Moogfest 2016 offered diverse music from diverse voices and might be my new favorite music festival

by | May 26, 2016 | ART

Moogfest 2016 offered a number of experience for music fans from festival heads to mathy-synth nerds.

Moogfest 2016 offered a number of experience for music fans from festival heads to mathy-synth nerds. But beyond music, the festival also carried a number of social messages as well. Over the course of about four days, in and around Durham, NC, I learned, danced, and toyed with performers and fans of one of the coolest instrument makers in the world.

Robert “Bob” Moog (pronounced like ‘rouge’) was a NYC native engineer who went on to become a world famous electronic music pioneer. After earning degrees from Queens College, Columbia and Cornell – all in electric engineering – he created some of the earliest analog synthesizers and theremins. If you’ve heard electronic music since the late 70’s, from Bowie to Zappa, you’ve probably heard a Moog in the background.

Moog died in 2005 from a brain tumor, just shortly after the 2004, 50th anniversary of his first homemade theremin. The first Moogfest took place in 2004 as a one-night party in NYC. It happened on and off until 2010 when it took up residence in Asheville, NC, Moog’s last home town. A few semi-successful years later, the fest found itself relocating to Durham, NC, in the heart of the Tarheel state’s “research triangle.” Durham also plays home to a number of musical powerhouses like Merge Records and ReverbNation.

A number of public and private venues opened their doors for the event and a main stage was built in the parking lot of Motorco Park, a local venue and tap house. All the venues stretched along about a mile of downtown Durham, which seemed to be most of Durham, or at least the heart of it.

Walking between sets was easy enough, though over crowding and lines did develop and often left those without VIP wrist bands out in the cold (more on that later though.)

We left RVA midday Thursday and braved the occasionally closed roads along I-85 to arrive at the event’s headquarters, The Carolina Theatre, by about 3 PM. Check in went smooth enough and we were in our hotel about 7 miles south of downtown by 4 PM.

While music festivals were an integral part of my early 20’s, this the first time I’d wear a wrist band for a weekend-long music event but sleep in a hotel and not camp in a field. While I thought it would be inconvenient, and at times it was as shuttles became less reliable during peak festival hours, sleeping in a real bed and having access to a real shower is a treat after partying pretty late the night before. I’m not sure I’d swear off tents in exchange for a comfy bed, but it did provide a new outlook on the festival experience for me – the added cost (about $100 a night) didn’t help much either, but was still not as costly as I imagined.

The other interesting side of staying at a hotel for an event like this is we found ourselves staying shoulder to shoulder with performers and artists in the same hotel.

To accentuate both how neat this is, and how music-nerdy this event was, our first shuttle trip into town was ridden with Christoffer Berg, a Swedish-born producer who worked with Depeche Mode and produced Fever Ray’s self-titled album. He was also part of The Knife’s touring band and kept referring to the band’s lead singer on a first name basis.

As a hipster music nerd, this was a pretty intense and amazing experience. I spent the 15 minute shuttle ride talking with a famous music producer, who’d worked on some of the most unique electronic music in the last 10 years, about how someone puts heart into a machine. Berg spoke slowly and with a fairly thick accent, but he was incredibly nice and laughed when I finally broke down and told him how I was trying hard to not “fan-boy out.”

He ended up telling us stories about how when he was on tour with The Knife, fans started showing up in weird costumes to their shows. Before long he and Karin Dreijer Andersson (the band’s mysterious lead singer) would dress up in costumes as well and go out and take pics with fans in disguise.

So that was pretty cool.

We finally made it to the Motorco Park state in time to see Gainesville, FL’s Hundred Waters take the stage. The three-piece indie/electronic band mixed heavy electro-samples with keys, real drums and haunting vocals. I’d been a fan of the band since I heard their earlier single “Murmurs” and their stage show was similarly high caliber.

@hundredwaters live at #moogfest

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At one point, vocalist Nicole Miglis stepped off stage and allowed the band’s instrumentalists – Trayer Tryon and Zach Tetreault – a few mins to jam out with similar success.

As you can imagine, sponsors were everywhere for the fest and PBR might have taken the cake with their contribution – a limited number of little insulated brown bags for your tallboy seen below:

It's got it's own little #pbr bag! @pabstblueribbon #moogfest

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We stuck around a bit at the Motorco stage for the London-based Floating Points. They offered their own display setup which featured a laser-drawn spiral series along side some incredible spacy-ambient jams.

@floatingpoints at #Moogfest right now. Spacy as fuck

A video posted by Brad Kutner (@patioweather_rva) on

Floating Points switched between these ambient noise sets and full-on jamtronica like Pretty Lights or STS9. There was a heavy dose of Pink Floyd in there as well, but either way, it showed a neat mix of traditional instrumentation and complicated synthesizer work in a jam-setting.

After their set we wandered over to The PinHook – a local punk/queer bar located on the other side of town. This would end up being my favorite venue as they often spotlighted weirder or more unique dance sets while the other venues tapped into more accessible or more traditional dance tunes.

Thursday at Pinhook played host to a few bands worth mentioning.

First was Larry Gus, a Greek-born musician who used Moogs as sampling tools. He mixed English and Greek lyrics with heavily sampled beats and guitar tracks to create some of the most unique tunes of the weekend. One song in particular reminded me of Person Pitch era Panda Bear with it’s jangly guitar riffs and tambourine percussions all looped from samples. Gus managed to split his forehead open at one point during the set and then spent the rest of the set pounding himself in the head allowing blood to flow down his face.

It was metal as fuck and I got an interview with him shortly after his set which I plan to write more about later.

@larry_gus sounded like what Animal Collective is supposed to sound like. Got an interview with him too #moogfest

A video posted by Brad Kutner (@patioweather_rva) on

We’d actually come out to The Pinhook to catch the NYC noise/electro maker Rabit but found him playing mostly hip hop tracks which we were less excited about. Still, he played some solid haunting bits to open the night.

It is both weird and magical @rabitmusique #Moogfest

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We bolted for a bit and headed over to The Durham Armory which was essentially a high school gymnasium filled with one of the most impressive sound systems I’ve ever seen. There were few expenses spared when it came to audio throughout the fest as normal spaces were turned into clubs specifically for the event.

That Thursday night at The Armory turned out to be trap-music night, but not the trap we hear on the radio or in mainstream clubs – this stuff was deep, beat heavy, and high on bass… among other things.

We caught a bit of the Australian UV Boi’s set. It was groovy and intense.

#uvboi at #Moogfest – nice DJ set and solid change of pace

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After a few tracks from him and a decent dose of dancing, we hauled ass back to The Pinhook at the recommendation of Moogfest’s PR people. German DJ Paula Temple was about to come on and we were told she wasn’t to be missed. And good god were they right.

@paulatemple was unreasonably good #moogfest

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The only thing more amazing than Temple’s beats was the crowd. Everyone in the tiny venue was moving to the bleeps and bloops broadcast from the massive sound system. I’d originally got interested in Moogfest 2016 because one of my favorite DJ duos, Simian Mobile Disco, was set to headline the bill. They dropped out at some point, but Temple and several other performers managed to fill the minimalist-techno gap SMD’s departure had left.

We stayed at the Temple show until the wee hours and finally headed back to our hotel. This turned into a kind of mad dash because shuttles were on a fairly strict timeline. Luckily we ran into some other performers staying at our hotel and they used their “artists” wrist bands to get us a ride and we were in bed about 30 minutes later, dreaming about Friday.

We woke up and lounged more than we should have, missing a number of the highlighted special talks and lecture series. I felt bad, but honestly I go to music festivals for the music. That’s not to say there were some interesting topics available – but my priorities lied elsewhere.

The shuttle system was in shambles by this point, and we found ourselves waiting about an hour for a ride. It was a bummer, but we had a few beers while we waited.

Making it into town we walked around some and found ourselves at the “modular marketplace” which featured a number of classic and new Moog and other branded synthesizers that you could actually play around with. I’m gonna let that sink in – we got the chance to play with Moogs!!@!@

People playing with Moogs! #moogfest

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I started with the Akai Timbre Wolf which acted as a synth, sampler and sequencer. It was complicated, I managed to get some sort of beat going, and then I was pretty afraid I broke it.

I toyed with a number of other of the machines as well, often with little success, but it was a lot of fun none the less.

We bailed on the Modular Marketplace and headed back to The Pinhook where they were just starting their day with a set from Party Illegal DJ’s.

@partyillegal dj's killing it at 430 pm. No slowing down now. #moogfest

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Party Illegal, as the name might suggest, dealt with providing safe dance parties for LGBTQ people. While they started the parties a number of years ago, the passage of HB2 put a special focus on the event. I’ve got a larger story about Party Illegal and The Pinhook coming together before the end of this week, but let it be known HB2 and the Moogfest community’s distaste for it was VERY apparent everywhere we went with Moogfest organizers often replacing gender-specific bathroom signs with gender neutral ones.

The Pinhook was ahead of the curve with their bathrooms marked “Gender Neutral Milk Hotel” at both entrances.

This place rules too. #Moogfest

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Time started to catch up with us here as one of my favorite bands currently making music was about to take the main stage back at Motorco, LA’s HEALTH.

I could spend a long time talking about how much I love HEALTH and why – I called 2015’s DEATH MAGIC one of the best albums of the year – but the video below should hopefully illustrate how their mix of electronic, noise and metal sounds good in any venue.

#HEALTH rules always #moogfest

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After the HEALTH set I rung out my shirt and we headed back to the Armory for a bit. There we saw Dr. Sam Aaron, a real doctor in computer languages and software engineering. He was live-coding beats using some open source software. We actually met him on one of our shuttles so we felt obliged to check out the set and sure enough, while at times a bit slow to compute, it was incredible to watch someone type words into beats.

#samarron at #moogfest – he was live coding the beat

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After a bit of the Aaron set we hauled ass back to Motorco for one of the feast’s most lauded and anticipated performances: Grimes.

Gimes, aka Claire Elise Boucher, had released her 5th full length album just a few months earlier and it too made our top-10 of 2015 list. I wasn’t sure what to make of her set going in, and feared it might be a dumbed down version of the album with the performer shackled to a sampler for an hour. Fortunately it was ANYTHING but.

Not only did she move around stage more than most other performers that weekend, she also came equipped with back up dancers. All the while she was running back to her synths to fire off samples and create drum beats. She also seemed to have some sort of delay dial on her hip-mounted, jewel-encrusted wireless mic transmitter so she could alter her vocal line in the middle of a synchronized dance routine.

Impressive doesn’t begin to explain how I felt about it. Check out some video below where you can actually see the mic transmitter shimmering in the stage lights.

Grimes just played the most electronic trap set lmao #moofes .t @actuallygrimes destroyed my world

A video posted by Marcus Roberts (@luckyboyxiii) on

@actuallygrimes last night at #moogfest – beyond impressive.

A video posted by Brad Kutner (@patioweather_rva) on

This is what @actuallygrimes is like live. #moogfest – see more at @patioweather_rva

A video posted by RVAmag (@rvamag) on

Following her set we decided to catch our breath at a restaurant across the street from the venue. It had a rooftop bar so we caught some of Odesza’s set from there. I wasn’t too keen on these guys, and seeing them live didn’t really change that, though there was a lot of buzz around the band from other festival goers. It also appears one of RVA’s own trombone players, Scott Flynn, is part of their touring band but I didn’t find that out until later.

Either way, it was nice from a distance.

@odesza at #moogfest last night we watched from a rooftop near by

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We started to reach the end of our night so we headed back to The Armory and caught some of Robert Hood’s set. Hood’s known as one of the founders of minimal techno and he lived up to his name playing bass and bloop heavy beats. It kind of bled mid-90’s techno nostalgia, but that was just what I needed to get my heart pumping again.

@roberthood at #moogfest

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After his set, Black Madonna took the stage.

The Chicago-based DJ was spinning vinyl live, with a lot of swing and disco-era vocal tracks which I was not too keen on, but the folks we partied with were enjoying it.

@blackmadonnachi at #moogfest

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After a bit of booty and foot shaking we again headed home. A great night’s sleep awaited us, as did one of the better showers I’ve taken in a long time.

We got up decent on Saturday, but were still reeling a bit from the night before. Some folks we’d met and made friends with came to our hotel room so they could shower and freshen up. They gave us a lift back into town where we walked over to the Durham Museum Hotel where a theater had been set up to spotlight synth specific performances called “durationals.”

We sat down and caught a bit of the Atlanta-based producer Richard Devine’s 4 hour set – yes, 4 hours. In addition to a laundry list of musical achievements, Devine most recently designed the soundtrack to the new Doom video game which we found pretty hilarious.

Honestly, I should have stayed for more but I was a bit too sober. Either way I was impressed and dug his noisy beats.

@richarddevine in the middle of a 4 hour durational #moogfest

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After a bit of that set we walked back to the Armory where chairs had been set up for a number of speaker sessions. We sat down just in time to hear the creative minds behind Wondaland Records – Chuck Lightning, Janelle Monae and Greg Tate – talk about being a Black-owned and operated record label.

Monae, a powerful vocalist and actress in her own right, spoke some about what inspires her as a Black musician and business owner in the face of a white-run industry.

We hoofed it from there back to The Pinhook – did I mention they had PBR on draft for $3.50? That made them an ideal spot to start all of our days. There we saw a bit of Asheville’s own RBTS Win, an electro/R&B outfit that managed to keep the audience moving despite the time of day.

@rbts_win at @the_pinhook for #moogfest – nice mix of beats and r&b

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After that bit of smooth jams, we returned to the Armory to catch IBM Watson in a “cognitive DJ battle” which sounded really cool but turned out to be kind of a dud. Watson is IBM’s new(isn) artificial intelligence system which is capable of any number of complicated tasks (As long as he’s programed to do so, it seems). One of those tasks is creating music if given an amount of musical data input to work with. This sounded cool and was demonstrated by IBM programmers and eventually members of the audience. Folks would play something on a midi controller and you could chose one of four output genres like hyped and spooky. The program crashed at least once while we were there.

Either way, I don’t think we’ll have robot DJ’s any time soon. Check out Watson in action below:

About this time a storm began to roll in. We headed back to the Motorco MainStage and grabbed a beer while we waited for music to start or get canceled by the impending black clouds. But before that happened Made of Oak took the stage and offered a neat brand of electro beats to try and calm everyone’s rain-nerves.

#madeofoak at #moogfest

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The storm eventually showed up so we ducked into the second, smaller venue at Motorco where we caught a bit of Rockville, MD’s Shallou. The electro duo was more reminiscent of Chvrches which provided a delightful respite from the rain inside the cozy space.

@shalloushallou at #moogfest

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About 20 mins later the rain let up just in time for LA’s Empress Of to take the stage. We’d gotten turned on to her just before Moogfest announced she’d be going so we were particularly excited to catch this set. Sure enough it was better than expected with her vocals hitting highs and lows in between one-woman-sampling sessions. Like Grimes, she managed to engage the audience, fire off her own samples and belt out the high notes all on her own.

@empressof at #moogfest

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After that set we snagged some eats from a food cart and hung around for that night’s headliner, Seattle drone metal kings Sunn O))). Yes, Sunn O))) was on the main stage at a music festival. It was incredibly brutal. My less-informed friend was hyped for the set, imagining it to be something you could at least bob your head to if not full on dance. After some of the dancier sets through out the weekend, you couldn’t blame him for hoping. As much as I tried to warn him otherwise, he hung out a few feet from the stage waiting for the band to come on.

They must have brought in all the smoke machines from across the state because they essentially made a hurricane on the stage leading up to Sunn O)))’s set. After the worlds loudest sound check, the four piece, clad in spooky black robes, took the stage and sludged their way through an opening number which deafened the front 1/3rd of the audience.

Forgot this video of #suno))) from #moogfest – it was hilarious to see these guys in full robes on the main stage

A video posted by Brad Kutner (@patioweather_rva) on

After about 10 mins of that we bailed back to the Armory to catch some of The Orb’s set . This English electronic duo has been making parties move to house beats since 1988 and Saturday night was no exception. It did fulfill the music-festival requirement for amorphous *thump thump thump* which was delightful, but as anyone who’s been to a festival knows, that sound is a pit you can fall into and never get out of. Before long the sun is rising and you’ve wasted your night.

@theorblive live at #moogfest last night

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It was hard to explain that, yelling over The Orb’s set to my friends, even as I found myself moving to the beats myself. But determined, and enthused to catch DAWN, I managed to pull my group out of the dance hole and we headed back to Motorco.

DAWN was in line with Moogfest’s mission to offer diverse, female lead singers a chance to shine, however I felt there are other performers who are doing her same gig but better – FKA Twigs or Kelela to name a few.

It’s probably unfair to make some of these comparisons, but I found DAWN dancing and singing to a backing track more often than not. I know, it’s hard to dance and sing and perform at the same time, but GRIMES did it; Empress Of did it. There were legit performers that weekend and DAWN sadly seemed more in line to support a message than to keep the audience entertained.

@dawnrichard live at #moogfest last night

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Still, she was a lot of fun and my friends enjoyed her, with one saying “she had more control over the crowd than Grimes!” but that might have been the party-favors talking.

At this point in the night I wasn’t really sure where to head next but one of our new friends insisted we should make our way to Explosions in the Sky. I’d caught these guys probably 10 years ago at an early show in DC at the 930 Club. I left that show disappointed, even though I continued to listen to their records. I walked into this show expecting the same – build up, build up, build up a mild peak and then back down to the next song.

Luckily, it turned out to be a lot more than I ever expected. The classic post-rock ‘rise-and-fall’ was there, but the set managed to sound more cohesive than I remember. They were well rehearsed and well timed. I found myself recalling more tracks than I would have ever expected. It brought me back to my sophomore year of college, head full of weed smoke, speakers full of “A Song for Our Fathers.” It was truly entertaining.

@explosionsinthesky at #moogfest

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It also didn’t hurt that we had press/VIP passes – a line had formed to let folks into the 500-seat theatre and it sadly worked out where if you didn’t have VIP you didn’t really have a chance to get into the show.

This was incredibly fucked up and a huge mistake on the part of festival organizers because the line was easily wrapped around the block. One of our friends came to the show late and walked through the GA line to get to the VIP entrance. He was booed, and rightfully so, but it was still a tacky and unfortunate situation for everyone involved.

After their set we managed to hold it together long enough to find the “after party” which turned out to be a warehouse show featuring some quality local DJs spinning late into the night. We caught an (incredibly expensive) cab home around this point and managed to sleep till noon the next day.

The friend I went down with managed to lose his cell phone at the Explosions in the Sky show, so that put a damper on Sunday, but that didn’t stop me from insisting we still catch at least one more Moog-Specific event – a bit of the Suzanne Ciani durational. It was amazing watching a woman who helped pioneer Moogs back in the 60’s and 70’s, mess around with them on stage for a number of hours.

That was about the end of our trip. We were down one cell phone, but up a number of new friends and a weekend of electronic music experiences. Moogfest might not be for everyone – the tickets were pricey towards the end (about $350 a head) and it’s not a camping event so you’ve got to find your own place to sleep.

But it was unlike any music festival I’d been too before because of the specific nature of the music; it was a solid 72 hours devoted to electronic music which anyone who knows me understands is very much my thing. I got to see some of my favorite new and old acts share a stage – and It wasn’t in the dead of summer in a field in Tennessee which made for much better weather.

I hope to return to Moog, and I hope you’ll consider it as well – maybe we can split a hotel next year.

PS – they are already selling tickets to Moog 2017, though no acts have been announced. Head on over to their website and snag tickets for the low price of $200 now.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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