Moogfest 2014 Recap

According to Twitter, just about every act in attendance either crushed, killed, or destroyed this year's Moogfest in Asheville, N.C. But three acts actually went beyond fan hyperbole and actually did some damage at their respected venues. First was the bass-heavy Flying Lotus, who blew a speaker at Orange Peel on opening night. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering they still hold the record they set more 10 years ago for loudest band to play at Pilot Light, Black Dice blew their stage power at a smaller club. More unexpectedly, Kraftwerk's first of three sets at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium came to a lengthy pause after some PA failure. But these were about the only real hiccups at a festival that saw 100 acts playing 10 venues over the course of five days.

Following three years of collaboration with AC Entertainment, this year Moog Music teamed with Paxahau, the producer of the nation's premier electronic music festival, Detroit's Movement. The change in partners could be subtly felt in the programming; though Moogfest has obviously always been focused on electronic music, there were only a couple of rock bands present this year. (I didn't see a drum kit until the fourth day of the festival, and even the drummers were accompanied by electronic beats.) There was also much less of the avant/experimental fare that AC tends to favor, though a high point for me was the North American premiere of Craig Leon performing his 1981 synth cult classic Nommos, accompanied by string quartet. Holly Herndon also brought a more challenging take on digital music.

As with any electronic music festival, there were a lot of performances that consisted of people standing behind computers, synthesizers, and turntables. The increasingly popular way to make this more engaging for audiences is to invest in elaborate lighting and projections, and, as with the music, some of the visual efforts were more creative and interesting than others. Kraftwerk (the original Band Standing Behind Consoles) came with 3-D videos consisting of '80s-era graphics themed around each of their songs. (The video for "Autobahn" resembled the video game Pole Position.) The music spoke for itself, though. As the band played material from across their catalog, it was a reminder, if you needed it, of just how influential they continue to be. No Kraftwerk, no Moogfest.

As performances go, however, Pet Shop Boys set the bar pretty high on opening night. They solved the problem of how to make a singer and stationary keyboardist interesting by employing multiple costume changes, two dancers, and innovative and engaging visuals. For nearly two hours, they played most of their hits and old favorites, along with songs from more recent albums, and for many people it was one of the highlights of the festival.

If any place has a slow music movement, it's surely Asheville, and if not, it might start one after the durational performances by Bradford Cox, Dan Deacon, Gavin Russom, and Nick Zinner. They twiddled the knobs of various Moog instruments for four hours each, and as the kid exiting the venue as I entered succinctly put it, "It's kinda interesting but monotonous."

Disco not only lives, it thrives at Moogfest, and the enthusiasm and reverence for Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers was evident in middle-aged attendees who were there when it went down in the '70s and twenty- and thirtysomethings who came up listening to DFA records. DFA's label showcase was held in the U.S. Cellular Center's bunker-like basement venue, I guess in an attempt to approximate a rave atmosphere, but there were hardly enough bodies to fill the cavernous space. Nevertheless, Gavin Russom's Crystal Ark and London's Factory Floor put on two of the most fun, danceable sets of the week.

More sober eyes and ears were focused in the events unfolding during the day, as the much expanded daytime conferences focused on technology, innovation, and creativity. While there were career overview talks from Moroder, Rodgers, Keith Emerson, and Stevie Wonder's synth guru Malcolm Cecil, much of the programming was tech and industry oriented. There were plentiful demos of new apps and electronic instruments from innovators like Don Buchla and Roger Linn, as well younger creators from MIT and Google.

It wasn't all about technotopia, however. In their respective keynote addresses, philosopher Nick Bostrom and bioethicist George Dvorsky both had measured attitudes regarding the benefits and limits of technology. A panel of (all male) Google creatives did their best to present the company as a super-happy, super-fun company working to make the world a better place before fielding audience questions regarding the company's homogeny and the ethics of data collection and storage. An entirely different type of conversation took place during a program presented by Afropunk. Techno pioneer Mike Banks stressed the importance of community and corporate independence for artists, and delivered a moving speech about the effects government incompetence and gentrification were having on long-term residents of Detroit. (He also waxed bemusedly on the recent commercial popularity of a music style he helped develop over 20 years ago, gently dissing about half of the performers at the festival.) In a panel moderated by writer Greg Tate, artists Sanford Biggers, Marcia Jones and poet Saul Williams spoke bluntly and eloquently about race and creativity in America. Afropunk's forum was a welcome counterbalance to days of lectures from academics, techies and entrepreneurs, where class and race were rarely mentioned.

In the local press, Moog representatives and city and county officials have been vocal about the reconfigured festival being a means of attracting technological developers to the city, with SXSW's interactive programming cited as a model. (Another tipoff: the opening panel was titled "Wiring Silicon Mountain: Technology and Innovation as a Tool for Economic Development.") According to an article in Asheville's Citizen-Times on April 28, Moog got $90,000 from county government, $40,000 from the city of Asheville, and another $50,000 in in-kind services. Around 7,000 tickets were sold as of its opening day. At a price of $49 for the opening night to $499 for a VIP pass, this was nowhere near recouping the $3 million Moog invested in the festival. CEO Mike Adams said the company expected to lose money the first year, most likely looking to the advertising and promotional opportunities of the expanded festival, and counting on word of mouth and press to bolster attendance next year.

The Moog company and the city of Asheville are obviously playing a long game here, and it should be interesting to see how and if Moogfest and the city develop over the next few years.