Photos and Review by Leslie Leonard and David Stringer
Pulling into Raleigh on Thursday afternoon we talked about all the great performances we’d seen from years past. With most big music festivals you know what to expect going in. You go for the big names and the hot buzzing acts. Maybe there is a nostalgia act or two mixed in. Hopscotch isn’t built like that, which makes it special. It’s a festival where classic acts reunite and you see if they’ve still got it. It’s a festival where experimental acts push the envelope for willing ears, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. It’s a festival where fans flock to small clubs to see up-and-coming acts. A festival where you can hear top talent from the widest range of genres over three days that no other festival can compete with. So when you look back at the festival days later, months later, and years after you recall different things that you appreciate each time.
In 2018 the City Plaza stage shined. With the explosive and memorable performance of The Flaming Lips, the sharp angular indie rock of Speedy Ortiz, the psychedelic rock of indie giants Grizzly Bear, and revived career of Liz Phair who’s revisiting her indie rocker Girly Sound days more so than her early 2000’s pop venture. As is often the case though, sometimes the nostalgia doesn’t live up to expectations. And with such a wide variety of music, it takes a true music nerd to truly enjoy it all. This is a festival built for those types of people, but it takes more to fill the venues. At times crowds felt underwhelming and the energy of years past wasn’t quite there. The Basement is a vast echoing space, and while it’s a comfortable place for a fan to watch a show, it’s lacking in the charm area and I can’t imagine it being an enjoyable environment for bands. Other than Kings we never really had any trouble getting into shows this. There weren’t many of those rush of adrenaline moments where you didn’t know if you were going to get in to see a band, or if you should even try. And now that they have those Bird scooters you could really zip around town (before 9 PM) you could really get from venue to venue during the day. Last year we left filled with excitement over everything we’d seen. We saw Future Islands crush City Plaza and MC Taylor and company take on the Jason Molina catalogue. We saw Big Boi, Solange, and Run the Jewels play killer sets. And then to close it all out, we caught the first wave of fall and closed out our festival experience with Angel Olsen. These were the things going through my head when we were riding into town and this year left me wanting more. If it weren’t for The Flaming Lips, which was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve seen in all my years at Hopscotch, and that includes seeing The Flaming Lips there before, this year would have been much more of a whimper.
It doesn’t feel like a festival that’s fading away, but just a slight swing and a miss. It happens, and next year will most likely be a different story. In some ways Hopscotch moved back towards the programming that it moved away from last year, but maybe it was an overcorrection? But hey, you can’t make everyone happy. All said, here are some of our top acts of 2018.
Meghan Remy’s experimental pop project U.S. Girls has created quite a buzz this year with her album In A Poem Unlimited released this past February. Remy was backed with an impressive 7 member band when she hit the stage at Lincoln Theatre Thursday evening. The set began with Remy with an additional vocalist breaking out into a synchronized dance routine. It was clear from the start of the set that Remy was the star surrounded by a skilled band there to perform her unique creations adding screeching saxophone and 80’s guitar. U.S. Girls’ live performance is theater with Remy in her disco bug eyed sunglasses and sometime staring into the crowd silent for an extended period of time between songs. Many artists struggle to translate their albums to an intriguing live show, this is not the case for U.S. Girls who put on a show that would be intriguing to even the casual listener.
Thursday nights at Hopscotch are quieter than the rest of the weekend, a perfect evening for songwriter Justin Sullivan to play in a dimly lit entranced crowd at Fletcher. Sullivan who is most recognizable behind a drum set playing with Kevin Morby’s band The Babies, Sullivan moves to the front as a natural frontman. The audience was treated to hearing new songs off Night Shop’s debut album, In The Break, out September 14. Night Shop’s performance had the ease of hearing a familiar record you have listened to a hundred times. Following Night Shop’s set his current tour-mates Anna St. Louis and Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee took the stage at Fletcher.
When Thundercat took the City Plaza stage Friday night it was with a heavy heart. Hours earlier it was reported that rapper Mac Miller had passed away who was a close friend. Thundercat’s performance always feels inspired, but that performance felt special like it was coming from somewhere deeper. The entire set I found myself more tuned into the groove of drums and bass and wondered what was going through his head. I think he too was lost in the music.
The Flaming Lips
“F*CK YEAH HOPSCOTCH,” read the metallic balloons that filled the City Plaza stage as they teetered above frontman Wayne Coyne’s head. 7 years later The Flaming Lips returned to Hopscotch’s City Plaza with rainbow balloons, laser hands, and a gigantic space ball. This year brought joyous additions of a huge inflatable robot towering over Coyne’s head while he sang the classic Lip’s song “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” and a neon psychedelic unicorn Coyne rode through the crowd while singing “There Should Be Unicorns.” Attending a Flaming Lip’s show is a one of, and the audience during their set this year continued to be reminded of it throughout the festival finding remnants of confetti hidden in the nooks of City Plaza.
Montreal based rocker Michael Rault made his way down the East Coast to play a 10:30 slot at Lincoln Theatre. Rault played many of the sunny new songs off his most recent album It’s A New Day Tonight that he recorded at the legendary Daptone’s House of Soul. During his live sets, Rault shows off his expertise as a guitarists leaning into the breakdowns and rifts heard in his songs. Rault and his band play as a perfectly united four-piece mellow and pragmatic as they move through their setlist. The band’s easygoing melodies was the perfect change of pace following Ohio based metal band Skeltonwitch’s set at The Bassment.
This past August, Montreal post-punk group Ought signed with Chapel Hill based record label Merge. Fitting for the band to play at King’s a venue known as a melting pot for North Carolina musicians including Merge founder’s Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance of Superchunk. Ought was a band to see, with King’s at capacity with eager fans waiting outside in line hoping to get into the view before their set began. Frontman Tim Darcy’s voice filled he room with the band’s loose but intense melodies.
When I saw Contour’s venue placement when the schedule came out I was very curious to see how it would work out. The Basement is a vast space, and the early time slot overlapped with some bigger acts. The Charleston four piece took the stage, with at least 15 of space between each other. It was exactly the opposite of what we last saw from Contour as they were packed like sardines on stage at The Royal American. They seemed comfortable and made for that stage though, with driving bass lines and Khari Lucas’ quiet confidence and intense eyes scanning the audience. For someone as quickly on the rise as Contour, playing to a massive mostly empty room is just paying dues until they’re headlining a stage in a few years.
Niecy Blues with her band made up of ET Anderson are the most interesting South Carolina act at the moment. Placed in Neptunes in the middle of the day, the band filled the small room with some familiar faces, but mostly with people who caught the buzz of the band. Each set they play feels special, like you’re in on a big secret that not everyone knows about. That’s a magical Hopscotch feeling that happens about once a year, and for it to be happening with a South Carolina act makes it all the more magical. Last year, on that same stage in a packed room it was Snail Mail. Hopefully Niecy Blues will catch that same huge way.
Brett Nash of Charleston band Secret Guest, now on indefinite hiatus, has been a state at Hopscotch for the past couple of years. Nash returned his year with his new project Vanity Plates. The Charleston trio’s band name, Vanity Plates, is evocative of their songwriting process. The band see’s a personalized license plate on the road and then writes a song about the name on the plates leading to song titles like “LIE2FX” and “GLOIN222.” Vanity Plates played to a packed out Deep South Bar Saturday night.