Hopscotch Music Festival: Thundercat, Miguel, Breathers, Circuit Des Yeux
Downtown Raleigh
Friday, September 7, 2018

I likely won’t ever forget the bizarre high/low scenario I was in when I heard the news that Mac Miller, America’s favorite frat rapper turned rap experimentalist, died. I was at Kings, having just witnessed an incredible Grouper set at the WXDU/Three Lobed Recordings day party. Slightly dampened at times by a noisy bar that clearly came to get loaded and network more than transcend to the cloud, it was everything you would want from a Grouper set: tape distortions; looping pedal bliss-outs; spare, disembodied vocals that seemed to emanate from the bowels of the earth; a varied mix of material spanning different eras of her career.

Feeling like I had one of those transcendent live music moments that may not actually exist, I got on my phone and saw the news. Miller’s stamp on festival culture is undeniable. Several years ago, I remember seeing him take a risk bringing Chance the Rapper, The Internet, and Vince Staples to The Ritz in Raleigh, all on one tour. He could have easily brought known talent, but Miller instead used his clout to give a boost to up-and-coming young artists. This was Chance in his Acid Rap era, years before all those names were monolithic gold standard headliners at festivals like these. Even if you hated his raps, Miller was almost certainly a force for good.

Naturally, there were tributes throughout night. Bass god Thundercat dedicated his irreverent City Plaza set to Miller, who he cited as a close friend. On record, Thundercat’s music feels indebted to cosmic soul and seventies funk touchstones, but live, you remember that the dude can shred his ass off with near-prog fusion virtuosity.

Grown-and-sexy R&B heartthrob Miguel also offered a tribute to Miller that, ironically, came two songs after his hit “Do You,” which is centered around the hook “do you like drugs, me too.” While I’m down for the gooey contradictions of modern life, it always kind of goofy to constantly see this kind of alternating glorification and condemnation. As you might expect, Miguel’s set was a masterclass in pop choreography and checkbox-hitting. He basked in his glory on elevated stairs, illuminated by a giant screen projecting mesmerizing psychedelic visuals that seem to melt out of the screen onto his dancers. There were costume changes, small revelations about his name, and personal history and how nice it was to be performing for this specific audience, on this specific night. The maximalist pop engine, working at full speed.

The rest of my night passed in a “man, I’ve been going to shows since noon” dehydrated haze. I caught Breathers at The Basement, a new obsession of mine and one of my favorite smaller East Coast bands going. Plenty of bands still do hokey eighties revivals with bell keyboard sounds and aerodynamic haircuts, but few do it as well as Breathers, who get every spiritual detail down without sounding like one of those crude Spotify synthwave bands with neon racecar vomit as cover art. Their set channeled the sprawling pop cheek of Pet Shop Boys, and the sturdy sophistipop yearning of Prefab Sprout with ease.

I also can’t recommend Circuit Des Yeux enough—indeed, it one of the best sets I’ve ever heard in Fletcher. Haley Fohr’s disorienting experimental folk rolled off the walls like beautiful light, filling and nourishing to the senses. That same engrossing feeling goes for the gorgeous harp/synth/guitar combo of Julie Byrne, who I saw play for a thinning but enraptured crowd at Nash Hall. The night ended on a slightly more acrid note with Body/Head, the gnarled demolition duo of Kim Gordon and Bill Nace, back at Fletcher. Their din was made poignant by their visuals, scenes from various movies slowed down to frame by frame crawl. The whole time, I imagined the slowed-down twenty-four hour cut of Psycho described beautifully in Don Dellilo’s Point Omega. My senses were zapped by that point, but it was undeniably a vivid thing to take in.