The Hopscotch Music Festival, now seven years old, has had its share of growing – and not growing – pains through the years. By many accounts, the festival, its fans, and the city of Raleigh have fallen in and out of love with each other a few times already. Thankfully, this year’s event seemed to mark a turning point toward a bright future. Overall, the city embraced the festival like never before, and it’s footprint was larger than ever. The 6,000-capacity, city-owned Red Hat Amphitheater hosted Hopscotch acts for the first time; the adjacent Convention Center housed the festival’s poster show and check-in site; and exponentially more local businesses took advantage of the benefits of having Hopscotch in town.
Moving forward, the festivals’ biggest challenge will be to maintain the weird, wonderful balance that makes Hopscotch unique. It’s just not Hopscotch without the uber-fringe, willingly obscure, completely unheard, and just plain strange acts that have defined the event since 2010. The festival’s principals needed to make a statement with the headliners this year, and did just that. But even with the proliferation of top-notch performers on the event’s two largest stages, some of the most interesting moments were found in the city’s clubs and theaters.
Anyone who treks to Hopscotch should attend a show at the acoustically immaculate Fletcher Opera Theater. There’s nothing quite like ducking out of the still, warm night, entering the chilly theater, sitting in the impossibly dark space and soaking in the sound. Only the slightest amplification is required, and musicians often address the audience without speaking into their mics. Naturally, the room lends itself to some of the festival’s more absorbing electronic acts and intricate bands. English duo Demdike Stare carried the flag for ambient textures this year, and their brooding, maddening collage of sound was made nearly tangible in the vacuum of the theater, and erstwhile veterans Lambchop matched the hushed atmosphere with their restrained folk sound, which somehow seemed to grow quieter and more fragile with each passing minute.
Most of this year’s action was at Raleigh City Plaza, Fletcher Opera Theater, and Memorial Auditorium. Wye Oak started the festival proper with a snappy, engaging sunset show at City Plaza, followed by Wolf Parade – a band whose time may have come and gone. They’ve recently released new music, but the clear highlights of the show were songs from an album that was released 11 years ago, and even those fell flat. Thursday night’s biggest deal was Television at Memorial. An enthusiastic crowd gathered to catch the influential group, but their set lacked verve and the band seemed only mildly interested. Wye Oak was the clear opening night champion.
Friday night held infinite possibilities. Hipsters college bros and gals, and regular Raleigh folks blended along the streets in search of their preferred sound. Opening with his staple “Bright Lights Big City”, Gary Clark Jr. effortlessly held the attention of the amphitheater crowd, coolly unfurling a litany of bluesy, instrumentally enticing tunes as the sun set behind the stage. Back at City Plaza, Anderson .Paak greeted the night with a set full of jaw-dropping musicality and relentless energy. Opening with the unquestioned cranker “Come Down”, .Paak was a magnetic pole of hype. He barely stopped moving the entire time, and his band was stunning in their hard-hitting soul perfection. Schedule planning was thrown into disarray when Erykah Badu’s arrival was delayed, but it meant Beach House had a larger than expected crowd at City Plaza, many of which swayed with abandon to the band’s hazy, starry-eyed tunes.
After some top-notch instrumental stalling by Badu’s band, Erykah finally took the amphitheater stage around 10:15, clad in a typically interesting outfit and perhaps a bit frazzled from a day of travel. After a tentative handful of songs, including a demure version of “On & On”, she finally settled in and slid into a typically varied and iconoclastic set. It was worth the wait, but schedule-wise, the damage was done. Her set conflicted with the likes of Boulevard, Kooley High, and Beach Slang.
Not to be outdone, Young Thug overshot his scheduled start by 45 minutes. His posse managed to smoke at least 5 joints on the Memorial Auditorium stage while ambling about before the show, however. When Thugger finally came on, the bros in the audience kept jumping and stuff, just like they did during the DJ warm-up set. It was truly one of the least interesting musical moments in Hopscotch history. There was fine featured hip-hop the next day, however, as Vince Staples plowed through an all-too brief set. He started with “staples” from his tremendous Summertime 06 album (“Lift Me Up”, “Jump Off The Roof”, “Senorita”) and made room for new songs like “Smile” and “War Ready” before delivering climactic gems “Blue Suede” and “Norf Norf”.
Compared to Friday’s shows, Saturday was a fairly cut and dried situation. You were either at City Plaza for Sylvan Esso’s show, or you weren’t. Trotting out a host of new songs for an adoring crowd, the Durham duo proved why they’re deserving of all the attention they’re getting right now. Danceable yet mentally absorbing, thunderous yet intricate, they’ve happened upon an arresting sound and their shows are relentless, sweaty affairs. Singer Amelia Meath implores the audience to dance without explicitly asking them to do so, her joyful gesticulations matching the wide grin that beat provider Nick Sanborn wears while backing her up. Their new songs, including “Radio”, proved as intoxicating as now-familiar tracks like “Coffee”, “Wolf”, and “Dreamy Bruises”.
As the city streets hummed with the energy of the festival’s final night and attendees filled the clubs, a quieter sort of finale went down at Memorial Hall. Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf) breezed through a short set of his acoustic folk tunes backed by a pair of female vocalists, and Andrew Bird provided an exquisite show full of indie-folk mainstays like “Give It Away”, “Pulaski At Night”, and “Fake Palindromes”. Hopscotch will hopefully keep its role as a curator of audiovisual oddities while bringing loads of top-drawer talent to the big stages. The event is certainly ready to become one of the finest festivals in the nation, and Raleigh seems ready as well.