Live Review: Moogfest, Asheville, NC, Oct. 28-30, 2011

It’s hard to be studious when there’s a party next door. And as hard as Moogfest tries to pay tribute to its namesake, electronic music pioneer Robert Moog (whose eponymous synthesizer company maintains its operations in Asheville, N.C., the site of the festival), ultimately, there’s too much fun to be had to concern one’s self too much with history.

Yes, Brian Eno gave a lecture and showcased his 77 Million Paintings video installation, krautrock legend Hans-Joachim Roedelius performed twice (a beautiful solo set on his 77th birthday and with his Lunzproject the previous night), Suicide performed its landmark self-titled 1977 album, Terry Riley performed his 1969 work, A Rainbow Of Curved Air, and a variety of panel discussions were held to educate attendees about the history of Moog’s contributions to popular music (including a presentation that included heretofore unheard recordings of Sun Ra, in 1970, performing with a MiniMoog prototype).

For those seeking a deep-dive education in the past and present of Moog’s legacy, there was a bounty of intellectual stimulation—a veritable university course in electronic music’s evolution. But as college students are wont to do, we mostly skipped class and partied our asses off.

That impetus was determined at the outdoor stage dubbed “Animoog Playground,” with Matthew Dear’s festival-opening set. The trio he fronts deftly balances the instincts toward pop and deep-cut dance music that is Moogfest’s forte with groove-laden art pop that suggests Talking Heads at the disco. As unseasonable cold and Friday night rains descended upon Asheville, consummate entertainers Mayer Hawthorne and Chromeo tackled the elements by encouraging the crowd to dance harder for warmth. Antlers and Tangerine Dream provided ballast, favoring more deliberate, textured pop and cloudy prog, respectively, but later sets by the Field, Flying Lotus and TV On The Radio picked up the momentum again. (And none were moreso than Flying Lotus, whose obvious enthusiasm for the performance was perhaps even more infectious than his hyper-kinetic productions.)

By night two, Moogfest had fully taken over Asheville. Costumed festival-goers in their brightest neon and gaudiest masks walked crookedly between venues, through Asheville’s hilly streets. The high price of beers and the overabundance of wristbands to prove one’s age were no deterrents to revelers. The beer flowed freely. The air thickened with the stink of marijuana. One group of young women stepped outside before Moby’s surprisingly intense, gospel-inflected set at the Asheville Civic Center mumbling to one another about whether to have another tab. (I assume they didn’t mean soda.)

If Moogfest were one-night only, this would be the one. Even as a cover band playing a rote version of Heart’s “Barracuda” at a middling counter-festival and a busking string band butchering “Folsom Prison Blues” outside a Mexican restaurant did their best to provide an alternative to innovative music, Moogfest delivered greats from the past, present and (we can only assume) future for an unimpeachable second night.

Yes, two of the night’s—and the festival’s—highlights were offered by septuagenarians. Roedelius’ solo set was gorgeous and expansive, with the star moving between electronics, keyboard and a grand piano before ending with a recording of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” in honor of his own birthday. And Suicide refused to hew to its original recording, with Alan Vega changing emphases and, occasionally, entire lyrics, while Martin Rev was a menace behind his keyboard. The duo’s set was the festival’s most visceral by a considerable margin.

But if Suicide was a trip to the past, Amon Tobin offered a glimpse of the future. The Brazilian producer’s performance of this year’s ISAM featured a massive geometric structure, in which he was ensconced. Carefully choreographed, high-definition projections made the stark-white structure—and Tobin’s complex electronica—come to life. It was a spectacle that left an arena full of attendees transfixed; The Wall for the 21st Century.

Outside, the triple-header of Dan Deacon, Crystal Castles and the Flaming Lips was a steady source of ecstatic audience response. Deacon performed offstage (as he tends to), which seemed a bit unfortunate for the hundreds of people who’d never catch so much as a glimpse of the artist. But he still managed to engage the crowd enough to convince them to build a human dance tunnel through the entire “performance space” (read: parking lot). Crystal Castles’ set was an explosive collision of their first album’s abrasive intensity and their second’s more melodic tendencies. And the Flaming Lips’ well-established lights-and-confetti confection was as entrancing as always.

But the night’s latter half had more than its share of treats, too. Toro Y Moi played up its ‘90s pop influence, complementing the bombast of Chromeo’s set the day before with an intimate club-room set. Moon Duo’s delirious psych-rock throb was near perfect immediately following the Suicide set. While Battles dazzled with its mutant math rock, culling a set list from this year’s Gloss Drop and casting the visages of guest vocalists against an LCD display, London dubstep guru Kode9 dropped a Battles sample into his masterful collage of body-moving sounds. German trio Brandt, Brauer, Frick closed the night with hard-hitting techno, played entirely on live instruments.

Saturday, taken as a whole, was its own type of ecstatic high. Sunday, then, was a glassy-eyed coming down, culminating in the brutal (if, apparently, wildly popular) hangover of Passion Pit’s pedestrian pop (not helped by frontman Michael Angelakos’ grating vocal overreach). Earlier sets by Oneohtrix Point Never and Active Child were plenty pretty, providing, respectively, slow washes of electronic drones and airy church-like pop, but the sleep-deprived crowd needed a jolt. That would arrive as the audiences built for M83’s take on cinema-scale ‘80s pop rock, Special Disco Version (a DJ set conducted by James Murphy and Pat Mahoney of LCD Soundsystem) and from Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Community star and would-be Spider-Man Donald Glover), whose witty rapping and crack live band were a remarkable (and much welcome) departure from the otherwise lukewarm day.

On Sunday, Moogfest became a tired host, gently urging revelers out the door. but at its peak, the festival was an unstoppable party, a swirl of bright colors and dancing masses, and still a testament to both the intellectual and hips-level contributions Bob Moog’s innovations have made to popular music. Despite the abundance of exhibits and talks orbiting the music, one learns more outside of the classroom.

—text and photo by Bryan C. Reed

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