AC Entertainment's third annual installment of MoogFest in Asheville last weekend may have been scaled back to two days instead of three and may have featured fewer acts, but there was still plenty to see and hear.
Unlike outdoor festivals like Bonnaroo or Pitchfork, MoogFest takes place in indoor venues ranging from small clubs to arenas, and the environment of each one helps set a tone for the performances. Asheville Music Hall, Orange Peel, and ExploreAsheville.com Arena were geared toward a dance and party vibe, while the seated Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and Diana Wortham Theatre hosted more subdued or avant-garde music. It wasn't exactly a strict Apollonian/Dionysian split (Squarepusher and Four Tet played Thomas Wolfe), but at three separate times during the weekend, I went directly from rowdy hip-hop or dance-club performances to watch guys (yes, all guys) barely move as they created melodically impoverished ambient atmospheres and synthesizer soundscapes at Diana Wortham.
For a festival emphasizing electronic music and innovation, the first two editions of MoogFest were surprisingly light on hip-hop. The organizers made an effort to change that this time around. Nas was one of the biggest names, and Atlanta's Killer Mike has obviously been invigorated by the success of his new critically acclaimed and politically minded album R.A.P. Music. Mike worked the crowd throughout his set—following his incendiary track "Reagan," he led the crowd in a chant of the song's finale, "I'm glad Reagan's dead." The audience of mostly twentysomethings, many of whom weren't even alive during the Reagan administration, seemed way more into screaming that line than singing along with the more life-affirming "The Whole World," the Outkast song on which Mike appears. It was oddly endearing. Mike's recent collaborator El-P's performance was also a winner. Lots of energy, a goofy and game band, and a strong hypeman helped bolster his set, and he is an impressive MC to hear live.
I'm not too keen on the artist performing a "classic" album, but was pretty excited about the idea of seeing GZA, of Wu-Tang Clan, tear through Liquid Swords. Maybe it was because his show came at the end of the day, but it felt a little flat after hearing so much exciting and original music. Knowing what song comes next eliminates part of the fun and surprise of traditional concerts, and GZA himself didn't seem to have much energy. I was definitely in the minority here, though, as it was one of the most enthusiastic crowds I witnessed, and the line waiting to get in was a couple of hundred deep.
Though the only actual instrument played onstage was a drum kit, Death Grips were by far the most brutal and heavy act of the weekend, having more in common with hardcore than hip-hop. Zach Hill played ferociously over programmed electronics while Stefan Burnett raged on the mic. I couldn't make out most of Burnett's lyrics, but that really didn't matter. The intensity of his performance communicated all you needed to know, and whatever you make of the aesthetic value of this music, it is undeniably visceral. It was a piercing aural assault that led to a sizable mosh pit and the Orange Peel's floor shaking. Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin's ambient synth set after provided a nice comedown.
It was more odd going from Killer Mike to hear Morton Subtonick perform, but the 79-year-old Subtonick turned in one of the most radical and innovative sets of the festival, touching on his seminal "Silver Apples of the Moon" and other works on a classic analog synth. The sounds he made were by turns gorgeous, jarring, and creepy, and the live video creations added quite a bit.
Santigold gets tagged as a sort of poppier, more user-friendly M.I.A., and her live act doesn't do much to dissuade the impression. The only act I saw in the arena, it was playful and fun, highly danceable, and she borrows from enough different electro-pop styles to keep things interesting.
Magnetic Field's Stephen Merritt was in a droll, slightly irritable mood, which by this point is part of the act. But stage banter was kept to a minimum, leaving more time for the band to explore Merritt's frankly amazing catalog of good to great songs. Excepting a number of cuts from their most recent album, the lengthy set was light on post-69 Love Songs material, suggesting the band might hold the same opinion of their more recent albums that many fans do.
Is Exitmusic next year's Beach House? Probably not. Their dream-pop leans a little heavy on the dark side, and Aleksa Palladino's vocals might be a tough sell for some, but the photogenic NPR faves are bound to show up on lots of dating mixes and soundtracks in the next few months. I dropped into their show to kill a few minutes and ended up being drawn in, primarily by Palladino's voice, and sticking around a good long while.
Asheville's proggy rock duo Ahleuchatistas was the sole hometown representative and the clear underdog of the weekend, but the pair more than rose to the occasion and blew away the small crowd that turned up. More than once someone uttered "Wow!" following a particularly intense run from the duo's hyperkinetic and hyper-creative drummer Ryan Oslance.
I wound down my weekend with Brian Eno collaborator and ambient pioneer Harold Budd, accompanied by Keith Lowe. Budd's piano clusters were played with too much dissonance, unconventional timing, and odd pauses to be truly ambient—at times it reminded me of Morton Feldman's piano works—but Lowe's alternately plucked and bowed bass created a warm, soothing tone to complement the starkness. I checked in on Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig's set for a few minutes, but my head was just not in the right space for dance beats after the lulling effects of Budd and Lowe's music. Nor did I make it to the late night after-party where Knoxville's Fine Peduncle played. As Billy Joel said, leave a tender moment alone.