I spent a lot of Troika Music Festival not thinking about music at all: I wrestled over the perils of eating food truck-inspired second dinners. I cursed my broken cell phone. I paced between venues looking for familiar faces. I thought about a boy. I clumsily broke a glass and poured beer on my foot. I felt relieved not to have a camera. I started taking tallies of people wearing un-ironic headwear and boys with beards. Mostly, I wondered how we all got there and why we’d come in the first place.
Because if you didn’t happen to be rambling the streets of Durham Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, the weekend was just a cold, rainy couple of days you might have spent curled up with warm tea and Netflix. But if you were, you saw a showcase of many of the area’s finest musicians playing for wholly supportive hometown crowds. Like Hopscotch before it, this year’s Troika conjured camaraderie in the local scene that I think we all know exist but don’t very often get to see and hear in such a holistic way.
That whole is best considered in parts. A few favorite moments from a weekend full of great ones follow.
1: No amount of publicity and buzz makes 40-degree weather and misty rain a hot sell, but those who missed the show Thursday night in Durham Central Park also missed out. Birds and Arrows’ Andrea Connolly’s voice pierced the cold. She turned a song about the death of a dog she’d had for 12 years that was “kind of a bitch” into something stunning. For Mosadi music, Shirlette Ammons’ stage presence and dynamic flow turned a chilly evening into vibrant jumpstart.
2: Justin Robinson, in a green sequin cape, with his trio of co-conspirators The Mary Annettes, played a rousing set to an eager crowd at Fullsteam. The band’s strength lies in its bold attempt to balance the strange and the beautiful—and to do so with largely traditional instrumentation. It’s an enigmatic blend exemplified when Shirlette Ammons hopped onstage for “Kissin’ and Cussin’.”
3: Carrboro’s Veelee took hold of The Pinhook Thursday night. This duo’s charismatic indie pop is stunningly catchy on record and completely gratifying to see translated live. Drummer Ginger Wagg bounced through the set in stocking feet, while guitar/keyboardist Matt Park shook the hair out of his eyes to shout this hook or lay down that punchy riff.
4: Friday started with The Small Ponds for me. When it comes to singing (and especially to duets), Caitlin Cary can do very little wrong. With Matt Douglas, she played a set chock full of their catchy pop/rock originals and a few covers (Tegan and Sarah and John Doe), just in case anyone had forgotten.
5: My complete repetitiveness in praising Mandolin Orange with complete conviction is to be expected by now: Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz are talented, good-looking, great singers. All this to say, with a guitar, a mandolin and a fiddle, these two kids play utterly charming folk music that’ll hit you between the eyes, if not right in the heart. Friday night’s set was proof positive.
6: Of all the acts, I was perhaps the most looking forward to Cassis Orange at Motorco. I’ve written about the band a few times now, but Saturday night was the first time I’ve seen them live. Cassis Orange is the brainchild of Autumn Ehinger. The songs are filled with bleep-bloops from a Casio-Tone keyboard, glockenspiels, xylophones, and drum beats. It’s layered but lo-fi, dance-able but moody. And it was completely gratifying and really fun live, especially when the band closed with a take on Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok.”
7: The weekend ended for me when Mount Moriah stopped playing Saturday night. It was enough. The band—lead-singer Heather McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller, plus a newly revolving door of sidemen that impressively included Lee Waters on drums and Megafaun’s Phil and Brad Cook on keys and bass, respectively)—melds indie, Americana and folk into a heartrending canon. Their set at Fullsteam offered more than I could ever imagine rising from a little wooden stage in a corner.