The Magnetic Fields
On one level, the selection of The Magnetic Fields was an odd choice for Moogfest. The group’s music has mutated through a variety of approaches and styles over their 20-plus year history. And according to the bio on the Moogfest site, “Their current album Love at the Bottom of the Sea brings [leader Stephen] Merritt back to the use of full on synthesizers like he did with the band’s 1999 classic 69 Love Songs.” But attendees drawn in by that description were in for a shock: on this night, the band played solely acoustic instruments. Merritt worked a harmonium most of the evening, and the other members of the drummer-less band played acoustic guitars, cellos, ukuleles, fiddles and so forth. To paraphrase a friend (one who counts himself among the group’s admirers), “They looked and sounded like a bunch of college professors — or people who used to be in bands – who gave up that life, and recently came back to dabble in it.”
Merrit’s basso profundo voice is appealing to some; he reminds me of Bill Callahan/Smog. I can’t handle his vocal style at all when he sings on his own, but when he harmonizes with one or both of the band’s female members, it often works quite well. The band trafficked in their mordant songs about love and death, and repeatedly deadpanned about the downbeat nature of their lyrics. Overall, it was a strange set to witness at a festival such as Moogfest, but it was undeniably enjoyable.
I had seen Dolby earlier this year at an excellent Greenville SC concert (and had interviewed him not long before that), so I knew what to expect. Fans expecting a 1980s Memory Lane trip would be disappointed, but odds are there were scant few of those in the skewing-young Moogfest crowd.
The set began with executives from Moog Music coming onstage and presenting Dolby with a super-sized Minimoog Voyager (more keys, more knobs) in honor of his being named as…well, I forget what the honor was. But he deserves it.
Dolby’s set was warm and upbeat; though for many he’s associated with electronics and fiddly synthesizers, the vast majority of his music is quite – for lack of a better word – organic. He’s one of few musicians who bridges danceable styles with music that is, well, musically interesting. As was required of a Moogfest set, his show was shorter than the Greenville performance, but the crowd loved it, and responded enthusiastically.
It’s hard to know where Moogfest will go from here. The event started several years ago as a small affair in New York City, and then migrated to Moog Music’s home here in Western North Carolina. Moogfest 2012 was the third fest here, and the one thing that has been constant has been change. It’s likely that the event organizers will continue to tinker with the format; after all, they have to have profitability (or break-even) as a goal. And as long as the music remains a primary focus, Moogfest is likely – whatever its shortcomings – to enjoy an impressive future, and will remain a festival of choice for discerning concertgoers who demand something different from their live music experiences. The festival’s commitment to taking chances, to making offbeat choices, is the thing that makes it occasionally frustrating. But those same qualities are what make it ultimately challenging and rewarding.
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