Hopscotch Festival Part 1: Brett Harris, Mikal Cronin

“Best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray,” wrote Robert Burns (and not, as I had thought, Shakespeare, though he wrote pretty much every other quotable quote). My significant other and I were reminded of this truism as the second night of Hopscotch 2013 (our first night) unfolded. Though we had carefully mapped out a schedule that would allow us – so we naively thought – to take in at least portions of seven performances, that simply was not to be.

As in 2012, the festival was expertly run; unlike some other festivals I’ve covered, the management (such as it is) of the festival is an invisible hand. The stereotypical harried, overworked professional with walkie-talkie, scampering madly around the stage periphery…such a character was nowhere to be found in downtown Raleigh. Overall, the venues – eighteen of ’em – were largely left to do what they did best, albeit under the aegis of the festival. A few yellow-shirted Hopscotch personnel were on hand at the doors or gates to most venues, checking for valid passes (this was a particularly daunting job for the workers outside some of the smaller clubs; these places have many “regulars” who were turned away, as they lacked festival tickets).

And for the most part, acts started on time (or as close to on-time as can be expected of, y’know, musicians). They ended on time, too, and therein lay part of what turned out to be our slight undoing. An act that might have been listed as playing from, say, 9pm to 10pm would in reality only play until around 9:40; the following 20 minute were for breakdown (and setup by the next act, who’d start around 10pm). So any plans we might have had – and we indeed had some – to see the first half of a 9pm show followed by the last half of another simultaneous show, well, that didn’t work out so well. That’s no fault of the organizers.

The venues were pretty close together, and one could do a brisk walk between the two most far-flung venues inside of fifteen minutes. And if one was equipped with a VIP pass, entry was guaranteed, even if the venue was at capacity. (Now, what you do to find a few square inches of personal floorspace once inside, well, you’re on your own there.)

What this all meant is that we caught the better part of three sets, having lost some time to figuring out the challenges of a multi-venue downtown festival. But what we saw was easily worth the effort. Not counting some bits and pieces by various acts, we took in sets on Friday by Brett Harris, Rose Windows and Mikal Cronin. (I’ll have an interview/feature on Rose Windows later this week).

Brett Harris at Hopscotch. Photo © Audrey Hermon

Brett Harris
There are only so many places available in which to book live music acts in downtown Raleigh. Luckily, there are quite a few hole-in-the-wall places perfectly suited for live music; but for acts likely to have a bigger draw, larger venues are is short supply. Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium is, of course, large. Very large: it seats nearly 2300 people. Unfortunately, no matter how good a set Brett Harris was likely to put on, he wasn’t about to fill the place. In fact, his 9pm time slot (one of the evening’s earliest) put him up against all or part of some fourteen other acts. So he and his band played to –at most – a couple hundred people, probably less.

But for those of us who were in attendance, we were treated to older music (from his 2010 release) and newer music (from an in-progress album) plus a heartfelt reading of Chris Bell‘s “There Was a Light.” Perhaps Harris gained experience playing that song as part of the Big Star Tribute; regardless, for those who didn’t know the song, it fit in seamlessly with his original numbers. For those Big Star fans in the audience, it was an unexpected treat.

Mikal Cronin at Hopscotch. Photo © Audrey Hermon

Mikal Cronin
The Pour House, on the other hand, was packed to absolute capacity for Mikal Cronin’s 12:30am set. A four-piece band – Cronin on hollowbody 12-string electric, plus a second guitarist and a rhythm section that featured a female drummer – ran through songs from Cronin’s self-titled Trouble in Mind debut and his latest, MCII (on Merge). Perhaps it was the venue, or the vibe, or something else, but while the performance was energetic, a certain subtlety of the studio versions was lost onstage. The set was still worth seeing, but a bigger venue – such as the oft-under capacity Lincoln Theatre, mostly used this night for metal acts – would have served band and audience alike much better. When we left, there was a line extending well down the sidewalk, full of people awaiting entry in accordance with the venue’s one in/one out policy.

More 2013 Hopscotch Festival coverage to come.

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