Asheville, N.C.’s inaugural Mountain Oasis festival wrapped up after a stellar weekend that was defined by beloved reunited headliners, a massive lineup of electronic-rooted bands and plenty of local culture to soak up. The shows, spread across five venues including the one-two punch of the ExploreAsheville.com Arena and the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, made for easy wandering and exploration across a surprisingly chilly weekend of live music.
For many, day one was defined by the Neutral Milk Hotel reunion—a touring show that added a nice touch to the festival (much like the Godspeed You! Black Emperor/Nine Inch Nails event that took place the next day). Moreso than any other evening, this was the event that stuck out like a sore thumb with electronic-leaning artists building the foundation of the festival. But after NMH multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster’s multiple hat-tips to Asheville-based synth pioneers Moog, it was clear the guys fit right in (Koster played an old one that just keeps breaking down, kind of like an old hockey player, he said. Moog apparently stepped in and saved the day at the last minute). Indie lifers Half Japanese, Neutral Milk’s current touring opener, kicked the night off with warped guitars and off-kilter solos from frontman Jad Fair, whose neon-painted guitar neck would later collapse on him after bending and warping notes too far.
I’d never seen Daniel Johnston live before, only live videos and been told about some of his recent sets (and disappointments from cancellations), so the opportunity to see a rare live show from the prolific songwriter was one I didn’t want to miss. Johnston, who remarked that he was jittery from playing without a backing band, took his seat on a stool at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium right on time, blowing through fan favorites like “True Love Will Find You in the End,” the beautiful a cappella “Devil Town,” “Casper The Friendly Ghost” and “Life in Vain.” Johnston’s high-register voice is as beautiful as ever nowadays, but it was clear he struggled to shake the nerves of the show, remarking “I’m choking on my candy, here” between opening numbers and keeping banter to a minimum. Stress aside, those performances were beautiful.
You could feel the tension in the room after Johnston’s set, with the venue filling up to capacity in anticipation of many people’s first chance to see Jeff Mangum and co. for the first time ever. The crowd was just like you’d think, populated with curious youngsters who made too-late discoveries on the beauty of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or OGNMH folks who pulled their dusty old All Stars out of the closet for a weekend away in Asheville. No matter which of these audience members you looked at, they were all eating it up once a corduroy-blazered Scott Spillane marched out for soundcheck with his unmistakable white beard, or when a wool sweater-draped Jeff Mangum trotted out on stage to take on “Two-Headed Boy,” the band fully arriving for a thunderous take on “The Fool.” It was a career-spanning set, one that hit respectfully on Aeroplane and On Avery Island and was bookended by “Two-Headed Boy” sections before going into deep cuts for a second encore with “Ferris Wheel on Fire” and “Engine.” Young’uns and old fans alike walked out completely satisfied.
Saturday was a different kind of monster, with the hardest-hitting acts of the festival taking the stage at the ExploreAsheville.com Arena. It kicked off with Mars Volta mastermind Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s newest project, Bosnian Rainbows, hitting the stage early on. Squashed-up center-stage as usual, Rodriguez-Lopez, vocalist Teri Gender Bender, keyboardist Nicci Kasper and drummer Deantoni Parks tore through choice cuts of their self-titled debut album. Gender Bender put on a show for any seat in the house, traversing all points of the stage while her instrumented bandmates stayed put. It’s the third time I’ve caught them this year, and they’ve been playing similar sets, but this still isn’t getting old.
Gary Numan was next, and for those who were only aware of “Cars” (which he did play late in his set), his overloaded synths, hard-hitting guitars and moody ballads were a rude awakening. For me, it was remarkable to see Numan open up for Nine Inch Nails, a band that no doubt owes a huge portion of its success to the synth pioneer. It was clear enough in watching him—Numan’s jet-black hair, the glitchy sampled bits, buzzing synthesizers, a brooding frontman. Numan’s set for fans was incredible, but eye-opening for those who dismissed him beforehand.
And after what felt like 10 minutes of droning low-end, Canada’s original mysterious, massive collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor took the stage. The build-up was taxing on fans who knew little about the act, with each member appearing one at a time to build on the glorious rumble of violin, upright bass and guitars always on the brink of feedback. They opened with ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!’s opener, “Mladic.” It’s a slow-building, Middle-Eastern flavored tune that expectedly breaks into sheer chaos, and Godspeed You! brought down the house toward it’s climax (for those who were still feeling it, of course.) Mind you, between the opening rumbles of the band taking the stage and the final, screeching notes of “Mladic,” nearly 35 minutes had passed. You have to give it to them, even with an opening spot with limited time, the band doesn’t let the constraints of time get in the way of theatrics. Godspeed’s visuals, a combination of scrolling text, found-footage, fiery imagery, the band put on a show many around me groaned at (I heard variations of “let’s get on with it” more than once) but also one that others couldn’t forget as the weekend went on.
Nine Inch Nails made its grand entrance right at the stroke of midnight, hyping the pre-holiday crowd up with tunes from John Carpenter’s original Halloween score. Reznor took the stage as furious as ever, smashing through Hesitation Marks tracks like “Copy of a” before fan-favorites “Terrible Lie,” “March of the Pigs,” “Piggy” and more (the sequencing felt very similar to the live album ...And All That Could Have Been at some points.
But the point here was to show off Hesitation Marks tracks, and Reznor did so diligently, introducing a set of female backing vocalists for the occasion. Live, Nine Inch Nails is still a force as much as ever, with super-respected bassist Pino Palladino providing low-end (and also tackling “March of the Pigs” on bass, the first time I’ve seen the instrument in the place of the heart-rattling low-synth heard on The Downward Spiral in NIN’s live set.) And there’s always something reassuring about seeing Downward Spiral-era guitarist Robin Finck manning the six-strings, kicking down mic stands and acting as a recent staple for the band’s live act. As far as surprises, the material was mostly rooted in new songs, so while we saw interesting tweaking of older tunes, the older material didn’t stray too far from tunes played on the Wave Goodbye tour in 2009.
You can’t argue with the band’s tremendous stage show, though, and that’s where a lot of the meat was in the performance. When NIN tours, they do it up big, and the initial Hesitation Marks offering didn’t disappoint. Low-hanging, glitchy lights, amazing visuals and smoke defined a night of hard-hitting tunes, and the 20-song set ended with a single-heavy stretch that started with “The Hand that Feeds” and ended with the lighter-mandatory singalong that is “Hurt.”
Although the festival was drawing to a close at Mountain Oasis on Sunday night, the lineup gave little evidence. Things got an early start at 6 p.m., but the night was filled with six hours of bass-thumping, genre-bending electronic music that drove the thousands in attendance into fits of unbridled dance sessions. The evening’s pacing allowed for festival goers to bounce between a variety of high-octane dubstep and house acts, rising R&B crooners and electro-pop purveyors set up at Asheville’s finest venues to bring one last night of partying to the gorgeous mountain town of Asheville, N.C.
The evening’s opening set came from Adventure Club, a Canadian dubstep duo that specialized in dropping high pitched female vocal tracks enveloped in nasty bass lines. Though the set began at six, a slow crowd began to gather as the chest-rattling music spread throughout the arena. The duo closed with a smooth mix of Flight Facilities’ “Crave You” mashed-up with Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness,” one of the numerous Top 40 tracks that caused most festival-goers to squeal with glee before hopping and flailing around to the beats.
Immediately after Adventure Club a flock of attendees herded themselves towards the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to soak in the sultry R&B sounds of Jessie Ware. Ware’s slick, sexy sounds echoed that of Sade and served as a nice down-tempo break to the high octane dance grooves that filled the rest of the night. Even Ware admitted that, “you can’t use all your energy within the first hour” so a seated event with one of the most promising R&B acts in the game was a welcomed addition to the lineup.
PANTyRAiD took over ExploreAsheville.Com arena during Ware’s set and their dub-infused blending of Southern styled hip-hop made the swiftly growing crowd descend into hip-shaking, fist pumping wild things. The duo was joined onstage by a twerking dance crew that held up robust signs informing the crowd to “turn up” because it was “booty time,” and surely enough they did just that. Massive inflatable dice were tossed into the crowd and bounced around for a bit before fans swiftly deflated them and claimed them as their own. As PANTyRAiD came to a close, many stuck around for the upcoming Disclosure set, which was a wise choice considering the crowd they garnered.
Though the English house duo proclaimed that their last Asheville set was to “about 50 people,” Sunday’s set drew hundreds to the ExploreAsheville.Com arena. The two wasted no time getting the crowd lively as they dropped one of the summer’s most lively dance tracks “When a Fire Starts to Burn” rather early in the set. Mixing live instrumentation seamlessly with their electronic backbeats allowed Disclosure to stand out among a crowd of knob-twisting, slider-shoving DJs. Halfway through their set Jessie Ware surprised the crowd by joining the two for a rare on-stage collaboration of their remixes.
From Disclosure it was back to Thomas Wolfe to soak in some of Cut Copy’s infectious pop stylings before the evening’s main headliner took the stage. The band played a slew of tracks from their upcoming album Free Your Mind, opening with the album’s lead single. Although the seated auditorium doesn’t allow much room for grooving, fans shimmied and swayed as their surroundings saw fit to the Australian dance act. Many, including myself, left Cut Copy early though to see what all of the fuss was about for Pretty Lights.
Pretty Lights’ set felt more like an electronic jam-band than one of EDM’s most well known producers. A live horn section, drummer and keyboard player provided a vibrant blend of timbres to mesh with Derek Smith’s heady electronic beats. The set was defined by extended periods of expansive jams that combined dub, reggae and hip-hop, but were closed with bass drops and wobbles. Smith lived up to his name as high-powered lasers cut through the foggy stage to make for a fantastic visual closing to a stunning weekend of music and art.