Live from Moogfest: the Center of the Synth Universe

North Carolina has been reeling from some very bad press lately, mostly from the HB2 bill which prompted reactions ranging from condemnation to bands canceling concerts and businesses refusing to operate within the state's borders. It’s been a tough blow for a state traditionally known for being the most progressive in the region. N.C. can really use both a good party and a reminder of its artistic heritage, so Moogfest feels particularly welcome about now.

A couple of years ago, Moogfest ended its run in Asheville, North Carolina, where Moog is based. Massive financial losses required a serious regrouping and among the decisions made was to move across state to one of the country’s great technology, music, and design centers: Durham.

The American Tobacco campus, the former home of Lucky Strike, was converted into a brilliant, multipurpose creative space about a decade ago after being left for dead after the tobacco industry’s exodus from the city. Industrial detritus was repurposed and incorporated into its design as rapids in a man-made river, railings, walkways, staircases, and art. That blend of history and future made it a perfect location for Moogfest’s base of operations.

modular synth from STG

Tucked into former boiler rooms, offices, and warehouses are pop-up museums and the Modular Marketplace where gear fans can get hands-on experience with the gear they’ve only read about. Moog has just announced that they are re-releasing their most iconic synth, the Minimoog Model D, and Angie Kramer is on-site building them. Throughout the day, the curious can duck into adjacent rooms to attend lectures, tutorials, and workshops where they can build various, very usable, electronic instruments.

Moog Werkstatt Workshop

Oftentimes, the day programming at music festivals feels like a way to kill time until the music starts or an add-on to stack legitimacy on what is essentially a giant party. Not so with Moogfest; the organizers went out of their way to make it an essential part of the experience. Even the 21c Hotel offered its space for performances called Durationals, one of which started at 3am, to soundtrack sleepers.

Motorco, a former car dealership and one of the best places to see live music in the Southeast, expanded into their parking lot for the festival with a full stage. Many of the most anticipated acts are playing there, making it one of the main gathering places over the long weekend. Hundred Waters’ set acted as the soundtrack as the first festival goers started to file in on Thursday night, struggling to figure out the beer ticket system. The weather made it clear it was not going to cooperate. At the start of the set the crowd was splitting their time between watching the band and a foreboding sky. A cup or two later, though, there was a palpable shift as the music won the evening, and the fans settled in.

Though Moogfest is billed as an electronic music festival, many of the bands performing in any given year incorporate both electronic and traditional rock instrumentation. Such was the case at Motorco Thursday night. A drum kit was on stage for every act I saw there with no shortage of guitars. Sam Shepherd’s collective of heavy-hitting musicians, performing as Floating Points, were a prime example, playing songs more inspired by electronic music than actually being electronic music. Repetitive sequences were primarily played freehand rather than by machines. Backdropped with psychedelic spirograph imagery, the set set felt like an updated version of Pink Floyd in their jazzier moments; it was the highpoint of my evening.

modular synth from STG

Dawn of Midi - Photo by Ian Clontz

Meanwhile, at The Carolina Theater, Dawn of Midi played to a packed house. Essentially a variation on a classic jazz trio, the somewhat ironically named group explored many different genres, often within the same measure of music. Like Floating Points, their modus operandi combines virtuosity with restraint through the use of traditional instruments to play pattern and rhythms inspired by drum machines and sequencers.

blood orange at moogfest

Blood Orange - Photo by Gus Samarco

With all of the action happening at Motorco and heavyweights such as Daniel Lanois playing the same evening, it was fantastic seeing strong crowds at smaller venues like local treasure Pinhook. Festivals like this are about discovery, and intrepid fans were rewarded when they checked in for a set by Ultrabillions, a Durham-based duo that combines music performance, a 90 BPM DJ set, and fog machines set to stun.

Having been a fan of Dev Hynes’ work as Lightspeed Champion, I was curious to see what his current project, Blood Orange, was all about. As expected, it was much more than R&B. Hynes genre-bended his way through soul, electronica, and pop, effortlessly acting as frontman while his wrecking crew of a band performed his compositions.

I had to check out of that set early, though, as Gary Numan was about to start. The indoor portion of Motorco, which only holds about 500, was filled to capacity early. Fans who were stuck in line had to wait to see him perform in much larger venues later in the festival. Those lucky enough to get in were treated to the punk energy of his seminal 1979 album Replicas, which came across perfectly in the smaller environment.

Gary Numan at Moogfest

Gary Numan - Photo by Camilo Fuentealba

The most anticipated event during the day on Friday was undoubtedly a celebration of Don Buchla featuring artists like Morton Subotnik, Suzanne Ciani, and Alessandro Cortini. This event was something of a "golden spike" in modular history as it included musicians associated with Buchla performing at a festival honoring Robert Moog. With new Eurorack gear incorporating qualities of both East Coast and West Coast design philosophies, Moogfest felt like the right place for this to happen.

Also during the day, I Speak Machine’s Tara Busch live soundtracked Maf Lewis’ films The Silence,” and Zombies 1985, which, as it happens, features some of Gary Numan’s family. To put a few more cherries on top, Wu Tang’s GZA gave a lecture on hip hop’s relationship with science fiction, Daniel Lanois and The Orb provided a masterclass on synthesis, and a workshop designed to turn kids into Theremin experts went over swimmingly.

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The main complaint is an overabundance of cool stuff to do, and much of it happening all at once. It wasn’t an easy decision to stick around the Carolina Theater Friday night for Gary Numan’s performance when ODESZA was about to play so close by, but life is about hard choices, but in the case of Moogfest, none of them will be bad. Saturday promises to be filled with just as many conundrums, starting immediately after Make Noise’s Tony Rolando’s modular synth presentation.

For more from Moogfest, check out our Modular Marketplace photo gallery and follow us on Instagram.

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