I'm pretty sure this was the best day of Hopscotch in the history of the festival. I don't have any scientific measurements to back up this claim, but never before has the line-up been so stacked with so many bands I love.
I kicked off my day in City Plaza seeing the Make-Up, the band I was most excited for out of the entire festival. I got there a few minutes before they started and got a spot right in front, which turned out to be a pretty pivotal in the performance. I last saw them at the Cat's Cradle back in the mid-nineties, and even back then Ian Svenonius was plenty crazy, but nothing would prepare you for how unhinged he was during this set. A typical gig for him involves a ton of deranged ranting, screaming, and prowling the stage like a caged tiger, but on this night he spent almost their entire set either in front of the stage, standing on the barrier between the stage and crowd, or fully in the crowd. It was truly a performance for the ages - the man earned his money today. Given where I was located, not only was I in prime location for good photos, I also ended up being frequently used as a point of balance for Ian - be it my hand holding him up or my back/shoulder being used as a footstool. It certainly made for an immersive experience! Also, it's worth noting that while Ian gets nearly all the attention, the band deserves some kudos - somebody has to hold down the fort while he gets wacky. They played a bunch of songs I love (I specifically remember "they Live By Night" and "I Am Pentagon," but I forgot to actually take notes), and I wasn't alone in my enjoyment - the crowd was all smiles (mixed with bewilderment) as far as the eye can see.
It was then time to wander down the hill to Red Hat Amphitheater for Run The Jewels. Much to my surprise, not only was I able to get my camera into the venue without a press pass, but I was even able to weasel my way into the photo pit to get a few decent shots. As is often the case with live hip hop, the bass was overly oppressive, but that is always my complaint and it's never going to change so no reason to dwell on it. They tore their most recent record "RTJ3" apart, playing pretty much the whole thing plus mixing in some older songs as well. I had a few friends comment that their set was a little too packaged, a little too structured, and the banter between Killer Mike and El-P a little too scripted...and all of that is probably true. Thing is, I'll take a well rehearsed and dialed-in hip hop show over a free flowing one any day...I've seen way too many clusterfuck rap gigs where the performers seem too high or too indifferent or too unrehearsed, and it's not fun. Obviously this is all a matter of personal taste, but a punk show can go off the rails and still be fun, but I've never seen a good hip hop show that wasn't at least moderately well structured. Anyways, their songs fucking rule and I don't really care how they're delivered, as long as I get to see them performed. I would go watch this same identical performance right now if I could.
I walked back up to City Plaza just after Future Islands got started, and was able to sneak into the photo pit again! I guess if you hold up your (somewhat fancy) camera and look like you belong, no one questions it. When I was saying earlier that this was the best night of Hopscotch ever, I came to that conclusion after realizing that if I ranked all the bands I saw tonight, Future Islands would end up in the last spot...and they were still fucking great as always. If this is the worst act you see in a given day, you've had a really damn good day. I suspect my feelings stem mostly from the facts that (a) I've seen them so many times the novelty of frontman Sam Herring stalking around has worn off and (b) I've seen them so often in small venues, seeing them in a location as big as City Plaza doesn't quite hold your attention in the same way. The turnout was great though, maybe the second most people I've seen in City Plaza after Sylvan Esso. And their songs are so damn good no matter where they are playing!
It had been ages since I had last seen Har Mar Superstar, so I moseyed over to the Basement to renew my relationship with Sean Tillman and company. He was wearing a Ralph Furley-like leisure suit, the band was all in matching satin jackets and white pants, and when you have matching outfits that can only lead to one thing - synchronized dancing! As is the Har Mar way, they performed soulful songs and sexual sashaying to sooth the savage spirit, if you'll allow me a little alliterative license. At one point while taking photos of this balding, overweight, half-naked man dry humping a monitor, it occurred to me that this must be what Kramer felt like in that one episode of Seinfeld where George had him take boudoir photos. It was honestly about as good of a time as you can have at a show, more party than performance - my initial intention of only catching a couple of songs and moving on went right out the window pretty soon after they started playing, a very smart decision on my part.
The Lincoln Theatre was my final stop of the night, and Preoccupations was the first act I would see there. Of all the bands I was most excited to see at this year's Hopscotch, Preoccupations was the only one I hadn't seen before. This quartet of Canadians (It feels like at least half the bands I saw this weekend are from either Canada or Atlanta) used to be called Viet Cong, but after some backlash to their name they changed it. I've listened to their self-titled record a lot, and it was nice to finally hear some of that material live. I often got a "Wolf Parade goes slightly Krautrock" vibe from that album, but live it was as if they were channeling the ghost of ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - much heavier, much noisier, almost trance-inducing at times. The drummer was stripped down to nothing but short shorts (and looked naked because the snare was hiding those), I'm pretty sure one of the guitarists was drooling by the end of their set, and the bassist actually pulled the rare move of breaking a string he was playing so hard. I'm not sure everyone in the crowd was feeling them, but I definitely was.
The night's finale was the one and only Afghan Whigs. Despite most of their set being made up of their last two records ("Do To The Beast" and "In Spades") that I don't know that well, it was still the best performance of Hopscotch. I don't care if he's gotten a little older and I don't care if he's gotten a little bigger, the magnetic personality of Greg Dulli will suck you in every time...if the man wasn't a musician, he could easily be the leader of a cult. Outside of those new and close-to-new songs, I was somewhat surprised that they played the Twilight Singer's track "Teenage Wristband," but was very happy to hear it...I guess Greg does most of the song writing anyways, so why not? The big payoff though was at the end of the set, when the band busted out "John the Baptist," "Somethin' Hot," and "Summer's Kiss" back-to-back-to-back, and the crowd obviously went nuts. I went nuts, singing along at the top of my lungs like everyone else. It had been a long day, but suddenly I wasn't tired anymore - the Afghan Whigs had breathed new life into me. Now where is that sign up sheet for that new cult I heard Greg Dulli is forming?