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)

©

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)

©

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Three absolutely thrilling sets

Ex Hex at Bailey Park

As the searing chords of Mary Timony’s guitar — like an electric cattle prod — pierced the dusk at the commencement of Ex Hex’s set at Bailey Park on Friday, the fans gravitated to the sound like ravenous hyenas. Small clusters of people rounded the corner from Krankies Coffee and poured out the door from Reanimator. People were literally skipping up Patterson Avenue in their eagerness to get to the brand new bandshell at Bailey Park in a scene reminiscent of the last day of school before summer break in Dazed and Confused.

Mary Timony of Ex Hex (Jordan Green)

©

Aptly described in their publicity material as “unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll spat in the discipline’s mother tongue,” Ex Hex’s music hit all the pleasure points, combining the clean tone and shimmering reverb of Timony’s guitar playing with Betsy Wright’s throbbing and primal bass-playing and Laura Harris’ tough and dynamic drumming. Clad in denim, they cut a smart and cool profile. It was fun to watch Timony grimace through her taut guitar solos, and then break into a smile and she sang the verse.

The Tills at the Millennium Center

The Tills’ garage hootenanny drew rave reviews from audience members at last year’s festival. After signing with Phuzz Records and recording an EP with legendary North Carolina producer Mitch Easter at the Fidelitorium in Kernersville, they could only be expected to solidify their position this year. And they didn’t disappoint.

With a saxophone player on board, their set at the Millennium Center on Saturday took off like a drunken ’60s frat party, and they immediately generated a rousing response.

The Tills at the Millennium Center (Eric Ginsburg)

©

The lead singer sounded somewhat like Little Richard with a howling vibrato of a voice. The drummer, a maniac player, handled vocals on select tunes, favoring a raspy growl.

Some technical difficulties with the bass hardly broke the spell.

“We got the bass back,” the lead singer exulted. “Now nothing can possibly go wrong.”

As an aside that was possibly inappropriate but felt absolutely right, he added, “Foxygen is here! We’re gonna get you wet… for full penetration.”

Foxygen at the Millennium Center (Eric Ginsburg)

©

Foxygen at the Millenium Center

Scheduling Foxygen after the Tills must be recognized as a masterstroke of sequencing. The Los Angeles band took the privilege of starting about 20 minutes late, which can backfire for groups with lesser talent. Taking the stage they simulated pandemonium, with James France singing angry ’60s garage-rock vocals over Jonathan Rado’s swirling organ, and declaring at one point: “I’ll see you in court.”

The three female backup singers were absolutely fantastic, placed prominently onstage and wearing makeup that gave them a look that was simultaneously sexy and ghoulish. At one point they swirled around France like the three witches in Macbeth.

And France egged the audience with outrageous insouciance, quipping, “Personally speaking, I broke up with my boyfriend and my girlfriend last night. Questions and comments — refer to the suggestion box after this show.”

Led by France and Rado, the duo was performing its final show in the United States as a nine-piece, and the concert had the chaotic and thrilling feel — almost certainly put-on — of a band coming apart at the seams. The backup singers made a convincing show of looking totally pissed, particularly when the guitarist and bass player broke from their groove and initiated a sudden light-sabre duel. As for the band, who mostly remained in the background, their grooves referenced Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour” while still managing to sound fresh and original. France’s corny jokes and a fake-out cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” contributed to the concert’s uneven feel, but that was all part of its charm. They managed to work in two encores and still finish within an hour.

Two great moments

Daddy Issues

Daddy Issues, the ’60s-style girl group-surf-punk outfit from Greensboro, fittingly ended their opening set at Bailey Park on Friday with a cover of the Pleasure Seekers’ garage-rock classic “What a Way to Die.” “Well I may not live past 21, but, wow, what a way to die,” Lauren Holt sang, punctuated by a siren as an ambulance cruised past on East Fifth Street.

Alex Cameron with Texas Pete (Jordan Green)

©

Alex Cameron and Texas Pete

A portrait in disillusion and persistence, the Sydney, Australia deliveryman, clerk and musician Alex Cameron saw his record rejected by no less than eight labels but decided to forge ahead and release it himself. “Let’s just say between you and me I been around the block,” he says in his official bio. “I know how the music biz works inside out. I seen the people on the inside and the poor suckers on the outside. I know the whole friggen plotline through and through.”

So imagine how he must have felt coming to Winston-Salem and opening Saturday’s run at the Millennium Center only to have the red outfitted and masked Texas Pete mascot (representing one of the festival sponsors) dancing like a goofball in front of the stage. But Cameron turned the tables, cutting off the instrumental track and demanding that Pete get up on stage and dance.

Odds and ends (lost time is not found again)

Should I stay or should I go?

With roughly four venues going at any given time and each venue’s hourly sets staggered by about 15 minutes, you could theoretically catch about half of the 60 bands on the bill. To effectively maximize the number of sets, you really had to bolt midway, letting go when things were just getting good. Several times, I ended up leaving late into the set, slogging through the rain to get to another venue and catching only the last song or two at the next show.

If you hung out at one venue for the entire night, you risked falling into a rut. If you were determined to see as many sets as humanly possible you risked becoming consumed by consulting the field guide and checking your cell phone for the time while forgetting to enjoy the music. It was like trading up lovers and getting jilted by them all.

Volume

Having completed its fifth year, Phuzz Phest has earned respect as a solidly programmed festival that showcases exciting national acts side by side with budding local talent — all for an affordable price. And yet for all its cultural cache, Phuzz has yet to fully leverage the demographic of an urban region with upwards of 600,000 people and more than a dozen colleges.

Reanimator Records block party (Eric Ginsburg)

©

Kelly Fahey, who leads the band Echo Courts (and a former Triad City Beat intern) remarked on the difference between Phuzz Phest and Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, where festivalgoers are a conspicuous presence on the streets and every bar seems to be advertising drink specials to the fans. With roughly 1,500 spread over the weekend for Phuzz Phest you might see small knots of people walking between venues, but on Sunday when rain dampened attendance the empty streets could make the city could feel like a ghost town.

Part of the challenge is getting people in Greensboro to support the festival. It probably didn’t help that the hosts at WUAG, the campus station at UNCG, were talking up Ex Hex’s free concert in Greensboro two days after their set at Bailey Park in Winston-Salem instead of promoting Phuzz Phest. A few Greensboro fans here and there could be seen in the venues at Phuzz on Saturday and Sunday. Kudos to them.

Great spaces

Part of the appeal of a festival with multiple locations is how — like a marathon or a bicycle race — it showcases a city.

The three-act set on Friday night with Daddy Issues and Mac McCaughan opening for Ex Hex inaugurated Bailey Park, a fantastic new public space — it’s grand opening was only a week earlier — that ties together Wake Forest Innovation Quarter with the artist bloc anchored by Krankies between Third and Fourth streets. The area in front of the bandshell provides an iconic view of the city’s skyline, with a prominent vista of the Reynolds American building.

Bailey Park (Eric Ginsburg)

©

The spatial design of the park can only be described as wonderful, with a diagonal fairway running from the entrance past a food-truck lot past a facilities/storage/bathroom building and then in front of the stage. Meanwhile, terraced café-style deck seating mimics similar accommodations across Fifth Street below BioTech Place. And below the bandshell and café, an undulating green that imitates the natural contours of the land rolls out to the south. Bailey Park is every bit the equal of Greensboro’s admired Center City Park, albeit off center by a good three blocks and surrounded by aging tobacco works in the midst of redevelopment.

Also worth noting, Krankies has completed renovations, having ripped out a wall previously separating the bar area and the main room. The stage has been moved to a spot along the length of the room instead of at the end. Opening the space is a vast improvement, and concert experiences feel much less claustrophobic.

And Luna Lounge & Tiki Bar is a great addition to the city [See Barstool on page 23]. Significantly dressed up from its former incarnation as Elliott’s Revue, the lounge’s convivial atmosphere only enhanced the quirky psychedelia of Brooklyn-based Las Rosas, who played a midnight set on Friday. Almost miniature, the bar felt like a welcome harbor with old friends popping up at the end of a night of musical reconnaissance.

Mitch Easter is everywhere

Mitch Easter, the erstwhile frontman of the legendary North Carolina jangle-pop outfit Let’s Active who has gone on to greater success as a producer at his recording studio the Fidelitorium, was a conspicuous presence at the festival.

An éminence grise of the scene, he was putting together rock bands in Winston-Salem in the early ’70s, and he’s still checking out new music today. He could be seen appreciatively soaking in 1970s Film Stock’s set at Reanimator on Friday, and later checking out Ex Hex, whose new album he recorded last year. Among the acts performing at this year’s Phuzz Phest, Celestogramme and Jeffrey Dean Foster have albums produced by Easter, and Estrangers, the Tills and Caleb Caudle recently recorded at the Fidelitorium. I must be forgetting someone.

Honorable mention

Natalie Prass at the Garage

Let’s face it; Natalie Prass deserves her own list. An Ohio native with formative experience in Virginia who is now based in Nashville, Prass is a genuine new talent — and utterly unlike any other act booked at this year’s Phuzz. With her lilting voice in the foreground, her band found a sweet spot that swerved easily between country twang and soulful rhythm with the occasional inflection of reggae.

Wolves Wolves Wolves Wolves at the Garage (Jordan Green)

©

Wolves Wolves Wolves Wolves

Say it with me all four times. The Winston-Salem punk-rock group just got off a successful tour of Europe, with a homecoming show that was punch-drunk with exhaustion but brimming with hidden reserves of energy, even though their time on the road evidently hasn’t taught them much about tuning their instruments.

Boulevards

Making the best of an early set at 8:15 p.m. on Friday, Raleigh’s Boulevards still threw a ridiculously funky and sexy party. And there may be nothing more infectious than when Boulevards periodically asked, “What’s that smell?” and the audience responds, “That’s that funk!”

Estrangers at the Millennium Center (Eric Ginsburg)

©

Estrangers

“Cape Fear” from Estrangers’ 2013 album Season of 1000 Colors is like a modest surf song, the kind that surges on the wake of a speedboat plying the intercoastal waters. That is to say it’s pleasant but not overwhelming. Estrangers showcased two songs recently recorded at the Fidelitorium for a forthcoming album — “Creepstar” and “High Beams” — that show the band flexing new muscles. “Creepstar” packages a surf exposition, taut pop vocals and two revelatory guitar solos, the first economical and the second a snarling reprise. “High Beams” establishes a hooky pop-rock floor and then, improbably, evolves into a loose extended jam.

Phil Pledger, the band’s leader and festival organizer, finished out a strong set and then rushed out to square away an issue with headliner Foxygen’s hotel accommodations. He also played guitar in Judy Barnes’ Sunday evening set at Krankies. A true indie-rock renaissance man!

SONY DSC

©

Futurebirds

Fresh off a US tour, the Athens, Ga. band seemed happy to alight in Winston-Salem, and they were perfect for a rainy Sunday evening. With a laidback, psychedelic country sound, they could have played for three hours and it would have been fine with me. With three guitarist-singers harmonizing with warm, warbly voices and vamping on gnarled and fluid guitar lines, the sound of the lap steel floated above like a hummingbird.

Reanimator after dark (Eric Ginsburg)

©

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

🗲 Join The Society 🗲