This weekend, area music fans will be challenged with an abundance of opportunities: In four towns, multi-band bills and small festivals offer very different takes on nearby musical getaways.
In Chapel Hill, there's Buried Underground, a three-day spree of heaviness. In Carrboro, there's Dirty South Fest, a one-night blast of touring punks and slam dances. In Durham, Motorco hosts the second Death to False Hope Fest, named for its organizer's pay-what-you-please punk label. And in Raleigh, Big Boss Brewery welcomes the 10-band WeeseFest for the first time.
"The Triangle has a rich tradition of small festivals," explains Jesse Anderson, co-founder of The Stagger, the local rag that prints rock club calendars and bar specials every two weeks. From the events this weekend to Bull City Metal Fest, Instro Summit and even the Independent Weekly-owned Hopscotch, and from the late Troika to Sleazefest, Duo-Fest and Signal Fest, these gatherings represent expressions of the same fertile local conditions, Anderson reckons. "There have always been and will continue to be a lot of them."
Anderson curated Buried Underground, an 18-band, mostly metal fest that runs this week at Chapel Hill Underground from Thursday until Saturday. Bartender included, there are four people at the bar tonight. Anderson sits at an outside picnic table, enjoying the relative cool of evening after a legitimately hot day. He talks excitedly—idealistically, even—about the continuum of local fests. While he's unconcerned about turnout come festival time, Chapel Hill Underground—an East Franklin Street address with a West Franklin outlook—is a largely unproven room for such an ambitious event.
"They didn't open up and decide they were going to cater to all the college kids and do $2.50 Jagerbombs and do $1 Bud Lights," says Anderson, referring to this side of town's more common business model. He looks around the empty patio. "For a year, it was like this place is tonight."
But that very quality might make Chapel Hill Underground a room ripe for such a weekend. Similarly, The Casbah's Bull City Metal Fest—a loud, respectably booked weekend aiming for its third edition early next year—came from the need to fill a weekend in a new room, says venue talent buyer and festival organizer Steve Gardner. While The Casbah's 288-person capacity puts it in the same league as the Local 506 and The Pour House, it lacks those spots' history and long-standing credit with touring acts and their agents. At first, says Gardner, booking every weekend wasn't so easy; he wanted to do something that mirrored Sleazefest, the raucous rock festival that had a decade-long run at the Local 506.
"Sleazefest was the most fun I've probably ever had in North Carolina. It was great," Gardner remembers. "But it was also during that time when the whole garage rock revival thing was really huge."
A similar event could bring people to The Casbah, he thought, but when he started sorting through the talent, he heard and liked a lot of local metal bands, an unlikely inspiration for a music fanatic who came of age with punk rock.
"During my time, if you liked punk rock, you did not like metal. It was one or the other and so I always hated metal," he says. But he had gotten bored with punk. He picked a weekend two winters ago, invited some of his favorite bands, and soon enough saw Bull City Metal Fest become a model for putting a new festival in a new room. Gardner loves working with heavy bands and fans, too. They're gracious, appreciative and ostensibly good for business, as they customarily generate bar tabs twice as big as those of patrons at his more folk- or country-oriented shows. At the first fest, someone dropped a beer in the front row. By the time he got there, the person who broke the glass had already cleaned up the mess.
"It's like that whole thing, when I was growing up, in the pit: If somebody falls down, you pick them up," he says, citing an important commonality between metal and punk. While both can look aggressive or dangerous to outsiders, their supporters respect the space and their peers.
Only an hour before, and just a few blocks away, Death to False Hope's Scotty Sandwich had said the same thing, almost verbatim. Sandwich views his punk-oriented festival as a convocation, a place to see old friends and meet new ones.
"I'm going to get all my friends, we're going to have a party," he says. He sits on the side steps of Motorco with a cigarette and two drinks while an indie rock band plays the garage stage. People stop to talk to him or honk and wave from cars. The Chicago native speaks quickly, excitedly, about what it is that has made him dedicate more than half of his life to that idea in music. The bands on his lineup are friends already or will be soon.
Sandwich says Red Collar based their entire tour that followed the first Death to False Hope Fest on bands they met that year. "Red Collar knows, or I think has played with, 19 of the bands," he says. "And I guarantee that J and Beth [Kutchma, both of Red Collar] will make friends with the other three bands they don't know."
Sandwich moved to the Triangle after the last Sleazefest, but Death to False Hope actually follows a similar model. Bitter Resolve bassist Rob Walsh explains that the band responsible for Sleazefest, Southern Culture on the Skids, toured heavily during the festival's prime. They were simply throwing a party and inviting the friends they'd made on the road.
Such small festivals are meant to cultivate a vibe, says Sandwich. Though his tenure in the punk world has fostered pragmatism and practicality, he's still a bit idealistic about his fest. He wants people to get it. When a potential audience member found out that Durham's Future Kings of Nowhere canceled and asked for his money back, Sandwich tried to talk him out of it. He gave the refund, but he was disappointed that the customer's focus on a single band kept him from, as Sandwich puts it, a flurry of bear hugs and new relationships.
"There's already this camaraderie between the bands and everyone's catching up and hugging and you have all these friends," Sandwich says of the vibe this cultivates. "At the end of the day, I want this to be about meeting people."
Similarly, Anderson chose Chapel Hill Underground because it had a cool atmosphere and he knew the owners, but also because half the audience will be Carrboro and Chapel Hill locals—people he knows, he says. "It seems really impersonal to do another big show at another big venue," he explains.
For both Anderson and Sandwich, their venues—Chapel Hill Underground and Motorco, respectively—are perfect. They're intimate enough to allow people to make new friends, but big enough for curious outsiders to also attend—and potentially join the flock. It's not about making decisions or picking the best itinerary; it's about letting music soundtrack a good weekend.
"You come here, and you don't have to think," says Sandwich. "Your job is to come here and have fun, come here and make friends. That sounds really hippie, but that's really all there is."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Festival mass."