Sweat and ecstasy on the festival trail 2014
This is what you do. Leave the desert of Coachella Valley far behind, kicking up dust all across America. Follow me then to more distant environs, along the Mediterranean and out deep into Dutch country, and back across the Atlantic to burrow deep inside the Appalachian Mountains to mingle with the ghost of Robert Moog and his electronic progeny.
This is a round-up of a few of the more far-flung and lesser known gatherings on the international music festival map. From Moogfest to Primavera Sound and onto Defqon.1: all sorts of flavors, and various realities. Fun, menace, sweat and ecstasy everywhere, sometimes simultaneously.
As the Chemical Brothers once said, here we go!
Primavera Sound Festival — Barcelona, Spain
Primavera Sound Festival stands tall as the beatific Buddha of music festivals. It is a mirror of its home city of Barcelona.
The descent by plane into Barcelona, founded by those decadent Romans, is like entry into Los Angeles—that is to say, something like landing on another planet with its own set of rules. A fresh reset. A city lying on some invisible magnetic power.
The festival grounds start where Barcelona’s labyrinthine arterial streets terminate at the shores of the Mediterranean Ocean. Primavera doesn’t sit atop sandy beaches; instead, festivalgoers move from stage to stage along concrete and gravel. Despite the sprawl, the stages are neatly positioned, allowing for maximum efficiency in navigating from concert to concert.
Given that Primavera calls Barcelona home, the music could seem almost like an afterthought. You want to wander the streets, gobbling up tapas left and right, dousing your face in cava (sparkling wine), and inhaling aromatic tobacco vapors, all to more thoroughly lose one’s self in the maze of streets. But, an afterthought the music is not.
Slowdive made its triumphant return to the stage at Primavera. Their audience swelled to a vast semi-circle around the stage, bleeding outward, far beyond its edges. Never had the band witnessed a crowd like this. Not with a corrosive, blistering UK music press hellbent on unraveling shoegaze and elevating Britpop to its mid-90s eminency.
To hear “Souvlaki Space Station” and “Crazy for You” live, was for this crowd, a revelation. Perhaps some in attendance had seen Slowdive in their heyday, but for the many who found them by luck in the late ’90s, or through that godawful chillwave period, it was something like an ancient myth becoming flesh by some sort of hazy and pagan alchemy.
On other stages, Factory Floor, Shellac, and Slint worked their abrasive but melodic sounds. Elsewhere, hip-hop stars Earl Sweathshirt and Kendrick Lamar put on vibrant shows. But, it was Charles Bradley, the former James Brown impersonator, who stole Primavera’s heart. Like some god assuming a gloriously weather-beaten and now wise (with age) African male avatar, he put soul back into the world, and received soul and love back tenfold.
My final night at Primavera, I watched the dawn break over the Mediterranean. It started on the Ray-Bay stage, as a melange of dance and pop music wafted through the early morning air. It ended with raining confetti. Then me and a friend were whisked off stage, into a series of after parties within after parties, hidden within each other like Russian nesting dolls.
Alcohol cascaded over my drinking cup without pause, colliding with other inebriants, until I had descended, like that great surrealist poet Rene Daumal, so deep into a night of serious drinking that my reality became altered. The sweat and the ecstasy had multiplied. Every face beamed like halogen lights.
Leaving Primavera as the cleanup crews erased any residue of that morning’s damage, a bit of melancholy descended over me. Where noise had radiated only hours before, now there was only silence, and people scattered here and there on picnic tables, or sitting against walls on the pavement. But, I managed, through the haze of an alcohol-saturated mind, to remember that breakfast began at 7:30 am at my hotel—a breakfast I’d missed the three previous days. My friend and I would not miss this one!
We were the first to breakfast at Hotel Vincci. A buffet of foods occupied various tables. Spanish Iberian ham (most delicious), bagels, fruit, juices, eggs, doughnuts, sweets, and every other treat imaginable, were laid out before us. By this point, my ability to speak, let alone think logically, had been critically disrupted. A type of prehistorical mumbling had taken over, but one driven by beatific glee, not drunken caveman beligerence.
The breakfast would have been right at home in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.” A hallucinatory breakfast, and a brief excursion into another reality, that is available to all who venture to Barcelona for Primavera Sound Festival.
Moogfest — Asheville, North Carolina
Most festivals aim for the sprawl of world class cities or rural environs. Moogfest does neither. Like hobbits being merry in the Shire, Moogfest digs a comfortable hobbit hole in Asheville, North Carolina’s surrounding Appalachian geography. The vibe, equal parts neo-hippie, hillbillie, and university town, is a small escape raft for those fleeing the worst pulverizing, oceanic forces of this hyper-modern civilization.
There, the royalty of electronic music, Moog Music, Inc. (the only corporation I can truly endorse), carry on the good work of their father Robert Moog, the Willy Wonka to their Oompa Loompa-dom. And these electric Ooompa Loompas put on one helluva festival; a celebration, in totally unabashed fashion, of the greatness of electronic music.
Panels on Afro-Futurism, experimental music, science fiction, and other technological vistas, collide with DIY modular synth markets and performances that might find Dan Deacon experimenting with surround sound over the course of four hours. A festival where Rodgers and M.I.A. might decide to grace the stage, while Kraftwerk will bring the true spectacle with an astonishingly retro-futurist 3D show.
And who else would let Giorgio Moroder do a headlining DJ set when he, despite being a godfather of house and techno, really has no business DJing? Why? Well, Moogfest respects its elders, and this move, instead of feeling wrong, came off as brilliant. Their inclusion of Tachyons+ video synth pyramid, the Sand Noise Box, and other audio-visual installations was also a nice touch.
But, perhaps the most brilliant move was to enlist Aramique, along with collaborators Jeff Crouse, Gary Gunn, and Bartek Drozdz, to debut Conductar, an app that fuses virtual and augmented realities into a trippy, video game-esque double of the city of Asheville. With Conductar, those lucky enough to wear brainwave headsets laid down unique electronically-sampled soundtracks, while those who held their app-enabled smartphones aloft as they walked the streets were given a vision of a candy-colored, psychedelically-altered Asheville.
The creators even let me and others peep Conductar through an Oculus Rift, which was a bit like seeing the first blush of a virtual reality internet; one that was astonishingly close to what I envisioned the Metaverse looking like in Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash.”
As if this weren’t enough, Moogfest held various workshops, where festivalgoers could learn how to do a variety of things, like creatively code, make touch sensors, hear in new ways, and make DIY modular synthesizers and experimental electronics. Moogfest also screened films such as the modular synthesizer documentary “I Dream of Wires” and “Moog: The Documentary.”
All of this was part of an effort to make Moogfest and Asheville a vortex of music, art, technology, and futurism. Because of its depth of programming, Moogfest ranks as one of this year’s most visionary festivals. And by a fair margin.
Defqon.1 — Biddinghuizen, Netherlands
Describing the hardstyle mecca that is Defqon.1 is almost a fool’s errand. The music festival, which celebrates the hard-partying lifestyle of those who love hardstyle (a fusion of trance, gabber, hardcore, and other electronic dance music genres), is really about the experience. Reading and writing about hardstyle is about as useful to understanding the dance subculture as listening to its artists’ albums or singles.
I’d interviewed several of hardstyle’s heavy hitters, including Noisecontrollerz, Coone, and Headhunterz, and written an entire feature on hardstyle. But, it wasn’t until I arrived at Defqon.1, which was set up a like a raver’s theme park in Biddinghuizen, Netherlands (adjacent to a former Six Flags-owned theme park) that I understood what these hard-charging dance fanatics see in it. It’s a micro-world: one that is all about dancing relentlessly like a piston in a “Riverdance” performance, and never feeling that others are judging you as uncool.
It’s a bit like the Gathering of the Juggalos for hardstylers. Absurd costumes and antics abound. The sweat and the ecstasy, in both its natural and synthetic forms, abound; across several stages, within tents that extend as far as the eye can see, in the pyrotechnic shows and recycled sculptures that bring Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Spinal Tap excess and grandiosity to the dance world. All of it, I might add, unapologetically.
From the festival’s Q-Dance organizers to the festivalgoers, all are completely devoted to hardstyle. It’s almost cultish, but in a completely non-threatening way. As a hardstyle outsider, you come to admire the tenacity with which Defqon.1’s attendees throw themselves into the three-day party marathon.
And you get the feeling that if civilization collapsed, these hardstylers would stage the party to end all electrified parties. They’d use every last bit of electricity for a modern world-ending rave.
They are militant, and they are proud of it. Don’t fuck with hardstyle.