Robert Moog would have been proud. The man DJ Spooky credits with paving the way for hip-hop loved to watch his inventions and creations — the Moog synthesizer, as well as updates on the Theremin — take on lives of their own. Before his 2005 death at age 71 in Asheville, North Carolina, Moog managed to meet and talk with many of the musicians who have taken his synthesizer into musical styles he never envisioned: from classical electronic-music composers Gershon Kingsley and Herbert A. Deutsch to ’70s rock keyboardists Keith Emerson of ELP and Rick Wakemen of Yes; from funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic to hip-hop DJs Spooky and Mixmaster Mike.
Had he been alive this past weekend, Moog likely would have been onstage, amiably introducing acts like Big Boi, MGMT, Jónsi, and Neon Indian, and he probably would have sat on the afternoon panels of theremin instructors and tech geeks. If you were in Asheville, you might have confused the scene with Star Trek convention at times. But the clubs and auditoriums around this mountain town were rocking and thumping with synthesizers, guitars, and drum machines. Here are ten of the fest’s best moments.
Best “Ladies Onstage” Moment: Big Boi
It took no time at all for Big Boi to prove unequivocally that he doesn’t need his flamboyant OutKast sidekick Andre 3000 to get a crowd going. Pressed against the barrier at the front of the stage in the Asheville Civic Center, the costumed geeks and geekettes mouthed the words to everything from OutKast oldies like “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson” to such recent solo songs as “Shutterbug,” from his new album Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty.He gave a shout-out to the reefer man and told the audience it had “good energy.” But the highlight came when Big Boi brought a gaggle of ladies from the crowd onstage to dance (and stagger) along as he delivered a smooth and funky “The Way You Move.”
Most Overrated Moment: MGMT
Early on Day One, it seemed everybody at MoogFest was buzzing about the 9:30 P.M. MGMT show. After the critical darlings closed their lackluster set around 11 P.M., nobody seemed to remember they’d been there. Sure, the blue lights were pretty and the crowd sang along to “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” — how can you fuck up a glorious melody?– but the sweet, soft (and rather wimpy) psychedelic vibe got sucked into the Civic Center’s cavern-like black hole, and the band had precious little stage presence. “This is our first arena show,” Andrew VanWyngarden told the crowd. Um… no kidding.
Best Senior Moment: Van Dyke Parks
He may be a musical genius. He may the guy who helped Brian Wilson create Smile. But for a good number of younger wannabe hipsters, the entrance to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium during white-haired Van Dyke Parks’ set of orchestral folk was a revolving-door of people coming and (mostly) going. What those who chose to stick around witnessed were stunning, piano/violin/cello/guitar performances of such multi-part tales of political history as “FDR in Trinidad” and “Cowboy,” as well as a pair of Parks’ collaborations with Wilson: “Orange Crate Art” and “Heroes and Villains” (which featured singer Clare Manchon of the Brooklyn chamber-pop group Clare and the Reasons).
Best Performance by a Band That Just Lost a Key Member: School of Seven Bells
The New York City dreampop band was getting some good momentum and even better press for its latest album, Disconnect from Desire, when one of its identical-twin singers, Claudia Deheza, suddenly called it quits two weeks before MoogFest. That didn’t keep sister Alejandra from picking up the slack on Saturday night. Sure, there were some pre-recorded tracks to help her out, but no matter. Guitarist Benjamin Curtis’ woozy, bent, My Bloody Valentine guitar fuzz and Smiths-like shuffles brought blankets of sweetness and dark to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium that recalled the days of one-name British shoegazer bands like Lush, Ride, and Slowdive.
Best ’70s Prog-Rock Moment: Jónsi
By far the most gushed-over MoogFest performance came from Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi — Iceland’s answer to ’70s prog-rocker singer Jon Anderson of Yes. The show was a visual stunner: showers of light rained down over a warm, earth-toned stage set, and a video-art backdrop projected moving sketches of wild animals including running deer and flying owls. Clad in Native American regalia — patchwork clothing and (part of the time) a headdress — Jónsi’s soaring, high-pitched vocals were particularly Yes-like on the shimmery “Sinking Friendships” and percussive “Around Us.” By the end, Jónsi’s gentle, angelic cooing had some members of the audience holding hands, swaying, even teary-eyed.Read More About MoogFest 2010 On Page 2 >>
Best Ironic Moment: Matmos
One of the most Moog-perfect performances came Saturday night from the avant-garde duo Matmos, whose impressive electronic tone poems included lots of industrial bleeping, thumping and scraping, artificial voices, ambient chatter and cool washes of vintage synthesizer hissing. Ironically, among the two Apple laptops, sequencers, racks of knobs and coils of twisted wires surrounding M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel onstage at the Orange Peel, there wasn’t one Moog synthesizer. At one point, Schmidt instructed the audience to concentrate on the middle dot of a dot-filled video screen. “And while you’re watching that dot,” he told the MoogFest crowd, “I want to apologize for using Roland synthesizers.”
Best Chill-Out-Moment: Massive Attack
The ’90s hippest trip-hop act can rock a crowd like the best techno-house outfit, but it was the warmer, more relaxed moments that stood out during Massive Attack’s Saturday night show at the Civic Center. Sorely missing was TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, whose guest vocal on “Pray for Rain” is one of the highlights of the veteran group’s latest album, Heligoland. But Tricky sidekick Martina Topley-Bird and veteran reggae singer Horace Andy carried the performances well. Wearing a ballerina dress and facepaint, Topley-Bird’s sultry take on the dark and spare “Teardrop” even bested Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser’s original version on Massive Attack’s 1998 effort, Mezzanine.
Best Loud Guitar Moment: Sleigh Bells
What would Ministry have sounded like if they’d tossed Al Jourgensen for Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna? Sleigh Bells has answered that question. Guitarist Derek Miller’s thick slabs of industrial power chords and singer/screamer Alexis Krauss raging vocals energized a packed Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for one of MoogFest’s most anticipated performances. The duo could use some tips from Ministry (or maybe Jónsi) on how to create a visually appealing show — with only two members often on separate ends of the stage, you got whiplash trying to see everything — but what the very green Sleigh Bells lacked in stage presence, they more than made up for in their raw adrenaline rush.
Best Lo-Fi Hi-Fi Moment: Neon Indian
Like Sebadoh’s early albums and Cody Chestnutt’s The Headphone Masterpiece, Neon Indian’s 2009 debut, Psychic Chasms, was a glorious mess of great songs in need of a producer. Of course, part of what makes all of these albums so good is the unbridled experimentation — even if, in a few years, we’ll want to hear them in a more disciplined context. Kind of like the way Neon Indian delivered their synth-based pop songs on the final night of MoogFest. With a traditional rock & roll stage show that included bright-colored costumes, multiple Moogs, a guitar with a flickering LED screen, and more controlled chaos than what’s on the album, the band’s best songs — like “Deadbeat Summer” and “Should Have Taken Acid With You” — became anthems for the costumed throngs who stuck around Thomas Wolfe Auditorium after the Sleigh Bells show on Halloween night.
Best ’90s Rave Moment: Pretty Lights
Halloween night at MoogFest wrapped up in the wee hours Monday morning with a sweating, throbbing mob of freaks and geeks — dancers dressed as accident victims, teddy bears, a mouse, a parrot, a pogo-ing Ernie from Sesame Street, a group of Chilean miners, even a Rubik’s Cube — all undulating to Pretty Lights’ high-energy electronic funk and techno. Forget the duo’s recordings — the beautifully complex, dynamic mixes of vintage synthesizer, power riffs, and rap samples in tracks like “Let the World Hurry By” and “High School Art Class” — it was all about the keeping the swirl going and the energy high on the Asheville Civic Center floor for one of the festival’s final performances. And Pretty Lights delivered.