This season brings a flood of symbols and traditions. For the city of Durham and, to a lesser extent, for the Triangle music scene at large, the Troika Music Festival is one of the best. Much like the day of feasting that soon follows, Troika has become something of a family gathering for resident music fans.
"It's always about Durham—who's coming through Durham, who's coming out of Durham and who supports Durham," says festival organizer Melissa Thomas. "We're interested in what's going on right here and right now."
When the festival began eight years ago as the Durham Music Festival, the here and now was more reliant on which national bands were passing through on their way to or from other festivals—namely, punk-and-metal spree The Fest in Gainesville, Fla., and the indie rock rendezvous CMJ Music Marathon in New York.
"I think the training wheels have come off," says Thomas.
In those eight years, the festival tried filling a few different niches. When the name changed to Troika in 2005, organizers attempted to bridge the Triangle with shows spread across Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. The festival has since refocused itself on the Bull City. But as downtown venues came and went, its footprint changed almost annually. "It started as this little walking festival up and down Main Street," Thomas recalls.
That didn't last, though it might return this year. With the addition of the clubs Casbah and Motorco, it's suddenly feasible to host three nights of stacked bills within easy reach of each other. The 2010 festival, boasts its press release, is "a strictly downtown event that is for the first time entirely walkable."
Aside from convenience, making the event walkable highlights Troika's focus on Durham. Thomas hopes festivalgoers will stop at any number of other local establishments between gigs. Indeed, some of Troika's most definitive traits aren't just the local bands it books. The Troika Craft Show, which debuted last year, provides an opportunity for local artists and designers to show and sell their wares.
Aside from the new rooms it will use, this year's biggest addition is three guest curators: singer/ songwriter Greg Humphreys, house-show impresario Craig Powell and the organizers of the Independent's Hopscotch Music Festival. These sets, one per night, embrace key tastemakers in the Triangle music scene and offer a bit more variety to the festival's lineup.
"I think it's cool that they think enough of The Layabout that they wanted it to represent a facet of the Durham music scene," says Powell. The Layabout is his Old West Durham house, a makeshift music venue that hosts a gold-medal assortment of raggedy garage rock. That's what he'll bring to Troika, too. Meanwhile, Humphreys' showcase is an extension of his regular songwriters' circles, and Hopscotch presents the festival's most experimental offering. But none of it seems out of place. "There's a bunch of other bands on the Troika bills that if they weren't already paying that, I would have asked them to play my show," Powell says.
The festival is also dedicated to affordability, asking only $25 for a three-day pass. Troika has managed to stay cheap by steadily building its profile as it focuses more squarely on filling stages with bands that don't have to travel far. The formula has worked.
"There have been years where we just haven't been able to guarantee 70 bands money," Thomas admits. This year, she says, every band gets paid. The festival has become sustainable by staying local.
It'll remain that way, too, at least for the foreseeable future. "I know I'm not going to pull people from five states away," Thomas says. "I'm OK with that."