BEYOND THE VALLEY OF MOOGFEST

On Halloween weekend,
October 29-31, more than 60 bands as well as thousands of revelers found
themselves caught up in the spirit of Robert Moog.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN AND FRED MILLS

 

Indeed, ‘twas a
free-wheeling and free-ranging celebration of synthesizer pioneer Moog. You can
read our advance coverage of the event, including interviews with the festival
organizer and with Moog’s daughter, elsewhere on this site. Meanwhile, below we
present our post-mortem, penned by BLURT editor Fred Mills and contributor
Steven Rosen.

       Check out our gallery of related MoogFest
images (all courtesy Moog Music) as well, right here.
[Photo above courtesy Moog Music; image by Matthew Read]

       Incidentally, there was a considerable
amount of MoogFest coverage nationally, including an appreciation of Moog in
the New York Times, a “10 Best Moments” roundup in Spin and an interesting
review in the Wall Street Journal. Additionally, popular local blog Ashvegas kept
a running tally of all manner of colorful goings-on, additionally posting a
slew of images and YouTube clips of live performances.

 

 

That Asheville (and Robert Moog) Feelin’: An Overview,
by Steven Rosen

 

It was the kind of perfect day Lou Reed sings about. Last
Sunday in Asheville, North Carolina, during MoogFest – Halloween afternoon – Ben Hovey, a local synthesizer/keyboards
player and trumpeter who’d played the previous evening as part of the ad-hoc Projek Moog ensemble, had set up in
downtown’s Pritchard Park for a free performance as part of the Surreal Sirkus
Arts Festival, not specifically part of MoogFest, but clearly in the event
zone.

 

The sun was shining, weather mild, trees loosening yellow
autumn leaves in the slight breeze, and his music – as he effortlessly switched
among instruments – had a groove to it both mellow and insistent.

 

The air felt clean and clear – the city bans smoking in the
park, really a village square in the center of a major intersection. Because it
was Halloween and Asheville (an Eastern Austin) is a city overflowing with creative
types, all sorts of imaginatively costumed people were dancing, swaying,
playing to the music.

 

A guy wearing a huge Residents-like eyeball with red vein
lines posed for pictures with a child. Two young woman twirled hula hoops like
lassos. Two costumed people on stilts paraded in and out of the park, while an
amazing dragon – its long claws extending from a person’s hands to the ground –
made a late appearance. And a balding man wearing a blue skirt and see-through
top took photos of the proceedings.

 

It all felt so organic, so natural, so like a community
making and enjoying music. And in that, there was an important revelation in
addition to a lot of pleasure. In some quarters, electronic music – synthesized
music – is felt to be artificial compared to acoustic music or traditional
electric-guitar-based rock.

 

If Moogfest did anything, it proved that synths have soul.
Or souls. And I’m sure the late Robert
Moog
, who created the Moog synthesizer in 1964 and the especially
influential, portable Minimoog in 1970 and lived in Asheville in later years, would have been
pleased. He was a very spiritual fellow. (He died in 2005.) His company, Moog
Music, and the Robert Moog Foundation – which wants to further his legacy with
programs and a museum – are still based in Asheville.

 

The three-day MoogFest, which mostly had indoor shows that
required paid day- or weekend passes to attend, was produced by Knoxville-based
AC Entertainment, which also backs Bonnaroo and Big Ears festivals While most
of the featured acts incorporated electronics into their music in some way,
that wasn’t a requirement. They just had to be “different” in some
thought-provoking way from the kind of arena-rock/country-rock guitar-based
bands that usually dominate festivals. I had read attendance was capped at
about 7,000-8,000 each day, although it seemed more were present on Saturday
and Sunday nights.

 

A couple of the best sets were virtually synth-free. Clare and the Reasons, featuring the
smoothly expressive and introspective vocalist (and elegant whistler) Clare
Muldaur Manchon, highlights a band that moves among various acoustic
instruments from song to song. They had the intimate, lovely chamber-rock sound
of an Antony
& the Johnsons on songs like “You’ve Got Time.” They also supported pianist
Van Dyke Parks for a set, as he
offered a witty, good-natured tour through his wonderful songbook. His Friday
night set at the acoustically pristine Thomas Wolfe Auditorium ended with
Manchon singing lead on “Heroes and Villains,” which Parks wrote with Brian
Wilson back in the 1960s.

 

As for performers who avail themselves of electronics, I
didn’t get the adulation given Pretty
Lights
– DJ Derek Vincent Smith who performed on the huge Civic Center
Arena stage with a drummer – since the act sounded a lot like listening to a
record, with so much of the music sampled. On the other hand, Big Boi impressed by filling that same
stage with back-up singers and players, doing his best to make his celebratory,
party-ready music live.

 

And Sunday night at the Wolfe offered two great bands that
have incorporated synths into their pop sound in different ways. Neon Indian, which on record is just
Alan Palomo recording on laptop, live became a vibrant band backed by an
arresting light show. Palomo’s catchy, trippy songs like “Should Have Taken
Acid With You” and “Deadbeat Summer” helped set the scene, as did his active
stage presence, which included playing the Theremin. But the crowd also helped
make the show exciting. Many had luminescent, neon-like hoops and rings, or
wore feathers – even headdresses – atop their noggins.

 

And the pop swagger of Britain’s Hot Chip – in the tradition of bands like ABC and Human League,
even Roxy Music – is so infectiously cool it’s incredible they don’t rack up
Number One hits one after the other in this country. Their songs on stage
evolved slowly, layering melodic chorus on top of melodic verse until each
soared with the beauty of its craftsmanship. It seemed like all six of the band
members took turns playing synthesizers, and Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard’s
trade-off on lead vocals was thrilling. 

 

The most dramatic act I caught was Massive Attack – elder statesmen of politicized trip-hop – who
played the arena on Saturday night. Longtime member Robert Del Naja isn’t the
strongest vocalist – he had trouble projecting – so he lets guest singers like Martina Topley-Bird and Horace Andy take turns, offering up a
revue-style performance. The show has the arty, theatrical conceptualism of U2
or Pet Shop Boys live shows- a huge LED screen behind the band flashes out
grid-like patterns, as well as barbed messages about global economic and
political inequalities. It reaches its apogee when Deborah Miller sings the
broodingly forceful, climactic “Safe From Harm” as the board posts chilling
quotations from tyrants past and present. Point made…and you can dance to it.

 

Because MoogFest was held on Halloween weekend, the audience – the whole city, really – competed
with the performers for attention. The best I saw was also the eeriest and most
poetic:

 

Walking down a relatively quiet, dark downtown side street
on Sunday night, I passed a costumed couple walking arm in arm – she in bright
red, wearing a hood and he in a tux and wolf’s head. They nodded hello and
walked on. Asheville is more than a great city for a
music festival – it’s just plain a great city.

 

***

 

Don’t Stop Believin’:
Selected MoogFest Daily Highlights, by Fred Mills

 

From the BLURT Twitter feed, Saturday
morning, Oct. 30:

 

#Moogfest recap 1: Dan Deacon electronic/nu-ambient improv at Orange Peel a
cranial-uncorking surprise. Plus, he led us in ad hoc yoga moves

 

#Moogfest recap 2: Nortec Collective w/Bostich & Fussible (spaghettis mariachi goes
Big Beat) will be the “damn, you missed it!” set of fest

 

#Moogfest recap 3: Van Dyke Parks spinning insider’s tales, closing w/misty eye-inducing
Heroes and Villains (Clare And The Reasons backing)

 

#Moogfest recap 4: Fri night drum circle at Pritchard
Park as unhinged as ever,
while street costumes were off the hook. Hallo, spaceboy!

 

#Moogfest recap 5: MGMT finished strong, but too samey midset, leading to mass exodus
from Civic Center. Big Boi crowd out of control
tho.

 

A portent of the good things to
come and the good vibes to be had for the weekend occurred the first hour or so
of the event. Following an opening reception at the Moogaplex – located in the Haywood Park Hotel, it was a combined
performance space and exhibition hall put together especially for MoogFest – Dan Deacon officially opened things at
the Orange Peel venue. With his gear (laptop, Moogerfooger, etc.) set up on the
club’s floor in front of the stage, he prefaced the set by warning concertgoers
that folks looking for one of his signature raveups (at that point he made
harsh, cliché-techno sounds into his mic) would have to wait until his second
set at midnight at the considerably larger Asheville Civic Center. Instead, he
serenaded the steadily-arriving crowd with a 40-minute ambient/improv set – but
not before first leading everyone in what were essentially exaggerated yoga
moves and breathing exercises while instructing them to spread out and then
lower themselves down onto the floor to form a mass semi-circle. “Now that I’ve
tricked everyone into sitting down….” quipped Deacon, as he commenced fiddling
with his sounds.

 

It was a remarkable, almost
Moses-commanding-the-sea, moment, and no doubt late arrivals to the Orange Peel
were mildly perplexed to walk into the room and see so many fans with eyes tightly
closed and seated in modified lotus positions. But as suggested above, Deacon
somehow managed to set a tone that surely would have registered nicely with the
late Dr. Moog, a man who believed firmly in the spiritual nature of music and
music making and the social connectedness that music can foster.

 

Immediately following Deacon’s set
there was a mass exodus from the Orange Peel as punters streamed up Biltmore
Avenue in the direction of the Civic Center (and the adjoining Thomas Wolfe
Auditorium), where the first of MoogFest’s marquee acts, Big Boi, would be playing shortly. Which was a pity, because only
about 250-300 folks were left in the Orange Peel as Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich & Fussible took the stage.
Their set easily gets my “The Show You Missed And Will Wish You Didn’t” award
for the entire weekend, as the group, with its mixture of live (guitar,
accordion, trumpet, tuba) and electronic (laptop plus a pair of handheld
iPad-looking devices) instrumentation, mashed up musical genres with the sort
of devilish glee normally reserved for anarchists, subversives and enemies of
the state. Call it an amped-up, thumping brand of intergalactic Tex-Mex norteño
and Mariachi, with a dose of spaghetti western themage for good measure. And
with that, punters – we were off to the races for this musical weekend.

 

Among the Friday
evening highlights…

 

Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO – which had been scheduled to perform until guitarist Bob
Mothersbaugh severely injured his hand – appeared onstage with the Octopus Project, doing a couple of
songs the Texas band had learned while en route to Asheville, and then the duo
was given the Moog Innovation Award. Apparently a lot of festival attendees
missed seeing the collaboration, as the festival organizers had suggested it
would actually take place during the time originally slated for the DEVO
concert, and as a result here was a good deal of grumbling on Twitter and on
blogs about this miscommunication, one of the few instances where MoogFest
stumbled. The grins on the faces of Casale and Mothersbaugh as Moog Music’s
Mike Adams presented them with a brand new Moog synth hot off the production
line, however, were infectious.

 

Big Boi literally
whipped a packed Civic Center – from the looks of it, one of the younger
audiences of the weekend – into a hip-hop frenzy, and while the crowd stuck
around for MGMT‘s set, after a
fairly strong start that kept most of the bodies moving, the band gradually
lost steam and chugged along at a midtempo pace that didn’t pick back up again
until the very end. It didn’t help matters that they had sound issues, and
those problems were compounded by the Civic Center’s
notoriously iffy acoustics (the following night Massive Attack would have no
similar problems). And before that final surge, at least a third to a half of
the audience had already departed, most likely in the direction of the Orange
Peel for the back-to-back sets from RJD2 and Mutemath.

 

Meanwhile, Saturn
Never Sleeps
– producer King Britt on gear and collaborator Rucyl and
vocals and gear – were in a deliciously deep trance mode at the Orange Peel,
piling on the dark beats and heavily-echoed vocals for a clearly energized
crowd. After that it was back to the Thomas Wolfe for Clare and the Reasons plus Van
Dyke Parks,
and as Mr. Rosen duly noted above, it was a performance of rare
beauty. It was obvious that Parks has found a young group of gifted musicians
who are totally simpatico with his own peculiar vision. And he seemed genuinely
touched by the appreciative response from the crowd, offering a number of
self-effacing comments that couldn’t disguise his pleasure.

 

Dan Deacon pulled his Moses trick once again sometime after
midnight at the Civic
Center. This time the
music was deafening and his audience was a heaving, bouncing mass, as opposed
to mentally chanting “omm,” with fans steadily descending out of the seated
area and onto the arena floor. At one point Deacon stopped the music and began
barking instructions for the crowd to spread apart – just like the Red Sea – in the middle of the arena floor. While
overhead cameras projected close-ups of the audience onto a pair of large
screens, Deacon singled out two particularly energetic guys who he told were
going to have a dance contest. The “contest” petered out prematurely, but it
was still pretty cool to witness Deacon’s command over nearly 7,000 people.
Dude should run for office. Or president of the NRA.

***

 

From the BLURT Twitter
feed, Sunday morning, Oct. 31:

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 1: @TaraBusch synth/singing showcase at Moogaplex in afternoon was mesmerizing and drew a
delighted crow.

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 2: saw @WorldCafe taping
of Mountain Man at LAB, David Dye clearly as blissed out by their vox as we
were.

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 3: Projek Moog set at Orange Peel hypnotic, complex, jamming fun,
esp. when Brian Kehew joined in on Moog Voyager.

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 4: Caribou in the big “huddle” at Civic Center
for a stunning set whose dynamics kept growing

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 5: per earlier txt, #Jonsi set at TWA deeply emotional, inspirational, amazing
lights/projections.

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 6: secret Four Tet & Caribou tag-team DJ set at Moogaplex drew
massive line, cops, and more.

 

#Moogfest Day 2 recap 7: Massive Attack was deep, heavy thunder, shot through with
uber-political visual messages

 

The second and third days of
MoogFest featured a number of daytime workshops, panels and demonstrations at
the Moogaplex. Additionally, Moog
Music had set up number of pieces of equipment, with headphones, to allow
attendees test out the gear for themselves. (Yours truly had never played a
Theremin before; now I know what I want for Christmas.) The whole idea was to
expose the public to more than just a bunch of great bands; to bring Dr. Moog’s
relevance into the present, and to suggest ways to carry his legacy forward
into the future. Not surprisingly, a lot of the musicians in town for the
weekend were also spotted in the audiences at the Moogaplex gatherings.

 

One treat on Saturday was analog
synth whiz and blogger Tara Busch performing a set of her compelling original music (imagine Kate or Tori
wielding a Moogerfooger instead of a piano).There was also a panel called an “Exploration of the Bob Moog Archives” that featured, in addition to projections of photographs and a discussion about
how the Bob Moog Foundation intends to curate the Archives, a series of tantalizing
audio clips that included Moog himself (playing “The Streets of Laredo” on one
of his earliest synths, no less), Walter/Wendy Carlos and Sun Ra (in the vaults
is a previously unheard live concert, which the Foundation hopes to release one
day, featuring Ra soloing on a Minimoog B prototype).

 

Then the following afternoon, Moog
Music’s Richard Devine put on a
mind-warping display of showmanship and technical expertise via the
Abominatron, summoning outrageously overdriven interstellar sounds. (From my
notes: “several species of small cyborg animals gathered together in a black
hole and grooving with a synth.”) It was the equal of any DJ set I witnessed
all weekend, which is saying a lot. After Devine came a panel, “Examining the Legacy of Mini Synths,” a
verbal and visual feast for gear geeks either immersed in or enamored of the pre-digital
electronica milieu. Fun fact: ELP’s Keith Emerson has been quoted as saying
that the Minimoog and other mini synths helped show the world that keyboards –
and by extension keyboardists – weren’t just “furniture.” Now you know who to
thank, kids (Bob Moog).

 

Additional daytime happenings not
specifically part of MoogFest but timed to coincide with it included an
intimate World Café live session
taping with Mountain Man at the
Lexington Avenue Brewery’s music room (the trio’s spidery, elegantly swooning
harmonies left both host David Dye and those of us in the audience shivering
with delight); and a preview of the forthcoming G. Love album, Fixin’ To Die (featuring production and musical backing by the Avett Brothers) courtesy Asheville-based media company Creative
Allies, which had sponsored a contest for fans to design the official MoogFest
poster.

 

Among the Saturday evening highlights…

 

Projek Moog kicked off the nighttime festivities at the Orange
Peel, and once again, those who missed the first show of the evening will one
day be kicking themselves. The combo – guitarist Billy Cardine (Biscuit
Burners), bassist Jay Sanders (Acoustic Syndicate, Donna the Buffalo), Ben
Hovey (Asheville Horns), on trumpet, keyboards and electronica, drummer Jeff
Sipe (Jimmy Herring, Leftover Salmon), and Moog’s senior engineer Cyril Lance
on the Moog Guitar – got together just for MoogFest, serving up a cerebral stew
par excellence. A lovely Sanders-penned waltz prompted a deeply soulful solo
from Lance bearing echoes of classic Jeff Beck; Cardine took the spotlight with
the new, fresh-from-the-factory Moog lap steel, sounding more like an otherworldly
violin than a guitar (check this photo); and Hovey processed his trumpet
through the filters of a Theremin, holding the former in his right hand and
manipulating the latter with his left, to arrive somewhere between Miles Davis Bitches Brew territory and the
jazz-electronica fusion of Toshinori Kondo and DJ Krush.

 

Then for the final two numbers,
synth whiz, Moog Cookbook member and Moog Foundation archivist Brian Kehew came out to join the band
on Moog Voyager. As the ensemble launched into “The Rockford Files” theme, the
dim flickers of recognition that creased audience members’ faces gradually gave
way to broad grins. The only way to top that was to throw in a monstrous (ahem)
cover of Edgar Winter’s classic synth-powered hit “Frankenstein,” with every
player nailing their individual breaks.

 

School of Seven Bells, at the Wolfe, made a far bigger noise than
three people should reasonably be expected to make. On one level, the
programming-heavy, widescreen sound brought to mind a stripped-down Arcade
Fire; on another, a distaff take on U2’s cinematic grandeur (right down to the
arpeggiated guitar riffs). For widescreen,
however, it would be hard to top Jonsi,
who followed S7B, and you can add emotional to that description too. Synching melodicism and dynamics with images and films
projected onto a huge backdrop, Jonsi and his band went for total theatre a la classic David Bowie to leave the
audience 100% enraptured. And next door in the Civic Center, roughly slotted in
between those two acts, was Caribou,
making the most of a somewhat awkward stage arrangement – the band was crammed
into a small spot at the front because there was so much other equipment for
Thievery Corporation and Massive Attack also on the platform – and effectively
using their tight “huddle” the same way Neil Young and his Crazy Horse feed off
one another. The dynamics kept building, from groove-oriented numbers to
edge-of-rave, wall-of-sound blissouts, equal parts pop and dance, until the
crowd was bouncing along nearly as enthusiastically as it had for Big Boi the
previous evening.

 

Towards the end of Jonsi’s set a
text went out from MoogFest central alerting those who’d signed up to receive
messages that Four Tet and Caribou would be doing a “secret” show
over at the Moogaplex. A line formed rapidly outside the Moogaplex to extend
out the building, and reportedly the ensuing crush drew the attention of the Asheville police force. As
people slowly eased into the space one person at a time, they were greeted by
the two men in full-on tag-team/battle-deejay mode, slipping from deep house to
vintage disco and back again. A woman dressed up like Frida Kahlo, complete
with monobrow and a flower stuck in her hair, was busy shaking her ass like it
was jukejoint night down in Mississippi, and her partner, one of many Hunter S.
Thompson lookalikes spotted over the weekend, just leered in approval and tried
to keep up. Here comes Halloween!

 

Per Mr. Rosen’s comments above, Massive Attack was probably the most
exciting act I saw all weekend – in a word, they were massive, not only overcoming the Civic Center’s
tough acoustics but also mounting one of the more eyeball-singeing light shows
I’ve seen in some time. Four Tet, doing
his official set over at the Orange Peel shortly afterward, simply kept the
brain buzz going with techno and deep dub. Outside the club was a nearly-impossible-to-navigate
line that stretched the length of a full city block up Biltmore Avenue, fans being admitted at
that point strictly on a one-out/one-in basis. A couple of days later, MoogFest
organizers would concede that this may have constituted their one big
miscalculation for the weekend, because even though a number of Massive fans
probably just bolted next door to the Wolfe to catch the remainder of the Disco Biscuits show, it didn’t take a
genius to predict that a lot of them would also head over to try to get into
Four Tet at the considerably smaller venue.

 

***

 

From the BLURT Twitter
feed, Monday morning, Nov. 1:

 

#Moogfest Day 3 recap 1: Richard Devine puts the Abominatron through its paces at the
Moogaplex. Damn machine lives up to its moniker.

 

#Moogfest Day 3 recap 2: Moogaplex panel on history and legacy of mini-synths was nicely
finessed for tech geeks and laymen (like me) alike!

 

#Moogfest Day 3 recap 3: Surreal Sirkus Arts Festival in Pritchard Park
a stone(d) delight. Ben Hovey’s laptop/trumpet treatments especially

 

#Moogfest Day 3 recap 4: As noted last night, Headtronics (Freekbass, DJ Spooky, Bernie
Worrell) at Orange Peel tore the roof off tha sucka.

 

#Moogfest Day 3 recap 5: Mimosa’s hard-clang Civic
Center set left more than
a few asses sore and ears, uh, clanging. In a good way.

 

As Mr. Rosen so eloquently outlined above, Sunday afternoon
in downtown Asheville
was just about as perfect as one could hope for. Costumed partiers had already
been the norm for both Friday and Saturday; on Sunday, an outfit was required
wearing. (Yours truly went as a rock critic-nerd. Go figure.) The absence of some
of our fair burg’s “Keep Asheville Weird” teeshirts only testified to the enhanced presence of out-of-towners alongside
diligent locals, but trust me, everyone was fully intent on making sure that
the dictum remained operative. To anyone who did come to town, either harboring
many expectations or none: here’s hoping you’ll return soon for another dose.

 

Among the Sunday
evening highlights…

 

After an afternoon of lounging in Pritchard Park and taking
in panels and performances at the Moogaplex (see above), the only logical thing
to do was kick off the nighttime survey at the Orange Peel. Onstage was Headtronics, comprising DJ Spooky, Freekbass and the legendary Bernie Worrell. The set kicked off with
a couple of hi-nrg numbers, then Worrell commanded the mic for a rubbery version
of “Take Me To the River.” Soon enough, “funk” became the operative term –
there was even an extended section dipping into vintage Stevie Wonder and
Michael Jackson – and the trio kicked out the jams while making things look
impossibly easy. Midset, Spooky gave a shoutout for the new iPhone Moog synth
app that had just been announced recently. Good timing.

 

You couldn’t exactly call Sleigh Bells a “highlight,” although the duo was fascinating in a
kind of trainwreck way. I haven’t seen a band clear a room quite so fast since I
caught the Replacements circa 1984, over-hyped by critics and doing their
drunken best to live down the hype.
Sleigh Bells is a duo that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be Big Black,
Royal Trux or The Kills; also, since a stage hand had to come out nearly every
song to adjust the effects box, why not just stick an instrument in his hands
and make him a member? Still, it would be interesting to see Sleigh Bells in a
club rather than a theater like the Wolfe, because they do have a punkish
abrasiveness and an adventuresome charisma that, if channeled, just might take
‘em somewhere.

 

The good Mr. Rosen has already quite handily summed up many
of the other blog-worthy moments from Sunday, above – Pretty Lights, Neon Indian, Hot Chip. Another surprisingly potent
performance was courtesy Mimosa,
whose hip-hop DJ set at the Civic
Center rivaled Four Tet’s
the night before in terms of clearing out ear wax and making the walls rattle.

 

Between the two of us, we were zipping back and forth all
over the downtown area of Asheville
for 2 ½ days and nights, plus change. We ran into old friends, made new ones,
compared notes with fellow journalists, and even hoisted an ale or two with
some of the artists who wound up next to us in venues, cheering on their peers.
And the one consistent thread that emerged was exactly what MoogFest was
intended to be all about: celebrating the wide-open, boundary-less spirit of
musical diversity and exploration that Robert Moog pioneered.

 

The folks behind MoogFest have apparently already begun
sketching out next year’s event – I’d reckon that makes it a success. Sure
looked, felt and smelled like it.

 

[Photo Courtesy Moog Music; image by Matthew Read]

 

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