By Mack White, James Crooks, and Michael Papich
Marnie Stern put on a thoroughly refreshing performance at Hopscotch. She brings a fun energy to each little movement that so much live music is lacking, from the quick little steps she takes as she builds into a riff to delivering more emotion in her singing when the microphone would routinely not work. There was also the bizarre stage banter, where she and her amazing bassist Nithin Kalvakota would exchange quick barbs and she would abruptly cut off the punchline with the squealing guitar of the next song, creating absurdist comedy episodes.
But by far the most incredible thing about Marnie Stern’s performance was seeing first-hand just how original her approach to song writing is. Each song has several sudden tonal shifts, and live, these turns were even sharper. That’s paired with her chipper vocals, quick guitar, relentless drums, and evocative but vague lyrics. Seeing such unreplicable music was a good sign that music will continue to evolve and grow into amazing new forms.
Kurt Vile and the Violators
On albums, Kurt Vile does not necessarily sound like a charismatic live performer. Or, at least, it does not sound like a traditional rock show with pumping fists and banging heads. But boy did Kurt and his band bring it home on Thursday night. All of the backing Violators band played furiously, especially his drummer, Vince Nudo.
This relatively intense and musicianship-driven performance ended up pairing perfectly with the haziness of Kurt’s most recent music. The gloss of his reverbed vocals, combined with the gun-ho band, created a perfect wall of music and echoing lyrics. It was like a dream.
A-Trak is promoted as one of the few real DJs left and his set on Friday proved this quite well. From start to finish, A-Trak entranced the crowd with incredibly danceable beats, with the occasional flourish of a recognizable sample that reignited passions in the audience. The crowning achievement was a roughly-10 minute sample of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” with the song’s robotic chorus repeated over and over as A-Trak played and created increasingly complex and changing beats and melodies.
Beyond the obvious appeal of an energetic dance session, A-Trak truly made his set memorable with his clear prowess at physical DJing. His hands would fly and dip with nimble dexterity from record to console, creating a show both visually and musically. He also had a penchant for adding glitch characteristics to his set, making the beats unpredictable and fun to move to. Also, going against the stereotypes of DJs, A-Trak was very cordial toward the crowd, interacting with them on a regular basis and even giving the local audience a nice nod with the repeated sample of a wolf howl.
No credit should be taken away from Mykki Blanco’s skill as a rapper, but her Friday show could not honestly be described as a “rap show.” It was full-blown performance art. Of course, there was her DJ, Larry B, who brought creepy, vaguely-trap flavored beats throughout the show and both she and her opener, Psycho Egyptian, rapped with unbelievable ferocity and skill. But Mykki also gave acapella performances of bombastic poems, ran through the audience and around the enormous Contemporary Art Museum the event was held in, at one point climbed up into the rafters and hung from her legs, and used the microphone stand to stymy her arms, turning her into a lumbering, crucified demon.
None of this was a distraction from any lack of rapping ability, however. Every true song Mykki did was hungry, heavy, and had the audience going wild, especially with her closer “Wavvy.” Even after her show was technically over, Mykki had Larry B keep the music going and had the audience dance on stage. Mykki went to high school locally at Enloe High School, and at Friday’s show, she came back to remind us that she could conquer us just as easily as she did New York’s underground.
Suuns’ show suffered from being in one of Hopscotch’s smallest venues and starting over half an hour late, but when they played, it was captivating. The size of the environment may have helped as the dark waves of the band washed over the audience completely. Every heavy, fast note possessed everyone on and off stage, leaving few heads still. The band’s bassist, Joe Yarmush, couldn’t escape the rush of passion, at one point playing so vigorously he crashed down into the drum set.
The darkness of Suuns’ performance cannot be overstated. The droning guitars made it feel like the lights were slowly losing power and the walls were melting together. Listening to Suuns’ studio music, one can easily predict what singer Ben Shemie’s face looks like when articulating Suuns’ slurred vocals. His face was turned into a sarcastic grimace, each word slithering out. Through and through, Suuns did not mess around when it came to delivering a journey into the dark recesses of space.
Three months after the Pixies announced that Kim Deal is no longer associating herself with them, it’s comforting to see that she still has enough musical talent to keep her fans satisfied. Backed up by her sister and three friends, the Breeders took the stage at Hopscotch to play their 1993 masterpiece Last Splash in its entirety. The band did an excellent job of making the audience feel like part of the show, asking people in the crowd questions after each song and lecturing on how each song got its title.
Among the many highlights, one shining moment was Kim Deal tearing off the bottom off a plastic cup and putting it on her microphone to create the same vocalization of Last Splash’s biggest hit, “Cannonball”. Kelley Deal also put on a powerful performance, slaying with her guitar and taking lead vocals on “I Just Wanna Get Along”. To everyone’s surprise, all the equipment that the band used on stage were the exact same ones that they used in studio in 1993 to make the album. It was like taking a step back in time, hearing the Breeders play the album in order and with just as much enthusiasm as back in the day.
Right when they finished with the album’s closer, “Roi (Reprise)”, Kim said they wanted to play a few more songs. With the audience on their feet cheering, the band slammed into a medley of songs from their 1990 album, Pod. It felt like seeing a second show from the band, considering the change in musical direction they took with Last Splash. Kelley Deal taking lead vocals on the Beatles classic “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was a spectacle of the show, letting the crowd sing along to the background “Bang, bang! Shoot, shoot!”. Not many bands that have been around for over twenty years still put on a commanding performance, but the Breeders have without a doubt been privileged in that department.
Collaborating with Brian Eno, singing with Nico, and being a founding member of one of the most influential bands of all-time, the Velvet Underground, is a resumé that only John Cale has. At 71 years old, I expected Cale to walk onstage and have a shot voice that faded with time. Fortunately I was wrong and Cale gave us the best performance of the whole festival.
For a man who is as skilled at production as he is performing, I was surprised to see how under-produced the show was. Backed by a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, Cale took lead on the keyboard while occasionally busting out his guitar. Seeing Cale was a primal experience, because if you listened to his 2012 release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, you may have been turned off by his autotune and Vocoder-influenced sound. He took a right turn for the songs from that album and performed them without effects, including the booming chorus of “I Wanna Talk 2 U”.
It didn’t really hit me until after the show, but recognizing all the bands over the years like the Pixies and R.E.M. who cite the Velvet Underground as a primary influence, it’s possible that Cale is among the highest tier of musicians who create a novel sound that over time means something bigger than they imagined. Hearing classics like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” and “Ship of Fools” was without a doubt a primal experience. I waited after the show to see if I could meet Cale, but the only people I ran into was his band. They were a group of young, nice guys who said Cale is a great guy and has his mind set on continuing the tour and entertaining his fans. After almost fifty years in the industry, that’s all a fan could ask for.
Made up of members of local bands Hammer No More the Fingers and Lost in the Trees, the boyfriend-girlfriend duo of Prypyat was a very pleasant surprise at Hopscotch. The two started off with what seemed like a recipe for seemed like sleepy indie-folk – a cello, a guitar, and a kick drum – but after the first few songs they both started churning out big numbers, with the cello’s sounds altered to sound electric and distorted.
A signature aspect of Prypyat’s performance was the overall dorkiness of their between-song banter, with the two talking about their history as a couple (they first met at Hopscotch 2010, interestingly) and the stories behind songs. The lyrics and vocals themselves had a yearning whine, whether it was talking about local N.C. streets or the dreaded Ghostwoods of Twin Peaks, WA. Hopefully Prypyat stays active in the local music scene to give more people exposure to their take on the North Carolina sound.
Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the last 20 minutes or so of Horse Lords’ set, but these four musicians put on an incredible performance. Guitar and bass played off each other in incredible textured strumming while the two were accompanied by two drummers. This created an amazing beat, especially as one of the drummers primarily used nimbler percussion instruments.
Horse Lords’ finale was amazing, as the “nimbler” drummer moved to saxophone and the four traded off quick little solos, getting faster and faster as they went. It was all reminiscent of a Battles show, with every member of the band clearly having impressive chops and each enjoying jamming in tandem with one another.
Holly Hendron’s performance codified modern art quite well. On the wall next to her, a projector played a constantly shifting program of 3D renders of Japanese products and stills of Japanese living spaces. In her music, she filled the room with samples of her own gentle singing which she chopped and screwed several different ways, adding abrasive bass and roaring sounds. As this chaotic and somewhat unpleasant sound grew, she dispersed the noise immediately, going into strange and pumped up beats that had the awed crowd moving in an instant.
All of Hendron’s set was then defined by this challenging dance music, combining the staccato, raindrop-like beats with whooshes, bizarre samples, and her own siren cooing. As the show went on, the video got more chaotic in response, with boxes of Japanese flour and Amazon.jp.co packages flying and stopping, the screen flicking in tangent with Hendron’s music. This odd brilliance made it an incredible original and fulfilling set and despite its complexity, no one was still when her music hit its high marks.
Despite being in one of the largest venues at Hopscotch, Low managed to put on one of the most intimate shows of the entire weekend. The three, using just their guitar, bass, and standing drum set, created an autumny atmosphere, every line Alan Sparhawk delivered carrying a heavy amount of melancholy emotion.
While Low, with their big carpet set-up and their sparse instrumentation, could easily have passed for a light band, Sparhawk took plenty of opportunities to grind his guitar and get wrapped up in the passion of playing. But the skill and texture that was brought to the bass and drums also seasoned the room well, making Low’s slow music rich and nearly tear-jerking.
Saturday evening at the Lincoln Theater opened with N.C.-native stoner metal group Solar Halos. This female-fronted three piece opened with their galloping track “The Vast White Plains,” and this was only the beginning to what would become a heavy set list. The following track, “Frost,” was bass driven and would establish their sound as a band.
Between the sludgy chords and droning vocals, Solar Halos capture the sound that any fan of stoner sludge is looking for. Slow, distorted, and heavy easily describe the sound of this new band, and it fits them well. After seeing and hearing this recently created band, I can easily say that they have gained a new fan and have a great chance at quickly moving up in the metal ranks within the next few years.
The penultimate band of the evening was N.J.-based funeral doom band Evoken. This set list was low and slow, with the bass guitar having a heavy, driving tone. An interesting addition to the Evoken performance was the presence of Japanese noise veteran Merzbow. Hooking up what looked like a wash pan covered with two metal coils, Merzbow added a distorted feedback to one of the songs of this set list. Between the shrill sounds of Merzbow and the pummeling bass, the sound produced by Evoken was easily one of the most interesting at Hopscotch Festival.
Each song appropriately captured the funeral doom sound, with slow processions and minor keys to add to the saddened sound. After the high feedback, low bass, and slow rhythm, Evoken put on an amazing performance that was one of the best metal performances of the festival.
The final band of the evening, and of the Lincoln Theater portion of Hopscotch, was stoner pioneers Sleep. This show marked an important date in metal music, as this show was Sleep’s first in N.C. in almost 20 years, and one of only a handful of shows they have performed since their split in 1998. Playing classics off of their landmark album, Holy Mountain, every track was met with huge cheers from the crowd.
After playing most of the aforementioned album, the true praise was heard when Sleep played their signature song, “Dragonaut.” Although each song was met with cheers, it was not until the opening riff of this track was slowly played that the entire venue exploded with cheers and fists in the air. Following “Dragonaut,” Sleep continued to play through their set list before reaching the final, epic ending that was Dopesmoker. This 63-minute song was another piece that cemented Sleep in the history books of stoner, sludge, doom, and metal as a whole. Playing an excerpt from this 1996 epic, Sleep stretched their performance time to nearly 2 hours, every minute of which was amazing.
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