The first annual Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina just happened to take place over Halloween weekend. However, this is a place where it’s not unusual to see people in costume any day of the year. Throughout the three-day music festival there were getups galore – notably many bright red Devo hats and a full animal collective, many honoring performer Panda Bear. It was all to celebrate the spirit behind the Moog synthesizer, Bob Moog, who called Asheville home for over 25 years. His company, Moog Music, is still there producing electronic instruments just outside of town. There’s also The Bob Moog Foundation, which is promoting the intersection of music, science and innovation in his memory, with talk of a Moogseum and a MoogLab program to reach out to students. One dollar was donated to the foundation with each pass and ticket purchase – approximately 25,000 tickets were sold to Moogfesters who had a choice of over 60 acts to go see over the weekend.
The Octopus Project were thrust into the spotlight when Devo had to cancel their show after Bob Mothersbaugh injured his hand in a nasty accident. They were enlisted to join Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, aptly filling in as a back-up band after learning a few songs hours before the performance. They first hit the stage of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (TWA) with their own indietronic sound, beginning with “Fuguefat” which also starts off their new CD, Hexadecagon. The Octopus Project has a wonderful way with full-throttle instrumental tracks and the group gamely finds a way to switch instruments, even mid-song. It was also a nice introduction to the Theremin, an early electronic instrument beautifully played by Yvonne Lambert who looked as poised as a ballerina in her vintage prom dress (She was given the choice of music or dance growing up and clearly she is able to do both now).
Gerry Casale took the mike to explain that no one is more disappointed about not being able to play than Bob Mothersbaugh, remarking that they never had anything stop them over the 35-year history of Devo. Mark Mothersbaugh also spoke about going to the Moog factory when it was in upstate New York and how it looked like a fantastic “futuristic playground”. They launched into “Girl U Want” and “Beautiful World”, leaving the audience wanting more. It was an all too brief showcase of one of the premiere synth acts of all time.
A bit later MGMT took the stage of the Asheville Civic Center (ACC) next door, a cavernous cement-floor space with concession areas that smell like Cinnabons. After a string of crowd-pleasing openers, “It’s Working”, “Kids” and “Flash Delirium”, there was little chatter before presenting another set of songs. Andrew VanVyngarden then told the crowd how they were really happy to be playing the festival, liked Asheville and felt a bit funny playing in an Arena for the first time. “Let’s Go Giants,” he screamed, leaving some to wonder if he meant the football or baseball team. The band continued to play very matter of factly, cranking out their tunes before appropriately presenting their tribute to “Brain Eno”. Their final song was the dreamy “Congratulations”, but it was clear the audience favored their more upbeat dance songs.
Panda Bear played the smaller TWA later that night. Noah Lennox settled in before a three-sided keyboard set up and cranked the volume so loud the space was rumbling with vibrations. His layered vocals floated over the sonic blasts of percussion, while interactions with the crowd were limited to a simple “Thank you very much” between songs. His single, “Tom Boy” provided the highlight of the set.
The next night Caribou took the ACC stage as a quartet, huddled in a tight bunch around a drum kit in the front of the stage. Caribou is the brainchild of Daniel Victor Snaith, who has also performed in the electronica world as Manitoba. He performed guitar and keyboards in socks, giving a quick hello to the crowd after the first song then later sending a shout out to the Caribou costume in the audience. “Hello Mr. Caribou!” The breakout hit “Odessa” off the new release Swim drew cheers of recognition and the rest of the pulsing set kept the crowd gyrating.
Jonsi performed at the TWA soon afterwards, entering the stage slowly in a dramatic red coat with feathery strips of fringe. He played acoustic guitar front and center before taking to the upright piano later in the set. His signature falsetto sweetly hovered above the instruments carrying the melody while a backdrop of winter wildlife appeared on the screen across the back wall. During the percussion-driven single “Go Do”, there was a change to a heavy rain, with water levels rising behind the band. These songs from Jonsi’s solo release Go are sung in English, which is a first for the artist. This may be major change for those familiar with his work, but it clearly takes nothing away from the beauty of the music.
Down the street at the Moogaplex, a designated meeting space where workshops and Moog Music demonstrations took place in the day, DJ sets played late into the night. Jon Hopkins took the stage on Saturday to perform a set of his lush, ambient soundscapes with pulsing rhythms. A classically trained pianist, he embraces the mantle of melodic electronica while demonstrating his ability to keep a crowd dancing. A new collaboration of improvisations with Brian Eno is due this fall.
On Halloween night Headtronics kicked off the line up at the Orange Peel, a great little club which served as one of the smaller Moogfest venues. Headtronics is a trio improvising within a funktronics sound, with a line up that featured Freekbass, DJ Logic and Hall of Fame keyboardist Bernie Worrell. The group tore through instrumental jams before the legendary funk master Worrell sang the Al Green classic “Take Me to the River”.
Later that night, Neon Indian presented their chillwave sound with a heavy dose of glam rock at the TWA. There was a lot of neon worn by the audience in tribute to the band. The video screen behind the band played Mexican motifs in honor of composer Alan Palomo’s roots as the group ripped through their songs. Amongst his battery of synths he also soloed on Theremin, attacking it with the aggression of a lead guitarist. Palomo gave a “serious thanks” to Bob Moog and his “entire amazing company” for their musical inventions. The synth happy sound of their breakout hit,“Deadbeat Summer” was then followed by more serious explorations in sound. A tremendous electronic cacophony ended the performance.
Next up in the TWA was Hot Chip, although the mosh pit had to be fenced off after the floor started giving way after a weekend of abuse. Synthesizers filled the stage, stacked on road cases and layered on stands with a steel drum placed front and center. A Baroque fugue from Switched on Bach played before the band took the stage, another fitting homage to the Moog heritage. A huge marble head sculpture which adorns their latest release, One Night Stand, loomed over the band on the back wall as the musical ride continued. Hits such as “Over and Over”, “One Night Stand” and “Ready for the Floor” cranked up the Halloween party until the whole place was dancing throughout the venue.
The venues are already booked for next year’s Moogfest. The line up will be open to musical acts that use Moog synthesizers as well as anyone dedicated to the innovation of sound, all things important to Bob Moog with his passion for scientific discovery. Asheville is worth a trip just to experience the vibrant music scene and its funky downtown, with restaurant next to restaurant between boutiques and antiques. Nestled in the mountains, many hotels are within walking distance to the venues which definitely adds to the festival atmosphere – the gorgeous blue-sky days were also a treat for the Halloween weekend and its revelers.