Hopscotch is always a three day sprint filled with late nights of concerts, lots of venue hopping, and PBR fueled day parties that often offer some of the highlight performances of the festival. This year we got started late Thursday afternoon and didn’t come to a stop until 3 AM Sunday in a Waffle House.
For our 2016 Hopscotch excursion we opted for the Days Inn downtown, only a 19 minute walk from City Plaza and the most affordable downtown digs by far. You get what you pay when it comes to two star hotels, a couple of dead roaches, a couple of live roaches, a smell so musty you have to change rooms after one night, and some plastic wrap still left on the bed. It wasn’t all that bad though, the water pressure was outstanding and the selection of TV channels is unparalleled. 10 out of 10 would recommend again, unless you lack the intestinal fortitude. The two level hotel was filled bands and Hopscotch goers, which you’d think it might turn into a party and be loud, but there was none of that. Strictly sleeping.
It’s hard to imagine a better first act to get things started than Wye Oak, who sounded bigger than I’d imagined the duo sounding. The Merge Records group blasted through songs off their latest album Tween and their lauded 2014 album Shriek. Playing double duty on synth and drums, Andy Stack worked both instruments with each hand throughout, often doing both at once. As expected, guitarist and singer Jenn Wasner took the stage donning her new signature Reverend Guitar, its distorted chords and her sharp chops echoing through City Plaza. Throughout the set she rotated between guitar and bass, even the drum, bass, and synth songs booming larger than only the two on stage. Wasner recently signed to Partisan records for the release of her new album ‘If You See Me, Say Yes’ due out September 23 for her other project Flock of Dimes. With one band or the other, Wasner’s become a Hopscotch staple over the years so it was great to see them on the main stage.
From Wolf Parade we darted over to catch the home state homies in Secret Guest open up a high energy night at Kings. The Charleston band is known for their antics and tight shows, and we got a full dose of that Thursday night. They said mid-set that when they formed the band one of their main goals was to play Hopscotch. Not only did they play Hopscotch, but they put on one of the best sets we saw all weekend. Through amps blowing, and guitar strings breaking, the band fought through with ease and nothing you’d notice sound wise from the crowd. Sometimes the best parts of a show is watching how bands react once something goes wrong. Nothing phased Secret Guest as they rolled around, tackled each other, and played with passion. Also, not sure if anyone noticed, but the member of Lacy Jags who played after Secret Guest restrung a broken string for them mid-set. Someone give that person a hug.
I was excited to see Sneakers. Not Sneaks, who played at the same time, but Sneakers. North Carolina rock n roll royalty, with members who have touched music that shaped my life. In hindsight I could have gone without that nostalgic feeling, both for them and Television. It’s these sets at Hopscotch that are really special, bringing in classic acts that influenced the newbies, but it just wasn’t there for me. David Menconi enjoyed the Television set and had a great write-up, so check that out. So we dipped over to catch some of Quilt and Lambchop for our final acts of the night.
Over the years Fletcher Theater has played host to some of the best sets I’ve ever seen at Hopscotch, and some of my favorite sets I’ve seen in my life. You could have heard a pin drop during stunning solo sets from Waxahatchee (2015) and Angel Olsen (2013), and to watch both Mount Moriah and Phil Cooke perform with a bevy of the areas best musicians was truly a treat. Lambchop brought that same listening room vibe as he experimented with his own voice and songs for an hour and a half, and on into a couple of encores. His band was flawless, as was his stage banter. For the weekend he definitely wins best stage banter. How do I like my Lambchop? Both rare and well done. The trio teased back and forth on stage, and talked back about the set during the encore like it was loose, the songs maybe a little unrehearsed, but it came off nothing like that. We were watching three veteran musicians do what they do, then wrap it up in time to get home the next day and feed the dogs. My favorite post song quote was “Let’s do a song that you wrote while we were playing the last one.” That got a chuckle from the small, but intrigued crowd.
Friday kicked off early with the Stereofly/Free Times Day Party conveniently located beside the Hopscotch Makers Market day party. I would say the past day parties from Stereofly have been a success, but this year was definitely the best as a crowd turned out early for solid sets from She Returns from War and Secret Guest. Since both parties were outside most people seemed to bounce between the market and Boxcar Arcade where the air conditioning was cold and abundant. Again Secret Guest broke all their equipment, and again they powered through, this time with some help from Hunter Park of She Returns from War who played earlier in the day. Unfortunately for us the day party overlapped with some of the main stage acts we wanted to see, so we headed to City Plaza to see The Dead Tongues, Anderson Paak, and Beach House.
The Dead Tongues were great, and we were really enjoying their set, but we wanted to bounce over and see Gary Clark Jr. at Red Hat at 6:30. Unfortunately, he got started 15 minutes late, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, and it’s not in the grand scheme of things, but it’s definitely annoying. That wouldn’t be the last time people’s timing got thrown off on Friday night, though Gary Clark Jr. starting 15 minutes late is way different from Erykah Badu going on a couple of hours late.
Gary Clark Jr. opened up with “Bright Lights”, the song that introduced me to his music when that EP came out in 2011. Since then he’s firmly established himself as one of the best blues rock guitarists out there. Bouncing over to Anderson Paak & the Free Nationals after was a big change in style. 2016 got off to a little slow start in the new music category, and Anderson Paak’s album Malibu was one of the first that really caught me. Live, Paak controlled the crowd, with their hands in the air vibing hard, bringing an energy to the City Plaza crowd that no other had until that point. He switched between performing out front and spending plenty of time behind the drums. Paak’s set was hands down one of the best of the weekend, and much different than sets from other hip hop artists like Vince Staples who took the same stage the following night, and Young Thug who was in Memorial Auditorium later Friday night. The full band performance vs the DJ adds something irreplaceable energy wise to the show.
Beach House was underwhelming, due to a lack of dynamics for me. After a half hour of looking at a dark stage, their songs all started to blur together, like they already did especially between their back to back 2015 albums. We bounced from there to see that other Beach band, Beach Slang, who were the opposite when it came to live performance. Playing mostly songs from their new album, Beach Slang were loud and gritty, as frontman James Alex put everything he had into his performance. It was great to see, and be in the front row for. He hugged the crowd, he jumped around, he put on a show, and he was grateful to be there and playing for a capacity crowd, some of whom were there early to catch Car Seat Headrest.
Car Seat Headrest had them lined up out the door at Cam. Their latest album Teens of Denial will surely be on plenty of year-end lists, it’s been critically lauded and since it came out I’ve tried to figure it out. I’ve had some friends tell me it’s like watching a good high school band, and after watching them live via Youtube at Pitchfork and seeing them Friday night I totally understand that description. I love slacker rock and young rock, but I couldn’t get into CSH live. Their set started slow and meandered and I left and meandered over to Julien Baker who played a slow, quiet, yet dynamic set. On the way out I picked my jaw up off the floor.
I don’t know if all Julien Baker’s sets are like this. They might be. I’ve only heard great things about her live performances over the last year, but this set was just stunning. A flawless performance, deeply emotional, and a perfect fit for the room. Live Baker just owns the stage, playing beautifully through intricate guitar parts, sometimes looping, occasionally using harmonics, and her voice just doesn’t waver and stays in control. For the close of her set she sat down at the grand piano on stage where she played and sang effortlessly. Seeing these types of performances in these types of venues always feels really special, and is something I never take for granted.
I had a big day of day parties planned, but when you wake up with pink eye all that kind of goes out the window. I recovered enough to make it to the main stage in time to see Vince Staples with my one good eye as Dickie V would say.
I enjoyed Vince Staples set, but it was hard not to compare it in my mind to Anderson Paak’s the night before, which really isn’t fair because they’re so much different. Staples was more demanding of the crowd than Paak or Sylvan Esso had to be, for those two it was a natural reaction for the audience to be involved with the show. The creativity of his videos didn’t transfer over to the live show as much as I’d hoped, but the songs translated well. I found myself thinking for most of the set about how diverse the Hopscotch lineup is, but how that has yet to translate to the crowd.
I didn’t see Sylvan Esso at Hopscotch 2012 at Pour House, but I did see them in Memorial Auditorium in 2013. You can’t fully understand Sylvan Esso until you see them live. Meath’s performance, which has evolved into something even more beautiful over the years, takes their music to another level as she dances like no other to the beat of each song. As they headlined City Plaza for the first time, the crowd blossomed and moved in sync with the beat. They saved most of their best known songs for last, and the encores and offered the crowd a host of new songs, some of which are still stuck in my head. “I was gonna die young, but now I have to wait on you.”
From Sylvan Esso we darted over to Lincoln Theater and All Dogs, who I got to see earlier this year at Savannah Stopover Festival. When I saw them in March it was upstairs at a Wild Wing, and they were pretty good, but it was as weird as you’d think. Saturday night they sounded amazing, bigger and bolder, crunchy but not too grungy like the record. After hearing so much new music, to hear a band that I knew every word to every song felt really good and kind of took me out of the Hopscotch setting for a moment. We left from there content, and running late for our hometown boys ET Anderson who were playing at Deep South.
When we arrived to see ET Anderson the line was wrapped around the building, but luckily we were VIP status (is it worth it? more on that later), and only had to wait for about 5 minutes. It was hard to see from the back, but as I had predicted earlier in the day Hot Tub John on bass did not have his shirt on. Word when we were entering the club was that they were playing their last song, which wasn’t true. We got a solid 15 minutes of ET Anderson at their best, when they ebb and flow with noise and energy.
Exhaustion had set in, which definitely influenced our decision not to head over to Andrew Bird, so we missed the whistling musician and hung around for Llv Up. Their 2014 Hoodwink’d has been one of my favorite albums for the last couple of years, unfortunately they only touched a couple of songs from that album and instead opted to play through what I assume were songs from their upcoming debut on Sub Pop Return to Love. Maybe my expectations were too high, but it was a tame set. Lvl Up alternates between three singers, each with different types of songs, but the levels didn’t seem quite right and some of the vocals were buried in the mix from song to song. I still loved every second of it.
-No Rain, ample sunshine
-Almost everything ran on time
-Raleigh is a beautiful host city
-Having a camera at Hopscotch this year without a photo pass was a nightmare. For the first time. It was absolutely never an issue in the past. Bree crushed it with the photo pass, obvious from looking at her photos, but for me, I couldn’t bring my camera into Memorial, Fletcher, Red Hat, or City Plaza. Even more, you couldn’t wear a backpack in. So basically if you’re out all day with two cameras and a load of lenses you have to find somewhere to stash it. Lesson learned the hard way.
-Etix…you doing alright?? Just checking.
-Bachmann Bachmann Beach House Beach Slang Sneaks Sneakers all around the same time.
-Badu just showed up.
-Is VIP worth it? It’s hard to say. It’s probably only going to be worth it for you once or twice a festival maybe, so that’s a decision you’ll have to make with your own finances. I needed my status once.