Devo Cancels. MGMT does Karaoke. King Britt travels the Spaceways. Mutemath does Back-Flips
The first day of MoogFest consisted of tough choices made easy by disappointment. The disappointment was the late-news that Devo would not be performing. They canceled their entire US tour after guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh sliced his thumb to the bone. But disappointment yielded opportunity.
I missed Dan Deacon so I could go to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and catch all of The Octopus Project, a band out of Austin. They set the bar precipitously high with an energized, mostly instrumental set that was a bit like Devo meets Mono, sans vocals. They rocked through songs with complicated, head-snapping time signatures, minimalist patterns and that soft-loud guitar attack favored by Mono. But they do it with an ear toward pop infectiousness. All the musicians switch off on keyboards, guitars, bass and drums, although the focus seems to be Yvonne Lambert, stage center at her keyboard station. It was Halloween weekend but Lambert didn’t have to wear a costume. She was dressed in her usual stage attire of an exaggerated flip hairdo and 50s-era party dress. She played the minimalist keyboard riffs and on a couple of songs caressed the air around a Moog Theremin. Unlike most contemporary bands who use it for whooping space effects, Lambert did her best Clara Rockmore impression. While her band mates bobbed across the stage, she stood stock still, making tiny hand movements to play simple but precise melodies. But she whooped it up a few times as well, to good effect. The Octopus Project manage to be effervescent even when sending out industrial chaos with metal beats and buzzsaw synthesizers.
At the end of their energized set, TOP was joined by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale, the two frontmen from Devo. On short notice, TOP inventively backed them on “The Girl You Want” and “Beautiful World.”
Next door at the Ashville Civic Center, I caught a bit of Big Boi’s groin pummeling live set with multiple rappers, horn and rhythm section and lots of dancers. The full house was bouncing to their precisely rendered rap although it carried a lot of dark undertones. I thought the black power salute was an interesting touch to deliver to an all-white audience.
I stepped out of that into the more peaceful redoubt of Bonobo. He did a DJ set in place of Devo and he was spinning some entrancing down-tempo moods when I stopped in, but with Devo out of the picture, I was more in the mood for live music, so I opted for the 15 minute hike down to the Orange Peel for King Britt. The experimental hip-hop artist has been working a kind of electronic homage to the spirit of Sun Ra for the last year called Saturn Never Sleeps. He’s played this in Philadelphia with a large band and extensive multimedia productions but he brought a stripped down version to MoogFest. It was just Britt on various electronic manipulators and Rucyl, an original member of The Goats, singing, playing keyboards and processing her sound. Based on tracks that Britt seemed to have in his laptop, they moved through slow dirge beds of turgid, glitched scrawls with Rucyl singing mostly wordless vocals, tossing her voice into reverb and echoes and occasionally breaking into a chanted chorus singing lines like, “Give me love,” making her sound like Donna Summer in a fever trance.
Twenty minutes in, Rucyl informed us it was all improvised on the spot. But that was no news as the music marched engagingly over shifting moods and textures with Britt mashing up tracks in real time. Rucyl is a compelling singer with a smokey, sensual voice, but her vocalise often meandered with a limited palette of wordless vernacular. Yet, they entered some fascinating spaces including one haunting piece with a train whistle, alien crickets and the growling approach of a dark dawn. Much of the music attained a certain zombie-lounge groove, perfect for Halloween.
After their set, we rushed back to the Civic Center to catch about half of MGMT. It was evident immediately that they hadn’t adjusted to the cavernous space. Their sound bounded off the walls with muddy bass, indecipherable vocals and highs that scalped your head off. The highlight of the second half was the 12 minute “Siberian Breaks,” the magnum opus from their Congratulations CD. The song alternates between dreamy exposition and slamming grooves and is their most ambitious composition with a heavy dose of 1960s Brit pop including The Hollies vocal harmonies, The Small Faces pastoral idylls and a nice touch of Pink Floyd space guitar. They followed it up with one of their two big hits, “Kids.”
MGMT reportedly had lofty goals from their second album, refusing to release singles from it and claiming there weren’t any radio friendly hits, as if that was something to be disdained. So were they being ironic in playing “Kids” as a complete Karaoke song with all of the musicians abandoning their instruments except for a couple who banged on percussion while the synth track played on. Even the vocals sounded artificially reinforced. The audience didn’t care. Decked out in their Halloween makeup and costumes, they bounced up and down, spinning and waving the supposedly-banned glow sticks in the most carefree rave fashion while the infectious rhythms pounded out from the speakers. MGMT took the song home, however, with a pure psychedelic rave-up of twisting guitar. There was a mass exodus after that, the crowd apparently having gotten their two hits, with “Time to Pretend” played earlier.
We skipped Van Dyke Parks. Was that wrong?
Instead we took a break and then settled back in at the Orange Peel for Mutemath. This New Orleans quartet has been around since 2003 and should be garnering more attention, if for nothing else, their electric live set. Frontman Paul Meany looks a bit like Perry Farrell and has the same kind of energy, extolling his earnest songs with a showman’s sensibility and a jazz pianist’s chops. He played mostly Fender Rhodes but also stepped out on a battered Keytar, but with none of the showboating usually associated with fuzak bands. Guitarist Greg Hill was a wonder on guitar, creating the textures behind Meany, ripping out bluesy space slides, power chord leaps and Byrds-like jangle. Darren King is a power house drummer, slamming his undersized kit while wearing headphones with a chin-strap to keep them on his spinning head. With his below-the-shoulders-hair, beard and 70s sunglasses, bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas looked like he stepped off the cover of The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore. And he laid down an intricate and booming foundation just as solid as that band. Mutemath careened through their set culminating in Meany doing handstands and backflips on his Rhodes.
Day one is over. On to day two.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))