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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.