Playing against expectations at Phuzz Phest

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by Jordan Green

“I hope you had a good Phuzz Phest,” said Joseph D’Agostino, the lead singer and guitarist from Cymbals Eat Guitars, as the midnight hour approached at the Garage on Sunday, “’cause now it’s over!”

Not quite.

The New York-based band with Jersey roots seemed to relish the responsibility of dismantling the bomb that was the three-day Winston-Salem music festival in its fifth year. In a weekend that explored the various iterations of post-punk, pop, psychedelic garage rock and electronic music, they were the perfect synthesis of everything an angsty yet hopeful indie devotee could want: slightly dissonant, exuberant guitar with angular leads, explosive drumming, propulsive bass playing and anthemic keyboards.

The band’s encore showcased Matthew Whipple playing devastating, on-the-nose basslines that could be heard clearly from a block away while D’Agostino played loose against the strong tether, slinging the guitar behind his neck and coaxing stabbing, echo-ey squibs of sound from it.

It’s a trope of rock and roll to end a set by laying down your guitar in a squall of feedback and leave the stage, as if nonchalantly walking away from a car wreck. But when the band finished its set, D’Agostino casually jogged through the audience, smiling beatifically, and headed straight for the bathroom. That’s authenticity.

Yet the festival was only over if you were willing to write off Curse, a two-piece electronic/doom band from Baltimore that was booked across the street at Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar at midnight. Were they an unnecessary appendage that was safe to ignore in a festival neatly bookended with conventional rock guitars? Or were they the fitting denouement to an otherwise low-key finale of the three-day festival? A curse for a Sunday, after all. Would they burn the festival into a smoldering ruin? As a matter of fact, they would.

All great music in some way plays against expectation, tricking the listener who’s ready to dismiss it as somehow illegitimate by sneaking up and triggering emotional responses that are supposed to be keyed to modes of expression that are far more familiar.

A couple things have happened. After roughly six hours of devising an itinerary, making a checklist of must-see bands and assessing performances on a cerebral level, the listener has become exhausted and the stakes are lowered. The insatiable search for more sensation and experience takes over. The assorted misfits who hide from the day by seeking refuge in the night gravitate together in a provisional community of their unfulfilled yearnings.

As Lucinda Williams sang in “The Night’s Too Long,” her late ’80s alt-country classic: “She loves the night, she loves the night/ She doesn’t want the night, don’t want it to end.”

Streaming into Luna Lounge looking for the next thing with an hour or so to go before last call, some kind of switch is thrown. The rock-and-roll convention of rhythms performed on guitar, bass and drums suddenly doesn’t matter anymore, and neither do discernible vocals. No one should like this music, if you could call it that, created on a keyboard and drums by Jane Vincent and Logan Terkelsen, but the hundred or so people crammed into Luna Lounge were enthralled. The band pushed volume and dissonance to the limits of human endurance in a way that was positively cathartic. Vincent stabbed at the keys of her instrument, finding the harshest tones while building to a ferocious climax as Terkelsen attacked his drum set with John Bonham-like intensity.

Last year, the lottery of upended expectations redounded to the benefit of T0w3rs. On the first night of the festival in 2014, inebriated revelers who may have seen David Bowie as the model of pop talent found improbably that a young man singing over a rhythm track became the perfect embodiment of their hopes.

A performance artist and a drum machine would seem to present low stakes. But when the grooves are unbelievable fantastic, the singer is dressed in a white jacket and dances like a cross between Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger while singing political manifestos and laments about romantic breakups, a band seems redundant.

With T0w3rs, aka Derek Torres, more or less a known quantity now, it would have been too risky for an artist such as he — who is diligently working to build a following — to repeat the formula. As he did at Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh and a couple other shows last year, he performed with a full band for his opening-night set at Krankies Coffee for Phuzz Phest 2015, enlisting two drummers, two keyboardists, and guitar player, while also picking up a guitar himself. Gone was the electro-clash groove; naturally, it was replaced with a warm, organic sound. The band’s output was supple and pliant with the guitar taking a backseat. Strip away some of the band’s fey mannerisms, and you could hear echoes of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” transitional Fleetwood Mac or mid-career Talking Heads’ funk collaborations with Bernie Worrell.

Jeffrey Dean Foster (left) and Snüzz (Jordan Green)
Jeffrey Dean Foster (left) and Snüzz (Jordan Green)

There were big, dramatic moments at Phuzz Phest, to be sure: good, clean fun and orgiastic abandon during the Tills’ frenetic garage-rock set on Saturday at the Millennium Center, followed by Foxygen’s grand rock gesture inspiring near pandemonium. And there were hometown triumphs: a sparkling set of new songs by the Estrangers, led by festival organizer Philip Pledger, the same night; the members of Jody Barnes in sequined finery delivering inspired rock opera on Sunday; and, somewhat upstaged by anticipation for Foxygen down the street and blighted by poor acoustics, the sweet, keening rock and roll of Jeffrey Dean Foster and his band at the Garage on Saturday.

All of them met expectations, and then some.

And yet, transcendent moments take place in the slipstream between one thing and the next.

Lowland Hum at Reanimator Records (Jordan Green)
Lowland Hum at Reanimator Records (Jordan Green)

At 10 p.m. on Sunday, as a steady rain rinsed Patterson Avenue, Lowland Hum — the Greensboro husband-and-wife duo Lauren and Daniel Goans, along with a newly added bass player and drummer — formed a tableau of warmth and intimacy in the cozy record shop Reanimator. Singing to one another in the center of the store, their gentle voices intertwined like a breeze in the pinetops. They absolutely mesmerized the crowd thronged around them. So magnetic was their attraction that their concert drew an overflow crowd of people standing in the rain outside the door to hear them. As one or two excused themselves from the room, the patient pilgrims gradually entered the circle.

In keeping with their ritual, incense burned and lyric books were distributed to the audience to complete the multisensory experience of Lowland Hum’s hymn-like performance. Adding to the intimacy of the experience, the Goans’ between-song banter included two separate question-and-comment periods.

“Why did they put you all in such a small venue?” someone asked.

Lauren Goans blunted any indignation that may have been building.

“We were a late addition,” she explained.

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