Har Mar Superstar, Margo Price, Lee Fields, Run The Jewels Impress at 2017 Hopscotch Music Festival (FESTIVAL RECAP)

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Much like last year’s iteration, the 2017 edition of Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival saw the event take an even tighter grip on the city’s downtown area. Social media overflowed with businesses offering Hopscotch specials or freebies, daytime block parties were more prevalent than ever, and there was even an official ice cream competition (S’mores from Mama Bird’s Cookies and Cream was a highlight). The festival keeps expanding in nearly every realm, and this year included a day of music on Sunday as well. Absolutely perfect weather helped bolster a festive atmosphere around a lineup that was much maligned upon its announcement, but played out in a typically dizzying and entertaining manner.

For many attendees, the plan was no plan at all, and Thursday night in particular offered many delights for all to stumble upon. The City Plaza stage hosted Chapel Hill folk figurehead Skylar Gudasz, soul-baring Brooklyn group Big Thief, and headliner Margo Price, who impressed with her classic country style and riveting songs. Her voice sounds as if it emanates from a different time – the crackle of an old LP or transistor radio would suit it perfectly – but her robust songwriting prevents her from falling too far into nostalgia. At The Pour House Music Hall, Carolina acts Happy Abandon (Chapel Hill) and Totally Slow (Greensboro) helped anchor a long night of power-pop, while Mount Eerie (AKA folk stalwart Phil Elverum) left the audience at Fletcher Opera Theater with a set of gut-wrenchingly articulate, emotional songs they won’t soon forget.

The hip-hop component of Hopscotch 2017 was perhaps stronger than ever, and by the end of the weekend, many in attendance were touting those shows as their favorite moments. Thursday night at The Lincoln Theater featured enigmatic rapper Oddisee, who traffics in an upbeat style reminiscent of the Native Tongues era, and Noname, who has had a much-deserved light cast on her brand of soulful instrumentals and vivid lyricism. The psychedelic rock crowd had a good weekend as well; just across City Plaza, in the basement of the Raleigh Convention Center, in a space normally reserved for trade shows, Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer led the umpteenth version of his band through an invigorating, pummeling set that featured two drummers at the forefront of his powerful songs. As midnight struck, things got super weird when Brian Jonestown Massacre did their druggy, reverb-laden thing, which included breaking tambourines.

Big beats dominated the tenor of Friday, as the masses eagerly awaited Run the Jewels at Red Hat Amphitheater. Durham’s Rapsody politely kept them entertained during sunset with one of the best shows of the weekend. Backed by no less than a legend in 9th Wonder, and boasting a strong band, Rapsody commanded the stage with a patient, polished performance that featured a refreshing amount of variety and an easy camaraderie with the crowd. Run The Jewels, making their second Raleigh appearance of 2017, tore through an hour-long set that has, by now, become standard. Still, they’re setting a bar for others every time they play. Each song set off the nervous system of the crowd, igniting a smoky dance party every few minutes, particularly during “Legend Has It”, “Blockbuster Night Part 1”, and the thundering “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry”.

The end of Run The Jewels’ set saw a fair amount of the attendees making their way to City Plaza for Future Islands’ 9 PM set. However, it seems a lot of people have fallen out of love with them as well. The Hopscotch crowd craves variety, and Future Islands doesn’t offer much. The consensus review of their set seemed to be a resounding “meh”. Down in the basement of the convention center, however, an audibly appreciative crowd got to experience the singular joy of a Har Mar Superstar performance. Wild cheers filled the room as Har Mar, nee Sean Tillmann, sashayed shirtless around the stage, belting out one soulful tune after another. The dazzling Lee Fields and The Expressions followed – sans shirtless satire – and people couldn’t stop talking about this fortuitous double dip of soul for the rest of the weekend. The acts share many threads of influence, but their individual interpretations of the style could not be more different. Fields, a veteran of nearly 50 years, is all classic soul and subtle showmanship, while Har Mar Superstar adds a heap of humor and embraces the sweaty, sauntering side of soul.

 

Saturday’s considerable docket could have been even longer – Arrow Benjamin’s cancellation shifted the Red Hat Amphitheater schedule to a later start. Still, it was a lengthy, lavish day of music that began with a so-so set from ZenSoFly, followed by an altogether different thing from Flock of Dimes (Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak). Her deeply aching voice, balanced with her friendly stage personality, atmospheric guitar and synthesizer backdrops provided a cinematic feel for the bustling downtown scene. Chapel Hill’s Body Games then kicked off the City Plaza evening with wholly electronic bedroom pop that veered effortlessly between lush, dreamy songs and noisy moments that incorporated 8-bit aesthetics and pounding hip-hop.

ILoveMakkonen had to cancel his appearance, so local hip-hop mainstay Phonte Coleman stepped in on short notice to fill the spot just before Big Boi’s headlining set. A seasoned performer and scholar of hip-hop, Phonte’s set featured plenty of banter and crowd interaction, along with straightforward songs designed to connect with the body’s central hip–hop gland. He had every person present, which included a wide swath of ages and colors, alternately dancing and laughing. For the main event, Big Boi brought his hit-filled show to life with help from longtime collaborator Sleepy Brown and a bright, punchy horn section that cut through iconic beats like “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, “The Way You Move”, and “So Fresh, So Clean”. The only thing that could have made his set better would have been if Killer Mike stayed in town to add his verse to “Kill Jill”.

About 150 yards from Red Hat, where Solange presented her chilled-out, mesmerizing visual spectacle, Absent Lovers took the stage at Deep South. The bar is one of those venues that would lose its mojo if the sound was perfect and the lighting was good, and with one of Raleigh’s own holding court, it felt like any other night in the capital. Fortunately for the music fans of the Triangle, it was anything but a normal night, or a normal weekend. That was clearly evidenced by Alessandro Cortini’s show in The Basement, where the artist controlled an audiovisual presentation featuring his parent’s old home movies set to an ever-shifting palette of ambient sound.

Hopscotch is responsible for a myriad of legendary shows, and this year they filled four solid days with a fascinating array of music and situations, including the bonus Sunday cool-down with Angel Olsen, Cass McCombs, and Mount Moriah. With an approach to scheduling that flies in the face of most festivals, Hopscotch is quickly becoming the most interesting event of its kind.

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