My second day of MoogFest began with an afternoon trip to the Moogaplex, to fiddle around with some Moog instruments first-hand and to attend one of the many afternoon discussion panels about the history of Moog instruments. I finally fulfilled a life-long dream of playing a Theremin. I played three different Moog Theremins actually, as well as a few different models of Moog synthesizers. I was not the only one in attendance having fun with the instrument petting zoo. There were about 30 or 40 people anxiously waiting in line to get their paws on a Moog. I can not think of another music festival where the fans get a chance to play with high-tech gear such as this. A very special treat provided by Moog Music.
The panel I attended was a narrated, power-point presentation about the treasure trove of Moog artifacts discovered in Moog’s country workshop and garage after he passed away. Thanks to a Grammy Foundation grant and countless hours of volunteer effort hundreds of documents, artifacts, and recordings have been cataloged and preserved. The panel made it very clear that this is an ongoing preservation effort and that donations would be helpful in saving all of this music history. Within this mountain of Moog documents all sorts of tidbits and trivia are being discovered. One example is that Moog’s first synthesizer prototypes were capable of polyphonic sound.* This was unknown to Moog historians until just a few years ago. The panel was the first time this information was made public; in a most spectacular way. By playing a recording of it.
For about ten minutes, Moog’s sound archivist played selections from rare recordings discovered in Moog’s workshop. These were some of the earliest synth recordings and proved fascinating listens. Two notable recordings were a riotous synth solo by Sun Ra and the earliest known recording by master synthesist Wendy Carlos. I’ll admit it was pretty mind-blowing to hear a recording of Wendy Carlos noodling around with a synthesizer for the very first time!** Hearing some of the earliest synthesizer demo recordings ever made was the perfect way to get psyched up for the performances ahead.
After my afternoon of mainlining Moog, it seemed appropriate to make my first set of night two a jam session by some of the best Moog musicians around. Projek Moog is a super group of in-demand session players and Moog Music designers. The group is led by Moog Music chief engineer Cyril Lance on the Moog guitar. For this session they were joined by Brian Kehew of Moog Cookbook fame.
Projek Moog felt like the band that would get together and play at the Moog Music company Holiday party or something. It was a total Moog instrument and effects gear geek-out as they played some funky jazz, some tripped out space-rock, and some formless compositions that showed off the Moog guitar, Moog theremin, Moog synthesizers, the new Moog Lap Steel guitar, and a new Moog proto-type keyboard. As if that wasn’t enough, even more traditional instruments got the Moog treatment through hand-crafted effects boxes. Example, there was an amazing stand-up bass solo that sounded like experimental music from another galaxy after the effects pedals had their way with it.
Brian Kehew joined the band for the final two songs. To my utter television-score geek-delight, the band ripped through a full-length, ultra-Moogy version of the theme to The Rockford Files. Classic television composers utilized the Moog synthesizer so heavily that its sound became the trademark of 70’s television. No score better demonstrates this than The Rockford Files with its unforgettable melody. The mastermind of Moog Cookbook jamming Rockford with Projek Moog was a highlight of the entire festival for me.
The last time I saw Emeralds perform was about a month ago, when they opened for and upstaged Caribou at the Black Cat. This band of progressive synthesizer and guitar maniacs keep getting better each time I see them. Their set at MoogFest was surprisingly short; they did not even fill their enitre time-slot; but what they lacked in longevity, they made up for with intensity.
I can not think of a young band that better represents the electricity wielding and circuit bending mentality of Robert Moog than Emeralds. To set the Halloween mood, Emeralds took to the stage under the horrendouesly awful and delightfully obscure Tales From the Crypt rap “The Crypt Jam”.Their MoogFest set mirrored their Black Cat set pretty closely. They performed two very long jams that featured Mark McGuire going absolutely nuts on his guitar while Elliott and Hauschildt frantically knob-twisted, programmed, and played keyboards. The sound of Emeralds electro-prog instrumentals was fantastic in The Orange Peel. Perhaps because of the context of their performance at MoogFest, Emeralds seemed to show even more similarities to Tangerine Dream than the last two times I have seen them. I hope that Emeralds continues in this direction, it is a sound that suits them and the world has missed classic Tangerine Dream-style synth head-trips for about 20 years.***
Continuing the Moog instrument and sound showcase of early Saturday evening, Volts Per Octave’s stage set up featured perhaps the most Moog instruments of any band I saw at MoogFest. The band is a family affair featuring husband and wife Nick and Anna and their 12-year old daughter Ava. All three of them play an array of Moog insturments including multiple synthesizers, a theremin, and some other odd gadgets that were just too confusing to understand. As if their technical set-up was not massive enough, the VPO family were joined by a very special guest for this performance: music legend Bernie Worrell.
Bernie Worrell, or Uncle Bernie as the VPO’s call him, is one of the all-time great keyboard and synthesizer players. He is a founding member of the Parliement-Funkadelic musical dynasty and was an unofficial member of Talking Heads for most of the 80’s. Playing with VPO is one of two performances Worrell would participate in at MoogFest 2010. The 66 year old keyboardist had a commanding stage presence, even though he was hidden behind his keyboard and synthesizer stack once seated.
Worrell lent the already funky Volts Per Octave a classic organ groove and occasional spaced-out effects while they tore through a set of originals and cover songs that showed off their impressive collection of Moogs. Papa Nick showed the widest range as he played a mean synthesizer, several theremin solos, and most impressively sung some freaky funkified vocals with a talk box. Watching this family and friend perform such unusual yet danceable music infected the crowd with positive attitude. It was all smiles as VPO brought more friends on-stage and hurried through their final number.
This is one of the reasons why I love music festivals. Surprise collaboration. Secret set. The word passed around MoogFest about 45 minutes before via text alert that Dan Snaith of Caribou and Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet were going to be performing a secret collaboration in the Moogaplex at 9:45 on Saturday night. Both Caribou and Four Tet were playing individually at opposite ends of the Saturday night schedule; what did they have in store for the in-the-know who showed up at the Moogaplex for their secret set?
It turns out that Caribou and Four Tet got it in their heads to have a bit of a DJ showdown at the Moogaplex. A decent sized crowd filled the dance-floor as Four Tet and Snaith alternated behind the decks. Each played about two songs per turn from their collections, throwing in all sorts of DJ trickery to soup the tracks up. The audience ate-up this celebrity DJ battle and got down to their killer selections and live-remixing skills. Snaith and Hebden paced around the stage behind one another during each other’s turns at the decks. It seemed like they were having a blast, occasionally throwing one another spoilers to mix out of. A decent crowd of VIPs gathered at the side of the stage to watch the battle unfold as well; I’m pretty sure I saw Nosaj Thing paying close attention. Bottom line: Caribou and Four Tet got bodies moving with an eclectic dance mix that got everyone warmed up for the headliners to follow.
If there was only one act at MoogFest 2010 that I was there for, Massive Attack would be it. I have always wanted to see Massive in concert and I think that all the years of waiting were for a reason. Massive Attack brought a ridiculously huge stage show to MoogFest that dwarfs anything I have ever read about them doing in concert before. Their menacing, atmospheric trip-hop writ large like this was a nearly unbelievable spectacle to behold. You don’t watch a Massive Attack performance; a Massive Attack performance happens to you.
Breakdown the band’s name and you get two words. Massive. Attack.
The stage presence of this band in the Ahseville Civic Center was huge. One often thinks of trip-hop as cerebral, private music; quiet, contemplative chillax beats. Massive Attack’s current version of trip-hop had other things in mind. A gigantic LED display wall covered in disturbing messages and images. Two huge drum-kits flanking the beat-factory in the center of the stage like a machine-gun nest built out of sand-bags. Guitar and Bass players to the left and right pacing like sentries on duty. Smoke, tons of it, billowing out from behind the drum kits, catching the color-shifting light to create an atmosphere not unlike that of a hole ripping in the fabric of reality.
The volume of their music was unholy. Nothing about this performance was chill, everything about it was designed to encompass you or confront you. I have never heard bass mixed so loud or expansive before. Massive Attack’s slow, drawn-out bass-lines slammed into and washed over the crowd like the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919; it leveled everything in its path. People tried to dance, but it was like trying to walk into an operational wind tunnel. The guitars and keyboards, DJ effects and samples all added to the maelstrom of sound assaulting the crowd. At times it was a thing of powerful beauty; at others it was delightfully terrifying.
I watched Massive Attack’s set from the front row and then from the balcony to take in the whole enchilada. It was an incredible way to take in their breath-taking set. Up-close the vocal performances of Grant Marshall and Horace Andy had an ultra-cool club feel. Once removed to the back of the arena, their voices and identities dissolved into Massive Attack’s aural overload adding yet another layer of growling menace. The female vocals fared better then the men’s from the balcony. Martina Topley-Bird performed on several songs and her voice cut through the controlled chaos like a razor blade. Although I must admit, watching her perform up-close was a sight to behold; Topley-Bird was done up in deranged make-up and wore a wrinkled ballerina outfit. She looked like a broken doll and her facial expressions and hand-movements only added to her disturbing stage persona.
I described this weekend’s Massive Attack set to a co-worker as having the overwhelming audio scale of an Underworld performance combined with the precision and emotional manipulation of a Radiohead concert (when they were in their prime). It was quite unlike anything I have ever experienced before. It was as beautiful as it was disturbing, as moving as it was entertaining. It was certainly the best performance that I saw at MoogFest 2010.
MoogFest was sick with DJ sets in the best possible way. In addition to LORN, the other DJ that I was hotly anticipating was IKONIKA from the UK. She was slated to close out the after-hours Moogaplex on Saturday night. So after checking out a little bit of Shponlge’s DJ set in the Civic Center, I head over to catch IKONIKA.
You would think I would be DJ’d out by now, but MoogFest had booked such an interesting range of DJ styles that it never got old. IKONIKA unleashed the most aggressive set of the weekend. Her rather relaxing-on-record UK hyper-dub style translated into sub-bass frequencies and electro-percussion stylings that brought the house down. Her set was relentless and watching her spin was like observing a master at work. IKONIKA was never content to simlply hit “play” and take a breather, no, her set was a carefully choreographed ballet of turntables, laptop, mixer, and other gadgetry that had her hands moving in blurs. Her timing was perfect, her transitions epic, and just when you thought her bass attack could not get any deeper or louder, she would take us all to the next level with all the sonic drama of an elevator unexpectedly falling three floors.
IKONIKA is my new DJ hero. I want whoever books LORN to perform in DC, to add her to that dream line-up as well.
Tune in here tomorrow for my write-up of MoogFest (Night Three).
* Polyphonic sound synthesizers were not widely available until 1974. Moog’s newly discovered early polyphonic prototype was functional in 1963.
** Wendy Carlos is most well known for the synthesizer score to Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
*** I know, I know, Tangerine Dream are still active. But c’mon, really? They haven’t excited me in years. Besides, I am comparing Emeralds to classic Tangerine Dream, not the post-Hollywood toothless TD that most people think of when their name comes up.