On the Beat

Moogfest puts out “a different vibe”

Emory Marks is playing with the newest musical technologies developed by the Google Brain team as part of the Magenta project during the “AI Jam Session” at Moogfest 2017 Saturday.
Emory Marks is playing with the newest musical technologies developed by the Google Brain team as part of the Magenta project during the “AI Jam Session” at Moogfest 2017 Saturday. The Herald-Sun

Among the famous and cool attendees that Moogfest drew to town this year was Hannibal Burress, the standup comic. And even though he wasn’t on the schedule as a performer, he wound up on the main outdoor “Protest Stage” of Motorco Music Hall on Thursday, as unofficial master of ceremonies for opening night.

“I like it here,” Burress said. “This is a weird festival, a different vibe!” The crowd laughed because it was true, in a good way.

The second Durham edition of Moogfest, which continues through Sunday at various spots around Durham’s central district, is a multifaceted celebration surrounding the Asheville-based synthesizer company. And it has all sorts of unusual programming, most notably “Prelude to Sleep.” That’s been happening at the end of each night in a hall outfitted with ambient sounds and experimental-film visuals intended to induce sleep. Interest was high enough that all the sign-up slots were filled well in advance of the festival.

Where folk and bluegrass festivals have their picking circles, the hands-on portion of Moogfest is in its “Pop-Up Factory Showroom.” Occupying the American Tobacco Warehouse’s power-plant building, the space was covered with what seemed like acres of Moog keyboards to buy, or at least play with.

I had great fun trying to get in touch with my inner Pete Townshend a la “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a sound that seemed tantalizingly within reach on these instruments. Alas, amateur know-nothing that I am, I got nowhere near it.

Another station had a turntable where you could spin vinyl records of songs that qualify as landmarks in the evolution of Moog sounds – Parliament’s “Flash Light,” Gary Numan’s “Cars” and Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You” among them – and try to replicate those sounds yourself on Moogs (with the help of a cheat-sheet, of course).

By night, the performance schedule offered up a dizzying variety of trippy sounds, from Animal Collective’s chaotic tribal circus and light show to the old-school consciousness-raising raps of Talib Kweli. Even so, a few acts stood out far above the rest for sheer audacity.

One was Omar Souleyman from Syria, an artist who would have been unable to attend Moogfest had the courts not suspended President Donald Trump’s travel-ban executive order. Combining a showman’s instincts for keeping the party going (he started out as a wedding singer, after all) with traditional Arabian folk-dance rhythms and modern-day beats, Souleyman had the crowd completely enraptured with crescendo after crescendo after crescendo.

Then there was Sudan Archives, an artist I wound up seeing more or less by accident when inclement weather on Friday evening had me suddenly seeking indoor shows. Born in Cincinnati, she’s a self-taught violinist who is all of 22 years old. And she used an Apple laptop and foot pedals to combine samples and loops over pre-recorded backup music, bowing and strumming and tapping her violin strings to get an array of sounds and then layering it all together.

It was an impressive feat, and the instrumentation was mesmerizing all on its own. But her singing is what really closed the deal, haunting each song like a ghost and adding a shot of earthy soul to other-worldly music. It didn’t hurt that she also had a smile radiant enough to light up the back wall.

Proof that charisma is not something you can program, but you can turn it into a sound that reverberates.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi