Tapping the unlimited potential of Moogfest 2014

by Ryan Snyder

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @YesRyan.

Since its first event in 2004, the twisty travails of Moogfest have not so incongruously reflected the kind of trial and error that resulted in the technological marvel at its heart. From its beginnings as a smallish single-day jam in New York with some of Bob Moog’s closest friends and disciples, to an obliged migration following the financial collapse to Moog Music’s Asheville home base with a more traditional, multi-day festival format, its constancy has been its exploration of the synthesizer’s far-reaching impact in the both the popular and avant-garde vernaculars. Yet, after an 18-month absence during which its former promoter tried unsuccessfully to branch off with a slightly more populist application of its ideals, next weekend’s Moogfest will finally offer the kind of experience to which it has been slowly, at times erratically building.

The five-day event, beginning Wednesday, April 23 throughout downtown Asheville, is expected to draw thousands from all over the world though programming that focuses on the theory of music and technological innovation by day, and praxis and implementation by night. Discourse on creative futurism by Ph.Ds. and innovators, or a workshop on drum programming with real hitmakers, will within hours become a sweaty DJ bacchanalian with a roomful of newly edified partygoers. Its resemblance to Austin, Texas’s own South-by-Southwest is in no way accidental, and just like that massive music and tech conference, Moogfest’s own set of schedule challenges and hair-pulling programming conflicts insist that once does their homework before engaging.

Wednesday: Even with three venues open at night and the daytime full of open installations and speakers (including a welcome by Gov. Pat McCrory at a presentation entitled “Wiring Silicon Mountain: Technology & Innovation as a Tool for Economic Development” “” maybe “Saturday Night Live”’s lampooning the GOP invasion of Coachella wasn’t that far off?), Wednesday is still a bit of a soft opening in contrast to the intensity of the rest of the calendar. Update: Gov. Pat McCrory’s scheduled appearance has been canceled.

The decision: Only eight bands populate Wednesday night’s slate, but the choice between dance legends Pet Shop Boys at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and rap producer extraordinaire El-P at the Orange Peel is the most potentially daunting. On one hand, the perennially underrated Pet Shop Boys are in the midst of one of their most visually stunning tours ever in support of their dynamite 2013 album Electric, their best in years. The ever poker-faced duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are approaching their tour’s theme with a bit of a wink; their stage costumes give them the appearance of anthropomorphized science fair electromagnets “” you know, the one with the nail and the iron filings? On the other, El-P’s live band funk-rock onslaught has the potential to become an impromptu Run the Jewels show. Killer Mike lives just a few hours away, and with the pair beginning to tour again a few days later in the run-up to their second album, a brush up could be in order.

Daytime pick: Dubspot’s Chris Petti isn’t just among the premier DJ and production instructors in America, but check out his YouTube series to see that he’s pretty good at communicating high-concept material in very practical terms. His lecture fittingly tackles the principles behind sound creation using the Moog synthesizer, a pretty handy bit of info the have for the rest of the weekend, you know?

Late night scene: Turn down for what? Even if going too hard on opening night is not completely advisable given the complexities that begin the next day, Boston duo Soul Clap offer a low-key, but highly infectious spin on deep house. Elements of ’80s RnB and electro-boogie pepper their 2012 release EFUNK, which includes a cover of weirdo producer (and fellow Moogfest performer) the Egyptian Lover’s “The Alezby Inn”.

Thursday: Despite rumors floating around over the winter that Daft Punk were going to return to perform at Moogfest after the initial lineup release included both Giorgio Moroder and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers, the real coup in the eyes of many still might have been Kraftwerk’s three performances of their career-spanning 3D installation. Of course, with a catalog as wide ranging as Kraftwerk’s, three shows still wouldn’t be entirely comprehensive. Don’t expect, for instance, anything from the improvisational tour de force on the recent Live 1971 wax pressing that had the Dinger-Rother-Schneider arrangement shredding aggravated instrumental Krautrock. These shows are static, but trippy and satisfying.

The decision: Their first performance, however, is up against the man (besides Bob Moog) for whom Moogfest happened to be conceived. Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was famously the first person to ever tour with a Moog synth, integrating into the Borghese collection of keyboards that he already schlepped around. If parody is the sincerest form of flattery, then Simon Pegg’s old “Big Train” skit does Emerson justice better than any review. The premise: Pegg is escaping a Roman slaver’s prison, but not without his new cellmate Emerson and his entire array of keys. In reality, Emerson really doesn’t go anywhere without his entire keyboard collection, even they require 200 mules to complete the journey. If it helps to clear up the early logjam, note that the Ataxia listed on Thursday’s schedule is not a reunion of the short-lived experimental rock outfit with Fugazi bassist Joe Lally, ex-Chili Pepper John Frusciante and current Chili Pepper Josh Klinghoffer.

The decision, pt. 2: Attaching the tag “Detroit producer” to Jimmy Edgar wouldn’t sufficiently describe one of the true Renaissance men of Techno. In addition to being a talented multi-instrumentalist who spins Eurodance bangers in the classic style of an ultra-minimal Snap or Black Box, Edgar is a premier fashion photographer whose attention to his set’s live visual presentation often reflects an eye for the provocative. Conversely, if Edgar weren’t playing at the same time as mercurial Progressive House icon Sasha, it would be a safe bet that he would be right there in his stylistic guru’s audience also.

Daytime pick: Even if Dawn Richard is creating a more compelling backstory, Janelle Monae is taking her Electric Lady persona as far as it will go. Her daytime talk at the Diana Wortham Theatre will delve into the elaborate persona she’s created for her recent albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady alongside longtime collaborators Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder, whose work has also been featured on Purple Ribbon Allstars and Outkast records.

Late night scene: Rare groove as a cultural resource in the United States is close to tapped out, so naturally, new horizons lie internationally. As it happens, the owners of the Awesome Tapes from Africa blog have already laid their claim, and they’ve dug up a near limitless amount of spaced out dub, deep funk, jittery disco and African electro that sounds vaguely like Freestyle’s “Don’t Stop the Rock”, but sung in a Cushitic dialect. The blog curators’ Emerald Lounge set goes late, though second wave Chicago House pioneer Curtis Jones’ set won’t end until a few hours before Friday’s slate begins. He just played his early work as Cajmere the past two weekends at Coachella, but will assume his space punk persona Green Velvet for two or three hours of throbbing 808s and surreal, druggy anthems in the basement of the US Cellular Center.

Friday: It’s oddly fitting that Mix Master Mike would be the one to replace A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip after the latter’s recent, unexplained cancellation (that’s how the runnings go?); both artists expressed a keen interest in soul-jazz guitar great Grant Green when they sampled the intro and break to “Down Here On the Ground”. Q-Tip did it for Tribe’s “Vibes and Stuff”, and Mix Master Mike and his Invisibl Skratch Piklz mates wove it into some of their most unheralded work, the awesomely funky, hard-to-find live record Warszawa with noise rock/funk outfit Praxis. His block with the Egyptian Lover and Giorgio Moroder kick off the free nighttime programming at Moogfest, but once again, the good stuff is up against the second and third of Kraftwerk’s performances.

The decision: Mike Huckaby’s set is not further proof that SNL’s DJ Rand Paul bit was actually clever foreshadowing; this Mike Huckaby is a Detroit DJ who specializes in imparting the kind of Motorik concepts that Kraftwerk championed decades ago into sparse dance beats. He’s the purest manifestation of the U.S. side of Moogfest’s Detroit-Munich connection, so it makes sense that he’s also up against the living embodiment of American low culture in RiFF RaFF. RiFF RaFF doesn’t actually have any music worth discussing, though he is more know for his YouTube work where he makes silly boasts like “Seasonin’ salts stay on deck, this ain’t no middle of the mall s—“, or his evisceration of call-in haters on “Sway In the Morning”. Despite the utter lack of value in his music, the entertainment potential of his set is remarkably high. At the very least, his Greensboro arrest last year reminds that he’s worth following around.

Daytime pick: The Daft Punk wishful thinking won’t go entirely unfulfilled; Nile Rodgers will be crucified if he doesn’t play that incredible, languorous riff heard in “Lose Yourself to Dance” during his Saturday night performance, and disco forefather Giorgio Moroder’s panel discussion will go off like an hour-long version of his “Giorgio by Moroder” monologue on Random Access Memories. There will be, however, more attention paid to the absurdly cheesy, synth-based ’80s jams with which he scored some of the all-time great film montages, like Paul Engemann’s “Scarface (Push It to the Limit)”. Later, he’ll actually get to answer for that crime when he hosts a screening of “Scarface” at the Orange Peel.

Late night scene: The other reason to experience RiFF RaFF’s show at the Mad Decent showcase is to ensure entry into Dillon Francis’s late, late performance, which will without a doubt be the single most tightly packed set in all of Moogfest. The young DJ is huge right now, but nowhere compared to how big he will eventually be.

Saturday: The exclusion of the U.S. Cellular Center main room as a venue at Moogfest sort of precludes the kind of unfiltered rage-a-thons that Mountain Oasis experienced via PANTyRAiD, which presents a minor problem for Chic featuring Nile Rodgers’ headlining set. Those seats are really going to get in the way by the time he kicks it into his production discography, which will include David Bowie, Sister Sledge and Duran Duran tracks. That won’t be an issue with Publicist, the solo dance-rock project of Weird War and Trans Am’s Sebastian Thomson, who sets up a drum kit, sequencer and vocoder in there middle of the floor wherever he plays and cuts loose with an uninterrupted barrage of robot rock.

The decision: Asheville producer Marley Carroll’s Sings was so good that is earned the number one spot among the 25 Best North Carolina Albums of 2013 piece that appeared in an issue earlier this year. It’s sophisticated and fun, with elements of his classical piano background interwoven into driving beats and rich vocal samples, and his inclusion in the Hopscotch showcase puts him before one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend in Machinedrum’s presentation of Vapor City. On one front, he’s also up against a band still awaiting their Hopscotch redemption after the 17-piece disco band’s 2012 set was canceled due to weather. On another, he has competition from the poet laureate of electronica, Saul Williams, whose poison-laced bars and oppressive bass accompaniment present a heady alternative to the festival’s dance continuum.

The decision, pt. 2: The Eden, N.C.-born wayfarer Machinedrum’s Vapor City Live performance will be given the in-depth treatment via an interview next week, but just down the street, Mark Farina’s classic festival-closing chillout show will also feature a sneaky North Carolina connection. The vocals on his infectious acid house banger “Dream Machine” are the pliant croon of Sean Hayes, a Western N.C.-bred songwriter who bolted for the greener pastures of the West Coast years ago. Hayes will actually begin a new tour in Boone a few days later, setting him up nicely to deliver that song’s ethereal hook in person.

Daytime pick: It’s going to be really, really difficult to rise in the a.m. hours after Dillon Francis’s set the previous night, but Cliff Martinez wants you to come hang. The Grammy nominated film scorer and Rock Hall inductee will present two of his most famous films, “Drive” and “Solaris”, at the Orange peel at 10 a.m., where, along with watching the movies, he’ll discuss composition and aesthetics. There’s time to get one film in before Nile Rodgers gives a masterclass around the devilishly simple guitar sound with which he practically reinvented dance music.

Sunday: The final day of Moogfest is the most straightforward of all five days with but one outdoor stage repping the Fool’s Gold showcase during the day, which is free and open to the public, while only a smattering of panels and exhibits round out the didactic content. That said, Moogfest’s final performer, legendary hip-hop performer Just Blaze, offers the possibility of the biggest surprise. He’s the Timbaland of the 2000s, having produced more memorable hits than anyone but Pharrell for the last decade, but he’s also at the center of one of his associate’s comeback: Blaze produced Cam’ron’s best work, but he’s also performing a string of shows with Killa Cam on either side of Moogfest, as well as producing part of his next album, Killa Season 2. Being a Fool’s Gold Records showcase, and Cam’ron’s newfound prominence on that label, anything is possible. Maybe stick around.