Wired in Asheville: Moogfest Finds a Higher Purpose with Its Reboot

The pie-in-the-sky optimisms of a Daft Punk performance at Moogfest turned out to be just that — despite ample amounts of bait — but there was hardly a moment wasted at the newly rebooted Asheville festival in honor of the celebrated inventor Bob Moog. Following its 18-month hiatus, the newest iteration of Moogfest ran a current between the scientific ingenuity that Moog instilled into his adopted home, the European genesis of electronic pop and the industriousness of the Detroit scene that worked to explode it. The result was fusion of the stunningly futuristic and the deliciously retro, a mecca for tech geeks, EDM fanatics and the creatively obsessed alike.

If the even saturation of music festivals over the last 10 years has engineered a “type” — the ravenous consumer of fun and experience who treats every four-day affair like a bear binging for winter — Moogfest was nourishment for the brain and the ears. From the monolithic, original modular Moog system that Keith Emerson brought to, ironically, one of the most organic sets of the weekend, to the ingenuously simple pitch-shifting and fully connectable recorders hand-built by Brand New Noise founder Richard Upchurch, technology was foremost to Moogfest’s locus. It keyed on applications for not just entertainment, of which there were copious amounts, but an Asimovian degree of utility.

Those with the discipline to rise at 10 a.m. following Soul Clap and friends’ masterful DJ set in the newly-christened US Cellular Center basement — immediately dubbed the “Rave Cave” — could have witnessed an engrossing dialogue by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom on fast approaching realization of super-intelligent machines. Shortly after, one could access and field-test Conductar, an app that played music from brainwaves channeled from the user to their iPhone via earbuds and sensors, while also rendering their location virtually.

Other daytime talks delved into human connections to technology on a profoundly more personal level. Neil Harbisson was born color-blind before having a electronic protuberance implanted into his skull that allowed him to instead perceive colors as sounds and in the process, made him the first internationally recognized cyborg. It was more a bit of gawk-worthy curio than a real enlightenment, but the latter didn’t necessarily always come from the festival’s in-house academics.

R&B star Janelle Monae made a Thursday appearance with her production partners Chuck Lightning and Nate Rocket Wonder (though didn’t perform) to discuss the nature of inspiration, using her Electric Lady creative persona as the jump-off. Her interview, conducted by YACHT frontwoman and noted science blogger Claire Evans, touched on their imminently relatable obsession with sci-fi, utilizing your community as a transmitter for ideas, and Monae’s perception of the First Lady as the original Electric Lady.

While its daylight offerings carved a fascinating niche, Moogfest likewise took a progressive, highly individualistic path with its music festival duties. In-the-moment acts making the summer festival rounds this year were almost entirely absent, but that was by design. Detroit promoter Paxahau brought a heavy contingent of acts from the Motor City and Chicago, the two cities most widely associated with the birth of contemporary dance music, and thus, night programming brought a heavy dose of DJs and producers representing a broad sonic spectrum, or bands who thoughtfully engage technology.

Wednesday’s evening slate was truncated as an opener, but brimming with quality nonetheless. Synth-pop legends the Pet Shop Boys brought the first, but easily among the strongest, of the festival’s countless spectacular visual installations. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe entered the Thomas Wolfe dressed as walking magnetic filaments, while asexual dancers in bulls’ headed twirled behind them in from of a massive projection screen. As striking as it was, it felt like a mild preamble to Brainfeeder head Flying Lotus’s assaultive display.

He took the Orange Peel stage, the line outside stretching far down the block, and offered that he had “…no f---cking clue was [he] was going to do…” that night, and with a draconian no-camera policy in force, he unloaded a symphony of brutality. His twin projection screens, one in front and one in back, created a paradox of inertia and rapid movement amidst singeing flashes and bass so heavy he blew out a speaker midway through. His set introduced a handful of new songs, along with its accompanying live production, from his forthcoming album. On one, he offered a tremendous tease by insisting his audience guess the owner of a brief vocal sample he dropped. He didn’t play enough for it to register, but amidst the sonic chaos into which he introduced it, it very well could have been Beyonce or Kelis.

He ended his set with a guest spot from Thundercat (whom he assisted earlier in the day with DJ duties atop the Aloft Hotel at the opening VIP party with Gov. Pat McCrory in attendance) on “Oh Sheit It’s the X” though somewhat disappointingly, it was the highest profile guest spot of the weekend, though it wasn’t the only surprise. There were no rumored secret sets by Thundercat or Monae, and especially not by Daft Punk, but Ernest Greene, better known as chillwave producer Washed Out, did give an unscheduled performance at the Masonic Temple. Though it was at capacity, it faced stiff competition from the highly anticipated performance by Nile Rodgers with Chic. Rodgers had earlier given one of the weekend’s best talks, in which he mused on the secret jazz chords couched in his imitable sound and creating a presence in the music industry through your story.

He sat on the lip of the Thomas Wolfe Stage for half and hour rapping with fans before retreating backstage long enough for the house lights to drop. With a setlist that included Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Duran Duran’s “Notorious”, Rodgers cautioned midway through that he wasn’t fronting a cover band; he actually wrote and/or produced all of the songs that he and his band performed. At almost the same time, a Columbia, S.C. artist who’s a tangential successor to Rodgers was testing out unreleased music at the Asheville Music Hall under a relatively unknown pseudonym, Les Sins. Just a few weeks before, Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick had been on stage at Coachella singing with Chromeo, but Saturday night he looked focused and observant, carefully selecting new disco-hued tracks and assessing his audience’s reaction.

Like Bundick’s capacity for observation, there were learning opportunities among the evening and night sets as well. Cult Los Angeles electro producer the Egyptian Lover cradled his Roland TR-808 while his hype man gave his crowd lessons in sonic recognition while the suitcase-sized box rattled the apartment windows all around the Moog factory. German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk were the festival’s top draw with three performances of their lauded 3D installation, but even they reportedly took away lessons from their time at Moogfest. After their Thursday night performance bombed out halfway through due to catastrophic sound failures, rumors abounded through the production staff that it was due to their equipment carrying incompatible European inputs and in a rush to acquire the proper adapters, mistakes were made. All was right with the ship Friday night, which literally (or virtually) landed just outside the Thomas Wolfe during “Spacelab”.

With so many originators and innovators on hand, part of the fun was parsing their influences via the samples they incorporated. Weirdo electronic composer Daedalus took his Orange Peel audience through a madman’s symphony of dark hip-hop beats before showing them the light at the end of the tunnel with a well-placed sample of Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, while afterwards, the Gaslamp Killer toasted his Brainfeeder mate Thundercat — and by default, his deceased labelmate Austin Peralta — with a moody twist on “A Message for Austin”. Maybe the bravest, and most pointed, Easter egg all weekend, however, was Mad Decent wunderkind Dillon Francis dropping in the robotnik countdown from Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” to the remnants of RiFF RaFF’s audience.

Before Francis made that clever reference came easily one of the most packed sets at the cavernous Rave Cave all weekend, though it would have also been difficult to find a bigger waste of time at Moogfest. RiFF RaFF was 15 minutes late to his set, when he did arrive, he very well would have sang the chorus to his opening song interminably had his DJ finally not changed the track. All the Mad Decent artists on deck did on Saturday was pack rooms, however, and rapper M.I.A.’s closing set at the Thomas Wolfe took home the trophy for the rowdiest by several orders of magnitude. In a room where Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen have wowed sold-out rooms, Maya Arulpragasam’s simple set was like an incontrovertible mathematical proof on how to turn a room upside down.

But a lot of people just came to Moogfest to dance. Detroit techno legend Green Velvet has made a respected, but understated career out of that very notion. Most well known as the creator of “Coffee Pot (It’s Time for the Percolator)” under his Cajmere moniker, Curtis Jones’ Green Velvet persona -- complete with lime green mohawk and steampunk shades -- practically mind-melded with a 4/4 beat. His three-hour set was unrelenting and purifying, full of weird vocal overtures and incredibly catchy hooks, but never wavered from that baseline. When it came time for the percolator, it wasn’t some groan-inducing bar DJ, it was the Chicago originator and it was incredible.

If one of the great assumptions of music-making is that automation would do to the singer-songwriter pouring out their heart with an acoustic guitar what it did to the craftsman forming each creation by hand, then the pithiest counter argument were those songwriters augmenting their works via technology. A pair of stunning performances at the Emerald Lounge to close out Saturday night were a testament to the power inherent in electronic music when wielded by real talent. Asheville producer Marley Carroll showed off the turntable skills that won him DJ titles at age 16, but that was only a part of the package. His gorgeous 2013 album Sings was at center of a set in which he unwrapped a outstanding voice along with Baroque musicality.

He said beforehand that he felt intense pressure opening for fellow North Carolinian Travis Stewart, who was following with an exploded presentation of his Machinedrum album Vapor City. “Exploded” might have been somewhat of an understatement. With the news of the passing of one of Stewart’s greatest influences, Footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, just an hour old, Stewart gave arguably the best performance of Moogfest. While Lane Barrington was the real machine drum, recreating Stewart’s granular drum patterns on the kit next to him, Stewart was a solo electronic orchestra, fashioning the album’s raw sensuality from his hypnotic guitar playing and plaintive vocals. While one minute he was a one-man Slowdive, the next he was laying out virtuosic MPC beats. Cearly spent amidst the 80-degree, capped-out Emerald Lounge he finished with Vapor City and offered up an improvised mix of DJ Rashad’s “Pass That Shit”, tears streaming down his face.

For all the goodwill and awareness that the first iterations of Asheville’s Moogfest engendered for the marque that forms its namesake, there was an irrefutable degree of hesitancy surrounding its overhaul between 2012 and this past week. The vision enacted by Moog Music’s 2010–2012 partnership with festy giant AC Entertainment was one of broad entertainment first and pedagogical outreach second, emulsified by the yolk of populism and designed to appeal to an auxiliary segment of the audience for AC’s flagship festival, Bonnaroo.

Moog’s alignment with Paxahau to rebrand the festival brought that entirely new identity it sought, but its 18-month transition elicited a degree of frustration in those who become comfortable with the predictability and security of the old guard. There was drama surrounding McCrory’s invitation, there were a couple of high profile artist cancellations at critical moments, and a schedule for the five-day affair that didn’t materialize until two weeks prior. Impatience abounded in online forums and social media over the future of a festival that was to be the nexus of art and science for not just North Carolina, but the Southeast. Yet, like the unmistakable tones of the Moog synthesizer itself, the reward for uncertainty is a lot of genius.