I: Why are We Here?

RALEIGH, North Carolina — The question surrounding the first day of the 10th annual Hopscotch music festival — a three-day party in downtown Raleigh — was “what am I doing here?” Or, more broadly, what were any of us doing here?

The latter question was posed by Lucy Dacus, a gentle-voiced indie rocker, during her midnight set at Pour House Music Hall.

“I’m glad you’re here, but I kind of wish you weren’t,” she nearly whispered to the audience. “It’s nasty outside, and you should be safe at home.”

David Nance, a man-child amalgam of Neil Young and David Yow who brought down the house before Dacus’ took the stage, had another take on the sketchy weather. After someone in the crowd yelled “fuck hurricanes,” he shot back with “You don’t fuck hurricanes. They fuck you.”

Most of the time, that’s true. And this hurricane in particular — Dorian — did do immense damage in the Bahamas and in numerous United States coastal cities, killing approximately 43 people. But by the time it reached Raleigh, it was just a tropical storm — too weak to cause any real harm.

What Dorian did bring to North Carolina’s capital city was hard rains and heavy winds. The gusts reached 60 mph, and were at their worst during the wee hours of Friday morning, whipping traffic lights and bending trees throughout the city. It was fairly intense at points, but it never felt outright dangerous. The worst thing I witnessed was a ball cap flying off an elderly gentleman’s head and into a puddle of oily water. Harmless stuff, really. By late Friday morning, it was hot and sunny.

Give the festival organizers credit: they didn’t kowtow to Dorian’s potential danger. No shows were canceled (to my knowledge), but one intelligent change was made: the transferring of Thursday’s headliners (Snail Mail, Kurt Vile and Sleater-Kinney) from a pop-up stage downtown to an indoor venue known as the Ritz. As far as I know, only one band backed out of the festival. The rest played on, mostly to packed houses in bar-venues throughout downtown Thursday night, whipping winds and heavy rains be damned. 

II: Some Background

Back to that opening question: what was doing here? I’d applied for a press pass on a whim, and was frankly surprised when I received one. I promptly contacted the director of the festival, Nathan Price, to collect more information about an event that Spin called “one of the best and most eclectic music festivals in America.”

“I think the community aspect is one of the biggest things,” Price said. “We like to showcase local artists, and we like to put some of those bands on bills with bigger acts. That makes for a more varied experience than you might have at another musical festival.”

Hopscotch isn’t the biggest or most well-known festival by any objective measure. It features about 120 bands playing over the course of three days at 12 venues, all within walking distance of one another. About 25,000 people attend.

In a American market swamped with festivals, Hopscotch stands out for its intimacy. The venues are mostly small-to-medium sized. You might, as I did, catch a big name like Kurt Vile hanging out at a late night show after headlining in front of thousands of people. The acts are undoubtedly well-known, but not so popular that a wedge is drawn between themselves and the public — as is the case at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and other megafestivals.

That being said, the artists that Hopscotch has booked through the years are nothing to shake a glowstick at: the Flaming Lips, the Roots, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Kurt Vile, Chvches, Local Natives, Big Boi and many others. “Because we’ve grown as a festival, and because we have more space now with the Red Hat Amphitheatre [downtown], we’ve been able to attract larger talent,” Price said.

The goal for Hopscotch 10, he added, was simply to stay the course.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We just want to cement everything that’s happened before.”

Originally, I was going to interview an artist or two, and write a straight-forward piece about the festival. But then the lone musician who agreed to speak with me — Tomberlin — had to cancel. I was disheartened at first, but I hold no grudges against her, because her Thursday night set at Imurj was so heavenly that I floated out of my chair.

So I had no Tomberlin, no interviews at all. What was the story? Did there even need to be a story? I could simply use the press pass to listen to music, but that would’ve felt like cheating the system. To leave the festival with nothing to show for it would be an enormous waste. But which direction to go?

 I decided, perhaps against my better judgment, to do an essay-style think-piece. What would it be like, exactly, for a 30-something to wander around a music festival for a day, alone, talking to no one and simply observing? That was the angle I’d go with, for better or worse. And I’d sleep in my Prius, parked in a Walmart parking lot, just for good measure.

III: The Role of a Performing Artist

One of the first shows I attended, at 4:30ish Thursday, was at a  second floor bar-venue called King’s. The band was Charly Bliss, a pop-punk outfit from Brooklyn fronted by Eva Hendricks.

It’s intimidating to walk into a crowded venue, alone and an utter stranger. Every eye felt like it was on me. But this, of course, was a delusion of the ego. No one was paying attention to me. They were all immersed in their own bubbles, totally oblivious to this guy who’d just entered, soaked, after battling a downpour in the street.

About Eva, though: she was wearing an off-kilter pink dress, and donning golden, glittery eye shadow. It looked like she’d gotten trashed at a high school prom, slept in that dress, remembered that she had a show to be at, then just kind of showed up on stage, hungover yet full of pep. I mean all of that in the most flattering way possible: her aesthetic is that of a demented teenage beauty queen, and she plays the part well. Her voice — high-pitched and child-like — is perfect for the persona. Ditto her sinister bubbliness. 

As I watched her bounce and squeal and rock her way through a highly energetic set, the strangeness of performance, in itself, became apparent. Why had the 100 or so individuals standing around me shelled over significant money to watch people make noise on a stage? What prompts an artist to emote for people? Moreover, what is the role of a performing artist? Are they supposed to be one of us? Or do they stand separate? And if they are separate, are they above or below? Do they speak for us, or to us? 

When Hendricks sings, she often makes flailing motions with her limbs. It’s like she’s trying to swat gnats with arms that aren’t entirely under her control. It’s affective and infectious, because it’s authenticIt verges on metaphor, conveying something basic about the human experience — frustration, exasperation, whatever it may be. It’s hard to make out her lyrics as she’s up there flailing, yet that doesn’t seem to matter. Her energy saysmore, or just as much, as her tongue possibly could. That’s punk rock at its core: gutturalness rules supreme.

Eva Hendricks, frontwoman for the Brooklyn pop-punk trio Charly Bliss, emotes with flailing arms. (Mike Schoeffel photo)

The importance of an artist being able to generate a captivating energy became clearer as I watched show after show throughout the night. Three people in particular (in addition to Hendricks) — Tomberlin, Nance and Dacus — seem particularly gifted at bridging the gap between performer and fan. And each succeeds by different means. 

Tomberlin, for instance, combines highly personal lyrics with a saint-like poignancy. Walking into one of her shows is akin to strolling into church five minutes late: it’s dead-quiet, and most people are reverent. The crowd hangs on every word, because her lyrics are intelligible, and because of the way she sings those lyrics: from the heart, gazing just above the audience, as if looking at something beyond. “I walk in the breeze/like I am 17/love is mostly war/and love, what is it for?” Those words could fall flat coming from the mouth of a lesser artist. But Tomberlin believes, andthat belief gives her an air of eternalness.

Nance, meanwhile, is a bull in a china shop. “Turn up my guitar,” he tells the sound guy while tuning up. “I want it to fucking hurt.” And he makes it hurt, in all the right ways. There he is, stumbling around the stage like he’s just suffered a concussion. There he is, yowling into the microphone like he’s smashed his toe with a sledgehammer. There he is, playing slide guitar with a full glass of beer — spilling it everywhere — moments after shouting incoherently about Taco Bell. “You swallow..they taste so good.” Or something like that. “I’m from Omaha, Nebraska,” he says at one point. “We’ve got a Republican mayor up there and she doesn’t want to give us anything good. Anyway, this song is about Capital One.”  And then he rips into it.

There’s nothing subtle about Nance. But that’s the point. Watching him, one gets the sense that he’s slightly unhinged, in a harmless “good ol’ boy” type-of-way. He metaphorically stands alongside audience members, not apart from them, speaking to the animal within us all. Perhaps most folks would act in this rambunctious manner if they could get away with it. But unlike Nance, many of us don’t have the talent — nor the gift of controlled insanity — to pull it off. 

Lucy Dacus performed an intimate late night set at Pour House Music Hall Thursday evening. “This is way past my bedtime. But ya’ll are waking me up,” she said to the audience. (Mike Schoeffel photo)

Then there’s Dacus, who’s just so darn sweet and gentle. She conveys more emotion with her facial expressions — particularly her eyebrows — than perhaps anyone I’ve ever seen. She’ll deliver a line, then step back from the mic with a knowing smile, and let the audience process exactly what she’s feeling at that moment.  “I’ve been fighting a cold, so excuse my voice,” she says at one point. She sings in a hushed tone — almost a whisper — for most of the evening, which only adds to the delicateness. Her warmth emanates: you want to hug her, to be her friend. 

“You all are so much more awake than me,” she says at the beginning of the set. “This is way past my bedtime. But you all are waking me up.” 

IV: Disappearing to Notice

I lose myself when I’m alone in big crowds. This is both good and bad. Bad, because I forget who I am, which makes it hard to interact with people. A seething mass is a stimulus overload for me. I go blank. 

There’s a positive side to this blankness, though. I’m able to dissolve the ego and observe the world as it is. This feeling has a window: I must be well-fed and well-rested for it to appear. And when the window is open, stupid, funny and sometimes (arguably) interesting observations are allowed in. 

I’m talking about this perceptive window in the first person, but what I really mean is “we”: all of us, perhaps, have experienced these crystalline moments of existence: moments when our own doubts and anxieties slip away and we’re able to view reality as it truly is, unweighted and real. At music festivals, where weirdness prevails, sometimes this window is thrust open against our will. Oddities and inanities are delivered directly to our consciousness.

Does that passage make any sense? Maybe not. Maybe I’ve been isolated in my rural mountain home near Asheville for too long. Perhaps the urbanite inside me has died, and I’ve grown reclusive and weird, made dumb by living away from the masses. It’s also possible that I’m temporarily losing sanity because the Prius afforded me just three hours of sleep last night.

What I really mean is this:

  • At the Lonnie Walker show, some guy standing in the middle of a large crowd was wearing a hat that read “solitude.”
  • At the Drag Sounds show Saturday morning, one of the guitarists jumped off stage and hung his instrument around the neck of a woman who obviously had no idea how to play the thing. She looked frightened and immediately handed it to someone else.
  • We all hate that everyone is on their cell phones all the time. Yet “everyone” includes “us.” 
  • Some guy standing beside me at the Snail Mail show described an unidentified band as “upbeat chick surfer rock.”
  • Anywhere Americans gather, there’s the threat of a mass shooting. It’s simply the zeitgeist. How does this truth affect us on a subconscious level, if at all?
  • The peak expressive dance move for sober white men is an enthusiastic head bob. 
  • A pasty guy in the crowd at the Niecy Blues show was wearing a black tank top with the words “I AM STARVING FOR LIGHT” written in cursive across the back. 

What I also mean is the way that Lindsey Jordan, the 20-year old front-woman for Snail Mail, is so much more self-assured on stage than the average 20-something would be. What I mean is the way her voice cracks when she sings — but only sometimes, and only at the right times, and in a manner that’s always endearing, and often powerful. What I’m talking about is the way she played a phenomenal set with a full band, then slowed it down for the final song of the night: just herself and a guitar, spotlighted, in front of thousands of people. I was too far away to make out what, exactly, she was singing about. But as with Eva Hendricks, I felt what Lindsey meant. And when she finished, she acted as though she was going to smash her guitar, then pulled back, and strolled off-stage to roaring applause. 

V: Specter

While most everyone was in good spirits throughout the weekend, a specter of death was in the air.

David Berman, most recently the frontman for Purple Mountains, but mostly known for his work with indie icons the Silver Jews, was slated to perform. It would have been his first tour in a decade, but on Aug. 7, the night before he was set to play the first show, he hung himself in New York City.

In light of Berman’s death, a Durham musician named Al Riggs agreed to do an acoustic set of Silver Jews covers Friday afternoon behind Slim’s, which touts itself as Raleigh’s oldest downtown music venue, right next to a parking garage. Riggs competed with backfiring cars and revving engines as he strummed his way through a delicate collection of 10 or so songs. It was hot and sunny, yet a large crowd was present to listen to the words penned by the late Berman, an extraordinarily eloquent and literate songwriter. “Truth is not alive or dead/truth is struggling to be said,” Berman wrote on “What is Not but Could Be If.”

Durham musician Al Riggs performed a set of Silver Jews covers at Slim’s on Friday morning. David Berman, the former frontman for the Silver Jews, was scheduled to perform at Hopscotch with his new band, Purple Mountains. But he took his life in August. (Mike Schoeffel photo)

But that didn’t stop Berman from trying to say it. He seemed to spend most of his life searching for a higher meaning. He for it in drugs, in religion, in the idea of love, but tragically, was never able to hold onto it for long. Riggs did an admirable job of conveying the fleeting truths Berman attempted to pin down through his art. “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun/And since then/it’s been a slow education,” Berman crooned on “Slow Education.” Riggs covered that song, and others, using a cheap guitar that he’d recently purchased. Berman, I think, would have appreciated the ruggedness.

“Listen to people,” Riggs said at the end of his set. “If they need to talk, listen.”

VI: Why I Had Been There

I left Hopscotch on Friday evening, right when the party was kicking off. The main stage had been set up in City Plaza, under sunny skies, and the masses were pulsing in anticipation for an evening with Orville Peck, Jenny Lewis and others. I wanted to stick around, but I was reeling. I’d gone too hard the night before: not from drinking, mind you, but from slogging through mostly-empty streets, trudging from venue-to-venue in a windswept downpour that left me with a bad case of trench foot. Sleeping in a car, while not totally uncomfortable, had left a crick in my neck. I was running on too little sleep, and my nerves were shot. Plus, I had a wife to get back to in the mountains. Existing at a music festival is so much more taxing at 30 than it was at 23.

Lucy Dacus, left, invited Sarah Tomberlin onstage at Pour House Music Hall for angelic duet on Thursday night. (Mike Schoeffel photo)

Dacus had wanted to know why we were there. Remember? We could have been anywhere else, including safe at home. If I could have spoken with her, I would have told her why I had been there, about the tiny, magical moments I had witnessed: her expressive eyebrows, Hendricks’ flailing arms, Jordan nearly smashing her guitar, Nance stumbling around the stage like a beautiful lunatic and Riggs doing Berman justice. I would have told her about the shimmering duet she sang with Tomberlin on Thursday night, and the comment I heard a guy make to his friend in the bathroom at Pour House, as everyone was filing into the streets to face Dorian’s strong and unpredictable winds:

“They just have such beautiful voices,” he said. “They’re like two angels.”

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