Rain so often looms over festivals, threatening to derail a whole day’s proceedings. Look no further than to this year’s Lollapalooza to see the disastrous effects that such weather concerns can bring to seemingly idyllic festival conditions. It seemed for a while that all would be thrown to chaos and The Roots–perhaps the biggest draw of the festival and, certainly, the biggest draw of the night–would be sent slinking back to their tour bus. Such concerns were misguided, though the rain came and sent Escort packing (and knocked our photography coverage out of commission), there was still good music to be had, both in the downpour on the Main Stage and throughout the clubs that Hopscotch called home this weekend.
The journey, to say the least, had been an arduous one. The Roots had been scheduled to perform hours earlier – retreating at the order of the festival organizers, who, to be fair, hadn’t had much of a choice. Inclimate weather had been threatening throughout the day, and just as Escort were set to take the stage, it began to rain. They cut a sad image, dressed to play, standing with their instruments for moments as they awaited their distinction as they only band cancelled by the festival for the weekend. I ran into a member later as she sought refuge in her car, clearly distraught as she explained the band had been genuinely excited to play their new songs for their fans.
Instead, the rain came. A proud few, myself foolishly included, refused to leave the stage, holding on to our front row spots even as the rain began to pour. The lights above us began to blow and shake in, what the security called, “70 mile per hour winds”. Still not a clue if that was true, but it began to feel like a scene out of Final Destination, and we were ordered back. As the rain reached monsoon levels, we lost courage, and ran for cover.
I felt pretty defeated, yet, after a bit of hiding in my car, it was announced The Roots would return to the stage later in the evening. I waited it out, and returned to an already formed audience – so much for that front row spot, but the show was on.
As The Roots finally began to take the stage, I was cast off to the right side, which turned out to be a refuge for artists enjoying the show. I recognized a few faces, and, not wanting to stare, edged off into the crowd a bit. As Questlove and other members were preparing, Black Thought not yet seen, none other than 9th Wonder took the stage, only to say, “Ladies and gentleman, it is my genuine pleasure to introduce to you the Dynasty, the wizards, the Legendary Roots crew.”
Black Thought emerged, and the audience exploded. Each move of the show was exactly what you would want and expect from The Roots: lightning-fast delivery from Thought, heavy jamming, and a sense of working with the audience to build a better show. As the show went into overtime – and seemingly neared closure – the band continued returning to the stage, with 9th Wonder reemerging to egg on Thought, who rapped at the fastest pace I’d ever personally witnessed from him.Renditions of “Here I Come”, “The Seed” and even Guns n Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” made for a memorable final headliner for Hopscotch 2012.
I planned, like just about everyone at the festival, to catch a bit of Escort and The Roots before heading off into the night, but when the rain came, set delays caused me to have to miss those headlining sets. No harm done. When I made my way to the idyllic, secluded, and well, mostly empty Long View Center, Rachel and Grant Evans of Quiet Evenings were in the midst of a soundcheck. The waves of looped synth sound were enough to already set the mood for a special set to come, and what followed wasn’t disappointing. Though I’d yet to hear any Quiet Evenings studio recordings, the duos live performance functioned as a sort of destabilized version of Rachel’s Motion Sickness of Time Travel recordings. Rather than phrases reappearing, constantly drilling themselves into your head in the pop leaning inclinations of MSOTT (relatively speaking of course), Evans and her husband focused here on decay. Phrases faded in an out of the mix, recurring, but only as barely recognizable traces of past iterations. Each repetition was an ethereal deja vu, a barely there past recollection of some wispy past, whether 30 seconds before or the phantom backbone of some intangible sonic consciousness. Things would occur on stage and it would take minutes for their full impact to be felt, Rachel instigated a vocal loop in the closing minutes, only to take on a noticeable volume nearly a full cycle of the waves later. Such mixing and backwards looking and subtly changing structures most clearly emanate from improvisational approaches to live performance, but whatever the origin it was moving. Give the credit to the church-like space or the musicians themselves, but the set that Quiet Evenings put on was near spiritual.
Where most of what I caught on the final day of Hopscotch focused on listless synth drones and gut-rattling displays of sonic experimentation, Nerves Junio. sported a relatively straightforward arrangement. Though still heavily reliant on electronic instrumentation (a Macbook pro takes center stage), this is a band with a pure pop focus, however twisted and dark their interpretation of the genre may be. Sporting a newly revamped lineup and a set composed of almost entirely new tracks, their take on post-Radiohead beats based electro-pop functioned an engaging counterpoint to the ambient acts that ran the day. Though many of these tunes are yet to see the light of day, they had a familiar feel outside of the general genre trappings of a twitchy, reedy voiced frontman fronting dark alt-rock soundscapes. Nerves Junior may be a whole new monster now than on previously released efforts, but if their new material is any indication, they may be headed for even greener pastures.
Oren Ambarchi functioned the day’s quotient of bowel-rattling psychedelic drone song structures. Though identifying specific tracks or releases from which Ambarchi was drawing was a lost cause due to the largely homogenous nature of his sinister experimentations, the set was impressive if for nothing else than for the sheer physical power of it all. As just one man with a guitar, behind a table full of pedals, Ambarchi was able to conjure the full force of the spirits of the Memorial Auditorium, rattling the walls of the impressive spacing and toying with the resonant frequencies of the building itself. Louder than perhaps any of the sets to follow–yes even Sunn O)))–Ambarchi’s compositions had a physical heft that were something to behold. Harsh, shifting, and at times intensely beautiful, it was a set that while not much to look at presented a musical palette cleanser between the pop music I caught before and Sunn O))). No dreams of Radiohead lingered any longer, for Ambarchi had inverted my headspace and wiped it clean of any other preconceived notions. Though I dozed a bit in the set that followed, Ambarchi’s presence was unavoidable and undeniable in the scope of the entire night.
Kurt Wagner’s collective is somewhat of a legendary group in the Triangle. Ever since Lambchop tore up Merge’s 20th Anniversary festival at Cat’s Cradle, every time Kurt Wagner plays in the area, the crowds come, no matter what group of musicians he brings along with him. Last Hopscotch, he brought Kort to King’s Barcade. In April, he and a new band quietly toured this year’s Mr. M through Durham’s Motorco Music Hall. But on this September night, Wagner and a five piece band played an absolutely gorgeous set in a venue seemingly made for them, the Fletcher Opera Theatre. The band played a set that spanned their new millennial output, leaning heavily towards Mr. M, but calling upon tracks from Damaged, Ohio, Aw C’Mon, and of course Nixon. The crowd in the theatre was mesmerized by the beauty of the songs, but particularly on Nixon standouts “Nashville Parent” and “The Book I Haven’t Read”. Wagner and pianist Tony Crow repeatedly thanked the audience and Hopscotch, hoping that he will become a true mainstay of the festival.
We, as human beings in the 21st century, seldom stop and take time to appreciate the ancientness of the earth. We don’t often consider what primitive organisms might have walked where we walk today. We take for granted those who came before us and the monuments they built. We don’t take a moment to envision our frontiers the way they were before being conquered. For a band like Sunn O))), the legendary drone metal outfit caught between Seattle and Paris both geographically and sonically, these are the images at the forefront of their minds.
In both studio output and live performance, the group celebrates the once-primordial human race’s now-limitless capacity to understand and create art while simultaneously celebrating the forever-limitless possibilities of sound. You can see, then, how Sunn O))) was the ideal capstone to the weekend’s nonstop showcase of music and art. The anxious crowd filtered into the Memorial Auditorium, either firmly committing to seats or bracing themselves on foot, ready to confront the wash of foundation-shaking noise that threatened to pour out of the stacks of amplifiers and engulf them whole. As we waited for the band to start, fog poured onto the stage, billowing to the top of the sky-high auditorium ceilings and preparing to leave Sunn O))) under a protective cloud. And that natural essence, however artificial, was exactly the kind of mental association the audience needed in order to prepare for this altogether pagan, indigenous experience.
From the first note, the walls—and our entire bodies—rattled to their core. If you have heard the mythology surrounding Sunn O))), you know their performances are known for being continuous—the tidal wave of droney sound will certainly shift directions, and it will and increase and decrease in size as it comes toward you, but it never relents or stops. No, this is the threat of something on the horizon getting closer and closer. Sunn O)))’s set ends when it crashes down upon you and dissipates into formless silence, which is to say, in the case of Hopscotch, about an hour and a half after starting.
It didn’t take long for Sunn O))) to demonstrate their status as master noise benders, locking into a steady pulse which elicited the night’s only fist-pumping from the audience. About 30 minutes into the performance, Attila Csihar, the vocalist, slowly walked out of the fog, deliberately matching bandmates Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson’s underwater-like movements and performance gestures. Slowly, he began to release a guttural, primal moan that matched the drone of the guitar and reverb in depth, volume, and duration. Attilla’s voice hearkens back to a pastoral time when humans relied upon their bodies to provide melody, percussion, and noise to respond to their environment. His capabilities run the gamut, spanning from low, deep growls that match the rumbling of tectonic plates, to high-pitched, feminine shrieking evocative of avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galás. He unleashed a bloodcurdling shriek toward the end of the performance when the reverb had been reduced to a low hum, catching the audience at its most vulnerable, making for the most intense, terrifying moment of the set. Suddenly, minutes later, the noise ceased. The wave of sound had finally crashed over our heads, and for a moment, there was formless silence. It was quickly replaced by the raucous applause of a standing ovation, which was met with polite, silent gratitude from the band. And just like that, it was over. Experiencing Sunn O))) is cerebral as much as it is an intensely physical, and given the wide variety of music at Hopscotch that can claim the same, there really was no better way to end the festival.