Between May 19 and 21, Moogfest descended on a drizzling Durham, North Carolina. This was the city’s first time hosting the festival dedicated to the life of late synth pioneer, Bob Moog.
Previous iterations of the festival had been in New York City and in Asheville, North Carolina (where the company is currently based out of), and Durham presented a logical home for a celebration of music and its associated technology and art.
The Bull City’s brimming with eclectic tastes and is part of a bed where advancing fields of technology rests. Along its borders are Research Triangle Park, home to companies that push the limits of medicine, pharmaceuticals, networking, and many more fields. Durham, along with neighboring Chapel Hill and Raleigh, are consistently ranked as some of the best cities to live and work in, a perfect fit for a festival focused on the future of music, art, and technology.
Throughout the day portions of Moogfest was a large number of workshops, panel discussions, and installations to attend looking at upcoming technologies, beautiful collaborations of music and art, plus a number of talks and presentations tackling topics like Afrofuturism, Transhumanism, and Technoshamanism.
Later, numerous musicians took to stages across Durham’s downtown venues. Local favorite Motorco even constructed a massive outdoor stage to house some of the festival’s biggest and loudest acts. Elsewhere, The American Tobacco Campus acted as a hub for festival goers, offering maps, a convenience store, and IDEO’s Musical Playground, where the beach ball synthesizers became a popular feature of Moogfest.
Strewn across Durham were unique stations allowing both Moogfest attendees and the general public alike to play with synthesizers and other equipment, as well as interacting with interesting technological displays. There were many intriguing things to see and do in the buildup to the evenings’ musical events. Microsoft teamed up with Listen and Moogfest to create a unique interactive remixing exhibit where people could press into a mesh and alter Canadian singer Grimes’s popular song, “REALiTi,” who was kind enough to provide the song’s stems and make this experience possible. Meanwhile, American Underground was converted into a Recharge station where weary wanderers could come in, take a load off, and charge their phones and cameras.
Some of the coolest things I personally experienced throughout the daytime festivities included sitting in on a live Song Exploder podcast recording with the Seattle-based ambient electronic duo, ODESZA. The duo joined host Rishi Hirway to break down their song, “Kusanagi”, from their magnificent In Return album.
Another fun workshop was on the collaborative project between tech start-up Sunhouse and drummer Greg Fox. Sunhouse is pioneering a new sensory percussion software combining the nuance and control of an acoustic drum with the limitless possibilities of digital sound. Tlacael Esparza discussed his project before turning the microphone (and sticks) over to drummer extraordinaire, Greg Fox, best known for his work in bands like Liturgy and Guardian Alien, not to mention his solo work. Greg also spent a portion of the festival completing a “Durational Sound” Installation where he played drums for four hours, accompanied by immersive visuals and modular synthesizers connected to his kit.
Moogfest also had an enlightening panel on Afrofuturism, “Can You Remember the Future?” This panel featured Chicago House artist Hieroglyphic Being, twin brothers Taiwo and Kehinde Hassan of Christian Rich, musician and comedian Reggie Watts, and Janelle Monae. They talked about different issues surrounding the term and whether or not it justifies use or representing the black community and the creative work that continually emerges from it.
As day became night, talks, exhibits, and workshops wrapped up and venues throughout the city began unfurling unique and exciting musical acts. Every night featured a plethora of brilliant talents, both fun and intellectually stimulating. Durham featured six main venues that showcased the acts and festival goers could bounce from one to the next, taking in a wide variety of musical experimentations and styles. While unable to take in all of the acts, I managed to see a good number of bands and musicians play. The best six sets I saw are featured below.
My seating was… sub-optimal. I was reduced to the third tier of the Carolina Theater to see Gary Numan on his third and final night of his residency at Moogfest. It was worth it, though, to be able to lay out on the grass of the American Tobacco Campus on a sunny afternoon, listening to Reggie Watts improvisational performances for a little while. It was also worth it because Gary Numan was an absolute treat to see perform live. You’d never guess he’s nearing 60 years old by the way he was dancing and moving across the Fletcher Hall stage. Mixing between guitars, keyboards, and simply singing, Numan ran through the entirety of his Telekon album. He had been performing a different album from his “Machine” trilogy each night.
After catching a DJ set from Ultrabillions, I made my way out to Motorco to catch the opening to Zombi’s performance. Blue and green lights flooded the stage as Steve Moore and Anthony Paterra ripped into a number of songs from their riveting 2015 album, Shape Shift, as well as their heavy catalog. Captivated attendees packed the music hall and sat in awe of their sound. Zombi was one of my most anticipated acts going into the festival and they certainly didn’t disappoint.
Blood Orange was playing outside of Motorco in a parking lot converted into a massive 80-foot tall stage. In all honesty, Dev Hynes was something I was interested in learning about at Moogfest. I’d heard some of his music going into the weekend and was intrigued by both his vibe and music. Hynes nailed it. A musical jack-of-all-trades, he danced around on stage switching between playing guitar and serenading the audience with songs from his impending Freetown Sound album as well as some of his earlier pieces. He was backed by a couple of singers and a few other musicians. It was an incredibly fun and downright sensual set.
Those fortunate enough to head out towards Motorco a little earlier on Friday were treated Los Angeles-based noise rock group, HEALTH, my discovery of Moogfest. They opened the evening ahead of Bob Moses, Grimes, and ODESZA and ultimately were one of the better sets to emerge from this eclectic lineup. The sounds this band emitted were jarring and abstract. The dichotomy the group produced between haunting, industrial noise, and harsh synths against airy vocals was entrancing live. Not to mention BJ Miller’s drumming, which was absolute chaos and I loved it. The group played many songs from Death Magic, which came out last year, and gained a new fan as well.
I don’t do a whole lot of electronic music, but the small doses I handle consists almost exclusively of ODESZA, an ambient/electronic duo from Seattle. Even in their short time making music, they’ve created some great works, including the excellent In Return album. Having seen the duo earlier in the day on the Song Exploder podcast made me all the more excited to see them that evening. The duo of Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight brought out a live band including a guitar, trombone and saxophone, and played many of the songs from In Return as well as some of their smaller releases. They also remixed the tracks and incorporated live drums to complement their set. Rumor has it their set was so infectious and fun, the cops doing security outside the gates danced along.
Sunn wasn’t only the best thing I experienced at Moogfest, it was possibly the greatest thing I’ve experienced in my life. The group played against an enormous wall of 20-plus amplifiers. Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley were joined by Attila Csihar on vocals and Rex Ritter and Tos Nieuwenhuizen on a pair of Moog synthesizers, all of whom passed around red wine, taking ritualistic swigs from the bottle.
They were originally supposed to perform within Fletcher Hall of the Carolina Theater, but for fear of the theater’s structure crumbling, the show was moved out to the massive Motorco Park stage. It was a wise choice. From the opening riff, the sad souls who failed to bring ear plugs clutched their ears and gritted their rattling teeth. Us amongst the front rows were consistently inundated with bouts of heavy fog from machines sitting just feet away. Lungs collided with visceral pleura, as Sunn performed at a literal deafening level of volume that could be heard across the city. At one point in the set, Attila disappeared behind the amp wall only to reappear a dozen or so minutes later draped in an outfit and large cape covered in mirrors and a headpiece that can only be described as a shimmering, nightmarish effigy of the Statue of Liberty. It was a bewitching incantation the group masterfully pulled off. I found myself at many moments having to close the mouth of my awe-stricken face.
Overall, Moogfest went quite smoothly in its first year in Durham. It was an incredible endeavor for the city to take on and it did so with great success. The city’s slated to host it again next year, and looks to build on the momentum and excitement seen throughout the city. Durham, much like Asheville, allowed musicians and fans to mingle through the city together and share the excitement for the events to come. The festival offered many cool, unique, and eye-opening experiences for all to enjoy. The lineup was wildly multifaceted and had something for everybody. I believe it can only continue to get better. Here’s to many more years of Moogfest in the Bull City!
More images of the festival can be found here at The Amalgam.
All photos taken by Cody Davis unless otherwise noted. Special thanks to Keith McGrath, Andrew Novokhatny, and many other photographers who provided Bearded Gentlemen Music with high-quality equipment and photographs.