By Beckett Bathanti – Opinion Editor – firstname.lastname@example.org
Throngs of glowstick-covered dudes tittered about “bath salts” and heady bros stared wistfully, probably recalling their first bad trip, in the direction of a cop-surrrounded bathroom stall. I wandered into a packed, chaotic bathroom at the back of the arena floor 30 minutes into Purity Ring’s set at the Civic Center.
With little interest in discovering the source of commotion, I hustled through my motions and very nearly escaped. As I hastily washed my hands, I heard a wordless moan and glanced over in time to see a huge, mohawked head emerge from under the stall. The face looked up, blank and confused as a baby, at the half-dozen policemen ringing the stall who stared back with various expressions: concern, annoyance, suppressed amusement and vague revulsion. He hauled himself out from under the stall, pants around his ankles, ass oddly pockmarked and alarmingly smeared with blood. The policemen took a collective half-shuffle backward.
“Hey, man, get your pants back on, OK?” One particularly exasperated cop pleaded.
The mohawked man complied, staggering to his feet and fumbling with his pants for a solid minute before securing them around his waist.
“Let’s get you washed up now,” one cop said.
I realized the police were leading the dazed man directly toward where I stood frozen next to the sinks. I uprooted myself and made a quick dash for the arena floor where Purity Ring was pummeling the sound system and festival officials were directing patrons to bathrooms upstairs.
I checked my phone. It was 9:16 p.m., and my brother had just sent me a text.
“Well how is it?” he asked.
“Maybe it’s just me, but this set feels a little slow. There hasn’t been much dancing,” Purity Ring’s frontwoman Megan James said in between songs.
The set was indeed merely plodding along and there was really no one to blame but James herself. Producer Colin Riddick did his part all night. In a varsity jacket he eventually shed to reveal a hilarious half-polka dot/half-checkered shirt buttoned all the way up, his beats were far more monstrous and booming than they could ever sound in headphones or through laptop speakers. For all the bad reviews I have heard regarding the Civic Center’s acoustics, I thought they handled Riddick’s punishment quite well.
But there was only so much knob-twisting and synth-mashing Riddick could do to hold the crowd’s attention. The pressure fell on James to move the crowd, which she failed to do at all. She stood almost perfectly still the entire night, swaying some, and very briefly taking a turn on Riddick’s synth pad. Perhaps she was hoping that her huge voice would be enough to compel the crowd, but she was undermined by her stasis.
In the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Daniel Johnston did not do much for the crowd either, although I expected that. Johnston has been diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia and his catalogue is an intriguing mess, littered with just as much impenetrable nonsense and off-key wailing as it is with sharply unhappy, often brilliant lyrics. What I had not anticipated was how thoroughly depressing his show would be. It is one thing to listen to his music and be struck by how off-kilter and unsettlingly painful it is, but another thing entirely to watch a 52-year-old shakily belt these almost child-like lyrics alone on stage. It didn’t help that the crowd, glow sticks at the ready, wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. Behind me, a guy tried unsuccessfully to convince his friend to stay.
“Just listen to his lyrics, man. He’s brilliant.”
“I believe you, I’m just not feeling it.”
At a festival headlined by Bassnectar, Daniel Johnston, perhaps appropriately, did not quite fit in.
Back in the Civic Center, Deltron 3030, the only rap act on the bill, had no problem getting the crowd going. Deltron 3030 is a supergroup of sorts, composed of producer Dan the Automator, rapper Del the Funky Homosapien and Kid Koala. Trafficking in a certain brand of nerdy, science fiction hip-hop, all of Deltron 3030’s songs basically sound the same. Though generally a bad thing when coupled with Del’s very generic rappity-rap flow, the crowd ate it up.
With stunner shades on beneath a hoodie he eventually shed, Del was truly an emcee, bantering with the crowd between songs and keeping the energy up. A mini-orchestra backed him, complete with conductor and a half-dozen backup singers.
At the back of the arena floor, in the line to the liquor bar, a tall guy in a peacoat threw his arms up in the air and screamed with happiness. At first I thought he was exalting Deltron, but then I realized the girl next to him had just removed her shirt.
I had a crisis on my hands around 11 p.m. Being disappointed by Johnston proved bad enough that I didn’t know if I could take the chance on Neutral Milk Hotel.
At the risk of hyperbole, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea changed my life and I doubt I am alone in that.
After much wandering through the Civic Center complex and fretting, I slipped into the Thomas Wolfe auditorium just as festival workers were beginning to turn people away and it was the best decision I made all weekend. Mangum came out alone to perform “Two-Headed Boy” with his guitar to a truly electric atmosphere.
Due to Mangum’s reclusive nature and a dearth of Neutral Milk Hotel shows over the past decade or so, each appearance by the band is a treat, and the crowd knew it. For the band’s part, the audience couldn’t tell how little recent touring practice they had.
A lot of the lovelier, gentler tracks from Aeroplane like “Oh, Comely” were injected with a soaring dissonance that still left Mangum’s unique voice intact, and noisier tracks from On Averyl Island were transformed into monstrous, throbbing balls of pent energy. I am proud to say I made it through almost the entire set without shedding a tear, but “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” hit me in the gut just like it always has, and I suspect always will.
I was fairly excited for XXYYXX’s show at Asheville Music Hall until I got there. The obnoxiously-named, Orlando-based producer put out a solid, often haunting instrumental album last year, but I was surprised to see the line wrapped almost a full block outside the doors. I bypassed the line, but left almost immediately.
Asheville Music Hall is a pretty small venue, with a capacity of 360, and every nook was filled with bodies. The small spaces in between the people were occupied by thick purple smoke. Combined with the dark, claustrophobic mix XXYYXX was dropping, a panic attack felt imminent, and I ducked out, letting some poor unknowing soul take my spot.
On my way home in the frigid early morning, I passed by the Civic Center once again, where one didn’t have to go inside to hear Bassnectar. Practically the entire downtown was wobbling and whomping with the dubstep impressario’s heavyhanded touch. I stood for a moment and stared at the adjacent St. Lawrence’s Basilica, its ornate stained glass scenes indistinguishable in the dark, wondering if the relics inside were shuddering under the burden of bass.
A stumbling, wide-eyed man gaped at me and seemed to read my thoughts.
“Bassnectar gonna knock the Basilica down,” he murmured, before turning to urinate on a tree.