Monday, September 16, 2013

Hopscotch Music Festival 2013 (Raleigh, NC, U.S.)

The Triangle (the Raleigh - Durham - Chapel Hill area in North Carolina, aka "home" for most of our adult lives) has always been a surprisingly fantastic place for music. There's a vibrant local music scene, and sitting roughly midway between D.C. to the north and Atlanta to the south(east), bands doing the whole East Coast tour thing often put in an appearance... in smaller venues and for much more reasonable prices than you'd catch them for in the big cities. Coming back to the Triangle, we were thrilled to find that, in our absence, the collective interest in live shows has amassed into an eclectic music festival called Hopscotch.

Over 3 days in September, venues all over downtown Raleigh host nearly 200 bands of all shapes and colors and styles. Nathan Bowles's banjo pickin' brought us back to the land of bluegrass, a fitting homecoming for our first stop. Checking in with longtime local rockers The Kingsbury Manx next door was soured by the poor acoustics and the distracting media. Photographers from various news outlets and websites (do 'zines even exist anymore?) flitted about the open pit obnoxiously, angling for up-the-nose close ups and then abruptly turning their backs on the band when they got the shot. Smaller outfits gave us the opportunity to peek into venues that have sprung up since we moved out of the capital city, er, *cough* 7 years ago. From the Bon Jovi tributes on the wall, it's doubtful we'll be back at Deep South Bar, but we were eager to visit the old indie hangout Kings Barcade, risen from the ashes (aka the city demolished it for a parking lot) and reborn in Martin Street Music Hall's old digs. Unfortunately, the wall-of-sound-or-is-it-just-noise? act Merzbow had us high-tailing it out of there. In contrast, Angel Olsen's strange vocal stylings (I thought war-time radio/Edith Piaf, Rich thought female Johnny Cash) were pure enjoyment, and Local Natives's exuberant and super-tight set was one of the festival's highlights.

The main stage in City Plaza also had some great moments. I was thrilled for my old neighbors in their new band Gross Ghost as the opening act (and hearing them promote the show on the NPR station earlier in the day). N.C.-boys-made-good Future Islands played a synthpop set that got everyone in the crowd to boooogie, even with the lead singer's weird crooner-turned-demonic voice. The dance party continued with Holy Ghost! and A-Trak, who Rich thought looked familiar from his Duck Sauce video Barbra Streisand. As a connoisseur of electronica, Rich had a few bones to pick with him, but I couldn't tell if he was just playing to the audience's slightly more mainstream expectations. At any rate, there will be plenty of time for that sort of critique if we end up at one of the other North Carolina festivals - Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit or Moogfest!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Quepos, Rio Savegre, and Manuel Antonio (Costa Rica)

We jumped into Jimny 2 and headed out of the mountains. The views were really quite beautiful with rolling green landscapes dotted with the occasional livestock, reminiscent of the South Downs in England or parts of the North Island in New Zealand. Our journey continued down the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific Coast, where plenty of parking attendants beckoned hungry truckers with their come-hither motions to roadside restaurants.

Quepos may be on the doorstep to one of the more popular stops on the Gringo Trail, but other than a street of souvenir shops, the town retains a strong local vibe. We hunted down a real ferretería (a catch-all store with hardware and other odds and ends) to pick up our own souvenir: a good machete! A quick survey of Costa Rican farmers would indicate the handy tool/weapon to be as essential an accoutrement as the ubiquitous rubber boots. The specimen we found was of a hefty steel for 4000 colónes (~ 8 USD), far superior to the sad excuse we got from our local Lowe's that got a chip in the edge at first use.

Avoiding the afternoon downpour, we had one of the best meals at a hole in the wall in Quepos. Their version of tacos were crunchy rolls filled with slow-cooked, shredded pork hidden under a heaping helping of cabbage slaw. With one of the fresh fruit juices, they made for a delicious meal and probably our only reasonably priced one in the country.

Whitewater rafting on the Rio Savegre was not quite as extreme as they had sold it to us. However, our guide was much more knowledgeable about the flora and fauna than the one in Monteverde, even elaborating on the booming palm oil industry in the region as we passed plantations and processing facilities. Our transport to the river was a yellow school bus, delighting Rich who had never ridden in one. The trip included plenty of opportunities to stop and swim under waterfalls - helmets strongly advised! The last set of rapids were so gentle that we all floated down sans raft... although keeping your head above water is still a bit of a challenge.

Manuel Antonio National Park was the reason why we and everyone else were there. From Quepos, drivers must navigate the gauntlet of unofficial parking with touts insisting their lot really is the last one before the entrance. It was very quiet when we arrived, but the rains seemed to have driven away much of the famed wildlife of the park. Our early arrival did mean we got first pick on the gorgeous mangrove-lined Manuel Antonio beach. This also made for prime viewing of the only wildlife we did see: a couple of sneaky raccoons making off with a beach bag... and the hilarious attempts of the owners to pursue the thieves!