Launched in 2004 to honor the spirit of Bob Moog, Moogfest has, since 2010, moved from a one-night deal in New York City (where the man was born) to a three-day festival in Asheville (where he and his company settled). Asheville, North Carolina might not be the first city that springs to mind when thinking of electronic music, or festivals, or even Bob Moog. But his adopted home has taken great pains to help curate an event that takes honoring his memory pretty damn seriously. And if it might be the only time during the year one associates Asheville with electronic music, these are some pretty heavyweight acts for a city this size. Add a picturesque and seasonal location in the Blue Mountains at the end of October and you have the ingredients for something unique amongst American festivals: a high-minded rave that erupts in a small but (somewhat) tolerant community at the height of leaf season.
It might be thought that locals put off the costumed strangeness present for Moogfest to Halloween, but, in fact, nearly everyone we spoke with or encountered in the streets seemed acutely aware of the festival, and of our status as outsiders. But this is par for the course when it comes to even medium-scale music events in semi-isolated locations–and Asheville is hardly Petrcane. Still, one could hardly hope for a more relaxed vibe from locals than the one that prevailed throughout the weekend.
A persistent rainy drizzle accompanied the first full day of activities at Moogfest. This began a weekend dip in temperatures that left many thankful that most events were to be held indoors this year, but really only caused problems on this day, during the initial check-in to the main stages located within the Asheville Civic Center. Afterwards, eager Moogfest helpers and amiable ACC staff made for an easygoing experience interrupted only by the occasional hiccup.
Tangerine Dream were given both one of the longest running times and most choice locations within the schedule, taking the stage at 8 PM on Friday. Confinement within the cozy, almost audiophilic conditions of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium certainly helped, as a mostly older crowd took in the warming sounds of this 40+ year old group. And while I can't claim a deep familiarity with their catalogue, I felt as though the live experience played to what I understand to be their strengths–exquisitely-layered synth pads and electronic textures buoyed up by acoustic percussion and a cute violin player in tights. It might have been a bit dated sounding at other future-forward events, but fit right in with the sense of historicity that Moogfest endeavors to create.
Between Tangerine Dream's aggressive soundscapes and The Field's insistent ones, we took in a pair of more overtly dance-y performances. Chromeo took to the stage at Moogfest's most affable venue (the outdoor Animoog Playground) to a slightly more youthful crowd. The weather was still far from ideal, but the boys from Canada played heroically to a crowd intent on dancing some of the gloom away. Chromeo were the first of many acts across the breadth of the weekend to hone in on something that many seemed to ignore: a festival crowd demands at least a modicum of festivity. Moby was another strong exception to the norm of subdued stage presence, storming the ACC Arena with a thick, loud, professional sound, the best that venue would hear throughout the weekend, playing a mostly dance floor-friendly and hit-heavy set to an extremely appreciative crowd. While it wasn't the most forward-thinking of Moogfest's performances, it definitely summed up its purely celebratory spirit.
Back upstairs at Thomas Wolfe, The Field handed in a set that landed somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. While the material was well-chosen and excellently-performed, there was less of the onstage exuberance that I saw in the band when they played a set to a tiny, impatient crowd in a small club in Houston last year. My prejudices may be taking the fore here, but Willner's turn in the auditorium seemed a bit professional, almost too professional to really carry across, although handfuls of kids ambient dancing on the balcony seemed to have got the message all the same. The same could not be said of Flying Lotus, who brought about as much enthusiasm to a laptop set as is possible without onstage pyrotechnics or extensive costume changes. After a lengthy monologue about how Tim Burton's Beetlejuice is the best movie ever or something (I couldn't hear, the guy behind me went off on his own movie monologue shortly after FlyLo's began), he rocked the crowd to a fever pitch, MCing over his own tracks at a pace so exuberant few cared how little or much he was actually "doing live."
The undoubted highlight of day two (and most likely the entire weekend) wasn't a performance per se, but a lecture, complete with overhead projector and a Thomas Wolfe Auditorium free of both beer and costumed shenanigans. It was also not included as part of the overall Moogfest ticket, but sold separately and at a price that might have been somewhat daunting for non-weekend pass holders. However, at $15/20 for those already holding a pass and making the trek out to Asheville, Brian Eno's Illustrated Talk was an add-on well worth plunking down for.
For around an hour-and-a-half, as the overcast skies began to lighten, Eno spoke animatedly on a variety of topics, always with a mixture of seriousness and humor. Many of the ideas scattered across Eno's lecture were familiar to those who've followed his intellectual arc and not just his musical one, but they were presented in such a way that someone unfamiliar with, say, the music of Reich and Riley or the notion of cultural fields could grasp these ideas with ease.
The Moogaplex was our next stop, and a periodic and welcome one all weekend. An indoor space with an art show, synthesizer playground, circuit-bending workshops and panels, the Moogaplex was one way in which Moogfest really lived up to its brief. The spirit of Moog definitely was strong in this space, in which synth and synth programming were addressed in a user-friendly fashion, hopefully inspiring a few to take the next step on their own. And while the topics of some panels seemed a bit cheesy or even vulgar to me ("Ableton + Moog = Platinum Record"), others were spot-on. Certainly to be applauded was the combination of direct technology (such as the fairly approachable Moogerfoogers) with things of more historical interest (the Theremin panel, the rare recordings archive, the welcome presence of pioneers Dick Hyman and Larry Fast).
Fresh off his boyishly-enthused contributions to the Moogerfooger panel, we caught some of Dan Deacon's set at the Animoog Playground. Deacon, of any performer this weekend, really took the idea of combining seriousness and entertainment to heart. Invisible to most in the arena, Deacon performed a set that seemed chaotic, ad hoc, and as though it might fall apart at any minute, joyfully.
From a similar place, but expressed in a way that might have confounded many (it certainly did us), Terry Riley and his son, guitarist Gyan, performed to a relatively small crowd in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. For both those familiar with his side-long CBS pieces, his long association with Indian music and jazz (especially in the context of recording manipulation) or his recent work with Kronos Quartet, as well as for those who know the name but not the music, the strange set of vocal blues duos for piano/synth and guitar that dominated their performance came as a bit of a shock. Despite periodic dips into purely instrumental performances that shimmered as wonderfully as his classic work, and the arresting beauty of both he and Gyan's playing during the whole of it, the crowd slowly filtered away. It was one of several obvious disconnects between audience and performer during the weekend that, while frustrating at the moment, at least helped to highlight some of the deeper issues that Moogfest seems to raise.
Our first performance from the final day was M83. The band performed excellently, and were one of the most successful groups all weekend at drawing a balance between live energy and faithful rendition. Like Battles the previous day, however, it was a definite case of a quasi-experimental artist becoming something of a reductive experience live. In order to put on a "good show," there can be little room for sprawl or acoustic nuance (in Battles' case) or clever orchestration (in M83's). Too often the resulting performance becomes a few drama-heavy chords and note clusters held down while a panoply of compression and effects are shoveled on top. And while entertainment should be a prime motivator in any festival set, it shouldn't come at the expense of creative music, especially when both artists and event claim innovation as a feature.
Back upstairs at Thomas Wolfe, Neon Indian, like fellow retro stylists Twin Shadow and Toro Y Moi, proved to be well-heeled and fun, but still somewhat drab in performance. They sounded well enough, and the band held together (last year on this same stage Neon Indian was a single performer), but one got the feeling all the kinks haven't quite been worked out. Or perhaps that excitement hasn't quite been allowed to seep through the cracks.
We dipped out before Neon Indian busted into the Moog Music Theremin that was placed front and center, largely due to an annoying raver kid next to us. We managed to soldier back in time for Special Disco Version to sidle up to the stage. Festival goers may or may not have known what to expect with James Murphy and Pat Mahoney's DJ project, but once their set of disco decks n' fx began in earnest, so did the dancing. Dropping mostly orchestral or heavily-instrumental 12-inch slabs, the set was tasteful but didn't include as many disco-fan moments and bonafide underground classics as I'd been hoping based on some previous sets, some of which might have really clicked with the try-anything vibe floating through the cloud.
Ford & Lopatin did the laptop bounce/video screen thing as far as performance went, but they turned in a tight set that had far more variety in even the first few songs then most acts were able to muster across their whole performance. This innovation seemed lost on the mostly male and bearded crowd that nodded along at the Asheville Music Hall, smallest of the festival's venues.
Our experience at Moogfest was a positive, inspiring, frustrating and thoroughly enjoyable one, if not the one we might have been expecting. I think that would please Bob. For ourselves, we've come to expect nothing less than this kind of stimulating mix of high and low from a decent festival, American or otherwise. And make no mistake, Moogfest has the potential to be a truly excellent festival, and Asheville itself needs virtually no improvement or encouragement to make that happen. The wide mix of acts (I don't imagine Roedelius, Umphrey's McGee and the Flaming Lips will share too many bills after this one) and decent amount of non-performance events put together by the festival organizers certainly bodes well for the future. And while all of it might not be worthy of the spirit of Bob Moog, whatever that really means, both the city of Asheville and Moogfest itself (as idea, as set of possibilities) certainly are.