Hopscotch Music Festival 2016
Day 1 – Thursday, September 8th, 2016
As another muggy North Carolinian summer begins to wind down, the town of Raleigh begins to amp up for the annual Hopscotch Music Festival. I got the call from my partners in crime, Lan and Yang, late in the afternoon. They were headed downtown to check out some day parties, one facet of the Hopscotch experience in which I seldom partake. Yes, they are free, fun, and overflowing with the best underground talent in the area but I am not a young man. I can’t start drinking in the hot sun around noon and expect to close down the bars for the nightly headliners so I tend to spend my Hopscotch days writing in the cool confines of my ever-darkened apartment.
I met the boys at the Pour House where I comically missed Bedowyn’s set for the eleventeenth time. Seriously, every time I see Bedowyn drummer Marc, I am apologizing for perpetually arriving 20 minutes after they finish their set. Which is unfortunate since Bedowyn are one of the best metal acts in the region. Go spin Blood of the Fallen right now. Thank me later.
Bedowyn: Facebook | Bandcamp
We made it to City Plaza in time to catch one of my favorite bands on this year’s bill, Baltimore’s Wye Oak. I have caught them live a couple of times after falling in love with their sound on 2011’s Civilian. They opened the night perfectly with their varied instrumentation and widely-accessible-yet-unique sound which brought a great turnout to the Plaza. Frontwoman, Jenn Wasner, has a great stage presence and was adorably touched as a generous concertgoer tossed flowers on stage for her and her partner-in-crime, multi-instrumentalist percussionist, Andy Stack.
RDU Music’s own Yang may have more on Wye Oak later as he tackles a piece about one of his all-time faves, Wolf Parade, who headlined the first night of the City Plaza shows but since I took the day off to write, I am going to sneak in this mini-review of Wye Oak before he notices.
Lan received an email from New Amsterdam Records asking us to check out tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance. I was immediately intrigued by that statement so we left Wolf Parade in Yang’s capable hands and made our way to Nash Hall, a fresh and artsy 300-capacity seated venue in a church converted from Nash Motors. Hopscotch’s site aptly describes the venue as, “a more intimate CAM Raleigh.” It was the perfect venue for such a unique act as Battle Trance.
Oftentimes at Hopscotch, I tend to gravitate toward metal acts and plant my feet firmly in the same venue for an entire evening. Battle Trance reminded me why it is so fun and liberating to roll up on a strange, new place to hear even stranger things.
I walked in expecting a jazzy good time but was immediately proven wrong. Battle Trance are an altogether different kind of animal, weaving ambient aural textures by shattering one’s preconceived notions about the “correct” way one should play a saxophone. By trading solos in the round and relying as much on breath sounds and key-clacks as “notes,” Battle Trance’s sound at times flirted with the cacophonous before devolving into emotionally-moving minimalist sections reminiscent of say, Sigur Ros, before ramping back up to a sound one might more traditionally think of when envisioning a tenor sax quartet.
Their ability to hold on loosely to a gossamer, cohesive thread of “song structure” while taking it for completely unexpected rides in multiple directions at once was masterful. There weren’t even any breaks for applause. The crowd had no idea when to clap so they thought the better of it, which only contributed to the eerie atmosphere weaved by Battle Trance.
I wish I could have seen my face as I tagged along for Battle Trance’s musical journey. I could feel the look of incredulity as my brain struggled to grasp what was happening. I then felt by brow begin to unfurrow as an aural wave of emotion crashed around me and permeated my being. I looked around and saw similar emotional rollercoasters on the faces of the rest of the concertgoers. Many never reached the same sense of acceptance and fulfillment that I did. There were some palpably negative visceral responses to some of the tones and movements but that only made me appreciate Battle Trance even more. It felt as if I were becoming part of some secret musical society that was able to appreciate all that Battle Trance had to offer.
5/5 stars = Excellent
After only the first night of Hopscotch 2016, Battle Trance proved to easily be the biggest and best surprise of the festival. Their set was a wholly transcendent experience that made me wish I were a more eloquent writer so that I might adequately do it justice.
After a brief side trip to another plane of consciousness courtesy of Battle Trance, I headed south down Blount, making my way to the Lincoln Theatre where one of my more anticipated acts of Hopscotch 2016 was beginning to soundcheck: Mutoid Man. (Steve soundchecked his mic with “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones, so you know they were ready to party.)
Boasting a pedigree of some of my favorite bands of the new millennium (Cave In, Kid Kilowatt, Converge, All Pigs Must Die, etc.), my excitement level was already off the charts before Mutoid Man opened with the world’s all-time rockinest cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Steve can really hit those high notes too.
The central theme of Mutoid Man’s set was pure, unadulterated fun. Those three fellas were having the time of their lives: Steve and Nick trading middle fingers to each other between riffs, Ben losing a drumstick and deciding to try ramming it into Nick’s ass, all while cruising through a stellar setlist of mutant jams. They even played some new songs, the first of which lasted for all of about 6 seconds before they all stopped and Steve announced, “This one’s still cooking.”
Hopscotch is always weird about crowd sizes due to the fact that the entire city is hosting shows at overlapping frequencies but a decent crowd turned out to see Mutoid Man, all of which were headbanging along with all the dank-ass mutant riffs.
5/5 stars = Excellent
SO. MANY. RIFFS. I defy you not to hurt your neck.
The piece de resistance of this year’s Hopscotch for me was the announcement of Converge to the bill. If I didn’t already have enough reasons to purchase yet another wristband, Converge sealed the deal. They have consistently been one of my favorite bands for the last 15+ years. I got into them during the heyday of 2001’s seminal game-changer Jane Doe. I didn’t “get” that record for the first 3 months I owned it until one day I succumbed to its harrowing bleakness and never looked back.
I saw Converge a couple of times in those days but haven’t seen them live in 10 years, since the release of 2006’s No Heroes. The timing was perfect since Hopscotch was to be Converge’s last show of the year (or longer) so that they could go home and start working on a new record. I am forever grateful that they decided to swing through Raleigh and rekindle my fire with a blistering set that further reminded me that they remain at the top of their game.
Each member of Converge is larger than life with a stage personality all their own. Jake pacing the stage like an enraged teenager bouncing off the walls of his bedroom; Kurt looking like the elder statesman who no longer cares about punk fashion, doing more with one guitar than many bands do with three; Nate furiously hitting the bass so hard that he probably goes through three straps a month; and finally Ben, a drummer’s drummer whose intensity is head and shoulders above anyone else in the game. They’ve all been together so long that the sum of those parts generates a palpable electricity each time they take the stage together. It felt as important and meaningful now as it did 10 years ago.
I’ve never been able to adequately describe why I feel Converge so deeply but as soon as they took the stage, all the old and unnamed feelings came flooding back to an overwhelming degree. Ragers like “Trespasses” and “Concubine” will bring out the beast in any man but the highlight of the evening for me was when Steve Brodsky (of Mutoid Man, Cave In, and early Converge) joined the band on stage to close out the night by singing the high parts of “Jane Doe.” The sheer bleakness and raw, overpowering emotion of “Jane Doe” will haunt me forever, in the best possible way.
5/5 stars = Excellent
Lost in you like Saturday nights
Searching the streets with bedroom eyes
Just dying to be saved
If you are in the mood to reminisce, you can check out my coverage from last year’s Hopscotch below.
Hopscotch Music Festival 2015 – Day 1
Hopscotch Music Festival 2015 – Day 2
Hopscotch Music Festival 2015 – Day 3