If you walk along the streets near the city center, looking down without staring at your cell phone’s screen, you’ll spot large orange-and-blue square decals stuck to the sidewalks. They’re branded for Moogfest, but they are in fact marketing propaganda for the city of Durham. “Third best destination in the world to visit,” according to Jetsetter, reads one curious entry; others boast of college graduation rates and start-up investment numbers, area film festival history and university credentials. These are chamber of commerce-style talking points, literally spelled out on the street for visitors to see.
The entrance of American Underground has, this week, been given a similar decal treatment, with a paragraph boasting that Durham provides “a counter-story to Silicon Valley.” The building’s generally bare main hallway is now a lounge of lavender La Monte Young mood lighting, cushy couches, and on-demand energy drinks. At the American Tobacco Campus, a basketball court has been converted into a (playful, frolicsome even) synthesizer
, where people hit big white balls suspended from the ceiling to trigger music that radiates from nearby speakers. Likewise, the outdoor hive at Burt’s Bees is a synthesizer now,
in which the motion of the bees serves as a signal that alters the sound.
Little geodesic domes containing interactive art installations dot open city spaces, while the pavilion between the Durham Convention Center and Carolina Theatre has become a tent-covered marketing opportunity for the unlikely partnership of Grimes and Microsoft.
(Tip: It's not that interesting.)
There’s now an eighty-foot-wide stage outside of Motorco (“Motorco Park[-ing] Lot”), and a backstage production area sized for tour buses. Despite some egress issues (and some inevitable noise complaints from the late hours, one presumes), the venue works quite well, thanks in part to the lot's natural slope. The patio above The Pit has even been converted into a main stage viewing area for VIPs, should the idea of taking in the sophistication of Hundred Waters or Floating Points from a numbered surface lot not strike you as particularly romantic or futuristic.
All the effort is necessary given the unapologetic ambition of Moogfest in its first Durham year. The festival has reached across innumerable aisles, aiming to integrate academic insiders and start-up outsiders, big businesses and small rock clubs, boutique hotels and city lawns into one long weekend. “In 2016, Moogfest is proud to take its place as the landmark cultural event at the center of North Carolina’s ‘Research Triangle,’” proclaims an introduction in the festival’s state-map-sized program. A goal that lofty, especially at the start, requires a lot of work.
But on its opening day, Moogfest—however nice it looked, and however much it “activated” downtown Durham, in city-official parlance—struggled to match its own audacious, presumptive mantle. The event’s organization seemed, at best, fitful, with attendees wondering aloud how they’d been given the wrong wristbands or how they’d paid for a festival pass only to be locked out of workshops or stand in long lines to enter a parking lot. Scrolling Twitter for #Moogfest2016 late last night felt a little like watching a one-sided shouting match, with people kvetching about Gary Numan’s very late start,
their woes checking in to the festival,
and so on. Less than twelve hours into Moogfest 2016, some had even publicly written off attending Moogfest 2017, forsaking forgiveness and patience for favorites.
That seems a touch aggressive, of course, for the first day of an event that’s back in business in new city after a hiatus, no matter how extensive or impressive it may seem from the outside. That’s especially so for a festival that yesterday, at least in my experience, was occasionally great, thanks in no small part to the same hamstringing ambition.
In a daily series of afternoon concerts called “Durationals,” one performer perhaps accompanied by a tag team of friends holds court for a four-hour set in 21c’s ballroom. Yesterday, it was the explosive metal-and-improvisational drummer Greg Fox, joined by roommates and pals who hopped onstage to jam on synthesizers and laptops and mixers. Except one bathroom break, Fox powered through the set as if he were running a marathon, a trooper in command of his motion. Patterns and ideas would float to the surface briefly and then dissolve, much like the kaleidoscopic, refracted graphics dancing on a big display at his back. At one point, he bordered on funk, locked into a wobbly groove with stabs of synthesizer; a moment later, it all slipped into wonderful chaos.
at The Pinhook, meanwhile, felt wonderfully elusive in much the same way, as the producer would introduce bits of nostalgic pop hits and then destroy them, one layer of static and battery of bass-loaded beats at the time. I’ve had Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” stuck in my head for a solid month; when he slipped it into his set and then began pulling it apart—note from note, limb from limb—I felt as if I’d fallen into a fever dream. Earlier, in the Carolina Theatre, Dawn of Midi produced a similarly surreal effect with drums, upright bass, and piano. They were as tight as techno and as texturally interesting as Moogfest’s electric maestros. At one point, it seemed as if they were sequencing a marimba alongside a colossal house beat. Nope, they were just playing.
No, I didn’t love everything I saw. The three lectures I attended were uniformly tedious and self-serious. Miike Snow
sounded like Gavin DeGraw updated for Bonnaroo and
Electric Daisy Carnival at once, the band’s mix of soul singing and pedestrian poetry feeling even flatter than its uninspired audio-visual backdrop. And Floating Points mostly made me wish for the return of Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside, with the live set feeling mostly like an interminable riff on mid-seventies Pink Floyd riffs. In this case, the patterns that swirled behind the band—brightly colored spirals, slipping into a vanishing point—offered more than the sounds themselves. Arthur Russell’s Miami Vice
-like instrumentals unintentionally put me to sleep.
An hour or so later, Robert Rich’s eight-hour cycle, The Sleep Concert,
sent me to bed blissfully. Though resting on the cold marble floor of the ballroom (the actual beds were taken, with couples cuddling sweetly and strangely on single-sized mattresses), I soon fell for the washes of Rich’s hypnotic sounds—birds calling and synthesizers undulating, all forming a pillow-soft arc of audio. It felt like resting on a hammock in a summer breeze, lost to reason and having given over to feeling instead. Rich’s eight-hour concerts are rare productions for obvious logistical reasons; his presence in Durham between midnight and dawn served as a testament both to Moogfest’s glorious, unapologetic gumption and to the city’s recent growth, which made such an affair possible at all.
Speaking of Durham, yesterday afternoon, just as pre-registered Moogfest VIPs made their way into The Armory to stand in line at an open bar for free cans of hard soda or plastic cups of mixed drinks, a much different scene took shape outside. Nearly two-dozen protestors, a few of which held a banner that read “Say Her Name,” stood at the intersection of Foster and Morgan streets. Undeterred by the rain or the nearby cops who kept the traffic at bay, they chanted the names of black women and spoke about how important it was to take these opportunities to let unheard voices be heard. They were black and white, young and old, male and female, tourists and natives.
It was a powerful moment, probably the most gripping thing I saw during the first day of Moogfest 2016. And amid all the talk about city funding and new high rises,
it said much more about why Durham matters and stands apart from its Triangle neighbors than any sticker on any sidewalk ever could.
Welcome to Durham, Moogfest.
Downtown Durham has dressed up well for the debut of Moogfest.