I was standing up by the Memorial Auditorium stage Thursday night, waiting for Television and eavesdropping on nearby conversations as one does. But it took no subterfuge at all to hear the theatrical declaration from the woman right behind me.
I need more drugs and more alcohol!
I laughed, along with everyone else within earshot. Still, she needn’t have worried; if mind alternation was what she was after, then she’d come to the right place on the opening night of Hopscotch Music Festival. Television’s other-worldly performance that night was more than trippy enough.
Hopscotch has always come up with great golden oldies throughout its seven-year run, like proto-agit-rappers Public Enemy in 2010 and the African-American garage band Death in 2014. But Television, one of the original CBGB bands from the ‘70s punk era, was a particularly impressive get.
This was Television’s first Triangle appearance since a 1993 show with its classic lineup at the old Franklin Street Cat’s Cradle, and purists may have quibbled about the absence of guitarist Richard Lloyd this time. But three-quarters of Television’s glory-days lineup remains intact, guitarist Jimmy Rip is a solid stand-in for Lloyd — and Tom Verlaine is still Tom Verlaine, most of all.
Television’s Hopscotch set began with Verlaine asking for the lights to be turned down, and it proceeded from there in a fitting semi-darkness. Television has always evoked a boundless sense of mystery with its six-string tone poems, centered on the piercing icicle tones of Verlaine’s guitar. It’s cool, beguiling music, somehow sounding both remote and right at your throat.
Verlaine and Rip’s guitars interlocked at jagged angles, twisting and turning over Billy Ficca’s almost jazzy drumming, and the songs sprawled out gloriously. “Marquee Moon” almost soared high enough to leave the atmosphere, and “See No Evil” made for a glorious encore stomp-along.
Sylvan Esso kills
Back in 2012, Hopscotch was the site of the first performance by Durham’s Sylvan Esso, who did one song (“Play It Right”) at a not-too-crowded Pour House. Four years later, Sylvan Esso was back in the Saturday-night headline slot at Hopscotch’s City Plaza - and they pretty much won the festival.
In their early days, the duo of vocalist Amelia Meath and mad-scientist beat master Nick Sanborn got by on charm more than virtuosity. Sylvan Esso always had great songs, as demonstrated by their 2014 debut album, but they could be uncertain in performance. Nowadays, however, they’ve matured into a live act capable of inducing rapture. They drew about as big a Hopscotch City Plaza crowd as I’ve ever seen, and delivered a performance that would have gotten across in a football stadium.
Sanborn’s electronic arrangements remain a swirl of menacing snarl, counterpointed by Meath’s sing-song cadences. But it was Meath who was the revelation, showing a confident stage presence miles beyond the old days. It wasn’t just moves and dancing, either. Even when she was invisible, appearing only as a disembodied voice within thick green or purple fog, Meath was a presence you felt as well as heard. When she started growling and howling at the crescendo of “Uncatena,” it was an amazing moment.
Even better, a few of the new songs they debuted were terrific.
Patrick McCrory was not popular at Hopscotch
Toward the end of their set, Sylvan Esso got in a few choice between-song jabs at North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who is running for re-election this yer. That was pretty much de rigeur for the weekend — and not just in Raleigh, either. Over in Greensboro at Friday’s opening night of the National Folk Festival, honkytonk guitarist Bill Kirchen added a verse about bathroom laws to “Hillbilly Truck Drivin’ Man” - concluding with a request for “that wing-nut governor” to give him a kiss where the sun don’t shine.
The crowd roared and gave Kirchen a standing ovation. Back in Raleigh, a similar reaction greeted Triangle expatriate Eric Bachmann, who used to lead Chapel Hill’s Archers of Loaf back in the ’90s but calls Athens, Ga., home these days. Bachmann played a folk-leaning set at Memorial Auditorium and complimented the venue’s sound engineer as “a good thing about Raleigh.” Then he paused a beat before adding, “The bad thing is your governor.”
But possibly the most sustained political riff of the weekend was by Patrick Haggerty, better known as Lavender Country - author of the first openly gay country-music album way back in 1973. Now 75, Haggerty grew up gay on a farm in Washington State, the son of an unusually enlightened farmer who advised him to be who he was.
So Haggerty went off and wrote songs like “Back in the Closet Again” and “Come Out Singin’.” Backed by a young country band, Haggerty sang his songs and told stories about what it was like to grow up gay in America in the 1950s.
His point was that a lot of things have changed in recent years, but there are still plenty more that haven’t - and he cited the battle over North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2 as a prime example. The show became equal parts personal testimonial, political rally and concert.