Moogfest 2012: A Retrospective – Day 1

                               “Y’all a weird batch of motherfuckers!” – Killer Mike, to Asheville 

I wasn’t planning on going to Moogfest this year. There weren’t any huge names on the bill like last year- Flaming Lips, and I don’t know the first thing about the techno/club kinda music that Moogfest features so heavily. I was actually planning on skipping town for the weekend, when, by divine providence, I got emailed about doing some freelance work for So be it, I decided I should stay in Asheville.

Overall, Moogfest was a fantastic time. The weather cooperated, the festival was well organized, and the lineup was stacked with eclectic, interesting acts. Unfortunately, because all of the action took place in various venues across town, you may have had to wait to gain entry to some of the bigger shows if they were at capacity. Luckily that did not seem to be a huge issue for most people, but it was a bit of a pain. Also, some of the dancier acts (Miike Snow, Four Tet) were put in an auditorium with seats, which kinda put a damper on the hip-shakin’. I feel like the planners could have done a better job taking that aspect into consideration.

I tried to catch as many of the artists as I reasonably could. I did miss Justice on Thursday (heard it was sick), as well as the lectures on Saturday (heard they were interesting). Regardless, I do feel like I got a pretty good sample of what was going on overall. So, without further ado, let’s go on a totally subjective, beer-fogged play-by-play of what went down.

First off was Buke & Gase. The duo took the stage at The Diana Wortham Theater, which is normally reserved for theatre and classical performances. It was a fantastic venue to see them. The sound quality was pristine, and really allowed their intricate avant-indie compositions to shine. The two piece consists of  Arone Dyer, who plays a six-string uke and sings, and Aron Sanchez, who plays a bass/guitar hybrid and percussion. Fun fact: all their instruments are custom jobs. Evidently Sanchez used to make all the instruments for the Blue Man Group, and now does it for his band. Although there were only two of them on stage, they had no problem filling up the theatre with their sound. Their arrangements are shifty, full of time-signature changes and dissonant harmonies, but ultimately anchored by strong, driving rhythms and Dyers’ soulful voice. Very unique and unusual songs. I would have loved to stay for their entire set, but Killer Mike was starting up down the road at The Orange Peel, and I didn’t want to miss that.

Killer Mike wins the “most charisma” award for the festival. He’s a captivating performer, spitting old-school rhymes over massive ghetto beats with gusto. The set was heavy on tracks from his latest R.A.P. Music release, but he also managed to squeeze in a couple old OutKast-collabs, including “The Whole World.” A sing along crowd-pleaser for sure. El-P (who produced R.A.P. Music) also made an appearance for a verse. Killer Mike is a populist to his core, with a flair for banter. He spent a good portion of time between songs urging everyone to get out and vote, preaching leftist politics, and telling the crowd how much he cared about all of us. For a man wearing a “Fuck Hope Do Dope” t-shirt, it was surprisingly heartwarming.

In contrast, Nas’ set at the Civic Center right after was mostly lifeless. He took the stage with a full band (there must have been a dozen people up there), but everything sounded canned and flat. Zero energy. I’m a big Nas fan, but this was a disappointment. It felt like the hip hop equivalent of some classic rock band from the 70’s going through the motions on the oldies circuit. I left after a few songs.

Miike Snow was next door at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The entire stage was enveloped in smoke, making it difficult to tell exactly what was going on, but I’m pretty sure there were five or six synth players up there. I don’t know why there were so many synthesizers, it seemed excessive. But what do I know? It sounded good regardless. I’m only really familiar with a couple Miike Snow songs, but their brand of catchy electro pop is easy to get into even if you don’t know the tunes. The auditorium seats got in the way of dancing, which did kinda inhibit everyone from fully enjoying themselves, but it was still a good time.

El-P was playing across town, so I quickly schlepped back to the Orange Peel (I have blisters on my feet from walking so much. I did it for you guys). As a rapper and beatsmith, El-P has had a hand in producing some of the best underground hip-hop over the past decade-and-a- half (Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, the list goes on), and his live set did his reputation justice. El-P is a phenomenal rapper, delivering impossibly dense lines with precision and finesse. There was no DJ, he had a drum machine and two guitar/keyboardists (plus a hype man) churning out the beats instead. At one point there was a keytar solo. It was awesome. Nas could definitely take a cue from El-P in regards to live instrumentation. Killer Mike also made a cameo, returning El-P’s favor from earlier that night.

I used a little downtime to check out the VIP lounge at this point. Let’s take a little time out and talk about its various pros and cons:

Pro: You get to feel special flashing your wristband to the security guards, who let you enter with a knowing nod.
Con: Your friends have to stay outside.

Pro: Free booze.
Con: You can’t take it outside the lounge, so you either have to pound your drinks quickly or smuggle them out in your jacket pocket and get your clothes wet when they spill all over you (I employed both strategies)

Pro: Massive hummus bowl.
Con: Double dippers.

Pro: A very nice 70-something named Stephanie behind the bar pouring drinks. She was a sweet woman and surprisingly knowledgeable about music. A pleasure to talk to.
Con: When I went back for my third rum and coke in 20 minutes, I felt like I was disappointing my grandma.

But enough of that. Back to the action:

I was a massive Primus fan back in the day. Memories of Sailing The Sea Of Cheese on my Discman as my Mom drove me home from wrestling practice make me misty-eyed with nostalgia. Alas, all things must pass, and one must surrender gracefully the things of youth to the passage of time. It’s been years since I’ve listened to Mr. Claypool and the boys, I guess I grew out of them. Still, I’ve got a special place in my heart for Primus, and I was looking forward to taking a trip down memory lane at their show. The first thing that struck me while watching them is how much they’ve mellowed out. I remember their shows as a kid being much more intense. They didn’t play any of their more raucous jams, and there was nary a mosh pit to be seen. I guess the fellas in the band grew up a little, too. Still, Les is always an entertaining frontman, and the band ably jammed through a set of their trademark wierdo funk. Plus, they totally did “Southbound Pachyderm!” The screen above the stage displayed psychedelic imagery that got extra trippy when you put on your complimentary 3D glasses. Groovy, but nothing compared to the total audio-visual assault of Squarepusher next door.

I don’t know anything about techno music. I had to Wikipedia what “house music” was while I was writing my preview article. I’m clueless. After seeing Squarepusher, though, I think I’m gonna have to educate myself. It’s pretty rare to stumble across something that totally blows your mind, but Squarepusher was one of those genuine epiphany moments for me. His music is fast, dense, and mind-bogglingly complex. There are no vocals or anything resembling a traditional instrument, just electronic bleeps and bloops, which gives the impression you’re listening to something abstract and alien from human experience. Beats and motifs drop in and out at a dizzying speed, almost like jazz, and the near-constant rhythmic changes make it nigh impossible to dance to. The music seem to belong more in a modern art museum than a club. And what about those lights? He had a massive LED light display behind him and a smaller one on his visor. They created complex moving patterns of white light equally as intense as the music, sure to send an epileptic into fits. The cold, brilliant, monochrome visual aesthetic perfectly matched the audio. At the end of his set, he moved from his deck to a souped up bass guitar rig, where he completely dropped any pretense of rhythm or melody to create a pure noise-scape. Squarepusher can be exhausting to listen to for very long, but he’s absolutely worth it.

I dropped in briefly on Explosions in the Sky and Richie Hawtin. Neither really caught my attention. Explosions are more suited for a film soundtrack than a live performance, their style of post-rock is just so slow and lumbering. As for Richie, it really just sounded like generic club music. But, as I mentioned previously, I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to this sort of thing. I did manage to see the back half of Black Moth Super Rainbow’s hazy psych-pop set. Vocoders and synths galore. They have a very cool sound, I was impressed.

GZA was the last show of the evening, and he did a helluva job closing. He performed his entire Liquid Swords album, plus a few classic Wu-Tang tracks for good measure. Unlike Nas, The Genius lived up to his seminal back-catalogue. The crowd was eating it up, and joined in on several of his more famous verses. By the end of the show he was out in the audience, with the entire Orange Peel yelling along to “C.R.E.A.M.” (Dolla dolla bills y’all!). I didn’t see it, but the word was he put his gold chain around the neck of some random person in the crowd. It’s hard not to be a little envious writing that.

Thus concluded the first day of Moogfest. I was off to bed, but not before swinging by Cook Out for a double cheeseburger. I would need my strength for tomorrows revelry. – Taylor Rogers

Continue for Part 2…