For better or worse, the Art of Cool Festival and Moogfest have spent the past two years locked in comparison and competition for city resources. The festivals take place less than a month apart, making use of many of the same spaces but courting different audiences. During Moogfest’s second year in Durham after moving from Asheville, those differences have become even starker.
Since 2014, the Art of Cool Festival, directed by Cicely Mitchell, has gathered strength, earning a regional reputation as an eclectic, forward-looking jazz festival. It’s stepped up its bookings a bit with each iteration, and this year was its biggest yetit snagged Common for a headlining gig at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
The festival is still fairly young; it doesn’t have any year-round corporate backing or full-time, paid staff. But it makes a significant imprint downtown, in a city that already has a storied history and a deep connection to the music that Art of Cool offers.
Art of Cool has always felt like a genuinely grassroots enterprise, a wholehearted effort made possible by and for the people of Durham. Like Hopscotch, its ticketing reflects those inclusive values: you could buy single-day passes or single tickets for just the headlining Common or George Clinton shows. Anyone under twenty-fivenot just studentscould buy a discounted pass. Moogfest sold no single-day or single-show tickets, and its $99 student tickets were limited to those who could produce a university ID. This year, its lowest regular ticket price was $249.
The more flexible ticketing seemed to work to Art of Cool’s advantage. Throughout the weekend, Moogfest’s crowds barely felt much bigger than those at Art of Cool, despite it being a larger festival. The differences in crowd sizes didn’t feel at all proportionate to the disparity of the promotional and financial resources afforded to each festival by the City of Durham and by corporate sponsors.
Additionally, Moogfest had a far less personal feel. Instead, an air of exclusivity seemed omnipresent. Around 5 p.m. Thursday evening, many attendees trying to get into the Carolina Theatre for Gotye’s tribute to Jean-Jacques Perrey were turned away from the 1,300-capacity venue because it was “sold out.” That was true, but only because the festival was allowing just three hundred people into one of its largest rooms.
A few blocks away, the section of Rigsbee Street between Fullsteam and Motorco was closed off, essentially turning an entire block of businesses into a private club for Moogfest attendees only. (The Pit was open to the public via a side door.) Logistically, it made some sense, as it allowed festivalgoers to mill about the block with beers in hand, but it still felt strange.
Themes of protest and resistance were central to both Art of Cool and Moogfest this year, and their different manifestations were telling of their motivations. Before Common went on at DPAC, the Reverend William Barber delivered fiery invective about pushing back against oppressive forces. “Bowing down is not an option,” he said, and the crowd roared back in agreement. He offered a direct, exciting call to action, and Common coasted in on that energetic wave before turning in an invigorating set of his own.
At Moogfest’s much-ballyhooed Protest stage on Thursday night, Mykki Blanco, Talib Kweli, and Pie Face Girls offered varied messages about subverting oppression and promoting social justice. But their noble efforts were watered down by messages of consumption between sets: Listen to this podcast! Download these apps! Logos of corporate sponsors flashed on the stage’s massive LED backdrop, including Guitar Center, which closed its only Durham store last summer. Buy local, right?
That’s not to say Moogfest wasn’t funit was an enjoyable weekend that brought some excellent talent downtown. Suzanne Ciani at The Armory, with the PA set up in the round, gave one of the best, most immersive performances of the festival. Overall, Moogfest delivered entertainment and engaging ideas. But like The Wizard of Oz‘s Tin Man, the shiny affair lacked heart. The city felt more rented than inhabited.
It’s important to remember, too, that Moogfest decamped to Durham in large part because Asheville didn’t want to pony up any more cash after the festival lost $1.5 million in 2014. But Durham, apparently eager to beef up its “Silicon Valley of the South” image, rolled out the red carpet for Moogfest, while Mitchell and Art of Cool had to stop just short of begging for support from the city. Durham eventually caved and Art of Cool got its money, but that didn’t happen without significant uproar from the community first.
It’s a shame that the city seems keen to chase the “cool” factor of one festival when a homegrown one already has it in abundance. The key difference is this: Moogfest could happen anywhere, but Art of Cool couldn’t happen anywhere else.
This article appeared in print with the headline “A Tale of Two Cities.”