story and photos by Ryan Snyder
A single bowed cello note as monolithic as a foghorn and as imperative as a middle finger rang out across Raleigh’s City Plaza at the start of a set by Hopscotch Music Festival’s opening night headliner, Godspeed! You Black Emperor. It was a powerful reminder that large-scale cultural consumption and a thriving nightlife can persist in spite of the undue influence of a few killjoys, much like the crowd that weathered the fat raindrops that fell during, Godspeed!’s second act.
The most pervasive question heading into the festival’s sixth year was not whether ordinances restricting sidewalk alcohol service in the state capital set about by nightlife adversaries would have an effect on its downtown festival, but how it would function following its acquisition by Etix earlier this year. The answer is not much and the great news is that it will certainly return for a seventh year. It already boasts the most prescient curation of avant-garde, punk and metal of any festival in the South and as it showed this year, its continued embrace of fringe dance music and hip hop only heightens its already extraordinary diversity.
As the name implies, it’s a festival designed to be experienced in quick steps. See some of this, some of that. Every path is different and outside of its City Plaza shows, few experience Hopscotch in the same way. You could have moved from seeing TV On the Radio’s utterly electric Friday night headlining performance to CAM where the crowd for Memphis punk trio Nots was as indifferent as a terracotta army to a highly turned up show by wantonly subversive Atlanta rapper and label boss Father. Given the opportunity cost of skipping across downtown from one show to the next, sometimes only to wait in line for entry, it was a perfectly reasonable decision to stay in one place for multiple sets.
Rap and electronic fans might have felt especially compelled to do so — because who had the fortitude to endure an entire night of the Kennedy Theatre’s avant opening night weirdness? — given the exceptional bills put in the same venue. The Friday night Lincoln Theatre lineup beginning with Chapel Hill emcee SkyBlew and culminating with Virginia Beach trap legend Pusha T might have been a good place to do it, because in between was not wanting for intrigue. Toting a depleted bottle of Grey Goose, Father hit the stage before Pusha T in a tie-dye tee, thrashed his short braids and let loose the sleepy rap-growl that, propelled by only the deepest, most sumptuous bass, has formed the personal aesthetic that makes him as much of a curiosity as he is a curator. Unlike his Charlotte show back in July, where at least half of his Awful Records crew crowded the stage with him, he flew solo at his late-evening set, mostly to his own detriment.
As his rap handle might suggest, the whole that is Father is triadic: Father the producer makes sparse, ominous and artfully subversive trunk rattlers, while Father the tastemaker has molded an entire roster of exciting, nearly maximized talent. Father the solo performer, an ironic twist, just seemed to be mailing it in. Not that his audience much cared; even blasé effort couldn’t negate the rakish charisma he oozed. If all you heard was opener “Who’s Gonna Get F***ed First?”, you’d at the very least come away understanding that he plays fast and loose with ideas that are both primitive and pop. But for an artist whose best looks are those based on sonic austerity, he’s a lot more fun to take in when his crew has his back.
Mostly this is because his tracks are laden with features and adlibbed interjections that he won’t take on himself, but also because he has a tendency to forget his own verses at times. Not that anyone minded; he whipped an invisible steering wheel while letting the bass soak in to stretch out his tracks, his audience vibrating along with it. Unforgivable, however, was the exclusion of his two best tracks, the hilarious “Nokia” and his 2014 breakout hit “Wrist” (over which his royalty beef with Key — its weakest feature — may have played a part) in favor of an early exit.
Not that there can possibly be an agreed upon superlative at a festival like this, but the audiences who took in Raleigh native Boulevards and English electronic composer Clark on Saturday night might be able to achieve a consensus. On one hand, the hometown funk hero Boulevards was an early evening set in the biggest room at CAM and all he did was nearly fill it up and bend it to his will. Real name Jamil Rashad, Boulevards makes salacious throwback electro rap that recalls Whodini meets Luke Skyywalker. Clad in a stunning turquoise suit, Boulevards and his similarly bespoken DJ Nick Neptune dripped ’80s sex appeal. The music was bouncy, swaggerific roller disco funk and the crowd responded accordingly.
Clark, on the other hand, played his slightly smaller crowd at Kings like puppets without ever speaking a word. The Warp Records producer had the mild misfortune of putting out a record in the same year as the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years and on the same label, and yet his music draws more hushed tones than that of Richard D. James. With a laptop, Moog Voyager and a massive sequencer in his live arsenal, and a backline of hypnotic visuals administered by opener thefacesblur (whose own set recalled the doomy bass experience of Death Grips producer Zach Hill), Clark’s hour-long set was an inferno of spacy synths and four-on-the floor mayhem. The real joy of experiencing a great dance music show is that collective sensation an audience experiences when the music begins to climax; the sensation starts in the root chakra and culminates with a chorus of ‘ows’, ‘woos’ and shrieks. Clark created every sound that was heard from scratch, including those.
The most distinguishing characteristic of Hopscotch in its pursuit to present the best of the sonic arts’ periphery is its ability to draw great artists when it’s not especially expedient to do so. Point in case: London low-end terrorist Mumdance, who was journeying from across the pond for his Thursday night closing set at Neptune’s. Such risky ventures could easily be undermined by even the slightest delay in transit, one of which would eventually cancel Mumdance’s set to the chagrin of those hoping to catch his North Carolina debut. His immediate predecessor, Chicago Footwork torchbearer DJ Earl, would have made them quickly forget.
Sporting a white towel tucked underneath his baseball cap and shirt nodding to his Teklife accomplice DJ Spin’s forthcoming EP Off That Loud, young Earl was handed the keys to the rest of the evening. He announced to the one-in, one-out crowd at Neptune’s that he was debuting a never-before-heard set based on an EP of his own that’s due out next month, threw up a deuce to his departed mentor, DJ Rashad, and followed with a dizzying set of jarring bass and cleverly dissected samples that nodded to his biggest influences.
For a festival like Hopscotch where perspicacity is endlessly indulged, Earl’s set was manna for the music nerd. He of course reworked tracks by Teklife patriarch, Rashad, and his Eden, NC-raised comrade Machinedrum, but catching the eyes of the sweat-soaked strangers dancing next to you in mutual recognition of a highly clandestine Nguzunguzu (who were a revelation at Hopscotch in 2014) sample, or a reduction of Breach’s “Jack” drowned in reverb and peppered with machine gun snares, was a reward unobtainable anywhere else.
Most of his references flew by amidst the frenzied pace in which Earl works, but he lavished attention upon the Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” suggesting it might appear on his upcoming EP. He did, after all, call Ayers his undisputedly greatest influence in his submission to the Roy Ayers Beat Submission Project. Footwork music is practically antithetical to the sing-along, but in this case it was requisite.
Like Earl’s extended set, the most was made of Hopscotch cancellations elsewhere. Ought slid into Deerhunter’s main stage opening set in plenty of time to make the print materials; not the case, however, for New Orleans sludge masters Eyehategod, who were replaced by Richmond thrash supergroup Iron Reagan. Drummer Greg Fox of power-ambient composer Ben Frost’s live unit and black metal group Liturgy was called in from the bullpen to sub for improviser-in-residence Owen Pallett when needed. Fox ended up also subbing for Carrboro noise artist Secret Boyfriend, who has made a game of canceling North Carolina festival appearances. He reasonably bowed out of Phuzz Phest 2014 because he didn’t want to appear on a bill with accused abuser 10,000 Armies, though no solid motive was given for this one.
Elsewhere, attendees might have heard on Saturday afternoon that Waxahatchee stepped in for a last-minute solo set on Friday night since there was no reliable way to know when cancellations or subs occurred. For a festival with a rather substantial tech sponsorship component, its mobile app was lamentably no more useful than its overstuffed guidebook, which at least didn’t require precious battery life. News about guest appearances and cancellations mostly came from hearsay and happenstance, or not at all. But even for a festival that makes great strides year in and year out, it always finds a way to work these things out.
• The charming synth-pop that Casual Curious made during its lifespan in Greensboro was always something of an oddity because it was a sound that felt disconnected and rootless from its environs. When Lee Gunselman moved to Atlanta and formed Breathers, he left behind a stack of unreleased or misplaced recordings that could eventually prove to be an interesting link to a potentially great band.
• When the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is eventually cast, Justin Broadrick should at least be given a chance to read for Judge Holden. The Godflesh founder’s hairless, backlit visage was as terrifying as the dual-bass sound of his duo itself, and their festival-closing set at the Lincoln Theatre was equally as brutal as the book’s ultimate scene.
• More on that turquoise Boulevards suit: Raleigh’s Lumina Clothing Company took the leftover material after making it and crafted only a handful of five-panel caps out of it with the Boulevards logo on them. In classic Tolkien fashion, receiving one will impart vast amounts of swag upon you, but you’ll of course be unknowingly serving its dark master.
• There’s challenging, esoteric music to be heard around every corner at Hopscotch, but one of the best, most uncomplicated moments was a beautiful house set by recent Carolina Theatre visitor Obey City that bled straight into a deft performance by longtime NYC party promoter Jubilee, whose quasi-legend status is all the more impressive when you take into account that she was using Beats headphones. Toward the end of the night, alt-rappers Le1f and Nocando (himself the host of one of the most prestigious hip hop parties in Los Angeles) came to hang with the smallish Neptune’s crowd that remained, who periodically gave each other that look of, “Yeah, we’re in the right place.”
• For all the intrinsic, wonderful eccentricity in the Hopscotch programming, understand that you’ll never fully access its oblique weirdness until you’ve stayed at the Downtown Marriott for a night. There’s this debutante event that coincides with Hopscotch every year, and as the hotel’s doorman — the one who bears an uncanny resemblance to Diamond Joe Biden (he never proved that he isn’t him) — will tell you, there’s as much showbiz going on here as there is any concert. Just breathe in the late-night elevator silence that occurs between a guy with dinner plate-sized eyes and a crestfallen debutante coterie whose patriarch just maxed a credit card for a weekend of “that lifestyle” once — both parties in the midst of their own skewed, ephemeral versions of reality — and you’ll understand the need for a festival like Hopscotch to exist.