Walking past the ornate gold trim and satin seats into the Carolina Theatre in Durham, NC on Friday night, it took a few minutes to process who and what I was seeing. Though I was familiar with the four people onstage, it was hard to believe that they were all in one place doing a show together. Instantly recognizable, seated at the center of the couch on stage, was comedian Hannibal Buress. To his left, slouching casually on their own couch, were the three main members of Animal Collective. And finally, across from them was legendary electronic composer John Mills-Cockell.
As Hannibal conducted the conversation for a live recording of his podcast, I marveled at how strange it was to see these disparate worlds come together. Given the differences in age, taste, and sense of humor between the three acts—combined with the fact that none of them had ever met before—there were a few unsurprisingly awkward moments. Yet, whether it was bonding over their mutual love of Weird Al, Animal Collective’s visible delight over Mills-Cockell’s Miles Davis stories, or a 30-minute group diatribe on parrots, this unlikely collision of worlds produced a captivating show that would not be easily replicated. This turned out to be a reoccurring feeling throughout the weekend, as musicians, scientists, engineers, activists, and casual fans descended upon downtown Durham in the spirit of collaboration for Moogfest 2017.
In a similarly unlikely melting pot, scientist Marc Fleury gave a series of presentations that blended particle physics, occultism, and trance music into what he refers to as “techno-shamanism.” For those interested in a more hands-on experience, there were workshops on synth-building, beat-making, protest organizing, and quantum event mapping, just to name a few.
Although these various interactive tech and science events serve to set Moogfest apart from other festivals, at its heart it is still a music festival, and it in that sense it did not disappoint. Headliners like Flying Lotus, Animal Collective, Talib Kwali, and DJ Premier rocked the crowd at the outdoor Motorco stage, which was the biggest and most conventional Moogfest venue. DJ Premier played the expected hits—mostly his collaborations with the likes of Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and Biggie. Animal Collective had a playful set that started out with an intro from probably the most famous beatboxer of all-time, Michael Winslow. They stuck pretty closely to new material from Painting With, but sprinkled in a few classics, to which the crowd responded enthusiastically. Flying Lotus’ set was particularly laid back and impromptu, as he played a few never-before-heard beats. This included a remix of the iconic Twin Peaks theme song, which was timely given that the new season was set to air the next night.
Decidedly less conventional than the outdoor Motorco stage was the use of an old Presbyterian church as a music venue. This turned out to be the perfect setting to take in the ethereal neo-soul beats of Sudan Archives or the relaxing looped violin of Colleen, as the sun set through the large stained glass windows and spotlighted the performers on the altar.
Shows like these were great palate cleansers after being pounded by the chaotic caterwauls of industrial noise project Pharmakon, or the ominous other-worldliness of the “Stranger Things” soundtrack as performed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Austin-based synth outfit S U R V I V E.
In a lot of ways, Moogfest is the Goldilocks of festivals; it balances the harsh and confrontational with the soothing and ambient. Its programming is equally exciting to children playing with theremins as it is to veterans who remember the early-model Moogs from the late 60’s. It’s big enough to attract quality performers, but small and genuinely interactive enough that you might see them after the show wandering around the Modular Marketplace, checking out the new gear for sale. Now in its second year since moving from Asheville to Durham, Moogfest shows no signs of slowing down. However, as the scale and hype surrounding the festival continue to grow, it will be interesting to see how the collaborative, D.I.Y. vibe is affected. If this year is any indication, neither casual festival-goers nor hardcore synthheads have much to worry about.
Thanks to Pat Cleland for covering Moogfest 2017 for us.