First, let me set the tone: Imagine you're walking around in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Now, subtract the waterfront. Add bacon and gravy. Grab a beet/ginger smoothie. Take off your sweater. Put on your sunglasses. Be careful not to step on the dog that's sunbathing on a yellow pillow beside the shirtless, bearded guy who's making jewelry out of fishing wire on a Himalayan blanket next to a lamppost on the sidewalk in front of a wig shop.
Shhh! Listen. Is that a Theremin I hear in the distance?
Welcome to Moogfest -- a music festival based not in Portland but in trendy Asheville, North Carolina. The gathering celebrates the legacy of synthesizer mastermind Robert Moog and the generations of musicians he influenced -- all in the burg where he stationed his musical instrument factory before his death in 2005. Although Moogfest has been around for a few years in various incarnations, it found its niche this April in a lineup that included headliners the Pet Shop Boys, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, M.I.A. and Nile Rodgers (with CHIC).
I spent childhood summers visiting my grandparents in Western North Carolina, where I heard about Asheville's reputation as an artist's haven (last century, the city's historic arts-and-crafts-style hotel, The Grove Park Inn, was a playground for writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others). But, I never knew until recently that Asheville had become one of the most walkable places in the Southeast. With its mile-wide grid of locally owned vegetarian cafés, sushi bars and sustainable clothing shops, this town's pedestrian-friendly streets provided the perfect backdrop for middle-aged techno geeks, twentysomething hipsters and hippies of all ages to converge in a swirl of analog ambition.
For the musically serious, Moogfest offered scientific demonstrations, such as the one in which keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson (of classic prog rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer) played a newly constructed, hand-soldered Moog Modular System built by the company's engineers from an original schematic that applied the same techniques used by its founder when he developed the first voltage-controlled synthesizer back in 1964.
For the rest of us, there were the concerts, which took place in a combination of indoor and outdoor venues including nightclubs, theatres and a festival stage adjacent to Moog headquarters under an overpass gilded with psychedelic murals.
There's not enough space in this blog to cover every great act (check out what New York Times journalist Jon Pareles had to say in his thorough coverage here). I'll just focus on what meant the most to me at Moogfest: Nile Rodgers.
Nile Rodgers (second from left) and CHIC. Photo courtesy of Moogfest and Magnum PR.
Rodgers recently won several Grammys for his production, songwriting and performance work with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams (at the annual awards ceremony in January, "Get Lucky" took home Record of the Year), but his early hits, written with CHIC and for Diana Ross, Madonna and David Bowie, were what kept the crowd on its feet Saturday night at Asheville's Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.
While Rodgers has enjoyed relative anonymity over the years, the songs he fashioned with his business and writing partner, Bernard Edwards (CHIC's original bassist, who died in 1996), live on as stars -- feel-good anthems without political undertones. When the band beckoned us to boogie, we in the Moogfest audience obliged: "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Everybody Dance" were easy directives. "We're not a cover band," Rodgers said, in preface to a 15-minute medley of hits he'd written or produced for other artists, including Ross's "I'm Coming Out" and "Upside Down," along with "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.
Rodgers' signature rhythm guitar playing chimed against the sharp backbeat of Bowie's "Let's Dance," sung by Chic's current touring drummer; and a run through Duran Duran's "Notorious" sounded miles funkier than it does on the radio. CHIC's 1979 song, "Good Times" showcased the unforgettable groove that influenced the creation of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and The Clash's "This Is Radio Clash."
Rodgers should be proud of the millions of records which bear the mark of his midas touch, yet vinyl never lasts. It's the moments of the young and old together, feeling the rhythm and chanting the rhyme, that never melt away.