The moment when the third night of the 12th Hopscotch Music Festival felt most in danger of being washed away was also the moment when it felt the most special.

In the late afternoon, heavy sheets of rain began falling on downtown Raleigh. After getting soaked watching Nation of Language’s taut, emotionally resonant electro-pop in City Plaza, I decamped to a food hall to dry out and figure out my next move, soon learning that the festival’s other main stage in Moore Square was taking a pause due to the downpour.

The stage restarted at 8:15 p.m., with jazz/experimental guitarist Jeff Parker playing an arrestingly intimate set marked by wafts of ambient tones and softly wandering melody. Getting lost in his sound with a crowd that couldn’t have surpassed 50 people in a large park with mist in the air was one of the most transfixing pairings of artist and venue I’ve experienced during the 11 Hopscotches I’ve attended.

And then Hopscotch bowed its back to the rain. Bigger, but still small, crowds arrived and engaged with the complex and innervating rhythms of jazz drummer Makaya McCraven and his band (which included Jeff Parker) and the thrillingly extreme post-punk dynamics of Kim Gordon and her band.

After, the clubs that weren’t an official part of last year’s return after COVID-19 forced the festival to cancel in 2020 showed why they’re so crucial to Hopscotch’s success, as the attendees that were still hungry for more after the rain-hampered evening packed into Slim’s and Pour House for some propulsive punk (Headkicker and Late Bloomer fueled me into the wee hours), chaotic but tuneful indie rock (Cor de Lux) and inviting hip-hop-tinged indie-pop (Black Haüs).

Even without the rain, the schedule couldn’t have matched the bracing sense of possibility that came when Hopscotch was able to book with more variety across ten or more indoor venues back in the 2010s. But Saturday night—and other moments across the festival’s three days—affirmed that this is still a festival with the personality and spark necessary to become something bigger again.

Utilizing two clubs and two temporary outdoor spaces didn’t afford the opportunity for too many moments like Parker in Moore Square, where the venue and the artist tease out compelling intricacies in each other—as when Hopscotch was able to program a variety of sounds in an acoustically gorgeous opera theater, for instance. Pickings were slim for those who enjoy truly extreme sounds in the metal, punk, and noise realm, especially after the mid-festival cancellation of the mighty Lightning Bolt. And the lineup (still much smaller than before the pandemic with less than 50 acts) couldn’t match the fascinating counterpoints between divergent sounds and ideas that came when the lineup was much bigger (surpassing 100).

But diverse headliners still delivered special and impressive sets: Courtney Barnett ratcheted the tension between her sardonic and laconic songwriting and livewire guitar playing; Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 propelled the belief that rhythm and goodwill can still change the world when mixed in proper proportion; Charley Crocket embodied the legacy of outlaw country. Supporting acts also impressed: Wand delivered some of the most melodically and texturally thrilling rock around; Amythyst Kiah united tradition and innovation with her powerfully distinct blues-rock; rapper Quelle Chris delivered verses that were affirmingly weird, conversational, and self-positive.

Crowds were sometimes light (even without the rain) for locals opening on the main stages. In City Plaza, Al Riggs played a delightfully off-kilter electro-pop set that would have felt right at home at the cozy Nightlight in Chapel Hill for a crowd that would have easily fit in that small club. But the multitude of free day parties helped Hopscotch, as they always do, providing opportunities for locals to play in some joyously crowded spaces.

Fiery rock ‘n’ roll belter Reese McHenry, who played her first show back from a battle with cancer, for a small and attentive audience in Moore Square. Later the same afternoon, she played an unannounced “secret guest” set at the Que Viva Party at Ruby Deluxe in front of a packed and partying patio.

Hopscotch has challenges to overcome if it’s going to grow back into something that matches its previous heights, like securing enough venues in a downtown that has changed a lot in the last 12 years and figuring out when it can confidently book bigger acts into indoor spaces without fear of pandemic-related cancellation. But the festival as it existed this weekend is still one of the biggest, most diverse events in the region. And that’s still worth celebrating—even if some of us can’t help comparing it to what it used to be.

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