Last weekend I went to Raleigh, North Carolina for Hopscotch Music Festival. It was cool, and before I go on I want to acknowledge that there was plenty of cool to be found in Dallas/Fort Worth/Etc. music last weekend as well.
There was a growing beer/music music festival featuring cool Cults and cooler Blackalicious, sponsored by Paste, a magazine that has introduced me to many cool things over the years. New Orleans' Rebirth Brass Band played at a venue that does things like replace all the artist promo photos on its posters with cats that embody the spirits of those artists. A small room in Denton, our neighboring town to the north, finished off its annual week of free shows with its perpetually cheap drinks and a set by local band The Baptist Generals, who have spent over a decade on the decidedly cool Seattle-based label Sub Pop. I'm missing plenty.
I went to Raleigh not because I couldn't think of anything to do in Dallas but because I was visiting an old friend there, and he has been telling me how cool Hopscotch is since it started four years ago. He's right. It's really cool. I think it was really cool, but what do I know? So I asked pretty much everyone I met: record store owners, journalists, musicians, hangers-on, students. What makes this scene special?
They had different answers, all of them. There's no magic formula. Some said it was Merge Records, the indie label run by Superchunck that's responsible for The Arcade Fire's Funeral and plenty more. That label started in Chapel Hill nearly 25 years ago and is based in Durham now. Those two cities, along with Raleigh, form The Triangle, an area with a population with less than a third of the population of our own triangle (Dallas/Denton/Fort Worth). Some people said the smaller size helps make the music community what it is -- it's easier to navigate to all these great bands in every way than it is in a big city. Some people couldn't say anything in particular.
Me? I think the key thing is that everyone I talked to at Hopscotch took it as a basic truth that they were in a special place for music. You get to vote on culture, not just with attendance but also with attitude.
And granted, a music-scene-focused event is an unfair sample of the population. The people I met who weren't there for the festival couldn't have told you about the prominence of The Triangle in national music. But they seemed open to the idea in a way many of the people I talk to here in Dallas are not.
Maybe it's a larger civic pride issue. No amount of of Cool Out Monday or Macaroni Island is going to put some heart in all those strip malls. It does seem like there are probably more great bands and enthusiasts here than there, so maybe it's just that they're spread out too far to ring together very often.
This is a diversion -- something to chew on. I'm not really here to judge or diagnose. I'm here to tell you about Hopscotch, because it was among the very best of my thousands of live music experiences.
Hopscotch is taking some plays from the SXSW book. Namely, there are day parties with disparate hosts, though where the monstrosity in Austin has Doritos and MTV, Hopscotch has local punk labels and weird radio shows. Also, it's a venue-based festival. So you walk around from concert to concert, some in places that usually host rock 'n' roll and some that don't.
What did I see. The lithe rock of Naked Gods from Boone, NC. That was early in the day on Thursday. That night I saw Nathan Bowles play minimalist masterworks on banjo (he marveled at the festival), and I saw brutally spare folk singer Angel Olsen (she marveled at the enthusiasm of her audience here). I saw a blues artist out of his element (they can't all win). I saw garage rock legends The Oblivians crack jokes and sing about peeping on cheating couples. That was night one, and it was not just good but edifying, and it was the least memorable of the three nights I was there.
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I don't know how this festival makes money. Tickets are very expensive -- It costs $125 for a GA pass that gets you into all three days. But still. They put some of the artists in an enormous theater that must seat somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000. That building also has a theater that probably maxes out closer to 600 and a performance room that can hold a couple hundred. I cannot imagine how expensive that place is to keep open. Tens of thousands of dollars each night, I'm sure. And that's just three of fifteen stages. There were over 200 bands, many of them expensive.
Maybe Hopscotch doesn't make money. Maybe it does. That can't be the goal. Certainly they aren't bothering to book bands that are known for their ability to move tons of festival passes. Their biggest draw was probably Big Boi, and he canceled. In his place that night they had Holy Ghost and A-Trak on the main stage. On Saturday, the climactic night of the festival, they had The Breeders playing their best album front-to-back and British art/drug enthusiast Jason Spaceman with his band Spiritualized playing big picture shit for two hours. It is not, like, Girl Talk.
It was crowded but not impossible to see Thurston Moore doin' jams with Japanese noise legend Merzbow. It was easy to see John Cale. You could get within 15 feet of Kim Deal, no problem. Action Bronson bailed last second and they replaced him with Big Daddy Kane, who is one of the most nimble hip-hop MCs ever. My old friend and I waltzed into that show with plenty of time to get a good spot before the call-and-responses started. I sat in a pew in a church and watched an old man outsider artist from Georgia named Lonnie Holley play stream-of-consciousness beauties on a grand piano.
Look, I don't know what it means to have a great music festival in the grander scheme of things. There are more important issues. But I know music delivers meaning to a lot of lives including mine. And I know Hopscotch was built for those with faith in Triangle music, and not the sponsors. That's not an easy arrangement of priorities to sustain. But I hope they don't lose it, because I believe ultimately that faith is all that sets The Triangle's music scene apart. It's enough.