Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hopscotch 2015 Night 1: Mac McCaughan, Bully & Battles shine after the rain

All photos by Kevin Norris
Walking into City Plaza on Thursday night, there was an uncertainty in the air. Dark clouds threatened rain and storms, an e-cigarette brand hawked its vapor to concert goers, and Ought was getting ready to take the stage in place of Deerhunter, one of the several bands who had to cancel their trips or couldn’t make it to North Carolina. It seemed foreboding. Would this be the year that Hopscotch failed to live up its reputation?

Ought proved a suitable replacement and a first step towards reassurance. The charming Canadians stuttering post-punk slowly built. Early on, jagged rhythms felt carefully designed and Tim Beeler’s vocals felt almost matter-of-fact in tone, but by the end of their set they let loose into a climax that felt spontaneous. Beeler’s friendly banter between songs warmed a cool audience that at times still seemed disappointed at Deerhunter’s absence.

The rain finally broke through as Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage. The crowd dwindled. It was the smallest crowd for a main stage act since Panda Bear's snooze-worthy set in the festival's first year.

In years past, a band like GS!YBE would have headlined Memorial Hall and been better off for it. Outdoors, the tension of the band’s music dissipated into the air. The sustained crescendos of GS!YBE are best experienced fully present. Standing in the rain outside, my mind became further detached with thoughts of finding shelter and a seat.

Jake Xerxes Fussell provided relief in Fletcher Opera Hall. The Durham guitarist sounds like a combination of Daniel Bachman and Frank Fairfield. His traditional folk singing and rich guitar compositions create a sound that feels old and modern at the same time.

Around 10 p.m., the best stretch of rock and roll began. Mac McCaughan took the Lincoln by storm with his new band The Non-Believers. McCaughan is always a must-see, but his new songs took on a ferocity not present in their wistful recorded counterparts. Listening to him play “Box Batteries,” I thought we were hearing a completely new song. The highlight was his cover of ANTiSEEN’s “NC Royalty,” an appropriate shout-along closer from one of North Carolina’s most important musicians.

McCaughan’s energy carried through to Solar Halos, Lydia Loveless and Bully. Solar Halos’ thick sheets of guitar, vocals and bombastic percussion filled the Pour House while next door in Tir Na Nog Lydia Loveless belted out some of the best vocals from anyone at Hopscotch.

Nashville’s Bully packed Slim’s as their set came just weeks after a surge of internet hype. The cramped space seemed to fuel lead singer Alicia Bognanno who said, “I love playing small spaces.” She shouted her melodies so loud, it sounded like she should have ripped in two.

For six years, the Hopscotch Music Festival has provided a choose-your-own adventure for music fans in downtown Raleigh. Thursday night was the best example of this.

Before Bully, Phil Cook played the entirety of his new Southland Mission album and reminded those sitting in Fletcher of the importance of community in music. He stood at the front of the stage and sang an old gospel tune with several other Durham musicians and smiled the whole time.

After Bully, Battles took over the Lincoln and proved they are much more than their 2007 hit, “Atlas.” Their infectious rhythms got the crowd dancing well into Friday morning.

This final stretch was the highlight of my Hopscotch and showed that the festival can still provide a mix of music few others can match.


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