All photos by Gitanjali Wolf
A few weeks back, I spotted someone in my university’s cafeteria wearing a Moogfest 2011 hoodie and I casually asked him for his opinion on the event, expecting a positive affirmation of my own anticipatory excitement; instead, I got a look that fell somewhere between bemusement and faint pity as the guy mumbled awkwardly about how awesome it was in the past, but how this year’s incarnation was a different beast entirely, and not one that particularly enthused him or any of his friends, although he did concede, “it could be alright, if it’s your thing?” Having done a bit of sleuthing, the contrast is fairly clear: three days became two, outdoor venues were shed and staple alt rock big-hitters like The Flaming Lips, TV on the Radio and St. Vincent were conspicuous in their absence. That’s not to say 2011 was a predictable distillation of America’s larger corporate shindigs – Kode9, Brandt Brauer Frick, Suicide and a James Murphy + Pat Mahoney disco DJ set are all top drawer bookings and hardly commonplace at that – but the festival that took place last weekend leant far less heavily on the conventional, substituting Toro Y Moi for Thomas Dolby and Atlas Sound for Actress (to the surprise of no-one, he pulled out with days to go). Thankfully, the good men and women at Moog Music had the foresight to deviate away from the perfunctory and angle it towards whatever ‘my thing’ currently is, so I arrived in Asheville, following a ridiculously scenic journey throughout the mountains, brimming with excitement.
A few words about Moogfest as a whole before I jump into the performances. As a British exchange student with scant background knowledge about Asheville beyond five minutes spent on Google procuring an impressive glut of accolades about the standard of living and freewheeling liberalism, I was intrigued to see how the town handled an influx of music aficionados that were, I assumed, predominantly students. Perhaps in years past there was a younger audience due to acts like MGMT and Passion Pit heading up proceedings, but this year the mean age was probably closer to 30 than 20; no bad thing as there was a lot more mutual respect shown between Moogers than you might find at the biggest events on either side of the Atlantic, and the pace was considerably less hectic too. Sadly due to a congested schedule that same leisurely approach meant none of our party really saw anyone before 9pm on Friday and almost 11pm Saturday but it was a welcome respite from my usual state of turbo-anal pre-preparation. One of my friends succinctly picked up on the fact that the core contingent leant “more towards hippies than hipsters” and this also helped contribute to a really warm and welcoming vibe that was present at every corner of the town. I am about as well-placed to ruminate on the DIY alternative scene in Asheville as I am the mercantile community of Karachi, but it seems the socially progressive attitude the town prides itself on extends beyond mere local ties to accomodate travellers from across the country, and indeed beyond. Oh and a quick aside on the costumes: in a space of just over 24hrs I had seen two Ring Modulators, Beetlejuice, Devo, Chewbacca, droogs, gnomes, Buzz Aldrin, Aladdin Sane, The Residents’ trademark tuxedo’d eyeball, Sexual Harassment Panda, second season Tobias Fünke, disco Boba Fett, Gooby (not Goofy), Vishnu, a backlit Space Invader and Mitt Romney’s ‘Trap-Her Keep-Her’. Kudos.
Still, it wasn’t quite what I expected. I was fully aware of the festival’s indoor setting, but stepping into the ExploreAsheville.com Arena to the strains of Nas‘s “The Message”, I couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed by the sterility and total absence of character of the enormodome that confronted me. Bad traffic had curtailed plans to see Pantha Du Prince, but I don’t really know whether I would have wanted to catch the man for the first time playing at 7pm in a space built for WWE events. That said, it was done up nicely with bright crystals dangling from the ceiling and the lights were on point for every act I saw there but it caught me off guard, if only briefly – Nasir Jones was in front of me, after all. He showed surprising energy and, backed by a full band, impressed despite a setlist that I was largely unfamiliar with. As it later transpired, I had walked in straight after a run of four Illmatic cuts, and the remaining half an hour was largely padded out with Life Is Good cuts. On a bill stacked with an absolutely killer selection – GZA, Killer Mike, Prefuse 73 & Teebs, El-P, Death Grips – it sadly worked out as the only hip-hop I would see all weekend, likely inferior to pretty much all the aforementioned. Still, ignoring the faintly Hoobastankian power stances of his guitarists and occasional forays into ‘rocking out’ (ugh), he set the tone nicely, playing the role of entertainer as much as musician and was pretty enjoyable. The same cannot be said for Primus, however. The stage design was fairly neat, but sweet Jesus they were awful, coming off like mid-90s Red Hot Chili Peppers fronted by mid-90s Robert Smith with mid-90s Syd Barrett’s brain. You gotta feel for those fans when they wake up from their extended trip though, that’s gonna suck. But not as hard as they did.
To be perfectly honest, Squarepusher wasn’t as much of an palate-cleanser as I had hoped. This year’s Ufabulum shed all live instrumentation, instead pushing a fairly punishing sound that sits in between contemporary dubstep and conventional IDM, while satisfying neither camp entirely. Irrespective of a patchy back catalogue, Tom Jenkinson has always garnered rave reviews in the flesh and the initial wow factor was certainly there, with a dazzling black and white visual display projected both onto the screen behind him and the Bangalterian visor masking his face, programmed to sync up with his spasmodic glitch assault. The first two songs I caught of his set were a lot of fun, displaying the vital push and release between aural brutality and soothing melodies that pretty much all of the class of 2012 seem to have ignored. The audience were really digging it as well, and were dancing as much as they could physically manage, battling valiantly against the horrendously mismatched confines of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which is entirely seated apart from three rows of standing at the very front. Shame it couldn’t last: without warning the gears jammed, the momentum spluttered and the atmosphere died on the spot. I’m sure Jenkinson was fully aware of what he was doing, and he kept beckoning for more enthusiasm from the assembled throng, who had been all too willing to oblige before being confronted with a slab of grooveless fifth-rate Warp material. Oh well, at least Blondes were up the road.
First thing to mention: Asheville Music Hall, give yourself a pat on the back. Having queued for 20 minutes to pay $4 for a 21+ wristband and then be denied purchase of more than one drink in the Arena before being moved along out of the aisles in Auditorium only to be told to stop loitering near the exit while consulting the map I was, to put it mildly, less than enamoured with the Civic Center. So to be waved by smiling door staff into a venue without getting carded and then offered a free sample of delicious craft beer at the bar because I was being an indecisive goon before being told price of a pint was under $3…it was a refreshing change of tack. Similarly, the snug confines, unrestricted movement and thumping soundsystem meant that an average act would have probably come off shining by comparison; fortunately Blondes happened to be several notches above average. The audience were roughly 10 years younger and 40lbs lighter than any other I had encountered, predictably exuding more energy too, shimmying with intent in a manner that mirrored the music: all arpeggiating grooves rubbing up against unpolished kick drums while indistinct samples pinged in and out of the mix at will. As someone who finds Blondes decent if unremarkable on record and had them down as a fallback plan on my Moog schedule, I came away singing their praises; they allowed enough breathing room for every component of their live setup and the organic expansion was in stark contrast to Squarepusher’s harsh digital clutter, proving considerably more conducive for dancing. The standout came at the halfway mark with a track that carried an extremely strong “Star Guitar” vibe (only minus the trains), hurtling along at pace and briefly transforming the crowd into an army of Jersey fist pumpers. The compact size of the venue added to the upbeat party vibe and the lack of a photo pit meant the Brooklyn synthsmiths were mere inches away – I caught them on at least two occasions grinning at especially enthusiastic (read: fucked) audience members and everyone seemed in top spirits, including some of the staff who had left the entrance to join the dancefloor. Really the only valid criticism that could be levelled at the duo was that, as our photographer cited, “for all that build there could have been more of a release”. Quibbles aside they were oodles of fun and as such it was a shame to leave before the end, but the clock was pushing midnight and Richie Hawtin was calling.
At this point, it’s probably worthwhile noting that I have not been a lifelong fan of techno, minimal or otherwise. When I first starting dipping my toes into electronic waters, I was all too happy to eviscerate my hearing with full-volume blasts of the most abrasive Venetian Snares material I could find and 96kbps rips of crunching Justice remixes, but any accidental forays into more pared-down, loopy territory would straight up bore me. I actually stumbled across Richie Hawtin playing when I was 16 at London’s Field Day festival, and I honestly don’t think I even gave it an entire minute before sloping off to find more immediate thrills elsewhere – no shame in admitting that I was far more hyped to watch Benga offload a barrage of heavy bass slammers in front of 60 people the next tent over. Friday night at Moog was the culmination of a long and intermittently tedious climb to understand and properly appreciate the mechanics, depth and intricacies of minimal techno; I can only assume that Hawtin’s current game plan is to get that ball rolling, however gently, amongst a generation of kids utterly infatuated with a blitzkrieg of distortion, compression and instant gratification that, however loath I am to admit it, bears more than a passing resemblance to the stuff that I cut my teeth on at the same age. So admittedly, not for everyone, but I couldn’t wait to finally see the master in action, especially after coming within a whisker at Bloc over the summer. The only question was: would the vast, soulless space of the Arena provide us with a stillborn?
The early signs were not good, with an atrocious turnout that filled perhaps a fifth of available floor space, although that might be a generous estimate in hindsight seeing as the space between attendees even right up to the barrier was closer to the population density of Australia than a headline performance at a prominent festival. Roughly 90m of sleep the night before coupled with the sudden emergence of a particularly raw throat infection meant I was flatlining in energy levels and any minor qualms about a poor reception for Mr Plastikman were amplified into a palpable nervousness that one of the greatest electronic artists of all time would face a curious but obstinate crowd. That Asheville effectively served as the warm-up for his sprawling North American CNTRL tour was further putting me on edge; the 17-stop jaunt, due to hit Hawtin’s adopted homeland of Canada this week, is unique in offering strictly student-only lectures with co-host Loco Dice that seek to reconnect contemporary electronic music with its heritage by day before bringing out the big guns of ‘reputable’ house & techno by night. There was a lingering dread that his noble (if ever-so-slightly patronising) expedition to lead listeners ‘Beyond EDM’ was going to run aground before even setting sail. Silly me for ever doubting him.
Though I had expected a stripped-down aural approach from Hawtin, I was taken aback by the bare-bones aesthetics; it was quite literally all you can see above, with the giant screens either side of the stage switched off and only half the lighting rig active, a marked difference from the dazzling LED display that held my attention for all of 40 seconds back in the summer of ’08. All this was doing little to allay my gut feeling that this purportedly genius booking was a tacked-on afterthought. Richie strolled onto stage at 12:15 on the nose to little fanfare, gave us a friendly wave and went about diligently fiddling with his equipment as a naggingly familiar ambient piece hung in the air before a weighty kick set things rolling. The sound was crystal-clear but levels were perplexingly low, allowing background chatter to carry with ease, breaking any sustained attempts to get lost in the music. It was fascinating from a DJ’s perspective to watch the man warp the mix at will with such naked clarity, his hands only leaving the set-up to push back his floppy locks, forming a paradoxical sense of intimacy that belied both the cavernous size of the venue and the considerable distance from performer to punter. His entire set was staggeringly well-constructed, a constantly progressing jigsaw puzzle with no static pieces, making it impossible to isolate any one track; at times the rhythmic complexity was astounding, and as far as I can recall not a single beat was misplaced the entire night. However, as much as there was to admire about his precision and efficacy, it was proving a struggle to properly concentrate on his set as he incrementally inched forwards in an unhurried fashion while a couple behind me bickered over whether to go see Explosions in the Sky. As is the case with minimal techno, a few of the early transitions were underwhelming and selections uninspiring, but as wave after wave of pulsating bass and furtive squiggles washed over the crowd, momentum began to gather, coupled with a dramatic increase in volume and more commanding utilisation of the lights overhead.
As 1am approached the crowd had swelled fivefold and although hardly rammed the dancefloor had thawed out and people finally began to shed reservations and shift gears from Resident Evil shuffle up through septuagenarian sway, past drunk bob ‘n weave and into Flat Eric mode. A pocket of diehards flapping banners with the logos to both Hawtin’s longstanding M_nus label and new Ibiza project Enter @ Space brought a cheeky smile to his face, something reprised with increasing frequency as any early rigidity subsided and he began to consciously advance to more hefty fare, extending the blends and alternating between dark, spacey tech house and headstrong belters. Much as the opening salvo of skeletal tracks had begun to fold over one another, interlocking and gaining muscle, so too had the infrequent blurts of cheer become louder and more voluminous as the set progressed, and any early fluctuation in numbers halted almost entirely as those who had stayed past the first 15 minutes powered through to the end. As the final half hour commenced, like clockwork – a trait surely picked up as a Berlin expat as opposed to a Banbury native – Richie deployed a robust blast sub-bass that was met with a roar of approval, neither of which had seemed a foregone conclusion an hour prior. Following an extensive airing of Kris Wadsworth’s twisted, pitched-down reconfiguring of DJ Linus’ 1997 underrated house gem “K.B’s Groove”, complete with Richie playfully dummying the crowd into believing he had finished, the mixing became less showy and punctilious as Hawtin segued fluidly from one track to another with a more human touch, slowing the pace with the faintest of touches. It was a nifty piece of flair, purposefully winding down while keeping bodies moving so as not to knock anyone out of their groove. Sadly North Carolina’s archaic licensing laws came into play before too long and as the house lights went up, and there was a tangible sense of dismay that it was seemingly over as soon as it had began.
But for everyone I spoke to after the show, any pangs of disappointment were completely dwarfed by the afterglow of extreme goodwill and faint incredulity about what had just transpired. Beyond EDM indeed: the master of restraint had very subtly demolished the crowd and as well as appeasing the core faithful had almost certainly shed light on an entirely different avenue of electronic music for those less familiar with his style; we were all students of minimalism now. Moreover, I heard a fair few members of the crowd proclaiming it to be the greatest Moogfest performance of all time – I can’t personally vouch for that, but on a personal level, it has a strong claim to the best DJ set I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. That’s not to say it’s necessarily the most fun I’ve ever had watching someone play records, however given that the entire 105 minutes contained not a single track that I was aware of – whether I would have even been able to pull them out from the mix is another thing altogether – but still kept me utterly spellbound nonetheless, I’m all the more impressed.
The following evening Carl Craig was equally as outstanding, but with the inclusion of some of his finest remix work plus “The Bells”, “Jaguar”, “Strings of Life”, “Big Fun” and James Brown, it was less of a technical feat; utterly brilliant, but the juxtaposition between a crowd-pleasing set featuring half a dozen indelible, 24ct techno classics and an intricately-woven, flawlessly-mixed journey that is in itself a standalone work of magnitude, leads me to hand Hawtin the victory. It is all the more gratifying that a man more accustomed to entertaining crowds in the hundreds of thousands, as opposed to mere hundreds, would still put in a commanding performance and then come out immediately afterwards to pose for photographs, sign merchandise and thank fans individually for watching; irrespective of his incalculable influence, legendary status and general global reverence, he seems like a really nice dude. So yeah, I suppose he was a fitting headliner for Moogfest after all.
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