Echoes Lost in a World of Dance Electronics at MoogFest
Expectations were low for the last day at MoogFest with a list of artists that tended more toward the Rap and DJ end of the spectrum.
The first act up actually had nothing to do with the festival, even though they played more Moog instruments than 95% of the Festival’s acts. In Pritchard Park, a small square in Asheville that usually presents folk singers and drum circles, a DJ and an electronic musician who I have subsequently learned are Logos, were spinning out their own techno-variations. There was a naivete in their music that I found refreshing and I wished I could have heard more, but…. onto the paid acts.
The first act up was Omar Souleyman a musician who has reportedly released more than 500 albums in a style called dabke. Wearing a brown leather jacket over an ankle length white kaftan, the wiry Syrian singer cut a stark figure with his red and white check keffiyeh, black mustache and round sunglasses. Introduced by his own MC, he took the stage with his keyboardist and composer Rizan Sa’id. Singing in Arabic, he walked stiffly side to side, standing impassively when Sa’id soloed, waiting for another chance to extoll songs that sounded increasingly undifferentiated and disjointed. Rizan Sa’id handled preprogrammed beats on one keyboard, mixing dance floor drum and bass accented by middle eastern percussion, while he spun out middle eastern solos on the other, sometimes sounding like a whiney Indian shenai. Even though the beats were pounding and had the audience rocking, Rizan Sa’id looked like he’d rather be anywhere else but here. I felt the same way.
DJ Spooky followed. You never know what the longtime DJ and sonic provocateur might have in mind. For this night, he brought out a wind quartet of local musicians and stationed himself behind his computer, iPad and digital DJ turntables for a new work that was simply one of the prettiest compositions of the festival. Spooky manipulated a minimalist pattern of chime-like timbres with electronic sounds whooshing through the background like celestial winds. This was an enveloping cocoon for the wind quartet who sounded part Renaissance and part Steve Reich in their cyclical patterns. Electronic explosions and Forbidden Planet bloops and bleeps made this a gorgeous soundfield for an alien arrival.
I was seduced by the work, but apparently some audience members in the back thought it could use a groove so they provided their own beatbox accompaniment. And they found the pulse in this diaphanous work. They were much happier however, when DJ Spooky ended the piece and cued up some Public Enemy that launched a DJ set that had the audience dancing while an inexplicable video that looked like a Soviet era silent film played on the screens.
We hiked 15 minutes back to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, making our way through hordes of Halloween revelers. We walked in just as Hot Chip began what turned out to be one of the most powerful sets of the festival. An English quintet who has been around for a few years, they are hitting some kind of peak with a sound that updates 1980s Techno-pop with infectious songs and long instrumental vamps like “Over and Over.” It has a chorus that shouts “Laid back! We’ll give you laid back” which they certainly didn’t. Their albums will not prepare you for how hard they rock in concert. They shied away from their ballad materiel and instead had the audience dancing with propulsive rhythms that didn’t pummel you with thump-thump bass drums. The band had four keyboard stations, and drew upon the sequencer sound and melodic verve of Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark. But while OMD was yearning with yelping adolescent angst provided by singer Andy McCluskey, Hot Chip is like a cheering section. In fact, the Burundi style percussion and chants they use on some songs recall Adam & the Ants, an 80’s new wave band that had a celebratory approach to music. Hot Chip isn’t just electronic, but positronic.
Earlier in the day I caught a session at the Moogaplex, the last of a series of panels on Moogs and electronic music. Erik Norlander brought his Monster Moog which had 22 modules and filled 6 flight cases. I caught the end of a retro-space music performance from him, followed by a session proselytizing the joys of analog synthesis with a couple of past and current Moog technicians. Unfortunately, their clunky demo played into bloop and bleep stereotypes and wouldn’t convince any but the already converted. But then, they were preaching to the choir anyway.
I’ll have more thoughts on MoogFest, but Hot Chip definitely ended it for me on a smokin’ note.