On the five-hour drive from Baltimore to Durham, NC, with Leila and Will, I really did not know what to expect of Moogfest, a yearly music festival organized by the folks over at the electronic instrument manufacturer Moog. Of course, I had read through the line-up. I was really only familiar with a few artists, especially the headliners Talib Kweli, Animal Collective and Flying Lotus, along with a few smaller acts, such as Princess Nokia, Peanut Butter Wolf, DJ Premier and Mndsgn. I had also never been to a proper music festival before. So when the Moogfest ticket representative tightened a blue band around my wrist, outfitted with an electronic chip that would give me access to every performance, lecture, masterclass, and presentation, I was a little bit at a loss as to where to even start.
Moogfest is made to be explored and discovered. In fact, coming in with no expectations, not a lot of artists I really needed to see, allowed me to explore the jampacked schedule however I liked. And boy was there a lot to see.
The general vibe of the festival was quite laid-back and friendly. There were a lot of old hippies and electronic music enthusiasts, but Moogfest also organizes programming for young people and children. That being said, the festival’s focus on electronic music particularly appeals to the rave crowd, with techno and house music pulsing through the Armory, a venue with a nuts surround-sound system and visuals, from midnight to 2 AM every night.
The festival’s musical offerings can appeal to everyone, and I often found myself going to venues on a whim, just to see an artist whose name I thought sounded cool. I was never disappointed. From electronic soul-trio King, whose soaring vocals and harmonies bounce atop funky, lush electronic production, to Avalon Emerson, whose late-night set at the Armory had the WJHU team mesmerized in a bassy, pulsy, energetic, constantly surprising set you couldn’t help but dance to. I did not see a bad set, or an artist that did not bring their A-game.
What can’t be understated is how well-organized the festival is. Very rarely did I find that two artists I wanted to see were going at the same time. Even better, the festival was not crowded. The farthest I had to stand back from the stage was during the Animal Collective mainstage (which I came late for), and even then I only had to stand maybe twenty feet back. I could really stand wherever I wanted, allowing me to get right up close and personal with many of the acts, especially Toronto rapper Tasha the Amazon, who jumped into the moshpit, of which I was an enthusiastic participant. That was an insane set, by the way, one that I walked into completely unfamiliar with Tasha’s music and ho mama it was something else. I would definitely recommend her album Die Every Day, which demands several repeated bumpings “in the whip.”
The highlight of the weekend was definitely Flying Lotus’ set. One that, as Will and Leila will attest, I enjoyed immensely. I’ve been a Flylo fan for awhile, but there’s something really wonderful that happens when he plays through a huge sound system. From lush, orchestral songs like “Coronus the Terminator” to the spacey “Siren Song” and to undeniable bumpers like “Never Catch Me” Flylo absolutely rocked the place. He sat with his laptop and equipment inside of a large cube. Using two screens, his visual team projected images that gave the illusion of a 3D wormhole, careening the audience through sonic and physical space at lightspeed.
Talib Kweli’s flow really stands out live, as he effortlessly glided over the beat with bars dense with lyrical and political weight. This was a set that appealed to both the dancer and lover of lyrics in me. Hannibal Buress made a surprise appearance before Kweli’s set, and the set itself was not without its humor. Going through different eras of music, Kweli paid homage to the 60’s, playing “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, and intermittently yelling “bars!” to Paul McCartney’s melancholic lyrics. Kweli was not afraid to inject politics into his performance. At one point, he paused his set to give an impassioned speech, examining hip hop’s value in social justice. He led the crowd in a chant of “no justice, no peace.” “Nobody” Kweli said, with his fist raised high, “should be supreme over someone else.”
In addition to music, Moogfest offers attendees lectures, masterclasses, Q-and-A’s, movies, and product presentations. As part of the “Church of Space” a French researcher Marc Fleury presented his work on bouncing droplets, a human scale metaphor for particle-wave duality. Michael Stipe, the former lead singer of R.E.M. spoke in a Q-and-A session about his role as an artist, his move away from pop music, coming out as gay, and the death of his close friend Jeremy Athens, which inspired Stipe to make a dance piece. That dance piece “Jeremy Dance” was a lot of fun the first time around. But after passing by the venue where it was performed several times, I found the almost-too-catchy dance music burrowed into my brain a little too deep.
The festival also showed off the newest in music technology. I must have sunk at least three hours into the Moog marketplace, where tables lined with very expensive modular and semi-modular synths, drum machines and vocoders invite the perusing amateur or enthusiast to don a pair of headphones and play. It was so much fun in fact, that I immediately ordered a basic synth once I got back home. A group of students and professors from Virginia Tech showed off their 360-degree sound system, simulating a football game complete with a drunken college student screaming somewhere to my left. Berklee computer music students presented the instruments they made in a glitch-pop opera called “The Sounds of Dreaming” starring Nona Hendrix, a beautiful singer who played a cyborg who gains consciousness.
I would recommend anyone with functioning ears to attend Moogfest. It’s a great vibe, a great crowd, a great lineup, and, most importantly, a lot of fun. I’ll definitely be attending next year, and I hope to see some of you tag along.
And, by the way, it’s pronounced M-oh-G not M-oo-G.
By Michael Feder on May 31, 2017, 12:15 p.m.