Moogfest 2011 Recap: Day 1, Part 1: Matthew Dear, Mayer Hawthorne, Tangerine Dream

Matthew Dear
Well, somebody has to go on first, right? The three-day Moogfest kicked off just after 5pm on Friday. Spread across more than a half-dozen venues throughout downtown Asheville NC, the event brings together a dizzying array of musical styles, including up-and-comers as well as legendary names. Many of the latter include artists one rarely sees on tour.

Matthew Dear is among the former. A youngish singer/musician, he spent most of his time onstage singing, but between songs he busied himself with the setting up and triggering of beats, loops and whatnot. Heavy on groove but light on lyrics, Dear’s music was built around those programmed pieces, and more often than not the band seemed to be following the electronics, rather than the other way ’round. At one point Dear picked up a black Les Paul, causing to me to mutter to myself, “Well, this could be cool.” But as best as I could tell, he’s from the Elvis school of guitar playing: other than a few random jabs, he didn’t seem to do much with the guitar.

As is typical for an opener, attendance was light, though the crowd grew steadily. Dear’s set took place at the Animoog Playground, a fancy name for “big outdoor parking lot.” The sound was good, and the band’s energy was there, but the weather was doom-laden. Grey and windy, the skies began to open up a bit, misting lightly upon the crowd. With temperatures starting under 50 and headed downward, there was plenty of incentive for people to move around. And they did, a bit. In total, a good opener that drew people in.

Mayer Hawthorne
One of the acts I specifically wanted to see, Detroit’s Mayer Hawthorne came out at 6:30pm for what was planned to be a one-hour set. By this time the Animoog Playground crowd had more than doubled in size, and darkness was quickly falling. The rain was also starting to pick up. Hawthorne and band took to the stage, and the singer joked that this weather was nothing: “It’s like this every fuckin’ day in Detroit,” he quipped.

As the band tore into their retro-soul set, the crowd reacted in kind. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people around me who seemed to already know the songs. Hawthorne’s second album How Do You Do had only been released a week or so before, but one could clearly see people mouthing along with the lyrics.

Hawthorne impressed by switching between keyboards, percussion and guitar throughout the set, and the band was super-tight. But as the rain increased in intensity, it became more of a distraction. But twenty minutes or so into the set, water could clearly be seen bouncing off of the keyboards and drums. Even before they started playing, the musicians were toweling down their instruments, gamely attempting to keep them dry. But by this point in the set, the stage was slick and everything was wet. Crew members brought towels and tarpaulins out and tried to cover whatever could be covered, and during a guitar solo Hawthorne exited stage right to dry off, while his bassist cowered stage right in a vain effort to stay (briefly) dry.

Despite all of this, the band had the audience in the palm of their hand. People were moving, digging it, and the crowd kept growing. And to watch the band, one would think they weren’t bothered at all by the pouring rain. Even though the stage has a top and fabric sides, this cold rain was coming down sideways. There wasn’t a dry spot onstage. And as it turned out, this must have been more of a problem than the performers let on. After finishing a song around the 45 minute mark – clearly not a set-ender – the band quickly exited the stage without a word. No goodbye, no nothing. This surprising turn of events marked the end of their set. Any band would be forgiven for throwing in the soggy towel under these conditions, but the abrupt manner in which it actually happened took everyone by surprise. People looked around at each other: “Are they finished?” Most shrugged and left for another venue when it was announced that Little Dragon – the next-scheduled act on that stage – had canceled due to “a band member’s illness.” For me – like so many others – it was time to head indoors for awhile.

Tangerine Dream
North American concert dates by this legendary outfit are a rarity, so I had marked this show down as do-not-miss. That it took place indoors in a seated venue made it even better: a quick six-block walk across downtown to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium and a friendly security pat-down later, I was inside the venue. As with all of the Moogfest shows (save the separately-ticketed Brian Eno talk scheduled for Saturday), seating was general-admission, first-come-first-served. But having arrived fifteen or so minutes early, I had no problem finding a seat.

The stage was decorated with an assortment of synthesizers, both vintage and modern. A pair of wide-screen monitors were situated close to the front edge of the stage; each displayed a virtual synthesizer; one looked a bit like a typical (if slightly intimidating) “soft synth” and the other was a graphical representation of a modular synth, similar to an old telephone switchboard. (From my vantage point, neither seemed to do much of anything throughout the set, I must note.)

The six-piece band feature two older guys, one seated at a bank of keyboards and hidden behind sunglasses and a hat that made him look like a krautrock Charlie Rich or Leon Russell. The other stood at his keyboard racks, cloaked in a jacket and scarf. A slightly younger guy with a Strat-style guitar delivered David Gilmour-flavored licks that wove in and out of the songs.

Those songs – all wordless, mostly hook-free – had a feel halfway between soundtrack music and new age. In other words, they offered a good cross-section of what Tangerine Dream’s music has long been about. Songs tumbled into one another, rarely stopping completely to allow for crowd applause.

Half of the band were younger females. An energetic drummer played stand-up style behind a set of Roland v-drums, occasionally moving over to a set of acoustic percussion (congas, etc.) New age accoutrements such as rain sticks and whatnot were in ample supply. A woman at the back of the stage alternated between wind instruments, percussion, keyboards and other assorted instruments. Now and then a violinist appeared.

It must be said that the crowd reacted coolly to the set. While flawlessly performed, the fact that the music wasn’t high-energy, coupled with the lack of movement onstage (excepting the drummer) mean that it wasn’t the most exciting set. Other than the standing crowd in the VIP section up front (roughly 100 people), the crowd sat down after the first five minutes or so. At the start of the set, the hall was more than half-filled; as time wore on, more and more people left.

Which points out an inescapable fact about events such as these: under the best circumstances, fans will almost likely find that there are two must-see bands playing at the same time. So the odds of someone coming and staying for an entire set are greatly diminished, no matter how great the show. In the case of Tangerine Dream, the band’s set was slated to run two hours, making it one of the longest scheduled sets of the whole weekend.

Though I had planned to stay for the whole set, a friend suggested we head over and check out some of the bands playing next door at the cavernous Asheville Civic Center. Reluctantly admitting that I had pretty much heard what Tangerine Dream had on offer, I agreed and we exited.

Next: Holy F**k, Moby, and LunzProject featuring Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

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