There are but a few certainties when it comes to the Hopscotch Music Festival: Attendees will experience music they’ve never experienced before, their tastes and perceptions will be challenged by much of this music, and they’ll love every shin-shattering city street step they take while doing it. Part of the beauty of Hopscotch is that one can experience all that a thriving major city has to offer while filling the mind with unimaginable varieties of music.
The Hopscotch motto could be “Trust Us.” Though many react with utter confusion when the lineup is released each year, the curators have rarely steered fans wrong by asking them to take a leap of faith on obscure, niche, and just plain strange artists while catching a few mainstream and big-buzz acts during the plunge. This concrete garden of curiosities is not only well-tended, its 170 bands are also ringed by headliners like The Roots and Built to Spill.
Here’s the ten most memorable shows from three full days spent in the festival’s sonic splendor.
Hiss Golden Messenger (Friday, Fletcher Opera Theater) – The pristine acoustics of Fletcher allowed band brain-trust and folk scholar M.C. Taylor to take the stage and fill the space with only his voice and an acoustic guitar. The un-miked intro was augmented by the rest of the band signing responses from the wings of the stage, creating a spine-tingling moment of concert intimacy. Once seated and amplified, Taylor and his cohorts slid through a selection of spirited tunes, informed by folk, blues, roots, and soul, that sounded like perfect back porch music.
Hubble (Saturday, Fletcher Opera Theater) – Fletcher hosted bands ranging in number from one to 40 over the weekend, but only one made the internet part of the performance. Hubble is a solo guitar project of Ben Greenberg’s, and he’s made the most of being the boss, exploring every whim he chooses in the live realm. For Hopscotch, he offered “Hubble Lag,” which consisted of his extended, repetitive guitar pieces emanating in two phases: one real-time mix and one “delayed” by a video chat and projector setup. The audience saw and heard the real Greenberg on stage, and above him another slightly out of sync internet Greenberg.
Left Outlet (Friday, Deep South The Bar) – This ballistic missile of a show found the hometown band shoving a heap of glam-stoner-garage-rock into a terribly short time slot. The frenetic pace actually may have benefited the show; Left Outlet’s music thrives on sweat and speed. Churning riffs met head-on with spastic vocals while nifty prog-rock twists and solos poked through the glittery murk, keeping the crowd hopping. The juxtaposition of flashy frontmen (singer/guitarist Tim Lemuel and lead guitarist Drew Smith) and immovable rhythms (bassist Mark Connor and drummer Clay Bravo) makes them unique; their spandex-meets-sinsemilla sound makes them awesome.
Matthew E. White (Thursday, Fletcher Opera Theater) – One of the most anticipated shows of the festival, this engrossing set more than delivered on its promise of musical spectacle. Flanked by a battalion of strings and singers, White unfurled his shambling soul songs and explicitly revealed their tattered glory in the sonically perfect theater. When the nouveau-vintage “Big Love” exploded into its climactic crescendo of theatrical backing vocals and swirling R&B, the crowd could no longer contain their glee. Many made their way into the previously unoccupied pit area and got down the best they could.
Oren Ambarchi (Saturday, Memorial Auditorium) – There was no shortage of ear-splitting rock and booming hip-hop at Hopscotch, but what of the deeper vibrations? That’s what Oren Ambarchi was there to provide. Or at least that’s what he did during that particular moment on stage – one can only imagine the endlessly beautiful sonic messes he gets himself into at other times. The Hopscotch show was one extended tone-mangling session, featuring Ambarchi using two full tables of gadgetry to wrangle increasingly ornery sounds out of his guitar. The ghosts of the old Auditorium certainly must have stirred as Ambarchi literally made the audience throb in their seats, splattering psychedelic digital debris all the while.
The Roots (Saturday, City Plaza) – Even when they’re running on fumes, The Roots generate more horsepower than most bands. Their thunderstorm-delayed set was short in length but long on their typical stage mastery. Less than 24 hours after manning the helm at a lengthy benefit show in Port Chester, NY, they tied down at Hopscotch and dropped off 80 minutes of prime entertainment. Always ready to give the crowd something special, they offered their usual litany of show-stopping tunes, even drifting into an instrumental take on “Here Comes the Rain Again” when the drizzle kicked back up.
Sunn 0))) (Saturday, Memorial Auditorium) – This ritualistically hyped show contained perhaps the least musical merit of any performance all weekend, yet it drew one of the most devoted crowds and a legion of the curious. Why? Spectacle and oddity. In what basically boiled down to an hour of fog and power chords – and not many different chords, at that – the robed trio offered a sawmill of grinding noise and nonexistent melodies. It was mesmerizing in its own way, but ultimately a novelty.
Toon and The Real Laww (Thursday, The Pour House) – The first hip-hop show of Hopscotch 2012 fell into the capable hands of this Durham duo, who offered pure entertainment along with their riveting rhymes. Toon improvised verses from a sheet of paper on which audience members had scrawled random words; the pair donned masks for one particularly threatening number; singer Kelly Reiter joined in for the anthem “Lighters in the Air”; and a guy who looked like he should be as far from the stage as possible turned out to be “Little Prometheus,” who sat in on a jubilant tune he co-wrote called “Stop My Shine.” These guys are hip-hop at its most charismatic and dynamic.
White Hills (Friday, Slim’s) – Late Friday night always seems to be when the first signs of fatigue creep in; fortunately, the crowd at Slim’s had the caterwauling space-rock roar of White Hills to keep their mind and aching feet occupied. The guitar solos, already big enough to fill a canyon, became physically tangible in the tiny club as wave after wave of fuzz and distortion rolled from the stage. Edgy, heavy, psychedelic, and enveloping, this band was the perfect soundtrack to a wild wee hours dive bar party.
Yo La Tengo (Friday, Memorial Auditorium) – The grand old Auditorium, in use since 1932, is normally the domain of Les Mis and the like, with only the occasional rock or pop show. But Hopscotch put the venue into play for the first time this year, and guitarist Ira Kaplan wasted no time filling the huge space with oblong guitar squalls and clouds of effects. The only predictable aspect of a Yo La Tengo show is that no one knows what is going to happen, and this mammoth jam featured an acoustic interlude, guest appearances by improv-minded drummer Chris Corsano, and covers of Beach Boys (“Little Honda”) and Big Star (“Take Care”).