Is a show at Hopscotch a national gateway for locals, or just another gig? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Is a show at Hopscotch a national gateway for locals, or just another gig? 

Raleigh band Lonnie Walker, seen here at Hopscotch 2013, opens for St. Vincent and Spoon on this year’s main stage.

File photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Raleigh band Lonnie Walker, seen here at Hopscotch 2013, opens for St. Vincent and Spoon on this year’s main stage.

On a Saturday evening in September, just after her band had finished an opening outdoor set, the rain became Shirlette Ammons' biggest booster.

In 2012, the third Hopscotch became the first—and to date, only—Hopscotch to be seriously hindered by weather. The infectious New York disco outfit Escort were setting up on the festival's biggest stage in Raleigh City Plaza, getting ready to open for the legendary live hip-hop band The Roots. And then the skies opened: Escort fled the stage. The audience rushed from the city streets.

When the weather settled down, time constraints forced Escort to scrap their set, meaning that Shirlette and the Dynamite Brothers—a dynamo collaboration between the charismatic Durham emcee and the muscular funk-rock band—could say they served as direct support for The Roots, even if it wasn't intentional and even if the headliners took the stage an hour later than expected.

"We ended up technically opening for The Roots after a huge rain delay," Ammons says two years later. "That looks pretty good on any hip-hop résumé."

Ammons took advantage of the happenstance placement, prowling the crowd to hand out postcards advertising the solo album she released the following year. And on the heels of their fiery and well-received set, they managed slots at a few smaller festivals and nabbed a few regional club gigs. It didn't change Ammons' career, but the scenario remains a point of pride and an incredible story.

During its first four years, Hopscotch has been lauded for many things, chief among them its positive impact on local music. The festival has operated as a satellite for bands in and around Raleigh, helping to transmit the strength of the area's musical network. It's an uncommon element for festivals of Hopscotch's size, too, a regional component that's been praised by The New York Times and Spin alike.

But what does it actually mean for the bands onstage? The festival's enormity—after consecutive years of more than 170 bands, they've slimmed to 139 this year—can make it seem like once acts from North Carolina secure a slot, they'll soon be on their way toward the top of the poster, toward national success. Still, many of Hopscotch's brightest local stars, such as Ammons, remain in much the same position as before their set; for others, though, it has provided the necessary boost for a burgeoning career.

Just before that 2012 rainout, for instance, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn played an impromptu set during a free indoor day party, their first as the electronic pair Sylvan Esso. Only a year later, they returned to Hopscotch to play Memorial Auditorium, Hopscotch's biggest indoor stage. That was the dawn of a stunning 12 months for Sylvan Esso. Big tours, a debut that landed in the Top 40 of Billboard's album chart and a guest spot on the Tonight Show have all followed. The group's quick rise through the festival's ranks both tracked and helped fuel their momentum.

Hopscotch director Greg Lowenhagen points to Sylvan Esso as an example of how locals can climb to higher rungs on the lineup poster. Likewise, Future Islands, the Baltimore band with strong area ties, managed a similar feat, parlaying consecutive raved-over Hopscotch club dates in 2010 and 2011 into a 2013 main stage performance. This fits with the festival's mission of finding new talent and advocating for it.

"We need to strike a balance between selling tickets and meeting budget goals and the realities of running a business with also presenting an event that we are excited about," Lowenhagen says. "Sometimes, we can be pretty agnostic about where they're coming from."

But more and more, they do come from North Carolina. In fact, Hopscotch has expanded its definition of "local" to include not only the Triangle but also the state. This year, 42 percent of the lineup comes from the Tar Heel State, the largest percentage since the festival's premiere.

Aside from Triangle musicians, perhaps no other deme has benefited more from Hopscotch than Triad bands. This year, Drag Sounds, Judy Barnes, Primovanhalen and Winston Facials become the latest Greensboro and Winston-Salem acts to play Hopscotch. In previous years, Philip Pledger, frontman of effervescent Winston-Salem pop band Estrangers, has both played at Hopscotch and promoted unofficial day parties.

He books Winston's annual Phuzz Phest, which expanded this year to include multiple simultaneous shows mixing national and local talent—that is, like a miniature Hopscotch. Pledger praises the Raleigh festival for setting a strong example, one that has energized the Triad scene and been integral in his pitches to Phuzz Phest sponsors.

"It's a pretty awesome opportunity to be able to [play this festival] in North Carolina in this city that's only like an hour and a half away and that has that national reach," he says. "It inspired the Triad or challenged the Triad to put its best foot forward."

Like Ammons in 2012 and Sylvan Esso in 2013, a few of this year's locals claim enviable slots. The festival added a third City Plaza show, so three Triangle groups—Toon & The Real Laww, Lonnie Walker, Valient Thorr—will now play the main stage. T0W3RS, the mercurial pop project of Raleigh's Derek Torres, owns the third of four Saturday sets at The Pour House, the kind of cramped-and-sweaty club environment that could push his danceable tunes into an unforgettable night.

Hopscotch is also leveraging its resources to reunite the concussive rock outfit The White Octave, which last played a concert in November 2001. Two members will be flown in from Nebraska and New York, an expense Hopscotch was willing to shoulder. The White Octave bassist Lincoln Hancock says such a flourishing local event provides the impetus necessary for a reunion.

"The profile of the show was such that we could trust that it would be worth doing," he says. "For me, it's about seeing the band as part of this fabric of awesome music that's been produced in the Triangle over the past decade."

Hopscotch can be a chance for those younger bands of which Hancock speaks to find new listeners, either with area music fans or with touring units in town to play the festival. That can change their career instantly—or, in the case of Last Year's Men, almost. The feisty garage rock outfit exploded during the daytime of the first Hopscotch, riling crowds at a couple of free parties. The next year, they played a proper festival set with the popular garage-rock misanthropes Black Lips. They later opened for Black Lips in Atlanta and Raleigh.

Suddenly rising stars of the scene, they set out to record a sophomore LP with Greg Cartwright, a member of The Reigning Sound and Oblivians and a kingpin of their style. But the momentum of Last Year's Men stalled, and their album will finally see digital release this fall. In 2014, Last Year's Men's position isn't very different than it was four years ago, Hopscotch or no. Still, singer and guitarist Ben Carr is positive about the opportunity Hopscotch allowed.

"I really hope that that continues to be the pathway of Hopscotch," he says. "Hopefully, more and more bands will be doing day parties and then eventually become bands that are part of the festival."

But it's best not to blow it out of proportion. That's how Brian Corum, singer and songwriter for Lonnie Walker, is approaching his upcoming date in City Plaza.

"I don't know if it feels like it's going to get me somewhere," he says. "I try not to get too worked up over it that way. I take every show at face value."

This article appeared in print with the headline "No plays like home"


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