Who goes to all those daytime talks you see on music festival schedules? Moogfest people, that’s who! At 2:00 p.m. last Friday, with a long night stretching ahead, Tim Hecker had enough folks packed into a Carolina Theatre cinema that you’d have thought it was an Avengers: Endgame matinee.
Then again, as we discussed in our preview, Hecker is experimental-music famous and has been circumspect about Konoyo, his album based on Japanese gagaku music. His work’s post-human façade makes you wonder who’s behind it, and the curious showed up in droves to hear him talk with Konoyo Ensemble musician Fumiya Otonashi and Moogfest “Head of Innovative Curation” Kai Reidl. Armed with gorgeous slides of the Tokyo temple where Konoyo was recorded, Reidl led a brisk, informative tour of Hecker’s process and ideas—including that the catchall terms “ambient” and “drone music” are ready for retirement. He’s probably right, judging from Moogfest artists’ micro-specific takes on broad genres (throw in “electronic,” too).
Last year, on warm May nights, I enjoyed the torrential rain at Moogfest. But on this chilly April afternoon? Not so much. Faintly mildewed, I went home to dry out until the sky cleared and then went back to see one of my faves, the Swedish minimal-techno master The Field. The last time I saw Axel Willner play was at a D.C. punk club with the lights on and a muddy mix of his pristine sound. His set at The Armory was a transcendent do-over, and his music’s pneumatic pump and shush, the gentle grip of its waves of ecstasy, had a very balanced listener-to-dancer appeal.
I like dancing, so I’m good, but I always worry about the people who don’t at Moogfest. The challenge of booking so much laptop and console music is giving them something to look at. As dynamic as Willner’s music is, his visual presentation suggests a longshoreman leaning over and intently checking a shipment. But Moogfest created visual drama by bathing all its performers in animations (I loved Kimbra’s the night before, with classical statues turning into smoke), fog, and colored lights. Shout out to hometown A/V whiz Adam Graetz (aka THEFACESBLUR), who veejayed a seamless atmosphere at The Armory all weekend.
But if the vibe was tight, the crowd was getting looser. There was the dude whose ecstatic dancing would have taken up too much space on the main floor, but instead, he found an empty spot in the balcony and did his damn thing. Respect. And there was the one who, as I watched in wonder, made no attempt to hide the fact that he was lighting a Black & Mild in The Armory, standing in the bright lights directly before the stage. Was he from a place where they still smoke indoors, and it’s customary to take a drug-store cigar with your Scandinavian techno? Or was he just like, well, you can’t open your mouth without a vape pen falling into it, so maybe no one will notice? Needless to say, security descended instantly.
By the time post-footwork genius Jlin starting rearranging The Field’s orderly labyrinth into her own tumbling, Escher-like maze, rocking wild samples and bent basses on hardware, it was on. But if you needed a break from color, light, and stoagie smoke, there was Hecker’s show at The Carolina, which was surprisingly loud for a project using ancient Japanese classical instruments—not to mention surprisingly dark, even for Moogfest. From the balcony, you could see the merest hint of human figures in a dim daub of blue fog and the upper part of a large, thundering drum, which vibrated dramatically in a spotlight when struck. I had dodged psychedelics, which took some effort, but I felt like I was tripping. Sight and sound detached from consensus reality, and all the world was this clangorous sound and abstract shape. Afterward, I took a friend to The Fruit around 1:00 a.m., lingered outside, realized I was weird, and went home. Plus, I had to interview a minimal-techno idol in front of a Moogfest-talk audience the next day.
Anyway, by night two or day three of a music festival, things are always starting to feel a bit surreal, as you penetrate the deeper wilderness of exhaustion and your daily routines fade from view. On Saturday, except for a disco nap, I Moogfested from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. Sunday. I sat under a blank movie screen and had a great talk with Wolfgang Voigt, aka GAS, who was far more warm and funny than his severe music might suggest. I failed to properly press “record,” so it was an hour we shared with an audience, and now it’s gone forever, which seems apt of Voigt’s evanescent music, somehow. I also saw him perform that night, a bucket-list concert. As he plowed up long, seamless acres of melody and texture in The Carolina, it took me to a deep, personal, almost scary place that I would need several tequila shots to emerge from. Lots of people do this, but he is a master. It was the only time all weekend I stopped tweeting.
I saw actual techno inventor Juan Atkins, a very clutch sub for an ill Thomas Dolby, slay a high-energy DJ set for a bunch of seated spectators and a few tenacious aisle dancers at The Carolina, where, last year, they at least let people dance in the photo pit for Jon Hopkins. There is something comical about being battered with bpms and strobe lights while sitting in a Beaux Arts theater seat. Obviously, Moogfest couldn’t boot an artist out of The Armory to put Atkins there, but that would have been sick. It was a valiant effort.
I saw Lula.XYZ perform her interactive sci-fi pop with haptic gloves, which is the most Moogfest sentence ever written, for a crowd that was totally with her, despite some technical glitches when the gloves sometimes failed to bend a pitch or chorus a voice as she gestured. I saw Questlove play Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” for a cage full of sober people in the late afternoon on the American Tobacco Campus, part of the festival’s free festivities there, and I also saw him late-night at The Fruit, playing to a low-key room that felt more like the Instagram backdrop than the party—that was in the main room and the basement, where The Floor and friends held it down all night.
Still, if you wanted to hear some songs instead of losing your shit among the green lasers and pummeling tech-house in the basement, you couldn’t ask for much better than Questlove deejaying in a Durham warehouse, topping off the most accessible Moogfest the city’s had yet.