The weekend before Halloween was the setting for this year’s Moogfest, and just as last year, costumed festivalgoers added a heightened sense of unreality to an event that at times already seemed unlikely. (“OMG! Just met Brian Eno!!! #diehappynow” to paraphrase many a Tweet.) Relocated and vastly rebooted from is origins as a small gathering in New York, this was the second installment of the festival to be held in Asheville, NC, the city Bob Moog called home for the last decades of his life, and remains home to Moog Music.
Moogfest’s reason for being is to celebrate and examine Moog’s sphere of influence across a broad array of genres utilizing electronic instruments, most notably pop and dance music. The weekend’s 60-plus acts provided a fairly diverse array of talent for an event programmed around synthesized music, and it was the kind of electronic-based festival that caused more gushing than handwringing from the gentle souls at NPR.
There were fewer shout outs and expressions of gratitude to Moog from the stage this year compared to last, but the workshops and panels going on throughout the weekend still provided plenty of context and appreciation for the man and his accomplishments. Eno turned out to be the main attraction this year, and though he didn’t perform any music, limiting his appearance to a two-hour talk and an installation of his “77 Million Paintings,” he was undeniably a big part of the festival.
My Friday was bookended by performances from Geoff Barrow’s Beak>, first on their own and later as a backing band for German singer Anika. They’re more spry than Barrow’s other band, Portishead; their motorik rhythm and bouncy tunes even reminded me a of a kraut-rock Pastels at one point. The repetition was enjoyable, for awhile, but they seemed to get stuck in a rut. An hour-long Neu-like jam on a theme is one thing, 10 songs that all sound too similar quite another. A version of the band with Barrow on drums and with an added keyboardist fared much better backing dark pop songstress Anika. They reworked classic pop songs like The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” for instance, and spectrally dubbed-out versions of Dylan’s “Masters of War” and The Kinks “I Go To Sleep,” while Anika delivered flat, ice goddess vocals. A former political journalist, Anika has stated her reinterpretation of these well-known songs contains subversive political implications. I don’t know about all that, but it is rare to hear an artist outside of a jazz context who makes cover versions so completely her own. Maybe that is political, in a very broad sense. Comparisons to Nico are inevitable (emotionless delivery and she’s a pale, blonde, modelesque German), but in no small part due to Beak>’s imaginative arrangements, that comparison began to melt away a few songs in.
Speaking of comparisons, it’s probably going too far (or just lazy) to call Carla Kihlstedt the American Björk, but her performance alongside Shahzad Ismaly and Matthias Bossi in Causing a Tiger recalled the Icelandic avant-pop musician more than once. Kihlstedt, too, possesses a powerfully unique voice and is a restless purser of new musical styles for which to give that voice a backdrop. Why she isn’t celebrated more is a mystery, but I hope at least one person has nominated her for a Guggenheim. She’s a great singer in her more traditional outfits (though traditional for her is still pretty odd), but in Causing A Tiger she allows herself to really get out there, twisting her vocals into all sorts of contours while playing electronics, as Ismaly alternated between guitar, electronics, and drums, and Bossi went jazz-spazz-rock on the drums and keyboard. They created an unholy racket, brought things down to a whisper, and hit all points in between. I saw nothing else like it at Moogfest, the most blatant avant-garde and challenging music I came across.
Fine Peduncle is the one-man show of Cole Murphy, who performs an electro-soul/pop act that’s unapologetically sexual in nature, while also working in his interest in entomology. (Google “peduncle.”) His choice of Halloween costume, Prince, was extremely fitting, as he possesses a falsetto that can reach almost as high as the Purple One’s. There were a lot of solitary laptop/electronic performances over the weekend, but his was probably the most unusual and unexpected of them for a lot of people, as Fine Peduncle so far possesses a fairly low profile compared to most of the acts at Moogfest. Murphy hails from Knoxville, Tenn., my own city of residence, and he performs there regularly to ecstatic crowds. It was nice to see him play to a festival audience and wow them, too, with no less than Brian Eno declaring the performance “really good” at his talk the next day.
What followed was the exact opposite in terms of onstage energy, as Zomby gave the performance that most readily called to mind the old, “He’s just up there checking his email” cliche. He spent as much time lifting his mask up to drink a beer or smoke a spliff and wandering around on stage as he did bent over his laptop, suggesting a great deal of his DJ set was preprogrammed. It was a fine set, but he could literally have phoned it in from England via the Internet. Maybe he did, and the guy on stage was an MF DOOM-like double. The rumors start here.
Okay, Tangerine Dream. It is a definite sign of the times that this band drew a large crowd with equal amount old dudes (and it was mostly dudes) and youngsters. That the current vogue for insipid New Age schlock has become so acceptable to twentysomethings that they sit still for this is a good indication that something in music culture has gone terribly awry, or afoul, or askew, or all three. I can’t imagine decent sized crowds of that age standing for this 10, 5 or even 2 years ago. I haven’t heard a Tangerine Dream album since their 80s soundtracks, but their set sounded a lot more like those than their early 70s kosmiche records, except as arranged for Kenny G’s backing band, with a Kenny G lookalike playing guitar that sounds like a less soulful Eric Clapton. And it was way more Tom Cruise hanging out with a unicorn than Tom Cruise getting it on with Rebecca De Mornay. I mean seriously, just look at them.
An acquaintance’s teenage son loved it, said it sounded like “heavy metal done as easy listening.” Like that’s a good thing! To be fair, some of the kids gave each other smirking wtf looks and exited after 10 minutes or so. I stayed about half an hour, hypnotized by the spectacle and wondering where it had all gone so went wrong. Then I remembered that I first got into the early to mid 70s version of TD about 25 years after Lester Bangs so famously skewered them, and there are kids now apparently getting into what I consider to be mostly awful 80s TD 25 years later. So who’s right and who’s wrong? As I would learn the next afternoon, all of us are equally both, but Edgar Froese probably more than most of us.
Saturday began with a good talking to from Sir Brian Eno (What? He’s not been knighted? Only a matter of time.) His talk touched on Copernicus and Darwin, pornography and art, religion and drugs, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, and on and on and on for two hours. He was more content namedropping scientists few of us had heard of than the host of rock stars he’s worked with, but during the Q&A portion of the talk, the audience had plenty of questions about Bono, et al. All in all Eno came off as witty, charming, intelligent, and super inquisitive. So if you’re a fan, no surprises there, really.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius celebrated his 77th birthday by performing an early evening set alternating between piano and synthesizers. His piano playing was Romantically tinged, the electronic playing more austere and meditative. The two differing styles resulted in a more dynamic, engaging performance than one or the other probably would have. The set was made all the more poignant when Roedelius made a point of mentioning how he never even thought of being a musician until he came across a Moog synthesizer, and after experimenting with it was inspired to learn piano. At the end of his performance the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him, and on the floor after the show his old pal Eno gave him a big hug and wished him a happy birthday. It was sweet.
Rounding out the Old Masters triptych portion of the day, Terry Riley performed. Accompanied by his son Gyan on classical guitar, Riley alternated between electric organ and piano for a couple of repetitive minimalist pieces and an amusing Mose Allsion-esque jazzy mediation on death and the afterlife. Then they performed Riley’s 1969 classic piece “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” Heady stuff.
You’d think the day and early evening belonged to old timers, and the night belonged to the kids, but a few weathered veterans stayed up late to teach Twin Shadows and Toro Y Moi a thing or two. Not sure if The Flaming Lips qualify as old and weathered yet, but their live act may be getting there. I hadn’t witnessed it in a few years, so I went to check out the opening, to see if much had changed. Nope. The strobe lights and dancing naked girls and confetti and balloons and space bubble and just, “Wow man!” are all going strong, and it’s all very effective and impressive. But musically they were setting themselves up against impossible odds by playing Faust’s So Far before the show. How do you follow that? With “She Don’t Use Jelly,” apparently.
With not much new to see or hear there, I moved on to Tim Hecker. A bigger contrast in visual and sonic environments between him and the Lips would be hard to imagine. His usual near-blackout of the venue was impossible in what was essentially an airport-hanger of an arena, but it was close enough, and anyway it’s entirely appropriate to shut your eyes and surrender to this music, per Eno’s suggestion. It was the only time I saw groups of people stretched out on the ground, hands behind their head. But this wasn’t really relaxing or comforting music, the low-end drones, ambient washes, and harsh electronic tones layering to create a sound that teeters between grating and soothing, in constant flux and never allowing you to become a passive listener.
Amon Tobin brought his raved-about visual show that accompanies his new album ISAM. I felt the same about it as I felt about Jonsi’s raved-about 3D show last year: “Wow, this looks really cool. But what about the music?” With Jonsi I grew increasingly bored, then antsy. With Tobin, at least, there was more to engage my ear, from almost ballad-like calmer pieces to more angular abstractions to ramped up electronic clattering that recalled some of Tim Hecker’s more abrasive tones. Not that I’m so worldly or cynical that the 3D show wasn’t impressive, but after a while the novelty of watching animated spaceships fly across a Q*bert pyramid wears off. Beats staring at a guy hunched over a laptop, I guess, but as with the Lips, the music should always carry the day, and at times here it didn’t.
I hadn’t seen or heard Cloudland Canyon since the addition of famed Memphis drummer Ross Johnson (of Panther Burns, Alex Chilton, many more), and, man, they are a whole new animal. This new version is less rock-oriented and more Moroder-esque, for starters, and there wasn’t even a guitar or drum kit on stage. Just a whole lot of synths and electronics. CC are one of those rare bands that change from record to record, and this live show differed as much from their latest recording, Fin Eves as that one did from their “kraut-rock album” Lie in Light. It’s essentially Kip Uhlhorn’s project now that Simon Wojan is playing with King Khan, but Johnson and whoever the other guy playing with them was (sorry, guy) have helped move this band in a very interesting direction. Vocoder technical problems aside, this ranked as one of the more surprising shows of the weekend.
The other big surprise may not have been a surprise for many, but I’m cautiously skeptical about old-bands-performing-a-classic-album-live schtick. Suffice to say, Suicide performing their debut album was fucking awesome. Martin Rev’s sound was way more driving and brutal than on record, and Alan Vega’s anger seemed even more righteously indignant as he railed on hard times across the land. “We wrote these songs over 30 years ago but now look at the country, it’s worse than ever,” the 73 year-old who has seen quite a lot said at one point. Vega closed a particularly harrowing, intense version of “Frankie Teardrop” with comments about all the Frankies in the country having no jobs, no homes, no wives, and he seemed genuinely pissed, but also elated the crowd was giving him so much love (and a cigarette). It was a far cry from the going-through-the-motions oldies act I half-expected, and a heartening setting to see a multigenerational crowd.
Moon Duo was the only rock show I saw people dancing during. In fact, it was the only actual rock show I saw. There were a few other rock acts (The Naked And Famous, Adrian Belew Power Trio [I guess?]), but for the most part this Moogfest did not favor the guitar-driven rock band. Anyway, Moon Duo was an excellent choice if you’re only having a rock band or two on hand, because they really know how to use a synth organ tone as a droning force.
Part of the pleasure of a festival is slipping between genres, but at the end of a long day, Kode 9 following Moon Duo was a bit too much of a change for me. I went because I don’t often have a chance to hear dubstep through a booming system, but he was in DJ mode and lighter fare (“A Milli” for instance) was the dominant part of the set. Not much low-end. For this I missed Battles, maybe the one serious regret I have of the weekend, because word is they killed it. But one big regret during a festival of this size really isn’t that bad.
After a leisurely day of checking out Tara Busch’s lovely live film scoring (whimsical for Red Balloon, 70s giallo for 1920s silent thriller Suspense), a panel on a recently discovered Sun Ra concert from Moog’s archives and Eno’s “77 Million Paintings” (which you can still go see for a while), Oneohtrix Point Never kicked off the evening’s concerts by executing an excellent laptop set that had virtually no relation to his earlier arpeggio-drenched recordings, and a more structural than sonic resemblance to his new recording, Replica. Like that album, his set found him going in all sorts of different directions, from calmer ambient tones saturated with ethereal women’s vocals to rumbling bass-heavy abstractions, and, of course, what’s most readily referred to as noise.
After that pallet cleansing experience, it was on to the 80s electro-pop portion of the evening, starting with M83. I find Anthony Gonzalez and company’s new massive double album an exhausting and somewhat suffocating listen — it’s difficult for me to keep my head within that mixture of adolescent glee, wistfulness, and longing — but it certainly works on an arena level. Flanked by bright neon lights and pushing a huge sound, the band was clearly in its element. The crowd cheered every song opening, singing, skipping, and dancing along. The band and audience created a great simulacrum of what a New Romantic concert of the mid 80s must have looked like.
Speaking of simulacrum, I assume John Maus has been getting a lot more critical press lately because he’s bros with Ariel Pink and is a doctoral candidate, but I’m still not sure what makes his music any more special or noteworthy than the scads of one- or two-person outfits doing the retro electro-pop thing. He was there before a lot of people, so that definitely counts for something, but I only heard him for the first time this year, so my context is different than really sharp people more familiar with that scene. Also, his lyrics are often unintelligible to me, so any Anika-like claims of detournement don’t really register, either. But I thought seeing his live show would help elucidate this mystery for me. Unfortunately I got there about 20 minutes into his show, and he played less than 30. It had appeared to be reaching a fever pitch when I arrived, as Maus was sweating profusely, primal screaming off-mic as much as singing into it, and yelling into the crowd, who were eating it up.
I talked to a couple of guys afterward who said the entire performance was at about this pitch. They had come to check out the buzzed-about curiosity, not knowing what exactly they were going to see. I gathered through their eyes it looked kind of like this, but they were definitely in the minority because everybody else was totally bummed he wasn’t coming back on for more. I was bummed at the time, but can’t decide if I’d rather have seen the whole thing or not, because the five or so minutes I witnessed were the strangest and oddly exciting I encountered the whole weekend, and it’s always nice to keep a few mysteries in your life alive and just have part of a story. That glimpse may actually leave a deeper impression.
I probably should have called it a festival after that, because while Baths continued the heart-on-sleeve electro-pop mood — though much more on the innovative/IDM end of electronica — I just wasn’t feeling it. Festival fatigue, maybe. I would have stuck around for Ford and Lopatin, an 80s electro-pop-referencing act I don’t have ambivalent feelings about at all — I love their recordings — but I had my own academic responsibilities in the morning and a few hours drive ahead of me. Driving out of Asheville, I tuned in to a local radio station that had gathered a group of people in the studio to take turns singing traditional ballads a capella. It was probably literally the greatest contrast to what went down over the last three days I could have heard, and a reminder of how unlikely it might have seemed to some that the music festival I witnessed took place in North Carolina. I listened until the signal started to fade as I drove deeper into the mountains, then decided I wasn’t ready to let the spirit of Moogfest go just yet, and popped in the Risky Business soundtrack I’d found in a thrift store a few weeks earlier. I have to say Tangerine Dream came off pretty good compared to a lot of the contemporaneous stuff on it and “Guido the Killer Pimp” sounded especially good while barreling through the mountains on a cold, pitch-black night.
[Photo Credit: Lauren Coakley (Flaming Lips/Fine Peduncle), David McNamara (Beak>), Joseph F.Carney III (Eno), Shaun Hollingsworth (Suicide), Tess Malijenovsky (Maus)]