"Raleigh smells vaguely of donuts." -Style Weekly reporter Vernal Coleman on Facebook
Downtown Raleigh did smell like doughnuts, but there wasn't a cop convention in town. Rather it was the second annual Hopscotch Music Festival, Sept. 8-11, a mostly powdery white affair that showcases the laid back, easy-to-club-hop nature of the city itself, as well as the intriguing musical vision of festival directors, Greg Lowenhagen and Grayson Currin, marketing director and music editor at the Independent alternative weekly-the festival's owner.
This year's festival, which had its own mobile app, featured more than 135 bands spread over 13 different sized clubs and outdoor spaces.
I've been to both Hopscotch festivals now and my reaction is mixed, leaning heavily toward the positive. This is certainly a fun, well-organized festival, laudably oriented toward the music lover with no extra hassles. The crowds are generally more mature, age 28 and older, friendly and well behaved-not puking or fighting. The low-key presence of police and bouncers and the so-fresh-and-so-clean nature of the city, even past 2 a.m., make this a breath of fresh air for Richmond concert veterans.
I mean . . . this is one clean city. There are garbage people everywhere, always working, and downtown denizens are friendly. It feels like a small town where you could eat doughnuts off the ground.
Hopscotch could use some more variety in terms of the bands and the crowds, though. Currin, a friendly guy recognized by his thick beard and wispy hair as he rides his bike between venues, is aware that most of Raleigh's black population, about 30 percent, are not in attendance at a festival that takes over the city for four days.
"Hopscotch began as a way to expand the brand of the Independent," Currin explains. "In our market, the most active audience, and the most active groups of artists are, speaking broadly, indie rockers. ... That idea, which has expanded beyond white people making music, is a lot of what there is here. That's a lot of what I'm interested in as a listener. But I think that whole scene has room for a lot of different things."
Part of the problem is the long-suffering state of hip-hop in Raleigh.
"The hip-hop community here has not been very good since Little Brother [a former duo] broke up. There's a lot of really bad rap in the Triangle honestly," Currin says. "So, I don't want to put limits on our audience, but it is certainly a lot of teenaged to 40-year-old Caucasian folks. That's the core. But we're really interested in trying to expand our artists every year."
He definitely doesn't want the festival to become another South by Southwest for the East Coast. "Our square focus is on the fans and bands," he says. "Being flooded with industry folk is not a prospect I wake up excited about. We get excited by people we don't know freaking out over bands that Greg and I really love."
A big concern this year was making money after the inaugural fest failed to break even. But Currin says preliminary results this year indicate it will erase any losses and the festival will indeed continue. Last year, the tickets sold out on day two of the festival-this year organizers added 1,200 wristbands, raised the price, and sold out two weeks ahead of the festival. "One of our biggest things was making a bigger investment and spending more money up front to reach the audience we needed to reach," Currin says.
The festival only has only one other full-time employee besides Currin, and it doesn't spend much on promotion. Since Hopscotch is owned by a newspaper, which runs a lot of free advertising for the festival, Currin says "around 70 or 80 percent of our budget is spent on talent and making sure they're happy."
This year, the festival wasn't even using the fancy new downtown Raleigh Amphitheatre, since during the booking stages, there wasn't a guarantee it would be ready (although it actually was . . . Wilco will performs there Sept. 27).
"We really like it. It's an interesting use of space. The downtown amphitheater is a hole that runs into a hill, so it swallows the sound. In City Plaza, the sound scatters all over the city, which we also really like. And, honestly, there [are] beer sales to consider. âCause you're not going to make your money on tickets."
Hopscotch has also been a boon for the weekly itself. Last year's festival guide won a national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award and the festival has received favorable national media attention from The New York Times and Spin, among others, not to mention . . . wait for it . . . "indie cred."
"This whole thing is a reputation thing. The Indy has been around a long time, it has brand, it has a stock," Currin says. "It's basically us using that to create a new experience for people here. I think it has given the Independent some new life."
In the first glance at this year's lineup, I only recognized maybe about half of the music, much of it appeared to be local or smaller touring groups-and practically all of it was likely to be found in music-critic collections. You had your avant black metal and noise (Liturgy, Oxbow), post punk (Swans), indie darlings (Vivian Girls), '60s garage rock (Black Lips), grizzled indie veterans (Guided By Voices, J. Mascis), white hip-hop (Yellawolf), and underground hip-hop (Beans) as well as more mainstream critical faves such as the Flaming Lips and Drive By Truckers.
If I had to guess, I'd say a band requirement would be a good review on Pitchfork in the last three to five years.
But for those who appreciate independent music, and whose tastes run the gamut from shoe gaze and pop to garage rock and whatever happens to be officially deemed hip by today' tastemakers, the festival always has worthwhile acts to catch. And you're often likely to hear a regional group that surprises you, as I did this year with Raleigh's own Peter Lamb and the Wolves, a band that played one of the best Tom Waits covers ("Temptation") I've ever heard to close their set on a high note.
The way that Hopscotch works best: Smart people buy V.I.P. passes ($155) for the entire weekend, which means you don't have to wait in line at any club-you can go in as soon as someone comes out (for a packed venue). Those attempting to buy individual tickets that night have a rougher go of it, if they're even available. Certain other passes have to wait in lines. There are other ticket packages available, but I'd say the V.I.P. is ultimately the best deal. The other stuff adds up quick.
It's probably easier if I run down the entire weekend as if I were writing a journal, throwing in some comments on food and atmosphere for anyone considering a visit.
First music of the entire trip: Good omen.
I stopped at an old folks home for veterans off Hull Street on our way out of town and caught a singing cowboy, named Johnny Angel or something, at 2 p.m., playing on a cheap synthesizer to a room full of elderly former soldiers in wheelchairs. Few could nod their heads. One danced in his chair. I chatted with a white-haired man named Bill who loves Stevie Nicks-the solo stuff, not Fleetwood Mac.
Then we hit the road.
I got into Raleigh after the mildly wet, green drive south on Interstate 85 and went to the downtown Sheraton to pick up press credentials. I saw the Black Lips wandering around the press area (they're larger than they are on their CD cover) and picked up a nice Hopscotch swag bag filled with knickknacks from local businesses and groups, including but not limited to: condoms and lube, a DVD documentary on beer, a drink huggy, a lighter with a bottle opener built in, lip gloss, CD compilations and several magazines.
I had dinner with local friends at a fine Lebanese restaurant, Sitti, in the heart of downtown, famous (to me, anyway) for their amazingly fresh pita bread, baba ghanouj, hummus, cheese sticks and great olive oil dip. It was appetizer heaven.
Tonight there were no main stage acts, so we wandered around the pleasantly bubbling town, refamiliarizing ourselves, eventually stopping at the modern Fletcher Opera Hall to check out the end of minimalist composer Rhys Chatham and his guitar quartet, who were in the middle of a droning, one-note finale.
We quickly left for the Lincoln Theater, a venue comparable to the National in Richmond (though a bit smaller and not nearly as interesting architecturally), and one of the festival's primary locales. You can recognize it by the vintage Lincoln coupe mural on the side of the building, with Honest Abe behind the wheel.
There we saw a group of heart-on-their-tattered sleeve rockers, Spider Bags, from Carrboro, N.C. They played like their career depended on it -- solid rock songs and great performance, but nothing new. Tired from work that day, and the subsequent drive, we decided for a mellow closer that night, walking back down the street to Fletcher to see a solo acoustic set from Dinosaur Jr. frontman, J. Mascis, who should probably go by Gandalf the Gruff now, with his long white locks, white beard and stoned-wizard disposition.
Mascis' vocals were good, and his playing on an acoustic guitar with a distortion stomp box was even better-but the set list of mostly new tunes left many in the audience wanting more after the hour long set. There were only two classic Dinosaur Jr. songs included, the opener "Thumb" (a short version) and near the end, the early Dino song "Repulsion" with the unfortunate lyric "the world drips down like gravy/the thoughts of love so hazy." Yikes-this from a guy who just played a one-man Kennedy Center show.
He didn't say a word the whole time, except for noting an Edie Brickell cover ("Circle"). C'mon, J. Give the people what they want. The brooding artistic genius thing only works when your last album doesn't suck. Toss us a few more bones and we'll gladly sit through another acoustic weeper or paean to Uma Thurman or your guru, or whatever.
I stayed the previous night with friends in Wake Forest, grabbing breakfast at the Main Street Grill. Then I went into town and checked into the Sheraton. From our room, you could hear the sound check 16 stories below, and see people like ants beginning to swarm past the long row of portable toilets.
After cheap hotel drinks that afternoon, we settled into City Plaza, just beneath the Sheraton, a large concrete area with a real shared sense of community space including the granite chess tables lining the walk and the general open-air feel of the courtyard. This was the location of the large main stage for the big acts that started out each night playing from 5:45 p.m. to around 9:30 p.m., at which point concertgoers would scatter to various smaller clubs, all within 10 blocks with easy sloping hills and welcoming street life. Read: The homeless did not appear to be aggressive or crack heads.
Another local dinner (a less than appetizing New Orleans flavored dive that was cheap but a waste), then the end of Drive By Truckers and the entirety of Guided By Voices, who allegedly was playing its last show ever (though it has said that before). I hadn't seen the band since Sacramento, Calif., in the mid-'90s, when members were visibly shit faced, so it was nice to see the group in top form tonight from the get-go. It played a lot of fan favorites from the best-known albums, "Bee Thousand" and "Alien Lanes" and the large nighttime crowd ate it up, singing along to every chorus. Lead singer Bob Pollard swung his microphone like Roger Daltrey and seemed to be reveling in the feel good moment of the early fest.
After the main-stage show, we walked to nearby Slim's, more of a punk rock hole-in-the-wall joint that had the usual decor: A lifesize R2D2 perched high above the entrance door and a Hank Williams Jr. bust above the bar. Unfortunately the room is long and narrow and the stage is not elevated, resulting in crappy views and cramped space. Hey today's kids, don't bring your giant backpacks into a thick, sweaty small room-are you on dope or something?
We watched locals, the Loners, rock out like Thin Lizzy, before catching a full set by the Vivian Girls, the all-girl group from Brooklyn that mixes raw guitar rock with girl-group harmonies for a catchy concoction of Kickapoo joy juice. Surprisingly, this was a personal highlight of this year's fest, as I had been waiting for this act to come to Richmond for years (supposedly it played Rumors before the first album, but that was awhile ago). Tonight it came across as heir to the original Runaways vision, three young tattooed cuties who could effortlessly sing sweetly one moment, while holding a switchblade to your crotch the next.
Avoiding the heavier metal stuff, we went back to the Lincoln for the nightcap, a raucous set of '80s inspired dance pop and electronica by Twin Shadow. The Sheraton bed began whispering sweet oblivion in my ear throughout this set, and I realized that age is slowly becoming a factor in covering these kinds of fests where you stand around in large crowds and drink beer. And especially when fried food is involved.
I had lunch at the Pit, a heaven for barbecue lovers in the Warehouse District, only a few blocks from our hotel. Bartender tells us the Flaming Lips and their 18-person entourage were there the night before, then shows us an image on his phone of himself with the lead singer, Wayne Coyne, he of the tousled Jim Morrison-esque hair that must take hours to perfect before he goes anywhere.
The bartender's exact words: "things got weird."
I went to a day party at the Lincoln, which had closed down the street so locals, the Rosebuds (Merge) could play elegant pop, with more shades of the '80s and British influences. Inside the theater, a documentary film "The Secret To A Happy Ending: A Documentary About the Drive By Truckers" was playing for those who needed an air-conditioned break from the heat. It seemed decent from what I watched.
That evening, I had dinner at a global themed downtown restaurant that was just OK. It had everything under the sun (Ethiopian, sushi, Filipino) but didn't seem to do any one thing that great. While we were eating, a local marching band parked right behind us in the street and serenaded the outdoor dinner crowd with a few instrumentals, while a deejay inside the restaurant played slow jams such as Beck's "Debra." A little bit of sensory overload for a dinner, but in a good way.
We left in time to see most of the Flaming Lips at City Plaza. It was the biggest crowd of the entire festival. I'm not a huge fan of the band, so the music really didn't do anything for me, but the visual spectacle was as impressive as advertised. Coyne did the ball-walk thing early, nearly taking out an onstage lighting rig, while the rest of the show had plenty of smoking bells and whistles and at least one catchy song, their 1993 classic, "She Don't Use Jelly." My overall reaction: Blah. If you need that many audience distractions, the music can't be that good. These guys definitely listened to a lot of Pink Floyd growing up-they even closed with a cover of "Brain Damage."
Afterward we went back to Slim's for a grungy set by live favorites Shit Horse, then on to one of the most relaxed venues, the Pour House, kind of analogous to the old Alley Katz in Richmond. We were there to support Richmond's own Fight the Big Bull, who have quite the following in North Carolina. But before the Richmond band, we saw a great, jazzy set by Peter Lamb and the Wolves, which featured some impressively limber sax solos and the aforementioned amazing Tom Waits "Temptation" cover, sung by the keyboardist who sounded like a poor man's version of Yma Sumac. It was a very nice closer.
Visibly disturbed, Matt White of Fight the Big Bull told me there was a large, live rat in their backstage room upstairs trapped in a trash can. He walked in to it jumping up for dear life. The group's set soon started and it felt a little like a Frank Zappa big band show -- slow swamp rock notes with lots of horn solos and an enthusiastic crowd (trumpeter Bob Miller was not with the band, as he had Bio Ritmo duties in France). Headliners the Budos Band shot pool and drank beer upstairs. Having seen Budos before in Charlottesville, I bailed.
Crowd fatigue was setting in. We wanted to see the Men and Titus Andronicus, but couldn't bear the crush. Instead I wound up at the Union to catch a late night set by Times New Viking of Columbus, Ohio. It was an abrasive, noisy set that I enjoyed, partly because it wasn't crowded, and also because the band had a nice mix of raw distorted garage and pop flare. Just after midnight, their drummer introduced the band with the following: "We're Phish and we're from Burlington, Vt. ... Happy Sept. 11."
Lead singer Beth Murphy reminded me of a young Patti Smith with a little Partridge Family thrown in, bumping and grinding against her old-school keyboard- smirking like a slum goddess from the Lower East Side. Another of my favorite lines of the weekend happened here: I asked the guitarist if they had any T-shirts. So sue me, I like to check out the merchandise table, it's a habit from my teen years I'll probably never get over. I'll be a T-shirt slut until I die.
He just smiled and said, "No, we don't have anything like that."
So that was basically it for Hopscotch 2011. I missed a lot. But felt like I saw mostly groups that I hadn't seen before. So that is a success in my book.
Going forward, Grayson Currin says he would like to expand to more stages next year -- adding at least one to three venues. "We kind of want to let the market dictate that," he says. "We have a really good thing going. People tell us their best weekend of their last few years has been Hopscotch. Why would we fuck with that?"
In the end, Hopscotch was a good reason for a road trip. Unfortunately, it also happened to be the same weekend as a big local music fest that was going on in Richmond. I hustled back and made it for the grand finale.
SUNDAY: RVA Music Fest
Got home on Sunday in time to make it down for the main event of Richmond's own inaugural RVA Music Fest, put on by RVA Magazine, that was happening in Shockoe Bottom.
Aside from a ridiculous no-re-entry door policy (ever heard of bracelets? What's the deal here-I'm trapped on 18th Street?), I thought the set-up was pretty decent for a small street festival. You had a great view of the city from the large main stage, and all of the bars along the street were open. However, the two main stages were so close that some of the music tended to bleed together in certain areas.
I didn't even venture into the opposite end tent, where techno music was pulsating. I saw a single person dancing with a glowing necklace. Personal Top 10 festival rule: "When you see glowing necklaces or Hula Hoops and techno music in broad daylight ... retreat. Or just go ahead and blow your brains out."
Still, the RVA Fest was a bigger set-up then I had imagined. You could enjoy the sunshine, beer trucks, and good local vendors like Nate's Taco Truck outside in the street. And if you got tired of the heat, you could go into McCormack's Irish Pub or Tiki Bob's and watch the Redskins beating the crap out of the hapless Giants. Not a bad deal. WRIR was even broadcasting live interviews with bands upstairs at McCormack's all day.
Main acts on the bill that night: Best Coast (meh. After seeing the Vivian Girls rock it in a small club, it was a let down) and Girl Talk, which always gets the crowd moving with live mashups, but has played the National and Toad's Place each in the last few years.
Comparing RVA Fest and Hopscotch would be pointless due to the scope. That's like comparing a ripe melon and a tiny bag of seeds. But one thing that jumped out was that the RVA Sunday shows seemed to be mostly populated by young people. I'd say the average age was probably 21. Sometimes with that, you get more people who are there to get drunk and party. They're young, what the hell can you expect.
In fact, the first thing I saw was the still steaming remnants of someone's projectile vomit, cascading down the center of 18th Street-a crowd quickly gathered like someone had just been stabbed and removed from view. That's right: There was a small crowd around a puddle of puke, simply because of where it was. Pretty quickly, a large security guy dumped a bucket of beer over it, washing it off the street, while other security people stood and laughed, clearly bored or suffering from sunstroke.
As the evening progressed, and I watched solid sets by local psych rockers the Diamond Center, and more straight ahead college rockers Trillions (sort of reminded me of the Strokes with prog flares), more drunks began to come out of the woodwork.
I saw a lot of young ladies who looked like they had been fed too much bovine growth hormone while growing up, bouncing through the crowd like dented weebles, wobbling. Saw a lot of backward cap-wearing, unoriginal tatted dudes who looked like they could care less what music was playing, but whose eyes never strayed far from the wobbling girls. Wild youth turned loose in the city.
You have to give it to RVA Magazine for supporting local bands. But the danger in having a festival filled with them is a lack of urgency to attend. Some people might think: "I could spend $30 bucks and support the scene, or go see the band I want to see for free in three days."
While the turnout did not appear to be full by any means, organizer R. Anthony Harris was pleased with the results.
"The festival came off great. The crowd there was young and diverse. Everyone was having fun and the bands lived up to the moment and blew people away," he said via a Facebook message. "On top of that, Girl Talk and Best Coast both loved Richmond and what's going on here . . . great community support and interest pushed it to where we were hoping."
Harris says that the festival "proved that the city is ready for new ideas."
"[We] would like to keep building it out. Get more local business and musicians involved together and get these people out to see them," he wrote. "Next year, we add art and film and expand it another day, so get ready!"
It just goes to show you how much fine tuning and work it really takes to put on a successful festival. How you need to mix the new with the old, the familiar with the unfamiliar -- always with an eye on building respect for your brand.
To me, that also means having respect for your audience. The best thing I saw at RVA Fest that day: the closing set on the local stage from our own No BS Brass Band, which was knocking it out, even for an initially small crowd. Local bands who regularly give it their all, no matter what size the crowd, really do deserve these kinds of large festivals.
It seems pretty clear after a few days in Raleigh: Richmond has plenty of local talent to hold its own major festival, it just needs stronger public support, a better mix of national bands that can pull large crowds, and the right ... fine tuning.
A little bit of luck never hurts either.