From the start, Hopscotch aimed for a reputation as musically adventurous. Even in its uncertain first year, the festival booked small bands at the bleeding edges of multiple genres, from dizzying experimental hip-hop to punishing noise.
But Hopscotch knew to mix that futuristic savvy with a knack for nostalgic headliners, recruiting bands whose biggest marks came decades ago but that aging fans still longed to see. For the festival's sixth year, the trend seems to have leaned toward even more musical veterans and bands making late-life runs.
"We're trying to put together the best weekend of music we can with the money we have," festival director and co-founder Greg Lowenhagen says. "Hopscotch is probably always going to be 80 percent or so new artists—it's just the nature of what we're doing with smaller, indoor club stages. It's a weekend for discovery balanced by seeing artists who have proven they can play bigger stages."
And those artists have often been older. The quintessential set at the first Hopscotch, for instance, came with a booming performance by hip-hop instigators Public Enemy. The city's Helping Hand Marching Band busted through the crowd unannounced, setting up a fierce, pounding show. Hype man extraordinaire Flavor Flav leveraged his charismatic skills, and Chuck D delivered his famed rhymes of revolutionary power.
In 2010, Public Enemy was only three years removed from its last album, not bad for a group that had been together since 1982. But the thousands who lined Fayetteville Street on that Saturday night surely wouldn't have been there had it not been for memories of the group's late-'80s and early-'90s heyday, when It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet arrived.
The same logic held for subsequent editions. In 2011, acts on the main stage included the long-running, confetti-blasting Flaming Lips, the eternally pogoing Superchunk and the reunited Guided by Voices. Alternative legends The Jesus and Mary Chain and Built to Spill shared a big bill in 2012, as did The Breeders and Spiritualized the next year. And though last year's City Plaza performance ended with relatively young metal masters Mastodon, it began with another crew of hip-hop legends, De La Soul.
This year, that mix of old and new—a strength or a weakness, depending on your perspective for bands in their second or third lives—permeates Hopscotch's roster, not just on the main stage but also in the 11 clubs and theaters it controls.
Post-rock colossus Godspeed You! Black Emperor headlines City Plaza on Thursday, followed by another act whose heyday was in the '00s, TV on the Radio, on Friday. And on Saturday, the restless country icon Dwight Yoakam and first-wave punks X bring wrinkles and long-lost hairlines to City Plaza. Meanwhile, in the clubs, Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan plays in support of a solo album that celebrates his memories of early-'80s rock. Eyehategod, Old Man Gloom and Godflesh, the festival's three biggest metal bands this year, helped shape various strains of heavy music decades ago. (Eyehategod canceled two days before their appearance.) Roky Erickson pioneered the early psych-rock group 13th Floor Elevators. Even Battles, the ecstatic and erratic avant-rock trio that headlines the Lincoln Theatre Thursday, feature members of an impressive roster of alt-rock icons. Though they'll release a new album next week (their first in four years), Battles arguably hit their prime almost a decade ago.
With Hopscotch entering its first year under the new ownership of several Etix employees, including founder Travis Janovich, a cynical eye might see such a lineup as a capitulation to industry trends. After all, heritage acts—loosely termed, bands whose greatest success is more than 10 years behind them—dominate the major touring and festival scene. The biggest spectacles, including Bonnaroo and Coachella, reach for aged headliners like Elton John, Billy Joel or AC/DC. The reunited Outkast seemed to play most every mid-level festival last year. Smaller events like Moogfest have also gone big with heritage acts, from Suicide and GZA to Tangerine Dream and Devo.
But Hopscotch's booking plan, Lowenhagen says, hasn't changed, and it is more deliberate than simply renting old acts and hoping tickets sell. Instead, they consider how their artists interact and what their onstage associations might say about each group.
Apart from hinging on two acts with an unfailingly rebellious spirit and highlighting the kindred nature of country and punk, Saturday's pairing of Dwight Yoakam and X takes into account the fact that Yoakam played with X decades ago in Los Angeles. It's meant to tease out one of the roots of his restless career and perhaps inspire a particularly rowdy performance in Raleigh. Hometown heroes American Aquarium open the show. They, too, funnel ragged energy into their brokenhearted country-rock, making them stylistic descendants of the bands that will follow.
And Old Man Gloom, a band that crossbred sludgy metal with more progressive influences before taking a break for almost a decade, plays on Friday with Tombs. The New York band's alternately pile-driving and thoughtful experiments offer a new branch on the same family tree. Seeing them play together might spotlight where this music came from and where it may go.
Godspeed's headlining slot also serves as a sort of retroactive thesis for Hopscotch, which has always veered far and wide across the musical spectrum. This year, a strong slate of heavy bands joins a varied lot of indie rock acts. Both before and after its recent reunion, the Canadian crew has long bridged crushing moments of loud sounds with softer, atmospheric passages—a middle ground metal heads, indie rockers and experimental fans may appreciate.
The fact that Godspeed and Old Man Gloom are still producing vital music is important for Lowenhagen, too. Booking relevant artists is his area of concern, not age.
"We don't really consider the age of a band as a big factor in our booking process," Lowenhagen posits. "Our first criteria is always, 'Are they good live?' and our second is always, 'Do they fit our budget?' Those questions come before all others."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The entertainment age"