Night three of MoogFest 2010 quickly flew by in a festival fatigue blur of Halloween costumes and great preformances. I slept right through the Sunday afternoon panels and slowly made my way downtown intending to let the festival take me where it may rather than over thinking the schedule as I normally would. My one constant was that I would be closing out MoogFest at The Orange Peel with El-P. A good judge of a festival line-up is that it should offer you a good time no matter what sets you end up at. Schedule conflicts are par for the course with big festivals, a stress free way to avoid them is to float from stage to stage taking in whatever performance presents itself. After two nights of attacking the festival with the precision planning of a bank heist, I enjoyed a care-free closing night that presented some real surprises that I might have otherwise missed.
For days leading up to MoogFest, I was agonizing over the schedule conflict between Shout Out Out Out Out and Headtronics. My laissze faire approach to Sunday night found me at The Orange Peel to start night three with an impromptu trio of instrumental masters rather than the Canadian party-band upstarts. Headtronics is an informal group that formed earlier this summer composed of Freekbass, Bernie Worrell, and DJ Logic. The three conducted a short tour of live improvisations that caused quite a buzz among turntablist and funk fans. For MoogFest, Headtronics swapped out DJ Logic for DJ Spooky as their beats and samples man. DJ Spooky is a legend among intellectual hip-hop fans as a master turntablist, street philosopher turned university lecturer, and experimental music collaborator extraordinaire. I introduced Bernie Worrell in yesterday’s entry, but where his set with VPO was well rehearsed, his turn with Headtronics promised some real improv synth and keys fireworks. Rounding out the trio was Headtronics’ de facto leader Freekbass. Freekbass is a legend in his own right; the teen protege of Bootsy Collins, Freekbass has evolved into one of the greatest bass guitar players on the planet.
Composed of three masters at their respective instruments; bass guitar, keyboards, and DJ gear; Headtronics performed an hour long set of improvisational jams that gave each an extended moment in the spotlight. Out of the gate it was the Freekbass show. While DJ Spooky laid down sampled beats and Worrell played noodling Moog fueled keys, Freekbass went buck-wild on the bass guitar delivering a relentless onslaught of pedal-altered hyper-basslines. His hands were a blur as he plucked and slapped the strings with long sinewy fingers that occasionally leaped off his instrument like an Alien face-hugger. I don’t know that I have ever seen someone play bass so proficiently in my life. Maybe Les Claypool plays at that level, but his large, outdoor festival appearances loose the powerful effect that Freekbass took advantage of playing in-your-face at an intimate venue. it was fascinating to watch him work his bass guitar like a virtuoso and listen to the funky, freaky sounds he rendered with his small army of effects pedals.
While Freekbass was the most visually spectacular element of Headtronics’ set, DJ Spooky and Bernie Worrell each got a turn to show-off as well. Bernie Worrell really turned up the heat on his organ playing in the middle of the set. His keyboard solos and heroic organ melodies sounded great and showed off Worrell’s real on-the-fly genius in ways that the Volts Per Octave set did not. Worrell also provided great soulful vocals on a jam cover of ‘Take Me To The River’. DJ Spooky became the center of attention for the last few numbers of the set, unlocking the Moog Ipad app and soloing on the ‘instrument’ while also upping the ante with his sampled beats. Spooky also worked in some great fader and breaks action. Headtronics’ performance at MoogFest turned out to be the instrumental prodigy, heavy-weight champ of the festival.
Why did I go see Sleigh Bells again? I don’t know. I think their live show is a sham. But it is a loud, noisy, fun sham. I guess that’s why. I knew going into it that they did not have enough material to fill their hour-long time slot, and that they had no skills to improvise or *gasp* actually play songs outside their routine program to fill the time. I mean at most festivals Sleigh Bells are given about 25 minutes; because that’s all they bring to the table. Some fans at MoogFest may have been hoping for an ultra-rare, extended Sleigh Bells, super-special, hour-long set, but I knew as I walked over to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium that they would go on late to make-up for falling short.
Sure enough, Sleigh Bells went on about a half hour late and still managed to end their set short of their allotted time. It was a miracle of mediocrity. That said, the crowd (who booed the band for being so late) quickly got over it the minute Sleigh Bells oppressive beats began. The set had no surprises. I think Alexis Krauss was actually singing more at MoogFest than at Virgin FreeFest. But really it is impossible to tell. Somehow I enjoyed their set even though I am growing to despise them as a sham band. I mean in a primitive way the apocalyptic strobe lights, use of darkness, ultra-heavy beats, and screaming are sort of impossible to resist. The next time I want to see Sleigh Bells ‘perform’, I think I will just blast their album on my awesome home stereo system and browse BYT’s website.*
I caught the last twenty minutes of Mimosa’s large-scale DJ set in the Asheville Civic Center. I thought it odd that so many DJs were scheduled to spin in the festival’s largest venue, but during Mimosa’s set it began to make sense. Mimosa specializes in that massive crowd mover type of DJing that is popular in Europe. The floor of the Civic Center was packed with hundreds (a thousand?) jumping, dancing, throbbing bodies. I was particularly impressed with Mimosa’s showmanship, he sold his beats with a high-energy stage presence; prowling around and waving his arms in huge arcs against the lights. To complete his set, Mimosa even did a little MC’ing over his furious electro. I don’t know if it was for Halloween or if this is something he always does, but he rapped using a voice modulator to give himself the voice of a shadowy televised whistle-blower or that of an electronic demon. Pretty damn entertaining and my favorite Happy Halloween moment of MoogFest.
If I was strictly sticking to the schedule I had mapped out before making the trip to Asheville, I would have seen Neon Indian perform next. They were a fantastic surprise at Virgin FreeFest and I had been looking forward to seeing them again. But then the chance to see a rare performance by electronica turned epic pop-rock act Younger Brother presented itself. What began as an unclassifiable electronica duo of Simon Posford (1/2 of Shpongle) and Benji Vaughn almost a decade ago has morphed and grown into a massive live band that plays dreamy, arena-rock music with an electronic edge.
Younger Brother are a mash-up super-group of electronica musicians who all have their own going concerns with their main bands. All of this band’s movable parts makes a Younger Brother concert a pretty rare thing. Added to which, their unconventional approach to the music industry has made them one of the world’s largest cult-following bands. Their performing at MoogFest was a big deal, even though the majority of the more mainstream attendees may not have realized it or ever heard of them.
Mimosa left me in such a good mood and had primed the audience in the Civic Center so well, that I decided to stick around to see what Younger Brother had up their sleeve. What we got was a huge band fronted by Ru Campbell (a former vocalist of Leftfield) on vocals and flanked by Posford and Vaughn behind their own tables full of electronic audio gear. Younger Brother did not bring much by way of visuals, but engaged the crowd in that respect by moving around the stage frequently. Especially Posford who often came out from behind his table to play guitar.
If Younger Brother were to stick together as a band and really focus on tightening up their presentation, they could be the next huge band. At times their sound was reminiscent of Radiohead or Coldplay, and yet they never strayed too far from their electronic foundations either. Their dreamy yet danceable approach, fronted by soaring vocals make Younger Brother a band to keep an eye on. They played mostly new material, from their most recent album “The Last Days of Gravity” and (I assume) from their forthcoming one. The whole set had a soaring through the clouds at high-speeds feel to it. A new song called ‘Safety in Numbers’ ended up being my personal favorite of the set with its atypically gloomy message of “There’s no safety in numbers”.
Back down to The Orange Peel to catch one of the sets I was most looking forward to all weekend. I have been an El-P fan for years. When he peeled off from Company Flow and began to get into production work like on “El-P Presents Cannibal Oxtrumentals” it became obvious that the man had a serious head for music beyond a rapper’s silver tongue. His solo career has been a brilliant mix of rap-vocal and instrumental alternative hip-hop albums. As both a lyricist and a composer El-P is a genius of the underground. The MoogFest website teased that he would be performing a mix of his rap songs and his instrumental work (which he rarely performs). I was skeptical that this forceful MC would interrupt the flow of his words for very long to perform any instrumental pieces. I had made peace with that well before boarding the plane to Asheville.
True to form El-P and his wrecking crew (composed of a keyboard player, a DJ, and his vocal companion The Mighty Quinn) stormed the stage like offensive linemen. El-P and Quinn fired off mile a minute raps vocals, as his band provided sick, ultra-heavy, back-beats. Their high-energy was infectious and the medium-sized crowd were going bonkers for El-P and Quinn’s charismatic delivery. The two exchanged verses like a seasoned MC tag-team; complete with bad-ass poses and tough-guy choreography. A lot of the material that I recognized was from “I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead” and offered themes of information overload and corporate-sponsored desensitization. About a third of the way through the set, El-P went off on a frantic anti-consumerism free-style rap that I can only hope will appear on YouTube someday; it was breathless and brilliant.
I, along with the audience, was loving what El-P was doing and would have enjoyed it if he rapped for the entire set. But we were in-store for a much more special set than that. True to MoogFest’s website’s description of his set, El-P and Quinn joined his keyboardist and DJ on electronic instruments and the four proceeded to tear through some epic instrumental songs. Each of the four instrumentals had their own distinct feel and characteristics that made them as exciting as El-P’s early rap songs. El-P played a very small keyboard with serious intent and seemed to be keeping time for the entire band as they recreated and re-conceptualized some of his songs. I was in complete music nirvana during this instrumental breakdown portion of the set. At one point El-P asked the crowd if they were digging it and after a round of loud, positive cheers he introduced the next instrumental as “This is our gangsta, heavy metal, instrumental, synth nerd shit.”
Even though El-P joked about this 25 minute instrumental segment of his set, it was one of the musical highlights of MoogFest. It showed off Hip-Hop’s reliance on electronic instruments, Moog-made or otherwise. At one-point, the keyboard player picked up his keyboard and brought it to the front of the stage for a key-tar solo. Using the Moog Liberation, he ‘wailed’ on the instrument Hendrix style, dropping to his knees in nerdy intensity. The second half of El-P’s set was a rare glimpse under the hood of beat creation and hip-hop sound alchemy. For the final instrumental piece El-P and his band were joined by Dam-Funk (who had performed two of his own sets during the weekend). The L.A. based producer played classic synthesizer along with El-P’s troupe and provided the final surprise collaboration of the weekend.
At the end of his set El-P thanked the audience by saying “thanks for letting me play my tiny keyboard for you.” The audience was howling for more as El-P and his band left the stage. It was the most dedicated group of fans I had seen all weekend. They demanded an encore, which unfortunately El-P was not permitted to give them.** Even without the encore, El-P’s set was one of the most unique and special performances of MoogFest 2010.
After being denied the El-P encore, I decided I needed a little more music before I called it a night and put the cap on the weekend. I stayed at The Orange Peel for the start of Dark Party’s set. Something felt off about it from the get go. One of the DJs was dressed as a giant taco, the other one was dressed in all black (I guess he didn’t get the email). Their music sounded as disjointed as their presentation and I beat feet before too long.
I am glad I did because I wound up at Stella Blue, the only venue I had yet to experience. This was the all ages, after-hours club set in a downtown Asheville dive bar. DJ Times magazine was sponsoring the closing night party there with a DJ called Marty Party. Long story short: lame DJ name, awesome DJ. He spun a cross-genre set that strayed far beyond the reaches of hip-hop and electronica to include outliers like the Sex Pistols. He made all these different sounds work together beautifully and the younger crowd rewarded him with one of the sweatiest dance-floors of the weekend. Marty Party ended MoogFest for me on a high-note. The whole weekend had a feel good vibe about it and his crazed dance party served as its joyous finale.
The verdict on the revamped and relaunched MoogFest is that it is a fine addition to the U.S. festival circuit. I hope that it returns next year to close out the season once again. With its interesting mix of experimental music, top-shelf DJ parties, and big-name Pop music innovators MoogFest is the perfect cross-roads of the underground and the mainstream and offers a sampling of both to all comers.
** The schedules were pretty tight all weekend. But with lame DJs called Dark Party coming up next, I think the MoogFest could have given El-P ten more minutes.