energy level might have been slightly lower than Mount Moriah’s rapturous set the evening before, but Loamland’s Kym Register and Will Hackney brought several fine songs that beg further listening, given their varied textures and moods. Their blazing-loud brand of Southern rock comes across as genuinely subversive in its substitution of empathetic inclusion in place of individualistic swagger.

The night was the occasion of a homecoming for Winston-Salem native son Caleb Caudle, who has relocated to New Orleans. Recently he’s taken to wearing a wide-brimmed hat, rimmed glasses and whiskers — a look that reminds me of the actor Sorrell Booke. I don’t know if he would approve of the comparison, but during his set at the Garage when an audience member suggested he should open for Captain America because of his fondness for popcorn, Caudle quipped, “There’s another one besides me?”

He turned in a solid performance, drawing from what has grown into an ample repertoire, including finely drawn narratives and aching confessionals that represent both his most recent release, Tobacco Town, and the forthcoming Paint Another Layer on My Heart.

“I keep the heat off and the radio up,” he sang on a new song that captured his eagerness to get back to New Orleans on the last night of his tour. And that’s exactly what he did after a weary performance full of joking banter with old friends — packed his gear and drove through the night.

I was determined to get back to Krankies to see No Age, a Los Angeles band that has received acclaim for pushing punk rock into new sonic territory.

I had been enduring a minor headache all weekend and struggling to maintain my energy with minimal sleep and long days paced for high productivity. By the time I reached Krankies the headache had worsened and I was beginning to feel nauseous.

The drummer was singing with his kit positioned front and center onstage while the guitar player churned out untethered sheets of tuneful noise. At first, the music overloaded my senses and I wanted to flee. I scouted various positions on the floor, looking for the best spot to hear and observe the band. Eventually I retreated to an overstuffed leather couch on the side of the room.

My friend, Ron Whitehead, likened the experience of seeing Sonic Youth in Cincinnati in the mid-1990s to having his brain cells rearranged and undergoing a near-death experience. That aptly describes what it felt like for me to hear No Age. I seriously considered laying down on the couch and going to sleep, and I felt comforted that the music would envelop me like a warm, wooly cocoon, massaging all of my senses in a visceral, fully-immersive bath.

But instead I roused myself and angled a spot relatively close to the stage.

Between songs one of the band members asked if there was anyone from Greensboro in the crowd.

“Yeah!” I yelled, suddenly mortified that I was the only one who responded.

Someone across the room cursed Greensboro, and another fan proudly represented Lexington.

Undeterred, the guy from No Age told a hilarious story about playing a show with several other bands at a Greensboro venue called the Onion Cellar back in the 1990s. He recalled that the owners let the bands use a area behind the bar as a backstage space. Unbeknownst to management, the bands commandeered several bottles of liquor and got raging drunk. The drummer in one of the bands got so sick that he puked on his drum kit mid-performance.

“You know what happens when you hit vomit with drum sticks?” the guy concluded. “It splatters into the audience.”

My journey ended back at the Garage for the closing set by Jessica Lea Mayfield, an Ohio-based singer with an exquisitely ageless voice and a sound best described as reverb-drenched soul. I leaned against a booth and took it in, appreciative and dazzled, but stripped of my critical faculties.

Towards the end of Mayfield’s set, I glanced to my right and spotted Mayor Allen Joines listening intently.

Rested and revived, I returned on Sunday, the final day of the festival. Narratives and coherent themes do not arise as readily after two days of almost non-stop listening, but each band left their mark in some way.

The Sweets from Winston-Salem played danceable music that spliced ’80s jangle-pop onto a mid-’60s garage sound. Their songs came across as inventive without making any obvious attempt to challenge convention. As an indication of their laidback approach, their drummer played the whole set with a pipe clenched between his teeth.

Eston & the Outs from Raleigh sounded surprisingly upbeat during a song with the lyric, “I’m married to loneliness.” They make world-wise party music.

Bocanegra, whose members are split between Winston-Salem and Lima, Peru, made a striking visual impression dressed in black. I only caught a couple songs from their set because I had an appointment at Ziggy’s, but their blend of hard rock, new wave and industrial suggest intriguing avenues for development.

Phuzz Phest is stretching beyond its indie and garage roots, and this was the first year that any hip-hop acts made it on the bill.

Miss Eaves, a Brooklyn-based emcee, was perhaps the most natural booking choice in that category. A North Carolina native and graphic designer by trade, she spent a couple years in Winston-Salem, and those who follow the local art scene might recall that her visual art has been displayed at Delurk Gallery under the name Shanthony Exum. Also neatly completing the Triad circle, Miss Eaves’ track “We Gonna Take It” is produced by Greensboro native Apple Juice Kid.

Her performance seemed somewhat rushed, and she laughed occasionally at the brazenly forward sexuality of one of her tracks, “Work,” in which she invited a volunteer onstage and engaged the audience in call and response.

Miss Eaves, a Brooklyn-based emcee, revisited old stomping grounds at Phuzz Phest.
Miss Eaves, a Brooklyn-based emcee, revisited old stomping grounds at Phuzz Phest.

But overall, Miss Eaves’ in-your-face party spirit and provocation was truly fun. Assertive and empowering, her rhymes were bracing and delightful, the best case in point being “We Gonna Take It”: “We right here/ We see your fear/ Can’t close your eyes and make us disappear.”

Perhaps the most brilliant booking of the festival was Boogarins, a Brazilian psychedelic-rock quartet. The hall at Krankies quickly filled for their 10 p.m. show.

Boogarins’ Sunday-night show in Winston-Salem was the final night of a 20-date US tour inaugurated with an appearance at South by Southwest before embarking on a tour of Europe. Their live set displayed a brand of psychedelia starkly contrasted with the angst and dirty smudges of their US counterparts, instead soaring in a mind-expanding swirl more directly tied to the ’60s roots of the genre. And true to the Brazilian psychedelic tradition, the vocals stand on their own as an instrument, playfully darting through the embryonic sonic cosmos. Their impish good humor was infectious, and the audience rewarded them with arena-worthy cheers.

After such a mind-blowing experience, the remaining few hours of the festival were bound to be somewhat anticlimactic.

The Love Language of Chapel Hill, fronted by former Winston-Salem resident Stuart McLamb, received a hero’s welcome during the finale at Krankies. Their lush, fully formed power-pop missives made them the hometown favorite of the night.

Across town at Ziggy’s, Kool Keith was the festival’s concession to popular sentiment and the top-billed hip-hop act. An underground legend, Keith has a reputation for eccentricity. Twenty minutes after his scheduled start time of 11:20 it wasn’t entirely clear that he was going to show up.

But lo and behold, 15 minutes before midnight, Keith strolled onto the stage. After a couple minutes of hyping the audience with a strangely lifeless “Are you ready?” he launched into his set. Proclaiming his status as “a 20-year veteran,” the rapper took a leisurely stroll through his repertoire, working through his successive guises as Dr. Octagon and the Black Elvis while liberally dishing out some of his raunchier material.

It wasn’t really clear immediately whether Kool Keith made sense or was perhaps an unnatural graft made to fulfill Philip Pledger’s quest to diversify the festival.

While the show flagged with periodic lulls in energy, the largely white audience responded at times with genuine excitement and reverence.

And then just when Keith announced the show was over, he broke the ice and connected directly with the audience.

“It was a good party,” Keith said. “Thanks for coming out.”

He added, “We only party with you, not for you.”

Just after 12:30, after fist bumps with the dozen or so people left, Keith walked off the stage. But as fans shouted their affection, the 47-year-old emcee came back out and delivered a rap tutorial, explaining how he seeks out younger “sparring partners” to keep him on his game and keeps fit through a “lyrical gym workout.”

Undeterred by the absence of anyone at the venue able to provide beats, Keith unleashed a dazzling freestyle demonstration. And then he invited fans onstage for photos.

It turned out to be pretty grassroots, after all.