Hopscotch 2015: Navigating ups and downs with Natalie Prass, New Music Raleigh and more | Music

Hopscotch 2015: Navigating ups and downs with Natalie Prass, New Music Raleigh and more


Natalie Prass performs with the Spacebomb Orchestra at Hopscotch 2015 - PHOTO BY RODNEY BOLES
  • Photo by Rodney Boles
  • Natalie Prass performs with the Spacebomb Orchestra at Hopscotch 2015
Hopscotch Music Festival
Downtown Raleigh
Friday, Sept. 11, 2015

Hopscotch offers a wide array of bookings at each venue from night to night. Depending on your tastes, though, it can be easy to spend all of your time posted up at one or two venues. This was the “problem” I faced Friday night: Fletcher Opera Theater and Kennedy Theatre, both housed in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts offered full bills of acts up my alley. I would have been completely content to stay locked in either location. But I found more to like by moving around, or hopscotching, even if it meant exhaustion.

First things first: City Plaza featured the interesting bill of Carlitta Durand, Tycho and TV on the Radio. Durand’s blend of funk, soul and R&B would have made for better direct support for TVOTR—but then, how do you get people to show for a name they (unfortunately) probably don’t recognize? Tycho’s warm electronic music tends to be better enjoyed in a laid-back home environment, but the quartet lifted those songs far beyond washed-out, mellow electronica, overpowering City Plaza until the band tripped the onstage circuit breakers twice.

After catching a little bit of TV on the Radio, I raced to Kennedy Theatre for Nathan Golub. He wasn’t playing pedal steel as I’d hoped; instead, he fingerpicked an acoustic guitar, backed by drummer Brad Porter. Most of the audience sat cross-legged in the floor, taking in Golub’s winding and beautiful tunes. New Music Raleigh, around the corner at Fletcher Opera Theater, was next on my agenda; like last year, their performance was stunning. The group’s final piece, Oscar Bettison’s “Breaking and Entering (with aggravated assault),” felt restless and angry, with moments that recalled heavy metal breakdowns. While introducing a solo piece for violin titled “Wind Tunnel,” percussionist Shawn Galvin noted that Zs guitarist Patrick Higgins composed it. He noted that this selection represented an interesting and important part of the festival: The connections and crossovers between Hopscotch acts may not always be as you might expect from a music festival. The experimental Zs play The Hive tonight, and their drummer, Greg Fox, replaced Owen Pallett as this year’s improviser-in-residence.

On a whim, I hit the Lincoln Theatre for hip-hop sets from Chaz French and Father. They offered a lot to enjoy. Chaz French and his crew delivered a high-energy, wild set to a small crowd before the Lincoln filled for Father. His beats felt heavier, smoother and rounder, and the crowd ate it up. 

Back at Fletcher, I settled in the balcony and eagerly awaited Nashville’s Natalie Prass, for whom I had high hopes. Her April set at the Haw River Ballroom felt underwhelming—her small voice got swallowed by the same club she was trying to entertain. However, her Fletcher set felt hit-or-miss from moment to moment. The quiet theater setting and horn trio backing Prass helped her songs land better, sure, but the venue’s sound sometimes felt muddled. At times, the music veered toward cocktail lounge jazz that wasn’t all that compelling, though her “Bird of Prey” offered a change of pace. Still, I felt my mood beginning to drag, so I shuffled back around the corner to Kennedy to find something much more satisfying.

Steve Gunn and the Black Twig Pickers played to a modestly full room. It felt like their collaboration had been specifically designed just for my personal enjoyment. I love old-time, country, bluegrass and so on but am often disappointed by these strains’ insistence on playing it safe. Gunn and the Pickers, however, wove together strange and spooky elements of old-time with beautiful melodies and more challenging, eccentric flourishes, as when Pickers banjo player and Gunn drummer Nathan Bowles took a bow to a cymbal. It was a perfect combination of old tones and a progressive mindset, a genuine thrill.

At the end of the night, I spotted a common thread in all I had seen: Regardless of specific genre designation, almost every outfit had distinct American roots. Hip-hop started stateside, and Golub’s guitar picking stemmed from the melting pot of American primitivism. New Music Raleigh focused on pieces by American composers, while Prass leaned heavily on jazz. Gunn and the Black Twig Pickers’ debts to Appalachia were clear. I’m not one for patriotic chest-pounding, but finding a special commonality in music with such different missions made for an exciting realization nonetheless.

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