by Jordan Green
Phuzz Phest, like its cineaste cousin RiverRun, is a rite of spring in Winston-Salem. The annual indie rock music festival curated by Philip Pledger, which is scheduled for April 15-16, is leaner this year, having been pared down from three days to two. If anything, the streamlined programming should bring a welcome focus, and encourage more fans to stick with the festival for the duration.
Here are a dozen acts to check out, in no particular order of importance and making no correction for the arbitrariness of personal tastes. After you read this, check out the lineup at phuzzphest.com and draw up your own list.
Listening to Shirlette Ammons’ music is to experience the silos of social stratification fracture and reorder into a horizontal plane of mutual exchange and solidarity. A seasoned artist, Ammons recently released her second solo album, Language Barrier, which represents the fruition of an idea the Durham artist has been working at for a good while, at least going back to her participation in the hip-hop/rock ensemble Mosadi Music in 2006. Ammons’ music defies categorization, with the breadth of her collaborators and the ease with which they meet testifying to her wide vision. There’s a decided hip-hop cadence with an indie rock texture. And, folk, yes. Consider the list of guest appearances on the record: Meshell Ndegeocello, Hiss Golden Messenger, Phil Cook, the Indigo Girls and Heather McEntire of Mount Moriah. By those lights you will know the level of respect Ammons gets from her peers.
Jamil Rashad, the Raleigh artist who performs under the name Boulevards, channels pure, unadulterated funk, albeit more in the sleek and sexy mold of Chic than the outer-space eccentricities of George Clinton. He favors concise slices audio ecstasy over extended jams, leaning towards a 1986 aesthetic over ’73. There’s a certain risqué quality to Boulevards combined with unabashed nerd appeal that makes his act irresistibly fun.
Thee Oh Sees
There’s a wonderfully weird quality about Thee Oh Sees, the lo-fi Los Angeles-based psychedelic rock band led by John Dwyer that sonically references the garage and proto-punk roots of the genre. That’s probably a romanticization, but it points to both the primitive and forward-leaning spirit of the band. Comparisons to psychobilly pioneers the Cramps and machine-obsessed early Krautrock are oddly enough both appropriate for a band that seems obsessed with eyeballs, violence and weird sex.
The spare, evocative sound of Nashville’s Lera Lynn — a throaty voice steeped in Patsy Cline accompanied by Gibson hollow-bodied guitar with just the lightest touch of reverb — makes it easy to understand how she got commissioned to write music for the country-noir HBO series “True Detective.” Several of the songs on the series are co-written with Roseanne Cash and T Bone Burnett.
You can hear a sunbaked boogie with flourishes of jazz and prog-rock in the music of Austin, Texas’ White Denim — Billy Gibbons would surely approve. If the Foghat groove of “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” paints scenes of Dazed and Confused, you should know that this is a band with wide enough vistas to apply a synth-pop sheen and disco beat to the cheesy psychedelia of their cover of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In).”
Anna Luisa Daigneault, who performs under the name Quilla, may call Greensboro home, but the geographic identifier is more circumstantial than formative in the electronic-music sensation’s status. Her dual heritage growing up as the child of a French-Canadian father and Peruvian mother probably informs her creative identity the most, along with her experiences traveling to a Mayan ruin in Belize and to Angkor Wat in Cambodia an anthropologist. Quilla’s vocal style is aptly described as “soaring yet intimate, disarming and ethereal.” Quilla co-wrote “Walls,” a massive international dancefloor hit in 2012, and has come into high demand as a collaborator since then, while recording her own album Beautiful Hybrid in 2014.
Some may remember Josh Kimbrough from the pop-leaning indie rock outfit Butterflies in Greensboro in the last aughts. Subsequently, he returned home to the Triangle and has been refining his craft all the while. Kimbrough’s new project, Teardrop Canyon, is something of a departure. The inaugural track “Let It Rest” showcases anthemic vocals, a chugging rhythm section and siren-like guitar playing. A full-length album produced by Lost in the Trees’ Ari Picker is on the horizon.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers
The music of Chapel Hill’s Sarah Shook draws a direct line to the fertile Triangle alt-country scene that yielded such luminaries like Whiskeytown, the Backsliders and Trailer Bride. An early exponent of that scene was the now-disbanded Two Dollar Pistols, whose frontman John Howie Jr. found a place behind the drum kit for Shook’s newest project, the Disarmers. Howie rounds out a musical partnership previously established by Shook and guitarist Eric Peterson, and together the three produce a rollicking good time formed around questionable decisions and rueful second guesses.
The London-based quartet Yuck’s third album, Stranger Things, is a maturation for a band entering its seventh year. The deliciously tuneful songs deliver pop hooks while retaining a kind of raw energy. While not exactly path-breaking, listening to Yuck brings to mind all the best aspects of the last 25 years of indie-pop, suggesting all at once the grungy undertow of Dinosaur Jr., the lo-fi splendor of Pavement and the soaring post-punk of Built to Spill.
Beckley, W.Va. native Cashavelly Morrison left home at the age of 15 to study ballet at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. A sense of virtuosity from Cashavelly’s fine-arts training carries into her music, but she ultimately rejected the expectations of female beauty bound up in the balletic tradition, choosing instead a truer and freer expression of women’s experience. Ryan McLeod, who was completing a degree in classical guitar at the school of the arts, introduced Morrison to the music of Appalachian auto-harpist Jean Ritchie, who would prove to be one of her primary influences. McLeod, who is now Morrison’s husband, is also a key partner in their musical enterprise, but the focus remains appropriately on the female voice.
Durham’s Brett Harris has sat in with surviving members of Big Star on performances of the band’s lost classic Third and served as a member of the touring lineup of North Carolina jangle-pop pioneers the dBs. That’s pretty great understudy experience for a song stylist whose work has drawn comparisons to Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Harry Nilsson. He’s also collaborated with Skylar Gudasz, who has her own slot at this year’s Phuzz Phest.
Carrboro electronic music trio Body Games helped establish the value proposition of Greensboro’s monthly Dance From Above series, and makes a natural addition to the lineup of Winston-Salem little rock festival that could. Last year, the trio released its Local Love Vol. 1 EP, admirably covering four bands from different genres, including “Dayzd” by Estrangers — the psych-pop outfit helmed by Phuzz Phest’s Philip Pledger. Local Love was both a tribute and a pioneering work of interpretation, but Body Games’ new long-player Damager represents the delicious fruition of the group’s initial promise.