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Hopscotch Music Festival

by Ryan Snyder

THE HOPSCOTCH DIARIES: TRIAD-FREE MUSIC FESTIVAL IN THE TRIANGLE

For an event that was supposed to put an ambitious spotlight on great bands from all over North Carolina along with select national touring acts, the total omission of Triad bands was rather disconcerting. That said, its success shows just what can happen when right-minded people come together for a common cause.

Despite the long lines outside of several, the clubs were never uncomfortably crowded. This wasn’t the type of festival where one could simply meander from site to site with only a vague idea of who to see in mind; it required careful planning and time management in order to get the most out of it. Some of the venues — Five Star, for instance — required a little bit of a hump to get to, making those shows particularly problematic for those trying to absorb as much as possible.

I’m not mad at Panda Bear. Person Pitch inspired an abnormal level of obsession in a lot of people, and his Friday night set without a doubt made someone’s year. You simply have to respect an artist able to evoke nothing but extremes on the love-hate scale. That’s what makes it great art. That said, if his live set Friday night was your introduction to his music, chances are you were among the hundreds spilling out of the square within the first 10 minutes of his set. Panda Bear will never be confused with one of those “You just have to see him live” musicians. On stage, he’s torpor personified. He’s a guitar and a laptop, without a hint of charisma. Behind him, a massive projection screen broadcast a wash of incongruent B-reels and random psychedelia that seemed both meaningless in its intent and pandering to the drug addled among his fans. The aesthetic falls somewhere just above rappers who play their music videos during their sets and just below an episode of Pokemon. Sonically, it’s music that isn’t meant to escape the friendly confines of a beanbag and pair of nice headphones. Never mind that many of his best ideas come from the picked-over carcasses of Bardo Pond and 1910 Fruitgum Company. Like Flavor Flav said during Public Enemy’s absolutely gnarly headlining set Saturday night, “Don’t believe the hype.”

Coming off of Panda Bear’s set and seeing yet another solo artist with a guitar and a synthesizer turning knobs and pushing buttons was off-putting to say the least, but Active Child set forth the kind of moody sensualism that eluded Panda Bear. The dragging opening stanza was hard to overcome — I kept imagining the indiscriminate animal growls produced by a bout of meaningless button-pushing being parodied by Weird Al using bodily functions — the meat of his set was fairly engaging.

As much as I wanted to take in a full metal show, Double Negative’s set at the Berkley Caf’ felt vaguely like what Dante described the Malebolge being; a bunch of shrieking souls scrapping and clawing in a long, narrow corridor with limbs flying everywhere.

One of the most charismatic lead singers of the weekend belonged to Charlotte’s Alpha Theory. At their Lincoln Theatre set, front woman Jocelyn Ellis took her three-man backing crew through an array of funk, hip hop and punk, at times espousing the assertive flamboyance of Erykah Badu and others the free-form badassery of Ari Up. Between TAP and the incredible Remix Project, fans of instrumental hip hop got all they could handle from the evening curated by deejay 9 th Wonder.

It’s standard procedure for any of the Wu Tang to hit the stage no less than 30 minutes late, and Chef Raekwon was no exception. The situation was summed up succinctly by someone in the Active Child crowd who, aping Raekwon, said, “My opener’s opener’s opener’s opener has an opener. I ain’t even got to leave the hotel room yet.” When he finally did roll out of bed, his first words to the crowd were “I’m drunk, I’m tired, I’m high” and an expressed desire for female companionship. In other words, Raekwon was happy to be there. His show at the Lincoln Theatre saw him light up some hand-rolled spliffs to pass around through the crowd and tell a roomful of middle-class white kids, “All the real n—-z in the house make some noise!” His hazy state aside, Raekwon always delivers and this one was no exception.

As an interloper, it was easy to scoff at the Raleigh Downtown Alliance’s campaign to encourage people to ignore vagrants asking for money in the busiest areas of the district. Their postings outside of restaurants and clubs everywhere had sort of a dehumanizing “Do Not Feed the Animals” feel to it. That is, until six bums with Old English 800 on their breath hit you up during a two-block walk with a sob story about needing money for a bus ticket to feed their families. At least tell a joke or do a card trick.

Saturday night notes

If rap is something you do and hip hop is something you live, Chuck D might never die. He’s like the Gordie Howe of the mic in that no matter how old he gets, he’s better at the game than most of the whippersnappers. He and his partner-in-rhyme’s music has aged like good fiore sardo: Tt’s still as hard as the day it was set on wax and never goes bad. The duo, along with Professor Griff, DJ Lord, the S1Ws and their crack band, were celebrating 20 years of Fear of A Black Planet on the main stage in City Plaza, and thusly opened with “911 Is a Joke,” the song that introduced the all-killer, no-filler side of the world’s greatest hype man. They didn’t play the entire album cover to cover as they’ve done in recent years with It Takes a Nation…, but the set contained practically every track you’d ever want to hear at a Public Enemy set. “Bring the Noise,” “Timebomb,” “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor” were all accounted for, even throwing in “Terminator X Speaks with His Hands” in their set for the first time in 12 years, performed by the masterful DJ Lord, of course. I was holding my breath for a guest spot by Triangle native Big Daddy Kane for “Burn Hollywood Burn,” but the retired emcee just hung out along the periphery like reg’lar folk. The crowd was into it the entire two-hour set, even when Flav took five minutes to bump his new line of vodka. His 9-11 speech at the end of the show was straight from the heart, even if it did sound filtered through the bewildering brainpiece of Flav. Opening act Crew Grrl Order deserves a shout too. The old school female hiphop crew had a style that made me long for the old Salt N’ Pepa albums.

Wet Mango’s performance at the Hive was the kind of show that defines a festival like Hopscotch. The Los Angeles-via-Charlotte chiptune artist Cristina Irene Fuentes personified the event’s subversive ideals. The edgy, 8-bit electronic set verged on a temper tantrum at times, with the tiny Fuentes bounding around the small stage, half-rapping, half screaming. Punk-haired girls in ripped fishnets did Frankenstein dances while Wet Mango ripped her shirt open and ended her set in histrionics over Gameboy bass. Neat little show.

Asheville’s Floating Action was utterly entertaining not merely for their slick brand of indiefunk colored by smooth breaks, but for singer and guitarist’s Seth Kauffman’s melba-toast sense of humor. Between his constant references to his band as Surfer Blood (“We just got signed to Universal.”) and imploring the audience to check out the Will Arnett sex tape on YouTube (“We heard you guys like to take things up a notch.”), the banter was as much fun as the songs. By the way, do check out that Arnett vid.

Credit goes to WQFS’s own Josh Neas for nudging me in the direction of the of Brooklynbased trio Bear In Heaven, because their Lincoln Theatre set was one of the most crowded club shows of the weekend for a reason. Their sound is huge and sprawling, driven by vocalist/ keyboardist Jon Philpot’s engrossing alto that’s reminiscent of the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriquez-Lopez in its impact, but it’s the drums of Joe Stickney that held it all together. His arms and legs were constantly in motion, dropping thundering bass rolls on “Beast In Peace” and building gut-wrenching tension on the cymbals during “You Do You.”

Of all of the great sets that took place over Hopscotch’s three days, few could match that of Tortoise in intensity and sheer aural gratification. Public Enemy aside, the five multi-instrumentalists from Chicago were easily the weekend’s most veteran club act, and they opened up their 20-year catalog to the crowd at the Lincoln Theatre in its near entirety. With two drum kits facing each other at the stage’s forefront, John McEntire and Dan Bitney set the tempo for their set that spilled past 2 a.m. with a heavy dose of rhythm-as-melody on “High Class Slim Came Floating In.” It’s one thing to have two insanely dynamic percussionists in your band, but keeping a guy like John Herndon in reserve is nearly overkill. Nearly. There are few drummers who are more of a joy to watch perform than Herndon, who wears his incessant groove in his exuberant body language. Not a single note or beat is ever wasted at one of their sets, with every layered sound and rhythmic addition like throwing more meat into the gumbo.

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