Moogfeset 2016
Downtown Durham
Saturday, May 20, 2016

Janelle Monáe didn’t perform at Moogfest, but she did serve as a powerful, propelling force for much of Saturday nonetheless. Early in the day, she discussed the upcoming movie Hidden Figures with screenwriter Allison Schroeder. Set for release in 2017, the movie explores the lives of three black women who worked for NASA in the late fifties and early sixties as mathematicians to help propel the United States into space. She discussed Afrofuturism with Heiroglyphic Being and Reggie Watts, and then with Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning and considered the DIY-inspired ethos of their Wondaland collective.

She talked about wanting “to be the black girl doing the shit that nobody else is doing,” and her relentless pursuit of artistic growth. Recalling a refrain from her Electric Lady single “Q.U.E.E.N.,” Monáe proclaimed, “I was born to do what makes me unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.” She offered constant affirmations and encouragements to pursue any and everything you want—make music, act, explore history, learn math, whatever. Her ideas tided me through the rest of a sometimes uncomfortable day.

Down at the American Tobacco Campus, an extravaganza based around Nickelodeon’s Yo Gabba Gabba! was loose and chaotic, with video clips from the show playing on narrow screens as DJ Lance Rock and musicians did … well, something, backstage. For the final hour, bass legend Bootsy Collins joined DJ Lance Rock onstage, with Mark Mothersbaugh and Can’s Malcolm Mooney enlisting, too.

At any rate, the many children in attendance —“little funkateers,” Collins exclaimed—seemed to be over-the-moon excited, with several joining the musicians in their noise-making and button-pushing. The bright, frenzied sounds, free from any stricter, made for a fun diversion.

The five o’clock block that followed presented the worst personal conflict of the festival: Julianna Barwick, Tyondai Braxton, The Body, and Reggie Watts all overlapped within the same hour. I chose Braxton and The Body, having seen Barwick a few years ago. I chalked up Watts to next time.

At The Pinhook, Portland’s The Body ground out an enormously loud set that was deeply satisfying, even as the late-afternoon sunshine peeked through the windows. Braxton, playing for a seated crowd in a blackened PSI Theatre, delivered glitchy and often fitful electronic spirals, with visuals that recalled warped VHS tapes. It was plenty interesting, but was yet another dude keeping his head down while futzing around with knobs, buttons, and a laptop.

Braxton’s set also reinforced that the PSI Theatre should absolutely be used for live music more often, and I felt the same way at the Durham Armory during Art of Cool and Moogfest. Other venues, though, didn’t feel as comfortable this time around, including the Carolina Theatre. There, light displays felt too big for the space, even though the theater was one of Moogfest’s largest rooms. Though it seats about a thousand people, the Carolina is fairly compact in configuration, meaning that massive beams and giant flashes had nowhere to go. Last night, sets from Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never were the worst offenders.

Before my night ended on that uneasy note, I got to see Sunn O))), a drone outfit I love, even if I don’t entirely understand. Sunn O))) is special, especially in live contexts. In early April, I saw the band perform indoors in Knoxville, Tennessee, at another festival, and it was a full-body experience. I felt their long, slow notes in my chest and my stomach, in the back of my throat and in the soles of my feet. I’d hoped for a reprise at Moogfest, but the effects of Sunn O)))’s sounds were mitigated by a last-minute change of venue, from the Carolina Theatre to outdoors at Motorco Park, over concerns that the band would damage the theater.

Still, the band turned in a wonderful set that was plenty loud, which again concluded with Attila Csihar returning to the stage in a magnificent mirrored ensemble: a cape, body armor, and a spiked headpiece. The Sunn O))) spectacle was complete.

Under the full moon, with my body buzzing and friends close by, everything felt just right.