It’s not everyday you see cowboys, Indians, American G.I.s, Moses, Santa Claus, and Beetlejuice dancing to a Syrian wedding singer, especially in the American Southeast, but that was just one of the many amazing sights and sounds occuring in Asheville, North Carolina, this past Halloween weekend during Moogfest. This year, the celebration of visionary inventor Robert Moog moved from New York to Asheville, which Moog called home for the last few decades of his life, and where the Moog Music factory and Bob Moog Foundation are located. During one of the weekend’s many panels, musician and salesman David van Koevering got choked up as he remembered his old friend, saying, “He changed my life. He changed your life.” This simple but profound fact was emphasized over and over throughout the weekend, in panels, films, and from stages, and it was one worth repeating. Moog and his associates introduced synthesizers into popular music in the mid-1960s, the consequences of which almost half a century later, good and ill, no one could have possibly imagined. The great thing about a festival centered around Moog is almost any style of music is welcome. This year focused heavily on DJs, electrorock, and dance music, but you could easily imagine a more rock or avant-garde-centered fest.
The decision to hold it on Halloween weekend was inspired, since so many of the acts were dance-centric performers that provided a good soundtrack for rave-ups. Though there were many clever costumes, including several impressive life-sized Moog synths, by far the most common costumes were Indians and panda bears. But with the likes of MGMT, Jónsi, Girl Talk, Sleigh Bells, Pretty Lights, and, yes, Panda Bear, playing, a lot of the kids would have likely shown up in that garb, costume-friendly holiday or not.
One of the expected highlights, Devo, had to cancel at the last minute due to guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh’s hand injury, but Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale joined Octopus Project onstage at the close of their typically boisterous set. To an appreciative, almost fawning crowd, the pair led the Austin band through renditions of “Girl You Want” and “Beautiful World,” the latter culminating in a personal reminiscence about Bob Moog from Mothersbaugh, the first of many such appreciations over the next three days.
While it was a bummer to miss out on Devo, whose best albums may be behind them but are said to still put on a killer live show, the upside was we got to see Big Boi, who was scheduled opposite them, in a performance that turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival. Acknowledging the hour he had been allotted for his truncated longer show, Big Boy delivered a deft, seamless set made up of Outkast greatest hits and the more catchy tunes from his solo debut. Backed by a full band, DJ, hype man, guest vocals from Vonnegutt, videos, and a crew of refreshingly everyman-looking dancers (some on the doughy side), it was the most elaborate, old school, revue-style show at Moogfest and an absolute blast from start to finish.
Not a big MGMT fan, I caught a few of their songs and enjoyed them enough, but not enough to stick around for long. I preferred to check in on a band I’d never heard, Clare and The Reasons, primarily because they were to be the backing band of Van Dyke Parks, a man who is generally known to associate himself with unique talent. They play a sort of restrained chamber pop highlighting Clare Manchon’s lovely vocals and quirky lyrics. She acknowledged her band was “not very Moog-y,” and they were one of a handful of bands at the fest, Van Dyke Parks and the vocal trio Mountain Man being the others, who didn’t rely directly on synthesizers and processed sound during their set. In this way, Moogfest seemed to be paying tribute to Moog’s unorthodox methods and unusual creative mind, something a few attendees and commentators took issue with.
This view seems kind of nitpicky, given the overall prevalence of keyboards and computers. Van Dyke Parks especially belonged there, having worked with with Moog synths in the 1960s, in commercials for Icecapades, and with Brian Wilson. But for this performance he stuck with a regular old piano, joined by the Reasons on guitar, cello, and violin. Reaching into an extensive back catalogue that included material from his own solo albums, a song he wrote for country singer Steve Young, a song from his soundtrack for Robert Altman’s Popeye, and The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains,” he also gave a few history lessons and admonished the audience to not be average while warning, “There’s no shelter in the arts.” In many ways it was the most unusual performance of the weekend, precisely because it was the most old-fashioned. (I didn’t see Mountain Man, but they’d fit this bill, too, apparently.)
Friday night ended with Dan Deacon, Panda Bear, and Girl Talk offering three very different abject lessons in the art of the one-man, uh, “band”? I’ve been in Dan Deacon audiences in small clubs and large festival venues, and his shows are always a treat due to their unpredictable audience-participation portions. (Following some definite language barrier problems, I once saw a guy in Barcelona tackle Deacon when he was trying to start a dance contest.) Watching the show from the balcony of a near 8,000-capacity arena was a whole new experience, though, and seeing thousands of people go wild for his psychedelic minimalist pop and Day-Glo light show and videos was something else. The interpretive dancing led by Deacon collaborator GSP was actually pretty moving, and it’s kind of thrilling that this schluby, nerdy guy from Baltimore still has one of the best, most fun shows around.
Greg Gillis bounded on stage dressed like Freddy Krueger, but quickly shed the costume to get down to the sweaty business of mixing pop music and dancing along with the 50 or so costumed people onstage with him. It’s a valid question how durable Girl Talk albums are, and Gillis himself talks openly about how any kid with a computer can do what he does, but you have to be a fairly sour-ass stick in the mud not to have some fun at his dance parties. This one had a Halloween theme running throughout, with usual suspects Black Sabbath and “Thriller” making appearances, and safe bets were paid off when thousands of kids who weren’t born when it was released sang along to the Ghostbusters theme.
If you were more in the mood for chin-stroking music, though, Panda Bear was playing on the other side of the building. After Clare and Van Dyke, I’d more or less had my fill of mellow for the night, but wanted to check out part of Noah Lennox’ set, mainly because it was so contentious at the Pitchfork Festival. I get why people would be bored or indifferent to it an outdoor venue, but in this mid-size auditorium, I found the music and visuals to be completely copacetic. His visuals were really cool because he projected them both behind him and onto the audience, so the whole room was awash in multicolored dancing lights as his very loud music bathed it sonically. If you like Panda Bear, I don’t know why you wouldn’t like his live show. I mean, I know he just stands there behind a computer, but so did half the acts at Moogfest. At least he plays guitar and sings, and offers an awesome light show.
The performances didn’t start until 6PM, so there was a lot of time to kill in the day. One way to do that was by hanging out at the Moogaplex in the center of town, a smallish, convention center-type room that boasted several models of Moog synths and theremins you could play with, and also hosted a series of panels covering the technical and historical aspects of Moog instruments. It was a great place to nerd it up before recommencing with the festivities, and there was something fascinating and endearing about listening to a group of graying inventors, engineers, and archivists elaborating in depth on these machines we all take for granted now.
It was fairly amazing to have so many of the people directly involved in the design and continuing manufacturing of Moog instruments on-hand, and the group Projek Moog, made up of Moog employees and associates, was billed as a chance to see and hear the many facets of Moog Music at work. Unfortunately, and despite the unveiling of the new Moog lap-steel guitar, the band trafficked in a sort of white-boy blues, mixed with prog, that I normally try to avoid. They seemed well versed in Keith Emerson, and the highlight was a pretty faithful take on the theme from”The Rockford Files,” if that gives you an idea. So it was not my cup of tea, though the guys were obviously skilled musicians who offered a chance to hear the instruments played in a more straightforward context, without the tweaking a, say, Dan Deacon or Matmos might give them.
Emeralds were up next and couldn’t have been more different or more far-out than the home team that preceded them. I’m hot and cold on their recordings (with so many available, who isn’t?), but if you have a chance to see them live, do so — they’re great. Their set clocked in at around 40 minutes, the first third or so a nod to Goblin-esque Argento horror scores; maybe because of the holiday, maybe because they love doing that stuff. Then they picked up the pace, the two analogue synths working overtime as the guitarist basically shredded for the entirety of the performance. Hot stuff.
Now to Jónsi. One of the most anticipated shows of the fest, this one came with a lot of advance hype, especially its visual aspect. I love that man’s voice, which is why I’m sad to say the show left me cold. It might have had something to do with the festival setting, the fact that people were up and down, in and out, and drunkenly yelling “Yeeaaahhh!” at the most inappropriate times, but the music never clicked with me. The videos were impressive, his band adept, and he was doing things with his voice that seemed like a physical impossibility in a live situation, but I was bored throughout most of the set. After awhile you can play a game where you wonder how many crescendos a song will have, and where they’ll come in. Mine is likely the only dissenting opinion you’re going to run across, since everybody’s going nuts about it still, and maybe if there were less distractions I would have capitulated, too. I also missed the probably really spectacular climax, as well as Matmos, in favor of catching a “secret show,” which turned out to be a set by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden and Caribou’s Daniel Snaith. It was decent enough but kind of generically techno-y from two guys who have made such incredibly original music.
Fair weather Massive Attack fan I am (I lost interest after their peak with Mezzanine), I wanted to at least see part of their elaborate, expensive show. The combination of Massive Attack’s big sound and blinding light show turned out to be powerful. Vocalists Martina Topley Bird and the great Horace Andy were onhand to add some diversity to their sound, and each song was backed with a different lighting display. I don’t often get to see shows of this size and scope, and was duly impressed, as was most every one else. I stuck around for five songs, wanted to see more, but Dam-Funk was calling.
I don’t know what it is about Dam-Funk. What he does seems relatively simple, but no one else accomplishes what he does with so little. It’s a combination of 80s electro-funk, sleazy R&B and soul, hip-hop, Jamaican toasting, and even gospel, the latter two elements way more pronounced in his live show than on record. The secret to Dam’s success may also be related to the popularity of Prince (whom he shamelessly borrows from). Looking at a Prince concert years ago, I realized everyone there — fat, skinny, short, old, young, funky, rhythmically impaired — was feeling sexy. Dam-Funk’s music is likewise sexy, and bounding back and forth between turntables, Korg, and keytar, he created a laid-back, stoned vibe that not just lithe lady astronauts and shirtless frat boys were grooving to. He hosted the party you hated to see end.
Four Tet followed with a packed, well-received set, and following that I really wanted to see dubstep femme Ikonka tear it up during a late-night set, but was tired, and although Dam-Funk made me feel sexy, he did not make me feel as young as I once did, and we had a whole ‘nother day to go.
And what a day it was. I caught the last half of a set by Headtronics, a supergroup of sorts made up of DJ Spooky, Bernie Worrell, and a gentleman named Freakbass. They sound exactly like what you would expect a band made up of a former Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist and someone who would call himself Freakbass to sound like, which is to say they were a big hit with the hippie/Trustafarian contingent.
The aforementioned Syrian wedding singer went on next, as Sublime Frequencies’ Omar Souleyman held forth with a captivating hour-long set of celebratory dance music. And while the costumed audience might have added a touch of the odd to the occasion, it probably wasn’t that much more unusual than seeing the mostly young, 99% white-middle-class audience dancing, clapping along, and chanting “Hey, hey hey!” during the many instrumental breaks, provided by one-man band Rizan Sa’id, who stood rigidily still as he worked high-pitched Arabic figures on top of electronic beats from two Korgs. (Korgs seemed to be as prevalent as Moogs in the shows I saw.) It took a few songs for the crowd to get into it, but midway through most everyone was dancing, and one understood why so many Syrians hire this guy to play parties. The music never reached the fever pitch of his recordings, but was still very high-spirited. Souleyman’s exoticness was obviously part of the attraction, his sunglasses, turban, and white robe underneath a leather jacket leading many people to have their picture taken with him at the merch table. (Including your humble reporter, though I at least had the good sense not to give a thumbs up and cartoonish, open-mouthed smile.)
DJ Spooky was up next, joined onstage by a woodwind quartet playing a 15-minute classical excursion that owed more than a little to Steve Reich. The audience listened politely, if a little restlessly, while waiting for his DJ set to kick in. He played mostly old school hip-hop, always a crowd pleaser, as the crowd danced and reworked images from Dziga Vertov’s films played behind him.
There was even more dancing going on at Hot Chip’s show, a relentlessly fun hour-plus set drawing largely from their latest album and sprinkled with older favorites. The five-piece band have it locked down tight, and rarely have such unassuming-looking guys made such irresistible dance music with such smart lyrics.
This all would have been enough for the weekend, Hot Chip a great band to go out on, but Dam-Funk was playing another set at the Moogaplex and, like a drug addict, I had to have one more fix. Glad I did, because considering the venue’s intimate size and enthusiasm of the crowd, there was no better way to end the weekend. Mixing West Coast MCs like Eazy E and E-40 into his set, Dam-Funk was on the mic practically hectoring the audience to take to the dance floor and live it up while they could. Always good advice, but not the kind anyone at Moogfest really needed. They were already there.