Moogfest 2012- What We Saw
So, as it does, Moogfest 2012 has come and gone. Among the many treats that come with a trip to Asheville, N.C., and visits to the Moog Factory, we also got to catch a number of shows. Rather than telling you about all the great content we have coming from our time at the factory with artists like Orbital, Chad Hugo, and all the other goodies, today I am going to talk about the shows I got to catch in between running around from shoot to shoot.
Full disclosure, we were a bit late getting into town and sorting out all our credentials, so the first show we really managed to make it in for was the highly anticipated Primus 3D. Primus, as many know, is a well loved band that is fronted by the enigmatic Les Claypool. Claypool is eccentric, visionary, and very accomplished as a bass (and any other stringed thing he lays hands on) player. That said, it should follow that once Primus attach a suffix like 3D onto their billed performance… something fairly impressive should be coming.
Sadly, the only way this deployment of 3D could have been impressive would be for me to have somehow made it through the past 30 years without ever encountering anything in 3D. I am hesitant to say that I have been more enthralled looking at the slides of a Viewmaster… but I still just kind of said that. The 3D visuals were deployed on screens in the air behind the band. They were 3D… so there was a whole crowd of people standing in the dark wearing sunglasses. This amounted to more jostling than seemed appropriate as people were stumbling around, intoxicated from high gravity beer, moonshine, and a bit of something else judging by the smell of the room. The visuals themselves were repetitive loops of factory assembly and balls rolling down tubes at your face and other annoyingly gimmicky 3D nonsense. I had been drinking, but clearly not enough to have this lull me into any kind of stupor in which I would relate these items to the music in play on a deeper level. Then again, I might have not given them a chance, because after about 20 minutes, I cast my glasses aside in disgust and tried to get into the show. It was far more entertaining to watch the band and the giant spacemen stationed at either side of the stage.
This is the worst part, because the show was not the high energy set I wanted from Primus at all. In fact, it seemed like the band were trotting out sluggish fan (or maybe just the band’s) favorites, that were probably well suited to the more sedated people in the crowd, but were just making me sleepy. I eventually got frustrated and apparently missed Tommy the Cat (bummer), but decided my time would be far better spent rallying our gang to get to Squarepusher. I might worry that I was the only one feeling this way had anyone in our party of four said anything other than “hell yeah” when asked “wanna get out of here?”
Often described as Drill and Bass, Squarepusher is the performing name of British acid/drum and bass/jazz musician Tom Jenkinson. His music has always veered between completely bombastic drum and bass chaos wrapped in distortion, and shockingly introspective melodic lulls in the chaos. His albums are often wild rides, resembling something like Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) at his most punishing, with an aggressive rhythmic tendency. The most interesting thing about his work is that, even at the height of chaos, the alarmingly complex sense of melody behind Jenkins’ work belies a man with as much of a classical training as a love for grit. It is certainly not a style that will find itself easily emulated. To say the least, I am a fan, and even when the work is a bit heavy, it is the kind of punishment I will gladly get in line for.
Good thing, because everyone else seemed to have the same idea. Luckily, we found a secret passage in for our particular VIP bracelets. The venue (quite large mind you) was in fact at capacity as we arrived for the show, and a throng of people waited outside, counting on folks to stumble outside for air so that they might cram in and let Tom give them a good thrashing. We took our position a few numbers in and gawked in awe for the remainder of the set.
One of the most interesting things about the set were the visuals. Jenkins was wearing a single LED panel over his face, with a waist high panel in front of his actual gear, and a much larger panel behind him. All of these panels were specifically broadcasting rhythm driven visuals in white. The visuals would fire off in very computer-ish sequences and broadcast from the different screens in alternation. It was… intense. It was also exhilarating and very moving in the face of the projected boredom of the 3D colorfest we’d been bored by moments before. I remember feeling very much vindicated by this rhythmic deployment of visual force by a man who was making a clear statement about the purpose of visuals as his punishing white light smacked around an audience happy to receive the abuse. After seeing all the color and 3D gimmickry of the Primus set and feeling nothing, I was suddenly completely captivated by one man triggering his sequences and visuals from one space, in a performance clearly designed with cohesion in mind.
I say this because the music and visuals accompanied one another elegantly. While there were moments I knew from records I owned, there was no sense that the set was canned or that he was just running it down by numbers. Jenkinson manned his laptops and machines for the first few numbers before stepping away from the main area of his control epicenter to pick up his bass and lead the remainder of the set driving the visuals and sequences through the mangled and processed bass sounds he is so well known for. It was incredible for two reasons. 1) Over a decade ago, when I had first heard his work, I might never have believed a North Carolina theater would someday hit capacity to see such a thing. 2) It was like watching a guitarist from some apocalyptic future come back to tell us all what music was going to become.
All in all, this was someone I had always wanted to see, and I am glad for having done so. I highly recommend catching him if you should ever get the chance.
We popped in on Richie Hawtin after this performance, but it was missing a lot of his typical bells and whistles visually and we were all tired from a long day, so we packed it in for the upcoming day at the Moog factory… which you’ll learn more about later. However, the next night we saw…
Among the great festival headlining electronic acts of all time, Orbital wear a special crown. Known for their sprawling racks of synthesizers and adding an improvisational air to the performance of their own tracks in the 90s, the band have returned to touring and have a new release (that I quite like) called “Wonky.” Brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll now have a somewhat less sprawling rig. It was sad for my inner synth porn enthusiast, but completely appealing for my tabletop solution loving, “smart not hard” touring enthusiast. The new rig is laptop driven and features a number of goodies including a Slim Phatty (50 new presets on the impending white models being designed by the brothers) and a Dave Smith Tempest.
Despite any shrinkage of the rig, there is no sense that the improvisational element of their set has been affected. In fact, watching Orbital perform was possibly the first performance I have been moved by in a year of seeing all the upstarts firing off MP3s at festivals like Ultra this past Spring. With the exception of their own edit of a certain Debbie Gibson song early in the set, all songs performed were Orbital originals, and the set ranged from classic numbers as far back as In Sides, to the latest and greatest of the new releases. It was something akin to watching masters at work after watching DJs with all the songs in the world fail to make a crowd move all year long. Orbital’s set, whether pre-meditated or chosen on the fly, was a textbook example of alternating between big room moments and “catch your breath” resting points. Complete with an encore, the brothers conducted the performance with the air of men who know how to run a stadium sized crowd and this was the only show I saw all weekend that not only held its audience in place, but kept people streaming in throughout the night. Wearing their now iconic lit glasses, the Orbital boys were as charming silently working their machines and holding their arms up to get the crowd going as they had been when we met them that morning. (More to come on that front.)
The most adorable moment of Moogfest was when a young girl who had seemingly been sleeping through the show, waiting for her parents to leave while enjoying the show through the comfort of noise canceling headphones, awoke as they tried to take her out and protested by clinging to the seating area and demanding to stay. I think I might have had the same reaction. I’ve seen a lot of shows this year, and a lot of big names. There were no shows like this. This was probably unfortunate for the next act we went to see…
Kieran Hebden, AKA Four Tet, is best known for weaving house influenced electronic music from Folk and live instrumentation samples. It’s heady stuff. I tend to listen to it when I have a bit of writing to do or am deeply entrenched in design work. It’s great to chill out to. Bearing this in mind, we chose to make this the last stop on our second night at Moogfest.
Before going on, I want to stress that I am a fan of Four Tet. I like his work, I like his methods. I would love to sit in a studio with him and talk shop. I would love to ride shotgun and view the nature of his creative process. I would not, however, want to sit and watch him twiddle on his laptop in an auditorium. Yet, this is exactly what happened. Yes, he played well loved favorites. Yes, he played original material. However, had the lighting guy not been kicking through a series of ballies and chases with the very nice truss on hand, there wouldn’t have been anything to watch.
Hebden literally kept is head down in his laptop the whole show. I’m not saying 95% of the time, I am saying the whole damn time. It was kind of ridiculous. I eventually got bored of the lights and started watching the moron in front of me wearing Genco pants he must have bought for his last rave (circa ’96) and getting “tribal” with glowsticks while his disinterested girlfriend/wife/regretful concert partner contemplated what life might have been like if she had been with anyone else. In fact, the high point of the set, for me, was when Tribsey McGenco attempted to kick things up into some kind of Capoeira dance, almost fell forward and then pitched sideways into the seats. This was an artful move in itself, but made that much better when he tried to play the whole thing off as though it had been the world’s most dangerous move to check one’s iPhone for a message that wasn’t coming. Had this sequence not been so entertaining, I would instead be telling you about the guy who decided that he should creepily ask my girlfriend to follow him on Instagram (who does that?) before realizing I was there and then exiting at such high speed that I would like to have filmed the moment and set it to Benny Hill music complete with a slide whistle for the part where he almost fell leaping over a wall to get away.
I tell you about all of this because it seems more polite than talking about how the crowd thinned like there was a bad punk rock band on stage. It seems more polite than pointing out that the closest thing to a finale was when EMTs raced into the room to help a girl who was clearly on heavy drugs and appeared to have a seizure before going limp. The Four Tet show was the kind of self indulgent, “bored dick at a laptop” performance that gives electronic music performances a bad name. Had people not been streaming out in large numbers, I would have felt like maybe I was too picky. They were though, and the Moogfest audience is clearly patient and into all this nerd stuff. This wasn’t a crowd that wanted to fist pump, they were willing to wait things out… yet Four Tet challenged all but the most intoxicated and devoted fans. We were tired and didn’t feel like hoofing it to the next thing, so we rode it out. For my part, I spent the majority of time making a list in my head of things I needed to write, as the music so well suited to getting such things done was playing, and there wasn’t a whole lot to watch. To be sure, the musical performance was on point, but the sequence of material, the visual presentation, and the attitude of the performer certainly weren’t aiming to entertain.
There were so many artists we wanted to see but missed because, at the end of the day, we were there working. Missing Thomas Dolby and Miike Snow are certainly on my list of things I’d rather not have to report, but the schedule was one of choices. Overall, however, the Moogfest lineup is a rare one that offers so much it is easy to feel spoiled for choice. Even in the case of Four Tet, I am glad to have caught it. As mentioned before, these were just the shows and we have a slew of other content coming your way from the time we got to spend at the factory with artists and folks from Moog. This is just a taste, so keep your eyes out in the next week as we release content from one of the best music weekends I’ve been to all year long. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend looking into Moogfest 2013. Did I mention the restaurants in Asheville are pretty great too?
I’ll say this a few times, but we were lucky to go, and I just want to say thanks to all our friends at Moog who hosted a great weekend and took amazing care of us. I met some heroes and made some friends. All in all, it was an amazing weekend. Stay tuned for more…