Various Venues, Winston-Salem
April 4-6, 2014
When Philip Pledger arrived at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem on Friday night to lead his Estrangers through the second set of last weekend’s Phuzz Phest, he looked exhausted. He was decked in a rumpled T-shirt and comfortably worn jorts, but his stony face clashed with his casual clothing.
It had been a rough day for Pledger. Chapel Hill’s Secret Boyfriend, scheduled to play the following day, dropped out, citing allegations of sexual misconduct lobbed at Justin Williams, the frontman of Twelve Thousand Armies, another band on the lineup and the first signee to Pledger's new Phuzz Records. Area social media exploded with angered music fans clamoring for Williams to be dismissed from the festival and the label, which indeed happened after the fact. (Read more about Williams and the situation in our new story "Broken Record.")
But at the time, Pledger was staring down a situation that threatened his event—expanded to include simultaneous shows at three rock clubs across three days in its fourth year—and fledgling imprint. He could have played it angry. He could have fallen apart. But he did neither, eventually overcoming persistent mic problems to lead his backers through swelling hooks with an easygoing confidence. When the vocal mix finally solidified during the yearning chorus of “New Year’s Eve,” it felt like a triumph, the striding riffs and nostalgic piano chords refusing to yield as Pledger finally yelled.
Phuzz Phest, it turned out, wouldn’t shrink in the face of its first real crisis. There were rough patches across the next three days, but there were also splendid highs and a generally buzzing atmosphere. Even when the crowds waned a bit—as they did during the majority of Sunday evening—the people that were there listened appreciatively to scrappy locals and regional upstarts alike, excitedly awaiting performances from the weekend’s headliners.
For the most part, those bigger bands didn’t disappoint. No Age’s blitz of fuzz-scorched punk blew the lid off of Krankies on Saturday night. Hewing to the more pummeling end of their catalog, the duo banged and roared, delivering bolts of energy that were pretty much impossible to resist.
Mount Moriah were even better closing down the Garage the night before. Embracing the grimy dive around them, they switched into hard-driving, honky-tonk mode, sending their often stately country-rock rumbling down rowdy backroads. Singer Heather McEntire owned the moment, emboldening her honest lyrics with moments of wry humor; noticing Pledger’s wife in the audience, she recalled playing their wedding, noting dryly that it was a good sign that they were still together. Her fiery vocals goaded guitarist Jenks Miller to complicate his sometimes restrained contributions, soloing in a way that was forceful but never showy.
But the headliners weren’t the only ones delivering thrills. Punk outfits Ex-Cult and Brain F≠ each indulged in mighty workouts—the former creating tension between the band’s lean grooves and Chris Shaw’s burly bark, the latter ratcheting through a cyclonic melee. Winston’s own Dark Prophet Tongueless Monk pushed beyond the lulling drone it’s known for, adding drums to the immersive textures of leader Jacob Leonard and careening into noise-scorched garage rock and frothy pop. Raleigh’s Whatever Brains once again jump-roped the line between cacophony and catharsis.
Despite all these great sets, the festival started to drag in its final hours. After Whatever Brains finished, there was a 45-minute lag before revered rapper Kool Keith took the stage at Ziggy’s. The room wasn’t even half-full, with groggy attendees chatting aimlessly. By the time Keith did greet the small crowd, I was on my way out the door, headed back to the Garage to catch the first bit of Nashville’s Diarrhea Planet before embarking on a three-hour trek back to South Carolina and the start of my work week.
And the festival ended just like it started, overcoming its own impediments to deliver one more surprising moment. The band’s mass of guitars lent a thick squall to their roughed-up classic rock delivery, like Titus Andronicus without all the theatricality and nihilism. As the set revved up, the band paused, pulling a skinny kid named Justin from the front row. Explaining their intention to demonstrate what punk is all about, they instructed their volunteer to scream about whatever pissed him off the most, and when the music erupted, so did Justin—“Fuck you, dad!” he screamed again and again as those guitars surged anew.
A few years ago, people might have said that moments like this one just don’t happen in Winston. In its fourth year, Phuzz Phest made them feel not just possible, but expected.