When I learned that Moogfest — a festival that I had first heard of during its four year stint in Asheville — was going to be revived this year in the great city (and my current stomping grounds) of Durham North Carolina, I was excited to see what the well-matched festival+location pairing would bring to the table. A few of my initial concerns, like the comparative capacity of some of the venue spaces to the number of attendees, were based in good reason. Others, though, like a fear that the large outdoor stage called “Motorco Park” (stationed in what usually serves as the parking lot for Motorco Music Hall) would struggle to deliver good sound and viewing areas, were alleviated once the festival began.
As is the case with many city festivals that take place in a collection of individual venues around the downtown area, this first year of Moogfest in Durham definitely encountered its fair share of spatial difficulties. At first, things seemed to be running so much more smoothly than I had anticipated. Thursday night was a breeze; I spent less than a minute in line before entering Motorco Park a bit after 7 pm for the Hundred Waters set. Not only was there next to no line for entrance: there was also a direct beeline through the spread-out crowd to the rail. Hundred Waters was a wonderful start to the festival for me. Frontwoman Nicole Miglis’s striking vocals soared through the air around us, captivating some members of the crowd who did not seem familiar with their music but were visibly happy to have been introduced.
Impressed with the ease at which I had been able to get into the outdoor venue and find a killer spot, I figured it was fine to briefly leave in between Hundred Waters and Floating Points. By 8:30 pm, however, the previously nonexistent line suddenly spanned most of the block, and I was relegated to seeing half of Floating Point’s dynamic set from the line outside the Park itself. Luckily, their lights show was mostly visible from my waiting spot: an impressive set of visuals that fittingly complemented the audio experience. After finally making my way back into the Motorco Park, I stayed put through Blood Orange. The band’s frontman Devonté Hynes possesses an almost Prince-like groove to his movement and demeanor on stage; I felt utterly transfixed on his performance from start to finish, though I recognize that a farther-back spot might have diminished the quality of entertainment. He had this veritable intensity in his eyes that was compelling to watch up close.
Later that evening, an attempt to get into Gary Numan’s set proved fruitless because of the line. The Motorco Music Hall is a quaint little showroom that typically holds local and regional bands more than anything else, and it felt like the space itself (more so than the people in it) was overwhelmed during some of the more popular sets that were scheduled there. The floor and walls protested against the loud bass of Atlanta-based DJ Demo Taped, and although no one seemed notably annoyed that we had to shimmy our bodies against each other to pass through the space, claustrophobia did impact my music-watching experience inside that venue.
On Friday, I decided to get into Motorco Park with time to spare before the venue’s main attractions of the evening (Grimes and ODESZA), given my experience from the night before. Bob Moses put on a solid, though slightly sleepy, set; what they lacked in dynamics, Bob Moses made up for with the clean, beautiful execution of the songs themselves. It was more enjoyable to close my eyes and let the music itself come into me than to watch the performance as it played out before my eyes. And then, Grimes took the stage with gusto as she enthralled the crowd from start to finish of her set. Hit songs “REALiTi,” “Flesh Without Blood,” and “Genesis” propelled the audience into a stream of energetic dance moves, almost as if we were trying to match the dynamics of Grimes herself who glided across the stage with such resolve. “Scream” lived up to its name in her performance of the song, as Grimes fell passionately to the floor of the stage, back first, and screamed into the microphone. This was the most viscerally excited crowd that I witnessed all weekend — and with good reason. Grimes was moving across the stage with an almost manic kind of rapidity and yet still maintained this sense of calm and precision in her motions. Most impressively, the vocals were spot-on despite the significant amount of bounding around the stage; her backup dancers were almost equally captivating to watch.
The organizers of Moogfest definitely followed through on their intent to showcase opposition to the harmful North Carolina HB2 bill throughout the four days of the festival. Multiple speakers made mention of the bill, plentiful anti-HB2 fliers donned the walls inside venue buildings and other Moogfest-related spaces, and all bathrooms for the festival were deemed gender-neutral. Even some of the restaurants in the downtown area, entirely unaffiliated with Moogfest, proudly displayed such fliers and gender-neutral bathrooms, which exhibits the city’s general sentiment towards the bill and its potential effects on individuals of the state. “Synthesize Love” was the pro-LGBTQ slogan of the weekend. The festival goers and townspeople seemed to glide among one another comfortably, even warmly — an unsurprising fact, given the relaxed demeanor of Durham paired with the fact that Moogfest enthusiasts do not tend towards the rowdy, aggressive side of the social spectrum. The city hosted art installations and a variety of other free “experiences” that non festival-goers could enjoy as they walked through downtown. This allowed for a marked sense of cohesiveness and collaboration, between space and experience. Townspeople could even catch a good glimpse of the performances in Motorco Park if they positioned themselves outside the gates; the sound from that spot was almost as good as in the venue itself. Moogfest shared what it could with the general public, in a way that I have not personally observed before with a festival.
The exploration of electronic music and technology, and between the artist and the engineer, that Moogfest comprises is really something special. My first few glances at the physical schedule (which, unfolded in entirety, was about two and half feet long and wide and wildly confusing to navigate) overwhelmed me, as my eyes darted all across the listed events and performances that I wanted to experience — which was about half of them. Needless to say, this was not only unrealistic but physically impossible. The schedule contained a broad selection of compelling workshops, but there was a caveat to these offerings: space was limited in the majority of the workshops, and I believe that the system worked so that ticket holders could sign up for a space as soon as their ticket was purchased. Thus, devoted Moogfest fans who had committed to the festival months ago were likely shoe-ins for the workshops that many others (including me) unfortunately were unable to attend. I am all for rewarding loyalty, but this system seems a bit faulty to me, as not everyone can commit to a festival multiple months in advance — regardless of how interested they are in the event.
My friend and I agreed that we wanted to show up for Saturday afternoon’s Hypnotic Seance to see if we could get in (as it was listed as “full”). Oddly, no one checked names or asked if were registered for one of the limited spots that supposedly were all taken. It was then, at 5:30 pm on Saturday, that I realized I probably should have tried this tactic with more workshops earlier in the festival that had interested me: just show up and walk in like you belong, despite the “at capacity” claims. The description of the workshop told us to “come for the misguided meditations, stay for the sensory stimulations and mass hypnoses.” I prepared myself going in that the experience might prove to be sensory overload for me, and so I was relieved to learn during the introduction that participants were free to come and go for the first 45 minutes. The instructors told us that if we were still in the room after the halfway mark, though, that it is incredibly advisable to stay until the end, “for the wellness and safety of all of us” (hearing this ominous phrase is when I started to get a little panicked). We were sitting in a room on the gallery floor of the swanky 21C Museum Hotel, only a wall and door separating us from the passerby in the main gallery, while the group leaders took us on a hypnotic journey. I ended up taking advantage of the leave-early option, though I pushed through for as long as I comfortably could. The initial sections of the journey felt powerful but positive; as it continued on, however, my body no longer felt grounded in the moment. I think I might have been too in my head about the experience, given that it was taking place in a crowded gallery space in the middle of the day — despite the darkness of the room and fabricated atmosphere of relaxation for its participants, the appropriate headspace was hard to accomplish.
Sustaining, and then making best use of, energy was my biggest personal pitfall over the weekend. It took considerable effort to drag myself to the Carolina Theater on Saturday night for Explosions in the Sky’s 1 am set; however, that was (next to Grimes) my most anticipated act of the weekend, in part specifically because of the venue. I knew that an Explosions set in the stunning space of the Carolina Theater would be an experience that I could not allow myself to miss. My friend and I arrived to the theater to find the longest line of the festival: the GA line went down an entire block and then turned a corner and continued on further, and a volunteer was notifying eagerly waiting festival goers, “we are at capacity.” Even the Media/VIP line was long and motionless, but I opted to duck into that one, in hopes that some foolish souls would leave early and that the theater would allow for a one-in, one-out system. Around 1:10 am, someone announced to the puppy-like impatient faces of Explosions fans that had remained in line with a unifying motivating force of optimism, that they would be letting in 40 from VIP/media and 75 from GA. I slipped into the theater as number 29 of 40 and didn’t even care that we were essentially herded like sheep up four flights of stairs until we reached the tip-top balcony floor. In all, I caught almost an hour of the set, and it was a striking experience — musically and emotionally. The crowd was predominantly silent, with occasional eruptions of clapping, and I had little control over the tears that pooled in my eyes as the band performed Your Hand in Mine with astonishing passion.
I am glad that a festival like Moog has found its home in Durham, North Carolina: a fast growing city with a cultural emphasis on good food, drink, art and music, and with an increasing focus on tech innovations. Since I grew up just down the road in Chapel Hill, I’ve been able to witness the remarkable degree of development in the past decade of Durham’s city, and Moogfest feels like a puzzle piece that perfectly fits into the culture that the city has been consciously constructing in recent years. This comfortable fit was evidenced through the sea of experimental-music-adoring millennials with beards and tight jeans and serious faces: the earnestness that permeated throughout this festival was both notable and lovely. Limited capacity issues affected opportunity for both workshops and musical performances, but this felt like a minor fallback in light of the overall success of the festival. Everyone shared the space with one another generously and conscientiously, as we all seemed elated and grateful to be gathered together to experience a long weekend of innovative audio, visual and technical explorations. Moogfest is already scheduled to take place in Durham for 2017, from May 18-21 and discounted tickets are available for purchase here.