A rock festival can sometimes feel like a fractured collection of disparate experiences, especially one like Phuzz Phest with multiple venues and overlapping schedules — a brilliant performance by a performer here, a mind-melt between band and audience there, all in all a matter of subjectivity depending where you were and what you heard.
The streamlined Phuzz Phest 2016, with about 50 bands packed into two evenings, was something else — a come-together moment for a local scene with strong ties to the state’s flagship music scenes in the Triangle and Asheville, with tentacles reaching out to metropoles as distant as London and Los Angeles. This is a scene that still has a lot of room for growth, but one that is bound by a sense of possibility for artists and entrepreneurs who don’t mind scrapping who are united by a sense that there’s more to be gained from working together than competing head to head.
The question of how to build and sustain a music community was framed during a panel discussion at the Center for Design Innovation early on April 15, the first night of the festival. Corbie Hill, a freelance music writer, made one of the most revealing remarks by illuminating the contrast between Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro on one hand and Winston-Salem and Greensboro on the other. Hill said he moved to the Triangle anticipating that he would be exposed to a lot of music, adding, “Having moved there, there’s so much freaking music.
“This is gonna sound awful, but there’s too many venues,” he continued. “If I leave the house at night, there’s five great bands to see. I know that’s a great problem to have.”
Highlights from Phuzz Phest 2016
Photo credit: Ryan Snyder.
Craig Reed, a promoter in Raleigh who also participated in the panel discussion, would remark later during a huddle outside Krankies Coffee in the middle of Lera Lynn’s set that he found it refreshing that every show wasn’t completely packed in Winston-Salem.
While Winston-Salem benefits from abundant creativity and a supportive infrastructure, Devon Mackay, director of major gifts at the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, noted that anemic population growth is the main thing holding the Camel City back. The city doesn’t “have the population growth of Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham,” she said. “We have to focus on building audience. It’s kind of a different problem.”
As the owner of the Garage, Tucker Tharpe operates the only stand-alone live-music venue in downtown Winston-Salem since the closing of Ziggy’s in February, notwithstanding “bars with stages,” as he put it. He said he’s happy to carry the banner alone for the time being, but would be just as glad to have company.
“If you want to start a venue, go for it,” he said. “Winston-Salem is the kind of place that doesn’t tell you not to do it; they say, ‘You’ve got an idea? Okay, let’s give it a shot and see what happens.’”
As a venue committed to original music that pays homage to the city’s industrial past, the Garage has flourished by joining forces with Phuzz Phest, which in turn has magnified the status of indie rock while expanding the tent to include hip-hop, garage-psych, country and folk. As proof of the venue and festival hitting their marks, the Brooklyn dream-psych-pop trio Sunflower Bean would fill the Garage to capacity for the final set on Friday, while festivalgoers lined Seventh Street in anticipation of Raleigh funkmaster Boulevards on the following evening.
If the unruly threads, themes, local variations and debates among the panelists early on Friday only seemed to raise more questions about what a music community is, how it can be built, what it should be striving for and what kind of support it needs, the music provided a resounding answer.
Drag Sounds, a partnership between Mike Wallace and Trevor Reece with Greensboro roots and a new base of operations in Baltimore, proved to be the perfect signal for the starting slot at Bailey Park. Although the lawn was only partially filled, the band’s tuneful, Stonesy romp provided the aural equivalent of a rock-and-roll picnic on a perfect spring evening. In contrast to the indie-rock norm of understatement to the point of non-communication, Wallace offered a refreshingly inspirational message.
“It’s good to come together for a summit and for art,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work. The music scene is coming up. We’re gonna win.”
Later, before the band closed out their set, Wallace channeled a late-’60s style holy-roller-cum-orgasmic, political agit-prop rhetorical style.
“We need Phuzz Phest,” he said. “Let’s get together. We’re gonna do it now. I’m talking about coming on!”
Later, as dusk gave way to darkness during the Los Angeles-based band Thee Oh Sees’ set at Bailey Park, jet-lagged singer John Dwyer displayed a remarkable grasp of local scene politics and a fine sense of humor when he said, “I was going to talk a lot of s*** about Greensboro, but I really think it’s time to unite.”
With two drummers powering the band with taiko-like intensity and a bass player laying down a relentless groove, Thee Oh Sees were not only sonically adventurous, but also aggressive and psychically warped. Dwyer’s vocals vacillated between demonic clown barking and gentle balladeering. His guitar playing swung from the hard, acid-tinged sound of Big Brother & the Holding Company to the sonic reduction of the Dead Boys, and the thronging crowd went nuts, with the occasional mosh pit and audience members near the front laying hands on monitors for salvation. It was one of those rare moments that rock fans wait for — when people who scarcely know each other or have only recently met spot each other in the crowd and share a huge smile because they’re experiencing something magical together.
You could string together one epiphany after another at this year’s Phuzz Phest, and any sequence would likely be just as good as the next. As an example, I missed Cashavelly Morrison, Skylar Gudasz, Neon Indian, Sunflower Bean, the Tills, White Denim, Scrub Pine, Yuck and Boulevards. They’re acts that I found intriguing, already love or would later receive rave reviews from other Phuzzers, but I missed them because I’d already seen them and wanted to expose myself to something new, or their slot simply conflicted with someone else who was higher on my list.
Electronic dance artist Quilla cultivated a different kind of communal experience from Thee Oh Sees during her 8:15 p.m. set at the Millennium Center — affirmative and uplifting. The Greensboro artist, a native of Montreal from French Canadian and Peruvian parentage, possesses a soaring and anthemic voice that gives her music an accessibility eluding much of the EDM genre. Equally immersed in singing, playing keyboards, twisting knobs and dancing, Quilla, aka Anna Luisa Daigneault, took the audience on a tour of sadness, determination, romantic devotion and defiance, the latter through “The House That We Built,” to which she dedicated “to our terrible governor who needs to repeal HB2.”
It would be difficult to imagine a more severe turn from the shamanic, future-forward sound of Quilla than the whiskey-and-regret cast of Chapel Hillian Sarah Shook’s hard-edged honky tonk. John Howie Jr., a honky-tonk singer and songwriter who fronts Rosewood Bluff, serves as drummer in Shook’s band the Disarmers. His hard beat, more at home in the New York Dolls than the Buckaroos, throttled the music up to a level of brutal honesty beyond anything in the country canon short of GG Allin or maybe Shooter Jennings. Two songs from Shook’s set at Krankies Coffee — “F*** Up” (“I can’t cry myself to sleep, so I drink myself to death/ I’ve got cocaine in my bloodstream and whiskey on my breath”) and “Nothin’ Feels Right But Doing Wrong” (“One more dance with the devil, one more shot of whiskey/ One more heapin’ dose of trouble, one more sad, sad song”) provides a pretty sure reflection of the singer’s outlook. Add the stinging leads of Eric Peterson’s guitar playing and the effect is something like Crazy Horse backing Hank Williams Sr.
Shook announced on her website that she was “super stoked” to have a slot opening for Lera Lynn, a polished singer-songwriter who’s worked with producer T Bone Burnett on music for the TV series “True Detective” and who is based in Nashville, where Shook’s music would be anathema. With an ace band dressed in matching black, it would be easy to dismiss Lynn as an outlier for a festival as scrappy as Phuzz, but she turned out to be surprisingly disarming, cutting the trance-like effect of her atmospheric vocals with joking banter between songs about topics like her disdain for the Bulldogs at the University of Georgia, related to her upbringing in Athens. Her set became increasingly rocking and esoteric, concluding with a rousing finale.
On Saturday, High Point rapper Tange Lomax had the challenge of opening a run at the Garage. Using a cell phone to cue up tracks on a laptop, she backed herself up as her own DJ, running through a series of songs for a handful of people who mercifully multiplied into dozens of energized listeners by the time she concluded around 8:30 p.m.
She threw caution to the wind by performing a capella for the first time in her career — a risky move that won over the initially tentative audience. “Yours,” a reflection on romantic anxiety showed off her skills to the best effect, pairing her gutsy vocal delivery with warm, organic sounding beats. The inspirational message of Lomax’s closer, “Anthems Only,” wove seamlessly into the spirit of the festival.
“Whatever you do in life, make sure you make an anthem of it,” Lomax told the audience. “Go hard.”
Lomax delivered a fitting prologue for Shirlette Ammons, who ruled the second slot at the Millennium Center. The genre-leveling Durham hip-hop artist’s recent solo album Language Barrier promised a cerebral and interesting experience, but she rocked it from start to finish. With the backing of a traditional rock combo, Ammons’ lyrics landed body blows over a swirling maelstrom that placed an unstoppable drumbeat front and center, with Tom Morello-like squibs of guitar accenting the groove. Ammons’ presence and stance — pro-queer, feminist and unabashedly black — broadened the space of community that Phuzz Phest implicitly promised.
“Any sex-positive people in the house?” she asked. “Two? I guess it’s still early. Any f***able feminists?”
Ammons ended her set with another cut off the same album.
“This is called “Dandelion (Eatin Out),” she said. “It’s off my first album, Twilight for Gladys Bentley. She was a 1920s blues singer who was called a ‘bulldagger,’ which is what I am today. We’re cool, right? It’s called ‘Eatin Out.’ I know what you think it is. It’s about eating a meal in a place that is not your home.”
The maturation of the Winston-Salem creative community was on full display with Must Be The Holy Ghost, who followed Ammons at the Millennium Center.
Helmed by guitarist and singer Jared Draughon, MBTHG has attracted a growing legion of devoted followers in Winston-Salem. The music is built around a drum track and Draughon’s guitar loops, along with his vocals ranging from an ethereal falsetto to a Bono-like earnestness. A liquid psychedelic lightshow by Evan Hawkins, now based in Los Angeles, has always been integral to the project. What made this set special was the participation of the Helen Simoneau Danse company, adding a third creative component. The dancers uncannily reflected Draughon and Hawkins’ contributions, rotating in a circular formation that imitated the radiant pattern of the lightshow, and then seeming to dissolve into the floor during “Melt Down,” a song with a corrosive, oppressive feel like nicotine addiction.
New York City’s Chairlift was one of the festival’s most obvious concessions to popular tastes and effort to broaden the audience. The crowd composition became noticeably younger and didn’t seem to mind a wait that exceeded changeovers for acts with smaller profiles. Patrick Wimberly’s flawless percussion work set a sinuous groove that provided a platform for Carolina Polachek’s sleek, R&B-inflected vocals, reminiscent of Sade.
While Chairlift’s streamlined pop and star power entertained the masses at the Millennium Center, Zack Mexico was melting a capacity crowd two blocks to the north at the Garage down into a collective out-of-body experience. One-upping Thee Oh Sees, Zack Mexico played with three drummers, including Josh Martier, also a member of the Tills. Repping coastal North Carolina with a home base in Kill Devil Hills, the band built congenitally weird guitar reverberations over trance-inducing syncopated percussion.
“Holy s***, that was amazing!” one audience member enthused.
As fans lined Seventh Street for Boulevards’ headline set at the Garage, Durham power-pop songwriter Brett Harris set up his gear across the street at Test Pattern (formerly Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar/ Lucky Strike Vintage Boutique/ Elliott’s Revue). The intimate bar, which through its various incarnations has always felt like a Japanese tea garden through its ability to somehow project the illusion of space, seemed an appropriate setting to end the festival. Swooning pop music — Harris has performed as a touring member of the legendary band Big Star and the dBs — with literary references to Flannery O’Connor that might seem an odd choice for a debauched midnight finale. But Harris’ smart lyricism, hooky melodies and satisfyingly sexy grooves had a way of drawing listeners into orbit until they were dancing in the front of the small stage, almost nose to nose with the singer.
“This is my first Phuzz Phest,” Harris said. “I picked up a fuzz pedal in honor of it. It’s never too late to trying something new and step on the wrong pedal.”