As I disembarked a shuttle to downtown Durham outside The Carolina Theatre, the sounds of a protest against North Carolina’s House Bill 2 greeted me last Thursday. A group on the corner shouted out against a new law they saw as discriminatory against sexual identity.
As I peered up and down the street, a growing yet small southern city unfolded before me. I wasn’t in DC any longer.
Moogfest, the premier music festival dedicated to the synthesizer, moved across North Carolina to a new home in Durham this year for four days of performances, classes, talks, and exhibits over May 19-22, 2016, and it drew me there largely to cover many of its concert performances. But it’s impossible to ignore the time and place of such a festival, particularly when the Moogfest organizers themselves protested the passage of HB 2 and particularly when the attendees for the “festival of the future” are as diverse as those descending upon Durham.
Perhaps the most memorable thing to affix Moogfest to its surrounding environment this year, for me, was a small thing. Many establishments adopted the sigil of “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” aka the Love Symbol, as their indication that a bathroom was “gender neutral.” I think Prince, departed too soon from our world last month, would have approved.
Still, I have a festival to attend (civil rights and culture wars be damned, eh), and attend it I do. Moogfest delivers in spades thanks to its diversity, where artists from various genres demonstrate the vitality of the synthesizer through divergent forms of music and individual expressions in their performances.
The first stop for me actually is along Main Street in a business incubator called American Underground, which will host many conversations in its bullpen over the four-day festival. Claire L. Evans of YACHT is working on a new book, “The Future Is Unmanned,” for Penguin. And she delivered an hour-long talk on the inspiration for and content of the book Thursday evening.
As usual with many Moogfest activities, a lot of people show up! And Claire, visiting from Los Angeles, is impressed. After an introduction by MATI energy drink CEO Tatiana Birgisson (who founded her company at Duke University with assistance from the business incubator), Claire retraced the history of computing from the starting point of women who worked as “computers,” making computations for complex scientific efforts in an America where many had become widows during the US Civil War. From there, she traced the evolution of the term “computer” alongside the women who were computer innovators — women such as US Navy Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler for a programming language.
Claire’s chat covered a lot of ground, sometimes knowingly sometimes whimsically, as she discussed topics ranging from “cyberfeminism” to the role of women in online communities, tracing virtual communities back to the Lucasfilm interactive game Habitat. She presented boatloads of research in a compact, easily digestible manner, and her crowd only grew as the talk progressed. On Saturday, Claire would perform with YACHT at Motorco Music Hall.
Here are a few pictures of Claire delivering her talk, “The Future Is Unmanned,” at Moogfest.
From the booktalk, I zipped down the street to the Durham Armory, which would host many performances over the weekend. The Armory at my scheduled hour was hosting the Opening VIP Party, where a mass of guests enjoyed an open bar while DJ Laurel Halo mixed an electronic set from a high stage, backed by swirling visuals and churning landscapes. I should note the VIP allotment for Moogfest sold out this year, and it was evident if you weren’t aware as the VIP crowd was usually quite large. Chief among the adult beverages at every Moogfest party was a selection of beers from New Belgium, a big festival sponsor that recently opened an east coast brewery in Asheville, NC.
Here are a few pictures of DJ Laurel Halo at the Moogfest VIP Opening Party.
There is no time to waste after the opening party, as Floating Points are taking to the outdoor stage at the Motorco Park, which is a bit of a hike across the quite navigable downtown center. Floating Points is Sam Shepherd, an English electronic musician and neuroscientist, who traveled with three bandmates for a performance of compositions from last year’s Elaenia. After several years on the UK alternative music scene as a DJ, Sam wrote and released his debut album to high acclaim.
Only two nights previous, Floating Points visited U Street Music Hall in DC in a very full show. And in both performances, Floating Points held the audience in rapturous silence as they alighted upon his jazzy synth terrain. Synchronized lights pulsed peacefully in time with the music of Floating Points, while geometric shapes lit up in formations on a screen behind the band. The audience clapped enthusiastically even at the most subtle of flourishes. While a very unconventional concert performance by many standards, Sam and his bandmates proved very polished musicians who knew well how to use long, rolling spare instrumentation to evoke feelings within the crowd, and then to get them dancing with bursts of energetic indie pop.
After Floating Points, I stuck around to see a band new to me — Blood Orange. Part of the appeal of festivals of course is to see an assortment of new discoveries alongside bands you already know!
London’s Dev Hynes was accompanied by a full band, which played songs like “You’re Not Good Enough” from 2013’s Cupid Deluxe and “Champagne Coast” from debut album Coastal Grooves.
Blood Orange is on the verge this year of releasing a new album, Freetown Sound, and he also treated his audience to some songs from that record. All in all, Dev reminds me a little bit of Prince in his smooth delivery and R&B grooves, although his distinctive style is very much his own.
Here are some pictures of Blood Orange performing at Moogfest on Thursday, May 19.
After Blood Orange, I moved next door for the main event: the first night of Gary Numan, who was performing in the indoor stage of Motorco Music Hall. Indeed, I came to Moogfest specifically to review all three nights of Gary Numan’s residency, where he performed this “proper” first three albums — Replicas, The Pleasure Principle, and Telekon — in their entirety, one per night.
Moogfest gave him a hero’s welcome, and organizers awarded Gary the 2016 Moog Innovation Award on Saturday, May 21.
Earlier today, I published a full review of Gary’s first Moogfest show. But Gary came to the stage more than ready to play, and he absolutely burnt the hall down in a fiery rock ‘n’ roll rendition of Replicas that would have convinced you he was the biggest, best, and brightest rock star on the planet.
Not only did Gary give all of himself to the performance, but his audience overwhelmed Motorco Music Hall. Unfortunately, the venue filled quickly to capacity by the time Gary came to the stage, and many many others who came to see the titan of new wave and industrial music were turned away. In hindsight, perhaps the 500-capacity venue was too small for this show?
The concert did not follow the album in tracklist order; rather, it effectively reorganized the songs to maximize anticipation. Gary began with the hallowed title track “Replicas,” his voice as fresh and vibrant yet pained as it were upon the album’s release roughly 37 years ago! He later played “Me! I Disconnect from You,” “Down in the Park,” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric,” before closing out with popular tracks “Metal” and “Cars” from his next album.
All in all, it was a stunner of a show, and an eventful day. After Gary’s performance, I called it a night to recharge in preparation for Day 2 of Moogfest, which I’ll recap for you in this space later this week.
I close with a few pictures of Gary Numan at Motorco Music Hall on Thursday, May 19.