Two superfans reflect on the unique spirit of Raleigh’s independent music festival—and why they turned it into an annual tradition
by Josh Klahre and Robb Leandro | photography by Gus Samarco
Here’s why we love Hopscotch: it’s a festival unlike any other. There are no contrived art projects festooned on a field, no muddy tents to call home for three days, no branded step-and-repeats for people to show off their unique festival “looks.” This is a festival made by people immersed in live music, for people who love live music. The premise is simple: come see a ton of carefully-curated bands perform their hearts out, try to catch as many as possible and open your mind to unfamiliar groups, formats and genres. We find that the smaller, more intimate venues foster a unique sense of community as you discover amazing new sounds alongside fellow listeners.
The vision for Hopscotch was born in 2009, when Greg Lowenhagen, then new to the staff of Indy Week, proposed the idea of a music festival to Steve Schewel, founder of the paper (and current mayor of Durham). “It was amazing how supportive Steve was of the idea from the moment I pitched it—he gave it the green light immediately,” says Lowenhagen. He partnered with INDY’s then music editor, Grayson Currin, for curation, and together they tapped into the can-do spirit of other folks in town with connections in the music world—like Paul Siler, co-founder of Kings—who volunteered their time, knowledge and energy to make it happen. To us, Hopscotch embodies the same industrious, build-it-if-you-dream-it spirit that put this region on the map as a hub for entrepreneurs and start-ups.
A few different festival names were batted around in the early days, but Lowenhagen and his team quickly arrived on Hopscotch—not as an homage to the children’s game, but as a sly reference to the 1960s Julio Cortázar novel of the same name, which invites readers to peruse its chapters out of order to get the author’s full intent. The festival shares that spirit: with more than 300 bands playing 12 venues over three days—it’s not uncommon to have eight bands performing simultaneously—it’s up to the listener to forge their own path from show to show. You can make Hopscotch an indie festival; you can make it a hip-hop festival, you can even make it a doom metal festival—or, if you’re like us, it can be a mix of everything. (That being said, as a service to the attendees, the organizers tend to group similar genres in the same venue.)
The other great thing about Hopscotch: bands love it as much as the fans do. “Hopscotch, in particular, has a lot of bands coming together in one place. They’re catching up with old friends from the road and making new ones by bumping into each other in Raleigh,” says publicist Candice Jones, who manages a lot of the communication between festival organizers and bands. Jones will see Saturday night headliners in the front row of the Thursday night opener, and says it’s not uncommon for an earlier band to decide to extend their stay to catch the rest of the festival. Hopscotch resonates with bands; it’s not just another stop on their tour. Perhaps it comes down to a sort of fan-audience symbiosis: In lieu of mega-stages lording over masses of fans contorting to get a look at the performer, you’ve got artists playing their hearts out in intimate venues, steps away from an enraptured audience.
We love Hopscotch because of the energy it feeds into the city: it transforms Raleigh into a hotbed of creativity, sound and aspiration. The air is drenched in musical expression, soul, passion and optimism. Hopscotch is a celebration of Raleigh, what it is and what it could be: growing, friendly, inclusive, rooted in a local scene that’s blossomed here for decades, but embracing of up-and-comers and established stars from around the country and the world. Nathan Price, director of the festival, says that there are any number of inputs that instruct the final line-up. “But ultimately, it comes down to artist trajectory and quality, trusting the ears of a group of friends with varied tastes and booking the ones that are sure to deliver a special set,” says Price. For the smaller club shows, the goal is to introduce the audience to a performer who has either been flying under the radar or is in the early stages of their ascent. The headliners are just as varied and curated: In years past, we’ve seen bands that helped pave the way for new genres (like MC50, De La Soul and The Breeders) and acts that are now current bold names on the scene (Run The Jewels, Miguel and St. Vincent come to mind).
You might just stumble on an act and catch lightning in a bottle. That was the Future Islands set we saw in 2011: We rolled up to Lincoln Theatre and caught one of the most unique and electric performances we’d ever witnessed. Here was a lead singer bounding around the stage, one moment completely wrapped up in himself, alone on a pedestal of contemplation; the next rushing the front row to snarl a lyric into the microphone, inches from a face in the crowd. Performer and audience were possessed; drums pulsed and synths seethed; it seemed more a séance than a show. Fast-forward three years and that same band is on Letterman delighting the Late Night audience and blowing up Twitter.
Over the past ten years, venues have come and gone (hello, Wicked Witch; RIP Tir Na Nog), ownership has changed a few times, and, of course, hundreds of bands have made their way through, but the format and spirit of Hopscotch endures. It seems that the festival grows bigger each year, filling Raleigh with curious and passionate fans that feed local businesses. Under the stewardship of Price and many of the people who have been there from the get-go, Hopscotch still delivers the unique musical-cultural experience that hooked us nearly a decade ago. And the jubilation that accompanies the weekend hasn’t faded—we’re just as giddy about the pending weekend and inquisitive about the line-up as we were for the first one. That’s the point: explore the city, let go of expectations, jump from one genre to another. See bands we love and love bands we’ve never seen before. We expect that by this next Sunday morning, we’ll be filled with the same fantastic combination of exhaustion, satiation and wonder that we’ve felt every year. For that we toast you, Hopscotch: HAPPY 10th!