Troika Music Festival had me worried, at least at first. I arrived at the free Central Park kickoff show—last year's co-bill between Megafaun and The Beast there remains a highlight—shortly before 9 p.m. on Thursday night to pick up my pass. The show was nearly deserted, despite a solidly entertaining set from funky hometown rap-rock crew Mosadi Music. I chalked the thin attendance up to the chilly weather, but even at the festival's Rigsbee Avenue-and-Geer-Street nucleus, I found a parking spot just feet from the entrance of Motorco. The indoor shows were hardly more populated.
I became truly concerned when Double Negative's mathy, no-holds-barred hardcore—not quite the type of music to idly enjoy—failed to incite the all-too-polite Motorco crowd. Although a decent crowd had gathered at Fullsteam by the time Midtown Dickens closed out with a heartwarming set that previewed several cuts from their upcoming album, I was underwhelmed with the overall Thursday night turnout. During my drive back to Raleigh, I wondered if, after successful showings this fall at Hopscotch, SparkCon and Shakori, Triangle music had burnt out on music festivals. Surely not, I hoped.
The rest of the weekend, however, was quintessential Bull City. Despite even colder temperatures and occasional sprinkles, the diverse, music-loving lot that's typical of Durham shows turned out in full force once the bands got rolling Friday night, putting my doubts to rest. With brown paper bags and cans of cheap domestics, the punk kids young and old filled 307 Knox's Foster Street headquarters, making it tough for late arrivals to gain entry to see Los Naturales and Whatever Brains—the former seeming like a disciple of the latter's hooky, noisy garage rock. Charming Carrboro duo Mandolin Orange tried their best to quiet the booming crowd of Fullsteam Brewery with relaxed, rustic originals.
Food trucks—a Durham staple—were a near constant parked outside venues: Early Saturday evening at Motorco, Chatham County Line frontman Dave Wilson described a traffic jam of the rolling eateries from his on-stage vantage point looking out onto Geer Street through the huge windows of the former showroom. Rooms were routinely packed across town, but especially so during CCL's short and tight set, which drew heavily from their last two Americana gems, IV and Wildwood. Though banjo player Chandler Holt has been a Durham resident for several months, it was one of the few times his quartet has played the Bull City, thanks in large part to a lack of sizeable spaces.
As much as anything else, this year's Troika proved that is no longer the case: With the 500-capacity Motorco directly across the street from Fullsteam's warehouse and the multi-use Trotter Building just a stone's throw away, there's a clear live music beacon emerging near Durham Central Park. Although it's less than a mile away on Main Street, I didn't even make it over to The Casbah—another piece of new Durham that didn't exist just months ago.
Beyond new Durham hot spots, Troika also celebrated the vibrant arts community that has fueled that development and has continued to spur new growth itself. Sandwiched between Bull City mainstays Spider Bags and The Wigg Report at The Pinhook, snarling garage punk upstarts Last Year's Men roared through their set with no regard for frontman Ben Carr's stomach ailment. They were but one of several fledgling acts that proved their worth alongside hometown vets.
Indeed, the festival was relatively light on out-of-town acts, but those that were booked made an impact: Bolting from The Pinhook just in time to catch the end of Futurebirds at Fullsteam made me pine for more of the Athens alt-country outfit's soaring pedal steel and electrifying, high-octane blend of My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers. I wasn't alone: Even the crowd who'd stuck around the whole time wanted more, giving the band a raucous ovation at the end of their set. It's a shame the same couldn't be said for twangy locals Wood Ear, who played the same slot at Fullsteam on Thursday before and turned in a set that matched the merit of the Athenians—albeit to a smaller crowd.
Future Troika attendees, take note of paraphrased wisdom that Valient Thorr singer Valient Himself lent to the hundred-strong that stuck it out through the band's late Thursday night set: "Some people just like to party on the weekends, and that's cool. But you guys that come out here and party with us on a Thursday even when you've got to work at six in the morning, y'all are the best."