In its six years of existence, the Hopscotch Music Festival has cemented itself as Raleigh’s most unique music event. The lineup is always relentlessly strange, forcing attendees to step out of their comfort zones and discover new sounds. With a strong gang of headliners playing in the City Plaza venue balanced by an often befuddling undercard scattered throughout downtown clubs and theaters, that imperative was more noticeable than ever this year. For many music fans, the question of what to attend was a constant for three straight days of roots, rock, metal, hip-hop, folk, dance, and experimental music overload. Here are some of the highlights from a weekend spent on the streets, in the plush seats of theaters, and among the sometimes smelly confines of clubs.
American Aquarium –Raleigh’s alt-country legacy is well noted, and American Aquarium might be on their way to flag-bearer status. They’ve pushed through a decade of growth and emerged sounding more polished and professional than ever. Their set at City Plaza was part of one of the more enjoyable evenings in the festival’s brief history.
Battles – Thursday night might have been the best night of the 2015 festival, and it was punctuated by a relentlessly noisy set from battles at Lincoln Theater. Careening through mostly instrumental songs like “Ice Cream”, “Atlas”, and the exceptionally demented “FF Bada”, the band followed the violent drumming of John Stanier into glitchy prog madness, much to the delight of a well-lubricated crowd.
Dwight Yoakam – Having Dwight Yoakam follow a performance by legendary punk/hardcore band X might seem like an unusual scheduling move, but more research reveals the link between the gentleman in the large hat and the LA punks who persevere. Yoakam stuck to his standard setlist, offering only a whiff of his “cowpunk” roots with a couple of songs from his recent album. His band sported blinding sequined outfits, and they followed Yoakam with pinpoint accuracy, careening through a rollicking selection of covers and requisite tunes like “Guitars, Cadillacs” and “Ain’t That Lonely Yet”.
Grand Champeen – Every year at Hopscotch, I discover a band I should have already known about. This year is was Austin’s Grand Champeen, which has been playing music of the fast and furious type for nearly 30 years. Their set was the kind of thing I could have used more of at this year’s event – sensitive but muscular power-pop, unique in harmony and approach, fondly conjuring the alt-rock glory days of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The quartet doesn’t play a ton of shows, so they threw themselves headlong into this set at Tir Na Nog.
Nocando – The Hopscotch curators always manage to import oddities from the realm of hip-hop, and Los Angeles’ Nocando certainly fits that bill. He made his name as a relentless rap battle champ, but has since matured and moved into more conceptual moods as evidenced by his 2014 album Jimmy The Burnout. Bathed in woefully inadequate lighting – a pervasive problem at many Hopscotch venues – he took the Kings Barcade stage by himself and manipulated his backing tracks with one hand while holding a mic in the other. He made it look easy, drawing an otherwise disinterested crowd into his often disturbing world.
Phil Cook’s Southland Mission – Folk, Americana, alt-country, and roots music have been done in so many different ways over the history of music that they have become some of the toughest realms in which to stand out. Sometimes, an artist just has an intangible style that lifts their work above the fray, and Phil Cook is certainly one of those artists. Congenially leading a band of local luminaries (like Ryan Gustafson and Brad Cook) through his new batch of songs, Cook proved mesmerizing in the sonic splendor of Fletcher Opera Theater. Enchanting vocalists Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso) and Tamisha Waden, along with powerfully elegant country singer Jeanne Jolly, added harmonic splendor to Cook’s spiritually-charged tunes.
TV On The Radio – I’ll admit that I thoroughly researched TV On The Radio’s current setlist before this show. I knew it wouldn’t matter if I knew their set front to back, because every time they take the stage, they do so in exhilarating fashion. This is the kind of music that makes you want to binge on it in the days surrounding the show, rather than strategically deprive yourself. The show should be considered one of the finest moments in Hopscotch history. “Golden Age” pulsated with the fervor that must have inspired Phish to explore the song so thoroughly in recent years, and the setlist played out brilliantly. The fierce “Young Liars” made for an enveloping opener, and “Staring At The Sun” brought things to a close as a bonafide modern classic.
Tycho – Despite a few technical difficulties, Tycho still managed to impart their laid-back instrumental bliss as the sun set on Raleigh. Power issues certainly interrupted the vibe, but it was still a pleasure to see Scott Hansen’s hypnotic headphone jams brought to life with a well-connected live band. Other electronic-leaning bands haven’t fared as well at City Plaza, but the warmth that Scott Hansen and the band exude helps to endear the audience to their expressive compositions.
X –The anticipation for this set was palpable from the moment the lineup was announced and everyone saw that big X on the Hopscotch website. When it comes to original punk bands that are still playing, X stands as tall as any. Even though they’ve endured a multitude of trials in their history, and currently endure another as founding member Billy Zoom undergoes cancer treatment, their music is as infallible as ever. Their inspired performance was one of the few that left people shaking their heads and saying “wow” afterwards.