As Thursday’s opening day of Moogfest kicked in, a woman sat on the plaza outside the Carolina Theater quietly picking a banjo. Nearby was an exhibit called “Realiti: Inside the Music of Grimes,” a dark tent where visitors could “remix” one of the Canadian artist’s tracks by pushing on a mesh net wired to produce sounds.
Across the plaza, meanwhile, Moogfest CEO Adam Katz spoke at a press conference about North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2.
“We had no Moogfest artists drop out,” Katz said before a backdrop of food trucks. “But we did have a lot of conversations about it.”
It was, in short, a very Durham scene – which is to say that Moogfest seems to have settled comfortably into its new hometown in the festival’s first year in the Triangle.
Moogfest, which continues through Sunday at different venues across Durham, is billed as a synthesis of music, art and technology. The big draws are the nighttime performances by an array of heritage acts such as Gary Numan, and breaking acts including Grimes and ODESZA.
The festival’s quirkier side is on display during the day, especially with some of the participatory exhibits. Along with Grimes’ “Realiti,” there’s the “Beachball Synthesizer” – a half-dozen oversized inflatable white balls hanging from the ceiling, which “play” different tones and sounds when you bat them.
The “Musical Playground” allows participants to record and play back different sound effects in rhythmic patterns. And whether willingly or not, almost everyone in the vicinity contributes to “Wifi Whisperer,” a somewhat disturbing work that draws its raw material from open Internet connections in the area.
Moogfest has been around in various forms since 2004, and it moved to the Triangle after several years in Asheville. In 2014, its last year in Asheville, the festival drew substantial crowds but finished with a $1.5 million deficit.
Year one of its Durham incarnation is off to a solid start as far as ticket sales – with 4,300 festival tickets sold as of Thursday (plus an estimated 2,700 people attending various free events).
The city and county of Durham kicked in $125,000 in public support toward Moogfest’s free programming, such as a Saturday show at American Tobacco Amphitheater featuring Bootsy Collins and Mark Mothersbaugh. Projections call for an estimated economic impact of more than $5 million from the four-day festival.
The festival is a place to let one’s geek flag fly, and the conversations surrounding it trend toward the dizzyingly abstract. “Cyborg musician” Onyx Ashanti gave a presentation about “Musical Language, Musical Brains” that was positively head-spinning, holding a sizable crowd rapt. Ashanti cheerfully admitted that he would have carried on even without an audience.
“You know that kid in school who’d just rattle on even after everybody walked away?” he asked. “That was me!”
Another attraction of Moogfest is that it allows close proximity to some of the most notable musicians in the game.
In the on-site Moog Store set up at American Tobacco Warehouse’s Power Plant building, Bernie Worrell (who has played with everybody from Talking Heads to the storied freak-funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic) held forth on Friday afternoon with a demonstration. A crowd including Mac McCaughan, the Superchunk guitarist and Merge Records co-founder, gathered to hear Worrell play music as spacy as it was rhythmic.
One room over, the “Modular Market” allowed dozens of artist entrepreneurs to show their wares and trade notes at a series of booths.
“I’m here to sell some of these, if I can,” said Rick Burnett, whose Raleigh-based Erogenous Tones makes modular synthesizers. “But mostly I’m here to network, chat with people who are getting into it. I like to inspire people.”
Where: Various venues, Durham.
When: Through Sunday
Cost: $69-$129 for single-day pass
Free events on Saturday: DJ Lance, Yo Gabba, Mark Mothersbaugh, Bootsy Collins perform, starting at noon at the American Tobacco Amphitheater. Reggae Soundsystem with Mad Professor, Angus Taylor & David Katz, Tippy, Lister, Ras Kush perform starting at 1 p.m. at Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, 427 W. Main St., Durham.