Downtown Durham
Friday, May 20, 2016

So far, having to hide my empty backpack in a bush behind The Durham Armory to get in may be my least favorite moment of Moogfest 2016. At the end of day two, this festival has largely exceeded the expectations I set.

For starters, the distance between venues hasn’t been the issue people made it out to be. As someone who attended Moogfest in 2011, 2012, and 2014, or in the Asheville days, the walk from say, Motorco to The Pinhook, doesn’t feel significantly different than it did from, say, The Orange Peel to the Asheville arena, even if the Durham distance is a bit longer end to end. As with any festival, any walk does lead to some tricky choices to make about committing to sets, but rest assured, it’s not quite the long distance I’ve seen cited elsewhere.

Not everything is perfect, of course. As I alluded to earlier, several of the venues, including Motorco and The Armory, have a strict no-backpack policy after six p.m., a small but important detail that wasn’t advertised. This led to frustration when festivalgoers were turned away from the door with no offsite coat check, no explanation, no nothing. Like many who drove in with friends or were staying out of town, I didn’t have access to a nearby car or apartment, so I either had to hide my bag somewhere or skip a lot of shows.

Now, on to those shows and talks: Even more than Thursday, Friday was packed with highbrow daytime programming. There was an inscrutable, rambling keynote by SiriusXM’s Dr. Martine Rothblatt, which featured a video of Morgan Freeman talking to a cybernetic head made to imitate human consciousness. There was a lengthy panel on dub music. There was a Song Exploder podcast recording with ODESZA. There was a GZA interview. There was another Durational performance in the ballroom of the 21c Museum hotel with experimental wunderkind EMA and Jana Hunter.

At the start of the evening at Motorco Park, a nondescript parking lot next to Motorco Music Hall with a towering stage and, true to the amphitheater model, overpriced PBR, Los Angeles noise-and-synthpop freaks HEALTH arrived beneath slate gray skies. They were once a scrappy noise band, and their live set still reflects a bit of that ferocity, even if 2015’s Death Magic sculpted their feedback and static into structured, palatable electronic rock. The band flailed their mics around, jerked them into the corners of their amps, and generally pulled the sort of stage antics you’d expect from a much smaller, grimier band.

Perhaps the single largest draw for casual Moogfest attendees this year, Grimes and a troupe of dancers braved light rain Friday evening for a powerful, vividly choreographed set that underlined how far she’s come since her appearance as a virtual unknown at Moogfest 2011. She commanded the stage, shimmying from one end to the other and only stopping to trigger samples or play guitar, MIDI drums, or a twinkling synth line. Even those who don’t necessarily gravitate toward her music could appreciate the showmanship of what she does—including her huge scream at the end of her single “Realti,” where her howl was probably heard in many residential living rooms in the surrounding neighborhoods. It made me imagine a Grimes-style harsh noise album that, knowing her, actually exists in her vaults.

I left Grimes a bit early to catch Pacific Northwest drone legend Grouper, whose performance at Carolina Theatre was beautiful, even if, after Grimes, I wasn’t quite in the right frame of mind to receive it. There are kinds of music that I don’t think “work” a la carte, and deep, introspective ambient sound like Grouper is one of them. Her music requires attention, not the sugar high left over from a Grimes show. She sat cross-legged on the stage and strummed in shadow, while dreamlike 16mm visuals from her friend and collaborator Paul Clipson screened above. That would have been curious in Motorco Park, huh?

My favorite discovery of Moogfest so far came a little later with the elegant, anthemic music of UK duo Bicep, who played The Armory. The Armory is, I think, one of the great secret weapons of Moogfest, rivaling all the other indoor Moog venues in size and boasting one of the most powerful sound systems I’ve ever heard in a Triangle club. Bicep rocked an incredible set of—here’s the word—muscular house music, complete with a spinning array of biceps projected behind them. The crowd was into it and dancing hard, even those wearing far too much denim to make such a thing seem comfortable.