Leaps and Bounds
By Bryan C. Reed
Banner Photo by Bryan Regan
For one weekend every September, downtown Raleigh becomes a hub of adventurous music. Since its 2010 debut, the annual Hopscotch Music Festival has brought a carefully curated, wildly eclectic, and mostly exciting slate of bands to Downtown venues.
This year, the festival’s eighth installment promises all the familiar thrills, only more of them. Instead of the usual three-day affair, Hopscotch 2017 stretches across four, September 7th-10th. But as the festival has grown, it’s gained stability. Where the first years of Hopscotch had the energy and avant-garde flair of an underdog festival, Hopscotch now boasts bigger names playing on bigger stages. Without radically changing the program, Hopscotch still has managed to outdo itself.
That’s largely thanks to the efforts of the festival’s executive director, Nathan Price, who took the reins of the festival last year when Hopscotch co-founder Greg Lowenhagen stepped down. After seven increasingly successful festivals, the foundation had already been laid. And Price had already been managing day parties and booking bands for the festival since its third year. “There’s a process in place from the first seven, eight years of doing it, that kind of gives me a blueprint of how everything should go and what the timelines are,” Price says. “This wasn’t the year to make big changes on a lot of stuff. It was more about planned growth than me coming in there and changing a bunch of stuff just because I could.”
Still, the festival has changed. This year, it adds an extra day – for a daylong Sunday show at Red Hat Amphitheater. Last year, it added the outdoor pavilion as an official venue, allowing bigger names and bigger productions to top the bill. This year, Solange, the avant-R&B star and sister to Beyonce, headlines Hopscotch. “I don’t know that we could’ve gotten Solange three or four years ago,” Price says. “We didn’t have Red Hat, so she just wouldn’t have fit on our City Plaza stage. You can get a different type of band when you have
Sitting next to Solange at the top of the bill are Big Boi, one half of the Atlanta rap duo Outkast, the Baltimore-via-North Carolina synth-pop favorites Future Islands, hip-hop firebrands Run The Jewels, and the ascendant, Asheville-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen.
Typically, Price says, he tries not to repeat bookings. But he’s gotten more lenient. Especially for North Carolina-bred acts, he says, “we kind of want you to come back if you’re still growing as an artist or if you’ve done some new, significant things.”
So for Future Islands, who will make their fourth Hopscotch appearance this year, the festival becomes a sort of career milemarker. Back in 2010, the band played a set at the relatively tiny Berkeley Cafe that became one of the inaugural year’s most talked-about performances. In the intervening years, they jumped to a bigger label, made a splash on late-night TV, and now return to Hopscotch as a main stage draw.
Olsen, likewise, can trace her career arc from her first Hopscotch performance, in 2013, to this year’s top billing. When she first played Hopscotch, the singer/songwriter performed alone at Fletcher Opera Theater. The spacious room gave life to the haunting, country-tinged folk that marked her 2012 release Half Way Home. But soon after, Olsen shifted her sound, first with the raw and overdriven 2014 LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and then with the rich and powerful 2016 album My Woman.
“She’s having one of the biggest years,” Price says. “And she’s huge, playing Glastonbury, she’s on every year-end list. It’s kinda crazy how big she’s gotten since those first recordings with just her and a guitar.”
And with more than 100 acts scattered through venues that range in size from Red Hat to the sub-100 capacity Slim’s, Hopscotch always offers the opportunity to see emerging bands on their way to national main stages. It’s a festival where psych-rock veterans like Thee Oh Sees and the Brian Jonestown Massacre play alongside hip-hop upstarts Rapsody and Busdriver; where Mount Moriah and Hurray for the Riff Raff offer inventive approaches to Americana while metal bands like Torche and Pallbearer bang heads down the block.
“We just try to get the best bands possible and just have faith,” Price says. “The fanbase for Hopscotch is definitely more of a wide range of tastes kind of music fan. We don’t have to necessarily chase down bands that fit a specific style. You just get all these different bands and it works itself out.”
But as much as Hopscotch has proven itself a reliable tastemaker for adventurous music fans, Price says the goal, ultimately, remains simple. “We just want it to be fun. You have to remember it’s going to be a party for 10 or 20 thousand people. You can’t take it too, too seriously. You just make sure everything is done and that everybody has a good time.”