Jeff Pearson, Novemeber 20, 2010
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
Nestled in the Smoky Mountains, an Art Deco hand reaching for the sky, Asheville, North Carolina is known as one of the country’s last vestiges of homegrown Americana lifestyle. The window to any establishment downtown, whether it be a restaurant or book store, has a decal reading either “Asheville Grown: Buy Local” or “Love Asheville: Choose Independents. Buy Local”. This homegrown attitude reflects in the city’s culture in all facets, more particularly the music. On any given day, buskers occupy the major street corners, spreading music through the city in various fashions; from rolling banjo-picked lines that mimic the mountainous backdrop, to African rhythms injected into the Southeastern way of life. The region of the Southeast, and more specifically the Smoky Mountain region, is known for its flourishing bluegrass and Americana music scene. While the roots in these styles are strong, a beast of an entirely different upbringing is growing in Asheville, centered at the Moog Music Factory on the east bank of the French Broad River, and the beast is electronic.
Moog Music is a perfect example of the do-it-yourself mindset that is so prevalent in Asheville. Founded by Robert Moog in 1953, Moog Music has played a key role in bringing analog synthesizers and theremin kits to mainstream culture. From a surge in interest in electronics in music in the last few decades, coupled with Moog Music’s long-standing relationship with the city of Asheville, the Halloween weekend event known as Moogfest is born. Using some of Asheville’s many venues throughout downtown, Moogfest brings an eclectic, though largely electronic, lineup of artists ranging from legends like Devo and Massive Attack to relative unknowns such as Emeralds and Javelin. For years, road warrior jam bands and indie rock favorites have dominated the festival circuit, but the interest is beginning to shift. No longer is a guitar necessary to get a room moving (though most Moogfest acts wield them, and bass is an absolute must.) Due to the grassroots, exploratory nature of many of the Moogfest artists, it’s no surprise that an electronic music festival would flourish in city like Asheville. The fact that the creation and performances of this music is so pure, in line with the historical purity of bluegrass, indicates that electronic music has a place in the forefront of Asheville’s music scene.
As Moogfest attendees begin to fill the streets on Friday, out-of-towners and locals alike slowly making their way to the Asheville Civic Center to pick up credentials and schedules, the feeling of excitement in the air is nearly palpable. Barstools that might usually be empty are now occupied by curious patrons looking to sample one of the many local brews, get a feel for the town, and make small talk with strangers about anticipations for the weekend. Like-minded individuals, at their core, can have entirely different experiences lined up. The one thing consistent in the people of Asheville is enthusiasm for the event, and what it means for the town. Asheville is a place of progression and open-mindedness, which makes it the perfect home for a forward-thinking festival like Moogfest.
A music festival like Moogfest is such a rare thing in that it’s one of the few times in which a large group of perfect strangers with such similar stories to tell can get together and happily coexist for a weekend. From a young couple out of Brooklyn traveling the seven-hundred miles to see their favorite band, Hot Chip, close out the festival on Halloween night, to a bleary-eyed traveler from London using money saved over three years of working to see the world and the music that inhabits it, music brings so many diverse personalities and characters, and unites them as if there couldn’t be a better fit. Without this blend of cultures and ideals, the music scene would not be what it is; it is all of the separate stories and journeys and how they all fit together so neatly that make music whole.
Part of Asheville’s growing diversity and the live music scene’s leanings towards electronic music as of late speak to the youth culture’s shift in how they seek music. It’s not that electronic music is taking over as much as the average listener’s tastes are more and more diverse everyday. Listeners are more aggressive in finding new music, and artists are finding themselves searching out new ways to support themselves with their music. Dan Deacon is one Moogfest artist who has embraced not only the expectations of creating something real for a live audience, but also the concept of the internet changing the way listeners approach hearing and purchasing new music. When asked about how the Internet has changed the way he thinks about releasing music, Deacon responded, “I think the basic goal of every musician is for as many people to hear their music as possible. From there you have the best chance of finding the most people who will enjoy it. I’d rather people download my older albums for free and hear them, rather than just be chanced upon by someone in a record store. The Internet has clearly 100% changed the game and it’s clearly 100% still changing. It’s important to be constantly adapting but also sticking to your original plans.” Deacon understands the plight of a musician trying to make a living off of music that will likely never be embraced by popular radio, and is one of the many artists discovering new ways to support themselves with their music.
This shift in dynamics between listener and artist, which has given the power to the listener to decide what to hear and what is worth buying, has also placed an even greater emphasis on a live show. An artist has to be able to provide an entertaining live show, in addition to quality recorded output, to remain relevant. Deacon himself has taken this principle and ran with it, creating innovative ways to get crowds involved in his live shows. His set provides one of the more memorable moments for Moogfest attendees, where he instructs the crowd to open up the middle of the floor in a large circle, and introduces Teeth Mountain’s Greg St. Pierre as a group interpretive dance leader. Deacon tells the crowd to follow St. Pierre’s movements to the music exactly, in hopes to achieve a group mind for a song. The experiment works perfectly, with the entire Asheville Civic Center slowly building their movements in unison until exploding into a blissed-out dance party.
Music fans, particularly festivalgoers who typically go see more live music, have high expectations in a live show. When asked about the direction of music, and where electronic music stands in today’s scene, Eliot Lipp of Dark Party points out, “I think a lot of people are realizing that you’ve still got to perform. You can’t just get up on a laptop and play tracks. I think that’s always going to be around. As much as electronic music wants to take over in certain scenes, the crowd is still responding to the element of performance, and I respect that. I think that’s something really cool about live music.” Lipp touches on this concept of making the performance organic, and how important it is to the audience to feel like something is being created on the spot. In the past, this was not something typically thought of in conjunction with electronic music, but artists like Lipp and Deacon are realizing that a stronger connection can be made with an audience if there is a live element to the show.
For over a decade, Moogfest headliners Massive Attack have blended a live band element with electronic aesthetics to mesmerize crowds. With music driven by infectious grooves and dark, distorted guitar lines, Massive Attack have brought arguably the best set of the festival to the Asheville Civic Center. Playing to a crowd so geared up for Halloween the following day that they just couldn’t wait to wear costumes, Massive Attack rips through a set of classics co-existing alongside newer cuts. The combination of their set with the preceding Thievery Corporation dance party is the peak of the festival, with approximately eighteen Mario and Luigi duos celebrating the music with droves of fairies and glowstick-laden attendees. One strange, slightly inebriated, gentleman dressed as Doink The Clown even conducts his own one-man interpretive dance show in the middle of the floor. Spirits are certainly high in Asheville this Halloween weekend.
Halloween itself, the last day at the inaugural Moogfest in Asheville, brings with it mixed feelings of sadness that the fun is almost over, fond recollections from throughout the weekend, and anticipation for the night ahead and beyond. The Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is the place to be on Halloween, with noise-dance duo Sleigh Bells, lo-fi electro outfit Neon Indian, and headliners Hot Chip rounding out the weekend. Sleigh Bells struts around blasting guitar noise and fractured beats out of a wall of amplifiers, while the crowd is worked into such a frenzy that the floor literally caves in. Security doesn’t pick up on the fact until after Neon Indian is through playing, and the floor is promptly cleared for Hot Chip to play to a now distant crowd. Singer Alexis Taylor comments on how he wishes the crowd wasn’t so far away, but no amount of distance can keep this crowd from giving the band their all for the last set of the weekend. Hot Chip meticulously layer beats and instrumentation in a live setting that is nothing short of amazing. They end the set, and the weekend, for that matter, with the perfect closing song in “Ready For The Floor”. This is clearly a room full of people ready for the next floor to cave in.
Electronic music has pushed its way from obscurity and underground popularity over the course of the last few decades, to a place among the most popular genres of music. Listeners are finding a home among the textured instrumentation, electronics, and fluttering beats, and finding a place to let go in the dance floor. With the outstanding success of Moogfest, and the welcoming attitude of Asheville towards the festival, electronic music itself has certainly found a home tucked away in the Smoky Mountains. It is unclear whether electronic music can completely take over a city like Asheville’s culture, but it seems that the genre is gaining momentum in popularity and critical acclaim as being a legitimate force in music. Only time will tell if street buskers trade their banjos for synthesizers.