Did I truly experience "the Real South" over the course of the Hopscotch Music Festival weekend?
Hopscotch Music FestivalCity: Raleigh, NC
Venue: Various Venues
Thursday 4 September 2014
The heat and humidity on this fine September afternoon in Raleigh, North Carolina is a vertiginous obscenity. I am staggering helplessly down some filthy backstreet in the hometown of both David Sedaris and Corrosion of Conformity with sweat engulfing my entire being, looking fruitlessly for some small, obscure museum where I hope to catch an early set from the incomparable Thurston Moore. I am here for the Hopscotch Music Festival, a three-day event that has taken place every September over the last few years in downtown Raleigh. The helpful, low key event staff failed in one crucial point early on in the festival: they have neglected to provide any sort of coherent maps, signs, or other physical directions for heatstroked out-of-towners unfamiliar with this strange little Southern city.
The reasoning behind this is, I believe, that anyone unfamiliar with the venues can pull up the website map on their phone, but between the website’s layout, my somewhat out-of-date phone, and the relentless, hideous heat that bathes everything in a nasty film of sweat and humidity, this is easier said than done.
I take refuge in a comfortable looking bar in order to collect myself and gain some sense of orientation. After being engulfed in a gorgeous icy blast of air-conditioning, which feels like the very breath of God, I plop myself down in an empty booth and wait for my mind to clear. A waitress appears and asks in a chatty drawl what I would like to drink and calls me "baby" in a way that seems in no way flirtatious. I am remembering why I am here now; a music festival set against the backdrop of a hip college town. I am here both to check out one of the most interesting new music festivals to crop up in the last few years, and to confront, if I can muster the courage, the reality of the South.
I have been living in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina for barely a month, having never even visited the region before, and I am still grappling, in my own frazzled way, with what it all means. As I just mentioned, waitresses really do call you ‘baby’ here in a very unflirtatious way. They eat grits for breakfast and drink grotesquely over-sweetened iced tea. They also seem to be very, very enthusiastic about Christianity. Everything that I had heard about the South is true and I can’t quite believe it.
Hopscotch, in addition to their notable national and international acts, hosts a large number of the best local bands from North Carolina. I hope to inspect some of the local talent, meet some genuine Southerners, and try to come to grips with my swampy, peculiar new home. But first: Thurston Moore, this weekend’s curator, and the first set of the festival. I realize that the venue I am seeking is about a block down the street. I finish my cold, refreshing beer, tip the charming waitress, and prepare myself for what will be a fascinating, but exhausting weekend.
I enter a tasteful little venue with a small stage on one side of the top floor, and tables set up on a slightly lowered second floor, the two-rooms connected by a artsy little walkway. I realize that, since this is an early VIP only performance, that the alcohol being dispensed on the lower floor is free. The crowd entering with me seems to understand this instinctually and comes streaming past me, pouring booze down their throats with amazing speed and enthusiasm. Make no mistake about it: these North Carolinians like their liquor, and they will consume it in staggering quantities throughout the weekend.
My attention is transfixed elsewhere; at the tall, gangly figure tuning his guitar on stage and being ignored by the rest of the crowd; it is Thurston Moore himself. Records like Sister, Goo, and Dirty have been making my ears ring and my heart soar since my late teens, and I find him an impressive figure indeed. Moore finishes fiddling with his guitar and hops down from the stage to grab a drink and a snack. No one is paying him the slightest attention; it is unclear if I am the only person here who recognizes him on sight, or if I am just the only person who cares.
Moore hangs around in the audience for a few minutes, not talking to anyone, and looking unselfconscious before getting back up on stage and beginning his set. What follows is 20 minutes or so of apparently improvised guitar work with a drummer accompanying; squalls of feedback reverberate around the room, bursting in my mind and imagination like bioluminescent dragonflies. He builds tension and then releases it a wash of glorious noise. The set is short, intense, and totally captivating.
Tonight’s main stage headliner is De La Soul, which seems like a good idea on paper. Who doesn’t like to cut loose with some golden era hip-hop? De La Soul is one of those acts that is difficult not to like, and seem likely to please just about everyone in attendance. The result is somewhat less dramatic, as De La Soul spend much of their set pretending to argue about which half of the audience is really here to party and are willing to express this desire by cheering at specified moments, a routine that strikes me as clique and rather tedious. De La Soul are fun, but predictable. The sound on the outside main stage is mediocre at best, and I do not witness a satisfying main stage set all weekend. I am eager for more intimate environs, and perhaps some local heavy metal, so I wander through the steamy summer rain in search of a club listed in my already greasy and sodden brochure as Kings Barcade.
I am pleased to discover that Kings Barcade is a comfortable second floor bar, with a welcoming atmosphere, and excellent sound. I am downright delighted to find local traditional heavy metal enthusiasts Colossus banging away upon my arrival, complete with Bruce Dickinsonian vocals and an array of tasty riffs. This is totally irony-free traditional heavy metal of the best kind; all swords, sorcery, and headbanging. In these dark and ignorant times in which we live, it is rare to see traditional metal in the United States performed so expertly, and I feel a deep, surging contentment. Solar Halos, hailing from nearby Chapel Hill, follow the mighty Colossus and we are plunged into dreamy, glorious doom. The high quality sound here in Kings Barcade is really starting to show its stuff, and I am buffeted fore and aft by waves of despondent bass and percussion.
There are those of us who have always felt somewhat cheated by the reality of industrial music. Throughout the '90s ‘industrial music’ came to mean "lame third-rate goth music". I get the impression that Tristan Shone, aka Author & Punisher, feels the same way, and has made it his business to truly industrialize industrial music and bring it back to the demented, technology haunted weirdoes to whom the genre rightfully belongs. I stand at the foot of the stage, admiring his handiwork, as Shone carefully sets up his "instruments", which look like a collection of Satanic sewing machines, kazoos, and weightlifting equipment designed for roided-out goblins.
Setup for Author & Punisher
The man behind Author & Punisher is apparently an engineer by trade, and likes to build machines for making unspeakable noise and scaring the shit out of hipsters. Indeed, the skinny jeans wearing, wax-mustachioed guys who packed Kings Barcade for Solar Halos have fled at the very sight of Author & Punisher’s nasty little arsenal, and they are right to be afraid. When Shone starts making his truly unholy racket, all slamming and droning and screeching, my heart becomes filled with a combination of hate, misanthropy, and joy.
It is getting late, and this evening’s final set is getting ready to follow the wonderful cataclysm that was Author & Punisher. Normally, I would say that Author & Punisher would be a very difficult act to follow, but this is Tim Hecker we are talking about. Tim Hecker has been blanking out my mind and hypnotizing my senses with his haunting, dense, mesmeric abstractions for some time now, but I have never seen him perform live before, and I have no idea what to expect. Suddenly, the set goes perfectly dark, and then the lights at the bar follow, and we are plunged into inky, primordial blackness. I feel a churning, anxious anticipation deep in my guts, as the fist low tremble of sound drifts out of the darkness. The hairs on my arms rise up, as if I am about to be struck by lightning, and I can feel my eyes push back into my sockets slightly at the first subaudible rumbles from the speakers.
Gradually, sound accumulates in the mostly deserted club, sounding more like gathering thunder than music. The sound builds into an abstracted storm so loud, and intense, and beautiful that the audience feels it physically as much as hears it. There in the darkness everything stops. We do not think about what we are experiencing, or what we have experienced, or what we will experience; there is only darkness and sound and a blissful, all-consuming immediacy. It is as if Hecker’s music has somehow become fully manifest; a conjured entity moving through us, devouring us.
When Hecker finishes his set, he vanishes without ever giving us a good look at him. When the lights come back on, it is like waking up from anesthesia; one snaps back to reality disoriented, as if no time whatsoever has passed, as if whatever just happened took place on a different plane of reality. The people around me look stunned, like they have just been in a car accident, and I am sure that I look no better. I will ruminate over Hecker’s set a great deal over the course of the weekend and in the days that follow, wondering how it is possible for sound alone to be so obliterating and so magical.
Friday 5 September 2014
Soul-sucking heat permeates Raleigh by midday, leaving me feeling lethargic and surly. I decide that it would be best for me to return to Kings Barcade to catch another Thurston Moore appearance, enjoy the other artists that will be accompanying him this afternoon, and drink plenty of cold beer. This afternoon’s music comprises several artists culled from Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label, and each band provides an enjoyable if somewhat underwhelming experience. Both Sunburned Hand of the Man and MV & EE offer spaced-out, pleasant psychedelia that cools my mind and wets my musical appetite, even if neither is particularly intense nor show stopping. There is very cold, inexpensive beer, relaxed atmosphere, and air-conditioning; I feel myself unwind and get into the festival mood.
By the time late afternoon arrives, and Thurston Moore takes the stage once again, I am more than ready for his signature guitar squealing and rhythmic violence. Moore is joined by his drummer from yesterday, as well as harpist Mary Lattimore. Their set is every bit as vibrant and blistering as his short set of the day before, but intensified by the merciless shredding of the formidable Lattimore. The crowd who has joined me today is distinctly Caucasian and well dressed, all in their late '20s and '30s; hipsters and grad students from Duke and Chapel Hill. I could be in one of the über-chic, exclusive clubs that I loathe in Seattle, or in San Francisco somewhere. Am I still in the South? Why are my Southern stereotypes not being catered to? Have the last vestiges of regional identity withered away in this odious heat?
For reasons that are too complex and unimportant to explain here, I have never gotten around to listening to St. Vincent’s music. The apparently very popular St. Vincent is this evening’s main stage headliner, and I am resolved to braving this foul oven of an evening to witness her set. She collaborated on a record with David Byrne, so she must be pretty cool, right? The several block area in downtown Raleigh that comprises the main stage is thronged with teenagers, families, and people selling various things. I have been to festivals that are far, far more claustrophobically crowded than the one I am traversing now, but the surplus of people still makes me agitated.
The folks at New Belgium Brewing have taken over the beer vending here at the main stage. I stand online at one of the numerous New Belgium booths for what feels like decades, and when I reach the front of the line I discover two unfortunate things:
(1) They are not selling their best, most traditional beer here this evening, their trippel. How is it possible that a brewery calling themselves ‘New Belgium’ is not selling any Belgian style beers?
(2) In order to buy beer I must first obtain a wristband at an unspecified location for unspecified reasons. I am temporarily rendered mute with rage, but upon recovering myself slightly, I hiss like Lord Voldemort, “Just FORGET IT!” and stomp off in a huff. I am certain that everyone at New Belgium is very impressed by my tantrum and feel a profound sense of remorse at having offended me.
I cannot muster much enthusiasm for St. Vincent. The sound on the main stage batters itself against the surrounding buildings like a fly trying to escape a sealed car window. St. Vincent herself looks pretty engaging in terms of her visual style, and I am sure that she is accomplished songwriter if I were to take the time to become familiar with her music, but I am not in the right frame of mind at the moment. I leave her set before she is finished and go in search of one of the many obscure venues that I have yet to visit in order to see some good old fashioned death metal.
After a fair amount of poking around and asking questions of passing locals, I finally locate the Kennedy Theatre tucked behind a sprawling complex of concert halls, ballrooms, and auditoria. There is some type of formal event taking place in this fancy complex; pretty, highly made-up women and girls stand around taking pictures of each other in ball gowns and tanned, stoic looking men stand in clusters wearing tuxedos. For one glorious, demented moment I wonder if this gaggle of formal-clad Southerners are also here to see some death metal. Could this be the true, full-exposed, diseased heart of the South that I have been looking for all weekend? Is The Real South like some depraved combination of a 19th century debutant ball and a Cephalic Carnage show? Was I prepared for something so essentially perverse?
No, indeed. These good, God-fearing people are here for some unrelated purpose. I skulk around the back of the complex and into the excellent Kennedy Theatre.
The Kennedy Theatre is a small, high ceilinged room that was clearly designed for plays, or maybe some chamber music. It is rare indeed to see extreme metal played in a venue like this and I am very pleased and excited. I loiter around the lobby area before the bands get going, chatting with the merch people. I make the acquaintance of the first band who are about to play, friendly local boys by the name of Bedowyn. As it turns out, Bedowyn play a fantastic combination of traditional heavy metal and doom, with a healthy kicker of more contemporary extremity. This is the third very remarkable local metal band that I have seen this weekend, and I am impressed.
Up next are some brawny, no-nonsense young gentlemen from Long Island known as Artificial Brain. After a few days of stony psychedelia, abstraction, and tasteful indie rock, it is satisfying indeed to be pummeled by some filthy, technical death metal. Artificial Brain’s vocalist tries on several occasions to instigate a mosh pit by performing the universal hand signal for "please chase each other around in a circle while boisterously pushing each other and playfully bumping into one another in a display of simulated violence in order to express appreciation for our music" by rotating his hand above his head, with index finger extended, but his attempts are fruitless. Crowds at festivals that feature numerous non-metal forms of music rarely form pits, I have found. We express our appreciation in more sedated, less ecstatic fashion. Although I am enjoying myself at the Kennedy Theater very much, and I would like to stay for the other metal bands on the bill this evening, I have business to attend to down the street at the Lincoln Theater.
Tonight’s main event will be a performance by Sun Kil Moon, aka Mark Kozelek, and a strange spectacle it is likely to be. Mark Kozelek is one of the most talented and compelling American songwriters of his generation, and I have been a devoted fan for many years. He is also deeply eccentric, with a notoriously combative attitude towards live audiences. I saw him in Seattle just a few months ago, and his erratic stage behavior, hostility towards the audience, and strange, passive-aggressive sense of humor made me want to hide under my chair, in spite of how breathtaking his music was. At the Seattle show he was playing to a theatre of adoring fans who knew what to expect. Here, he will be playing to a mixed audience of drunken festival goers who may or may not have any idea who he is, or how they are expected to behave; the prospect fills me with foreboding.
Mark McGuire is getting the crowd warmed up. McGuire can seriously wail on the electric guitar, and I very much enjoy his work with his previous band Emeralds, but his solo work tends to leave me feeling unsatisfied. His set is pretty, technical, and sort of forgettable. I await Sun Kil Moon’s performance with a combination of anticipation, curiosity, and dread.
Sun Kil Moon’s set is not scheduled to start until 12:30 AM, and essentially everyone in the audience is reeling, obnoxiously drunk by this time of the night. When Kozelek and his entourage finally take the stage, trouble starts almost immediately. As the band start to tune their instruments and prepare themselves, the intoxicated masses continue to hoot, converse, and generally cause a ruckus in the manner of drunken crowds at festivals. Kozelek becomes extremely irritated with this, telling the audience several times to, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” Predictably, this only produces jeers and more noise from many of the blitzed-out attendees.
I was afraid of something like this; Kozelek is capable of berating even very polite audiences, so a mass of rip-roaring drunk frat boys are likely to send him right over the edge. At this point Kozelek snaps, calls the audience, “a bunch of fucking hillbillies”, and threatens to walk, right then and there. This produces a flurry of booing from the crowd; these people do not like being called hillbillies. A brief period of chaos ensues and I am wracked with empathetic embarrassment, both for the obnoxious crowd and for Kozelek.
Somehow, Sun Kil Moon manage to pull themselves back from the brink of disaster, playing several gorgeous pieces from their devastating new record Benji. Kozelek engages in some of his typical, slightly less hostile stage banter, complaining about how pretty girls never come to his shows anymore now that he is getting older. An attractive young woman near the front gets off the best line of the entire evening by querying loud enough for the entire theatre to hear, “What am I? Chopped liver?” The entire audience, including Kozelek, has a good hearty laugh at this, and some of the tension from earlier is dissipated.
Kozelek even offers an awkward, halting apology for calling the audience hillbillies, which only increases my sense of empathetic embarrassment. One thing remains consistent throughout the set, however: Sun Kil Moon, and Kozelek in particular, sound absolutely gorgeous. They run through much of Benji, with the sublime "I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same" and the utterly heartbreaking, "I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love" being highpoints. By the time the set concludes, I am truly exhausted. I stagger back to my hotel room and sleep a sleep of total darkness.
Saturday 6 September 2014
Morning finds me drained, dehydrated, and weary deep into my bones. Multi-day festivals will do that to a person, particularly when lugubrious southern heat is involved. My photographer, the talented and vivacious Katie DeMar, will be joining me today on the last day of the festival, and I am heartened by the prospect. It is a shame that I am running so low on energy today, as the festival’s conclusion features numerous metal bands that I am looking forward to seeing.
Things get cooking on the main stage with local boys made good Valiant Thor. To be perfectly frank, I have never found Valiant Thor’s proto-metal, hard rock shtick to be all that appealing, but they put on a lively show, and the crowd seems to enjoy it. The much talked about and valorized Death are up next, and I am curious to see what they come up with. Like everyone else, I only heard about Death recently by watching the documentary about them A Band Called Death. Unfortunately, the muddy sound on the main stage renders their music irreparably bass heavy, and their live sound comes across far less crisp, tight, and impressive than their recordings. Afterwards, I speak to a friend who was standing near the back, and he said that he could hear Death just fine, so maybe I was just standing in the wrong place.
Mastodon are tonight’s main stage headliner. I must admit that I have a bone to pick with Mastodon: records like Leviathan and Blood Mountain were minor classics of contemporary American metal when they were released, but apparently sometime around 2008, Mastodon woke up one morning and said to themselves, “Hey! Why Don’t we try to sound more like the Foo Fighters?!” This dubious decision coincided with their signing to a major label, and it is hard not to see a correlation. In any case, their stylistic shift has not damaged their careers any, and they continue to be very popular amongst the youngsters. I cannot fathom why the world needs even one Foo Fighters, let alone their numerous clones, but I am clearly a minority in this opinion. Katie and I grab a bite to eat while Mastodon play their set, and at the back of the main stage audience the sound is indeed better. Mastodon’s set is professional and clear, and they even play the classic ‘Crystal Skull’ from Blood Mountain. The majority of their new material is, however, of very little interest to me.
Heat, exhaustion, and generalized chaos begin to take their toll on Katie and me. We are thrust into a series of disjointed, depleting events, which I will not attempt to describe here, that leave us both drained and running on fumes by the time we reach the Lincoln Theatre in time to catch one of my favorite bands of the festival: the mighty SubRosa. The absorbing doom/sludge collective out of Salt Lake City holds the packed Lincoln Theatre totally spellbound, as I suspected they would. With harmonizing vocals that move from clear singing to harsh shouting, complemented by the violins of Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack, SubRosa are one of the most formidable contemporary American metal bands. Extenuating circumstances and general exhaustion cause Katie and me to call it a night after SubRosa’s performance. Mercurial, bewitching, and ever-humid, The Hopscotch Music Festival, and Raleigh, North Carolina more generally, are over for us, for better or for worse.
Did I truly confront "the Real South" over the course of the weekend? I cannot help but feel a flicker of recognition when I remember that strange moment from Friday night when Mark Kozelek accused the crowd of being "hillbillies" and they very nearly turned on him. People from the North are inundated with a multiplicity of stereotypes about the South. These stereotypes are basically derogatory and dehumanizing, but at the same time they are often internalized by Southerners themselves. I have seen more than one confederate flag decorated bumper sticker since I have been here that celebrate these very stereotypes. The truth that I confronted in Raleigh during the first weekend in September was shocking in its banality: American regional identity has largely been swallowed up and commodified by postmodern American popular culture, and what we are left with are mainly empty signifiers, coated in a film of sweat and humidity.