Hopscotch Music Festival – Day 1
Featuring Snail Mail, Kurt Vile, Sleater-Kinney, Lonnie Walker, and David Nance Group
Hurricane, schmurricane – I was going to some rock shows. This wretched storm named Dorian might have worked the Bahamas over something fierce, and the North Carolina coast saw an unusual number of tornadoes, here in the Triangle we’ve had worse thunderstorms this summer. Still, Hopscotch made the wise decision to move their Thursday night City Plaza concert to the Costco-adjacent tin box known as the Ritz a few miles from downtown. Not ideal obviously, and I had managed to avoid this place for the better part of the last two decades,but probably the best choice on such short notice and better than canceling the gigs altogether.
I got to the club just before Snail Mail took the stage. I’m not super keyed into what is “in” or “hot” these days, but I would have guessed, based on their recent buzz/popularity, that Snail Mail were “bigger” than a 6:30 time slot. But hey – playing armchair festival organizer is certainly much easier than actually doing it in real life, so there must have been a reason. These kids are doing the nineties indie rock thing that so many of their generation seem to be “discovering” now. For my generation, it will always be funny to see folks “discover” the music that you grew up on and still dominates your listening. I’m not mad about though – every generation has to take their own stab at “reinventing the wheel,” and I’ll take a new version of nineties slacker rock over most other things. I already thought Snail Mail had a heavy Teenbeat vibe (god I bring that label up too often in comparisons these days, it’s almost like I’m bad at this writing thing) – and then I read they were actually from Baltimore and the god known as Mary Timony gave singer/guitarist Lindsay Jordan guitar lessons…I guess some comparisons are just meant to be. It’s icing on the cake that their debut record last year was released on Matador, probably the biggest indie rock label of the mid-to-late nineties. The performance was short but fine, exactly what you want from an act you don’t know that well, and what you expect from one playing so early. The volume could have been louder, but that’s on the house and not the band. In fitting in with the weather outside, the bassist played the entire set in a raincoat…I have no idea if this was being done for laughs or not.
Next up was Kurt Vile, who I hadn’t seen in a little while (2011 apparently, opening for J Mascis at the Cat's Cradle). Vile is one of those guys I love when I hear, but outside of the album “Constant Hitmaker” and a few other random tracks, I rarely seek him out. I once described his sound as a cut-rate Neil Young, and that was meant as a compliment. He was all business on stage for the duration of his set, and by business I mean a shitload of guitar solos. It didn't matter if he was playing electric, acoustic, 12-string, or even a banjo – he was shredding that shit. I can't blame him, cause he's damn good at it and I'd be doing the same thing if I had his talent. I was happy to hear “Bassackwards,” and then they ended their night with “Pretty Pimpin'” and “Wild Imagination,” a perfect final tandem. Note to self: spend more time with Vile's records you dummy, you like it every time you hear it.
I vividly remember the only other time I've seen Sleater-Kinney live: it was a free benefit for the 20th anniversary of Food Not Bombs in Dolores Park, San Francisco. They opening for Fugazi, a top five all-time favorite band, and there was probably a million people there (or at least a few thousand). I had literally just moved to town just a few days before from Raleigh, and what a welcome to my new home. This current version of Sleater-Kinney is very, very different – and while I might prefer the early punk era of the group, it's hard to begrudge them sounding different nearly two decades later. Drummer Janet Weiss recently quit the trio, but the remaining duo of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker had three additional touring members to round out their sound. Does that mean they now had a bassist? No it doesn't, and at this point the exclusion just seems mean and deliberate (bassists have feelings too!). The new material is very slick, very pop...not bad, but almost shocking to hear coming from this band. On the plus side, they're damn fine musicians that know what the hell they're doing, so at a minimum you at least got a good performance. It was fine, but given the choice I'd definitely rather listen to “Dig Me Out” or “All Hands On The Bad One” over this new direction.
The Ritz show was honestly plenty enough rock for me in my old age, and the shitty weather outside didn’t lend itself to the typical club hopping for which Hopscotch is known. Despite those feelings, I still drove the couple of miles back into town to the Pour House and caught the last few songs of Lonnie Walker. I would have wagered a large sum of money that this band was poised to be one of the next local acts to make some noise on the national stage, but that was nearly a decade ago and the only thing that has really changed with Lonnie Walker is the line-up. I think singer Brian Corum is the only remaining original member...but to most folks his voice and delivery are the essence of the band, making him the only truly necessary piece. Two things remain constant for this group: (1) they draw a great local crowd, and that primarily happens because (2) they’re always fantastic live. I’ve never known how to describe them or what to compare them to – let’s just call it jittery pop. They are what you get when the music of Two Gallants and Modest Mouse are combined, but the alchemist combining them drank too much coffee and things went off the rails. I wish I'd caught more of the set, but I'll most likely get more opportunities in the near future.
I knew going in that the following act, the David Nance Group, was going to be my last of the evening – and it turned out to a be (mostly) a good one. They fittingly kicked off the set with a cover of the Fred Neil song “A Little Bit Of Rain” - I'd never heard of Neil (turns out he is best known for writing the Harry Nilsson hit “Everybody's Talkin'”), but the song was fantastic and Neil is definitely now added to my list of artists to check out. The band's energy and fervor would build from this country-esque slow burner until the end of the set which was a bit of a cacophonous mess, but for at least the first three-quarters of the performance it was a beautiful slice of dark, bluesy Americana. Like the Kurt Vile performance I saw earlier, you could definitely compare this Nebraskan quartet to Neil Young – which probably makes it even more fitting that Vile was in attendance and seemed to be friends with Nance. As noted before, things got a little loose and messy towards the end, but I'd still highly recommend this band and will definitely be seeing them again in the future hopefully.