The Phuzz Phest 2014 Breakdown: Friday and Saturday Nights
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Let the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit’s recent demise show how easily myriad factors can sweep away germinating music festivals in the blink of an eye — no matter how strong its lineup. But if 2013 was the year that Phuzz Phest’s radicle firmly took root, then its fourth year is when it will have grown tall enough to cast a real shadow. A handful of minor, but essential, format tweaks and a measured ascension up the vitality curve certify Winston-Salem’s threeday, multi-venue indie music soiree, taking place throughout downtown Winston- Salem on April 4-6, is less of a local curiosity and more of a real destination event.
Though its scale doesn’t approach even some of North Carolina’s own forthcoming mega-fests, the appeal of its fourth annual offering is the inherent benefits of its smaller size. Aside from having an outstanding cost-to-band ratio (49 shows on the nighttime schedule for a $50 weekend wristband), there’s diversity and ample opportunity for discovery (and maybe for some, bucket-listing), yet it also remains accessible and intimate. One characteristic of Phuzz Phest is new, however: Because the format was shifted to concurrent rather than successive sets, greater potential exists for divergent experiences. But where choice exists, so too does the inevitable conflict.
There are, however, two acts on the Phuzz Phest schedule that have the luxury of performing unopposed, if early. Phuzz Phest 2014 won’t open with a kick in the pants, but rather a transcendental journey. Last year’s Phuzz Phest set by Dark Prophet Tongueless Monk, the solo project of Economy’s Jacob Leonard, had among the more clever DIY visual displays you’ll see. As he assiduously constructed columns of rich sonics from keys, guitar and a voice cannily resembling Tennessee Fire-era Jim James, weird, sinuous globs danced on a projection screen behind him like the denizens of a Petri dish under an unfocused microscope. As low budget production goes, it was especially hypnotic set against the shamanistic, but extraordinarily hooky drones on his debut EP Flower of Life, and his 7 p.m. start time at Krankies offers little resistance for catching an outstanding songwriter.
Don’t blame Phuzz Phest founder Philip Pledger for sticking his band Estrangers in the catbird seat as the follow-up to Dark Prophet Tongueless Monk’s near-captive audience. He’ll be the first to admit that he didn’t exactly come into his full-hearted pop outfit’s sets at past Phuzz Phests with the clearest eyes, but getting it out of the way early is probably the wisest solution. The immediate alternative to his band’s sweetheart pop, which nods to old Camera Obscura or older-still Love, is upstart Winston-Salem sludge metal quartet Skullcollector at Ziggy’s, whose debut EP Black Mountain last year was as rough-hewn and caustic as Estrangers’ Season of 1000 Colors was intricate and thoughtful. It would be remiss not to mention that musical polyglot Bo White, a cornerstone of Charlotte’s music scene for more than a decade, opens the Garage’s Friday night festivities and bleeds into the next block. It’s the only performance he has booked right now following a canceled Snug Harbor show last week, and his set could draw anywhere from his guitar-free Y Su Orquesta Latin jazz inversions to the bombastic pop rock of his band Yardwork.
The significance of scorched earth fusion trio (duh) Trioscapes’ set later at Ziggy’s can’t really be overstated. It will be their final tuneup before heading to Greensboro heavy music haven Legitimate Business the next morning to begin recording their second LP, the follow-up to 2012’s Separate Realities. Being bassist Dan Briggs’ improvisational release valve to the rigidly structured prog of his full-time (and internationally acclaimed) band Between the Buried and Me, what is played here could go a long way towards shaping the new album. Alternatively, Asheville’s the Tills, who’ve made a home at Krankies under their old handle the Critters, are not far removed from their first release under the new moniker. Mixtape, Vol. 1 sounds like Johnny Thunders got high on the Frost, and frontman Harry Harrison is among the weekend’s most charismatic performers.
If there are going to be any big surprises at Phuzz Phest this year, then the block at Krankies starting with combustive Memphis punk revisionists Ex-Cults and ending with Friday night headliners White Fence, the ultra-prolific psych rock project of San Fran songwriter Tim Presley, has the most potential. The common thread, of course, is the current crown prince of garage rock, Ty Segall, who produced Ex-Cults selftitled LP a little more than a year ago, shortly after sharing a byline on a knucklecracking record called Hair with Presley. That Segall recently threw down a guitar shop party at SXSW with Ex-Cults and has a history for these sorts of things (and, of course, has his calendar wide open next weekend before going to play Coachella) only adds to the intrigue.
Of course, that whole idea really could be as far-fetched as it sounds, but even a red herring would help to parse out the Friday night logjam that includes the incredible Woodsman at Ziggy’s, which sounds like Robert Fripp and Neu! records being played on top of one another. They’re followed by Wilmington stoner metal foursome ASG, who clocked in at no. 6 in the list of North Carolina’s top 25 albums of 2013 that appeared in this space a few months back. Refer to this line for the skinny on Blood Drive: “It’s Mother Love Bone meets Clutch — frontman Jason Shi’s anti-gravity vocals float above riffs so sludgy it’s like wading through the Cape Fear River basin after a hurricane in flip-flops.” Then there’s the opportunity cost of missing Twelve Thousand Armies, the band whose sparkling new LP Tiger Beat just became the second release on the festival’s label, Phuzz Sounds. With Tiger Beat, Phuzz Sounds is carving out a niche as purveyors of damn catchy throwback pop-rock that puts a sunny disposition on real emotional turmoil. Bonus: Try to down PBR faster than frontman Justin Williams during his set. Betcha can’t.
The jazz-kissed hip-hop of Greensboro emcee/producer Dante CK is the first late-night set to commence, but its scene is as far removed from ASG’s as any two successive shows all weekend. It could be a weird mix inside Ziggy’s when he takes the stage shortly after midnight. To that end, hyper-mercurial Chapel Hill band T0W3RS plays music that belongs to no scene and all scenes at once, and their night-ending at Single Brothers will be the sound of the last six hours flashing before your eyes.
To open Saturday, the other band that gets the pleasure of an unopposed set at Krankies is Winston-Salem trio Jews & Catholics, whose sound is borne from a tornado of noise pedals, colophony and sweat. Their 2013 album Civilized also cracked the 25 best NC albums of last year, and the addition of drummer Tyler Reed has bolstered their already considerable rock chops to good ‘ol borderline brootality. It’s a long hike from there to Ziggy’s to see Secret Boyfriend, the noise-folk project of Carrboro multi-instrumentalist/producer Ryan Martin, but it should be done. His set at the recent International Noise Conference in Miami was among the least arch in a sea of sonic anarchy, but it was anything but toothless. The noisiest band of this particular night, however, is Winston-Salem psych-doom trio Primovanhalen, who have little in the way of a recorded body of work, and the best recollection of their live shows is a persistent case of tinnitus. Opposite them at Ziggy’s is Must Be the Holy Ghost, the solo project of former Classic Case/Telescreen/Distrails songwriter Jared Draughon. He recently signed with boutique Durham label Cardigan records and is on the verge of releasing Get Off on April 1, a noteworthy progression from the emotive drone of his most recent work. Check out the startlingly soulful, even at times funky, first track called “Immoral Support”: There’s still plenty of moody melisma, but here it’s the foundation for striking dynamics and a relentless build.
Also on the new album tip is Camel City ex-pat Caleb Caudle, who is in the process of label shopping for his second solo record Paint Another Layer On My Heart. It’s a classic example of A-side/B-Side tracking — mostly dusty rockers on one side and boozy heartbreakers on the other — and it will be the centerpiece of his Saturday night Garage show when he visits from his new locale of New Orleans, not to mention he’ll also have the chance to play it with the great Roseland players who backed him on it. He’ll be sharing time with Ex Hex, the brandspanking-new band of Helium and Wild Flag’s Mary Timony, and the latest jewel of Merge Records’ eye. Her trio is limited to but a single song thus far, the candied power pop earwig “Hot and Cold,” which was released as a part of Merge’s ongoing 7” series. There’s a rather hilarious video for it where they dig up former “Sassiest Boy In the World” Ian Svenonius and bring him over for an absurd dinner party. It’s three minutes well spent.
But that’s one of the strongest points of this year’s Phuzz Phest; there are a lot of lightning-in-a-bottle moments with a lot of great artists on the verge of new releases. Another of those is country-folk songbird Jessica Lea Mayfield, whose Make My Head Sing…, the follow-up to her Dan Auerbachproduced Tell Me, drops on April 15. Its first single “Oblivious” suggests her show at the Garage is going to be significantly louder than the swoony motel ballads of her past output. Those at Of Montreal’s Greensboro stop back last May might remember the Tom Tom Club-like transformation they made into guitarist Bryan Poole’s neondipped dance side project, Space Truck, but it’s certainly not the first time Kevin Barnes’ band has served as an incubator for eclectic talent. Former Of Montreal sidemen Davey Pierce and Nicolas Dobbratz create neon disco-pop under the name Yip Deceiver, and it will be the absolute safest bet for a dance party on Saturday. Los Angeles art-punk duo No Age will come close, but in more of a pressurized teen angst kind of sense. As one of the three highest billed bands at this year’s Phuzz Phest, they’re going to be hard to miss regardless.
Check back next week for the Sunday lineup breakdown, along with thoughts on day parties and the coffee conference. Visit phuzzphest.com for the full lineup. !