Moogfest: Where Music and Technology Merge to Create a Festival Unlike Any Other
Synthesizers are both a throwback and futuristic instrument. Heavy use can make you feel like you’ve been transported to the ’80s then future falling into the space-time continuum light years ahead. Synth music is varied genre and thus is deserving of a festival like Moogfest. Every year synth lovers track to Durham, NC to try out the newest synthesizers, develop their techniques and vibe with O.G and up and coming musicians inside the genre. This year Moog also unveiled their most recent synthesizer. “Matriarch, a four-note, paraphonic analog model with built-in sequencer, arpeggiator, stereo ladder filters and stereo analog delay,” according to Rolling Stone. This year Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore was also slated to receive the 2019 Moog Innovation award. Three days of synth full bliss y’all!
Day One – Thursday
You’re always ruddy and refreshed the first festival day. Your back doesn’t hurt and your knees are still ready for action. This was the day most of my well-laid plans went the way of the wind but I still managed to leave satisfied. So one of the great factors of Moogfest is it caters events for public consumption AND ticket holders. The Modular Marketplace is free, where anyone of every age can come and play with every sort of synthesizer for most of the day. Brands and brand ambassadors gleefully show off their new toys for eager music lovers and musicians.
Last year I went vinyl shopping and chopped it up with the architect DJ Pete Rock thanks to the marketplace but this year I wanted to soak up as many artists as possible. My first act was Mamis and the Papis at Quarterhouse, this chill arcade/bar spot on a corner of downtown Durham. The Mamis & The Papis are a Durham-based “collective of womxn, femmes and gender nonconforming tender-hearted folk excited to share the music of their hearts and people” according to their bio. I only got to the chance to see one member spin but if she was representative of her crew then they are by far solid, spinning a mashup of hip hop and drum.
Ultrabillions, the moniker of artist Sean Thegen was next at 21C. He is another local DJ that Moogfest searingly shows love to, with the crazy light show that can often feel obligatory with these sets in truth but his set had such a full crowd, I could only squeeze in at the back to observe and listen. His hardcore synth vibe had fans talking in the street about it.
My ping-pong syndrome was now in full effect as I walked the short distance to The Pinhook. Mod-synth artist Dudadius was starting his set, uptempo and heavy on the bass. It became a welcome rhythmic distraction from the more experimental sets and was well-received by the crowded bar.
Patrick Gleeson, jazz artist and synthesizer pioneer was at Carolina Theatre. His synth style is inspired by jazz. He gave his rapt audience a background lesson on inspiration for one of his tracks, Spanish Key. It Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was the innovation for the song, with Gleeson educating on the genres similarities.
Kimbra is an New Zealand artist I’ve heard of through word-of-mouth, all complimentary so I did a high-step to catch her. She’s a mix of pop and R&B and there’s no mistaken the influence the Purple One, Prince has had on her musical style. My fave was her song “Sweet Relief,” and raving round of applause brought her back to stage for an encore with her song “Top of the World.” The rest of my night was wrought with disappointment. I walked across to check out William Basinski but his set ended early so I went to the Pinhook to check out Yoshi Vintage, an LA-based emcee I had caught performance video of last week. When I got there Dudadius was delivering a vibrant second set but I got suspicious after midnight. I hung around and eventually found out Yoshi’s flight had been delayed. I walked around for a while before deciding to pack in and catch a few winks before Day 2.
Day Two – Friday
I had a full schedule today so I didn’t waste time once I checked in. Where yesterday the crowds had been sparse for most of Thursday until late in the evening, downtown Durham was already abuzz. Pockets of fans mulled around, staring at Moogfest schedules, getting ready to start their night of fun. I headed right to The Pinhook. There had a been a schedule change so I didn’t want to lose out on my planned acts.
Texas artist Lisa E Harris is afrocentric, dramatic and a theremin enthusiast. Her brand of synth music is distorted and theatrical and it looked like the crowd forgot to breathe. It was wonderful to experience.
Drama became the theme because Dorit Chrysler, co-founder of the NY Theremin Society, gave more of the same with her theremin during her performance. Hers was full of ups and downs, crashes and lulls musically as she sang. She touchingly gave tribute to the originator of the theremin, Leon Theremin and Robert Moog, namesake of the Moogfest.
Aaron Dilloway is an experimental musician best known for fusing cassette loops and audio into his sound. His set had that chaotic sound, with screeching scratches almost like dj scratches morphed violently into his music.
Spencer Zahn is another artist that merges jazz and synth and his set was one of my favorites the entire weekend. He use of piano and an upright bass gave the music more depth and interest for me. It wasn’t danceable but it was sonically pleasing and all the different elements just worked well.
Drum and Lace is a one woman Cali-based band, that combines electronic and hip hop. I could barely see her, she was dwarfed against the huge screens projecting images but I loved her gorgeously haunting vocals.
Lucretia Dalt has released a few albums so she’s no stranger to the synth/experimental genre. Her music had an ambient vibe, simplistic sounds all artfully arranged. After her set though, I was ready for something a bit more uptempo.
Swedish DJ The Field at the Armory was a definitive highlight and energy boost for me. It was total focus on the music, I can’t recall dude even looking up once from the task at hand. This was the most free I’d seen a crowd so far on Friday and I feel like it began the transition into party time for the night. Everyone was moving, feeling the pulsing bass lines and having a great time.
Rather than leave, I sat right to catch JLIN. Her show at the Armory had sold-out so I didn’t want to take a chance of fighting to get in. I had caught snippets of her In-Conversation sit down with fans earlier in the afternoon so I was excited to see her live performance. The Indiana producer has received critical acclaim for her diverse sound, full of invention. She interacted with the crowd, bopped and smiled often enough to give the impression she was enjoying herself as much as the crowd was enjoying her.
I overheard people mentioning heading over to the Fruit afterwards. Arabian Prince of NWA would be doing a set there later and as the venue first from the downtown hub of Moogfest, people were heading there early to grab parking. It seemed like a smart idea so a friend and I hopped in the car and headed over. The venue itself was old school club vibes, white walls and haze. I see why it was picked but the proximity from all the other venues made it a bad choice in my opinion. Where everything else was walkable, The Fruit was not pedestrian friendly compared to the other festival venues. Still, I was there and a decent crowd was too.
Daniel Miller, of the legendary Mute Records, was already spinning, a huddled by his dj booth and fans in full dance mode. I hung out for awhile then went exploring. The Fruit has a basement that invoked my hidden claustrophobia and a large room off to the side so it was easy to bounce around.
I caught some of Tomie B aka DJ Real of Greensboro but full disclosure, I couldn’t remain in the Basement long. I was surprised she was more House than electronic and she had no problem keeping everyone moving before I made my hasty exit.
Upstairs the collective PartySmashers featuring Mrs. Smith, a shredding phenom that was as skillful as she was entertaining. Her Prince cover was too die for and frankly one best surprises of my Friday night. So much so I didn’t even notice that Arabian Prince had started his set. The DJ booth was surrounded like a durn campfire. He started with some rounds of electronica (yup sure) did before later doing some hip hop classic mashups. I only left to try to catch Yoshi Vintage‘s rescheduled show but they were running a bit behind. By then I was exhausted though and decided to just pack it in. That was the only other gripe I had about the festival, artists were still going on after 2am so the days were super long between all the workshops and festivals. Exhausted didn’t even cover it and we were only finishing Day Two.
Day Three – Saturday
Today was going to be all about the outdoors. Saturday was the only day acts would be featured at The Cage on the American Tobacco Campus, including the free Questlove of the Roots show. I left extra early to play it safe and relieve myself of any last minute headaches. It was a party day, large groups were roaming about, talking excitedly. The VIP lounge already had the drinks flowing, friends drinking and laughing boisterously.
Questlove was the first act of the day. I think everyone assumed he’d run through his hits with the Roots. Instead he played a string of classic soul music, songs that were sampled to make some of the hits were all familiar with. He even got on the mic to explain the departure from the norm, that he would be educating while entertaining. It took the crowd awhile to get into his spinning but eventually folk got loose and stopped standing around.
I had met some DJs from the local DJ collective Raund Haus at JLIN’s yesterday so I made it a point to roll through the Quarterhouse to check them out. They are a mixture of hip hop, electronic and experimental. I caught Streetie Baby, and Danalog’s set. They clearly have a supportive fan base, they received all the love during and after their spins. After hearing so much about them on the local scene it was nice to come and see them personally.
I ran back and caught the tail end of RP Boo, a Chicago-based electronica artist on Planet Mu, with labelmate JLIN. He’s also known for his footwork which he demonstrated on stage for us. His set was lively and fun so I was kind of blown I missed some of it.
The Cage was clearly the place to be, next up was Suzi Analogue. First off her outfit was phenomenal. It reminded me of Bootsy Collins, so I pretty much expected fire for her set. She didn’t disappoint. Her electronic and R&B fusion was dope. I would never think of mixing Brandy with electronica but once I heard it, I was beyond sold. She didn’t need to warm up the crowd either, she already had them playing to her energy. I really didn’t want to leave.
I poked my head in Daniel Miller’s modular set at 21C, a calmer, more experimental vibe than his set from the previous night.
The Pinhook was my current destination. I was checking out LP Giobbi. She started out showing her obvious piano skills, before breaking into a powerhouse set of dance and house, with a dash of R&B and a smidge of electronica. It was fun and she hardly stopped moving. It was hard not to get sucked into her energy. Her mixes were well-blended with some great audio cuts thrown in for good measure.
I ran back to the cage to catch local Raleigh artist Mez, best known for his work with Dr. Dre on 2015’s Compton. Unfortunately his set ended a little early so I was left wanting. I ran back to try to catch Lula.XYZ but again, I missed out. So it made more sense to head over to The Fruit again for Questlove’s set. This time he didn’t need to prod the crowd into moving, thank goodness. It was a party and the perfect way to end the Saturday.
It was a weekend full of learning and community. Durham itself is evolving into something more, and this year’s Moogfest showed an evolution as well. It was far more diverse, a little more unorganized but after 15 years in, Moogfest has solidified itself as a staple in the local area and in the synth genre in all the best ways. With next year’s tickets already available for pre-order, we can’t wait to see what Moogfest has next for us.