By and large, the lineup for Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit is composed of electronically-based musicians. But like its namesake, it also swings a little left of center, and on Friday, it was the artists who weren’t tied down to their computers, synthesizers, or sequencers that made the strongest impression. This was, in no small part, due to the presence of Neutral Milk Hotel, who were making one of the earliest stops of their marathon reunion tour at the festival. (More on that later.) That doesn’t mean that there weren’t other acts that left an impression though, and akin to how “electronic music” is a tenuous descriptor at best, Friday showed that Asheville’s curious tastes were reflected in the festival.
Jherek Biscoff – 7:00
“So, uh, I think this is the first show of the festival,” said Jherek Biscoff as he walked onstage at the Diana Wortham Theatre. “I’ll drink to that.” Biscoff is nominally a composer, but onstage, his performance is far more rooted in rock elements. Dressed to the nines and frequently talking to the audience (in between swigs of Bulleit Bourbon), Biscoff was an engaging frontman to say the least. His debut album, Composed, was recorded piece by piece in musicians’ living rooms, and for his Friday night performance, he took a similar route, recruiting a local string quartet and two members of Asheville’s People Get Ready to flesh out his performance. Most impressively though, was his enlistment of the audience to contribute vocalized basslines and melodies throughout the set. Early in the set, Biscoff joked that he would be willing to serve as a spokesperson for Bulleit (akin to Bill Murray’s character in Lost In Translation), but if there’s any modern composer who seems like a charismatic, convincing and overall good fit for liquor marketing, his constantly energetic set showed that it’s Biscoff.
Purity Ring – 8:45
Purity Ring were added to the festival’s lineup about a week before they hit the stage in the cavernous ExploreAsheville.com Arena (the duo were filling in for Tricky, who was unable to perform due to visa issues), but their performance felt like a natural fit on Friday night’s bill. Probably as a result of the mix being prepped for Bassnectar’s aggressively low end-heavy set later that night, every act that played the ExploreAsheville.com Arena was mixed, for lack of a better term, incredibly bass heavy. (It was also borderline My Bloody Valentine-levels of loud.) Being on the road for the better part of 18 months has made Megan James and Corrin Roddick ready for situations like this, and even if they weren’t used to playing to 4,000 self-described “bass heads”, they certainly made the most of it. Shrines’ trap music influence was clearly on display, and even if the pair weren’t joining in on the rage party on the floor, Shrines gave it a great soundtrack. Even if James’ vocals were smothered in the mix, any perceived sound issues worked in their favor, if only for one night.
Deltron 3030 – 10:15
Live hip-hop has always been a tricky situation. Some performers stick with a lone DJ (Killer Mike, Kendrick Lamar), others bring hypemen and additional instrumentalists into the mix (El-P, Kanye West), and in the case of Wu-Tang Clan at Coachella this year, some hire a full orchestra. Deltron 3030 went for all three. Led by a sunglasses-clad Del The Funkee Homosapien, a drummer, guitarist, and bassist joined the Dan the Automator-conducted orchestra and Kid Koala’s scratching to run through the recently-reactivated trio’s catalog. A sci-fi hip-hop concept album isn’t the easiest thing to sell anyone on – much less to a crowd who were still in middle school when the first Deltron album was released – but the extensive, talented live setup made it look easy. The horn and string players emerged onstage before the rest of the band and began working the crowd before the set was even supposed to start, and throughout the set, every performer was wearing an infectious grin. Deltron Zero (the protagonist of the group’s narrative) may still be fighting the good fight in 4010, but it was Deltron 3030 who were undoubtedly victorious on Friday night.
Rustie – 10:45
It’s unlikely that there will be a shortage of people willing to throw down at Mountain Oasis this weekend, but it may be unlikely that another producer comes up with a better mix than Rustie did on Friday night. Playing in the Orange Peel (which always sounds great) to a mostly-full club, Rustie was fortunate enough to be in a venue that gave his set the dynamic range it needed. the Glaswegian’s set wasn’t as much about sonic peaks and valleys – if there ever was a proper dubstep-style “drop”, it quickly segued into an equally furious track – as much as it was about consistently high-energy bursts. Rustie was sparing with playing his own tracks, so his set felt more like a great BBC Essential Mix, which isn’t a bad thing.
An Evening With Neutral Milk Hotel: Half Japanese (8:30), Daniel Johnston (9:45), Neutral Milk Hotel (11:30)
(Neutral Milk Hotel requested, in Mangum’s words, “for everyone to put down the cameras and just be here”, so no photographs were taken of their performance.)
For about 2,500 fans at Mountain Oasis, Friday night was the moment they thought would never come: Neutral Milk Hotel had returned to the stage. All reports from the few preceding shows of the tour have been filled with breathless praise, so the anticipation was even higher. Before the 14 years in the making moment could happen though, there was a prelude. Mountain Oasis producers AC Entertainment offered Jeff Mangum the opportunity to curate a night of the festival, so they were preceded by Athens stalwarts Half Japanese and cult hero Daniel Johnston. (The former group was delightfully unhinged, calling out songs mere seconds before playing them, and the latter was quintessential Daniel Johnston, meaning that unless an audience member had seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston or was a sincere fan of the outsider songwriter, the opening acts were primarily fascinating curiosities.) When 11:30 came around, there was a long line to get into the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, and an even more congested crowd of people in the venue. (Once the approximately 2,300 seats were all filled, people began stuffing the aisles and balcony.)
Maybe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Neutral Milk Hotel’s return was everything a fan could’ve wanted. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’s stature grew organically through word-of-mouth, and within five or so years of its release, it became widely accepted as one of indie rock’s undeniable masterpieces, no doubt spurred on in part by the story of Jeff Mangum’s descent into obscurity. So when Mangum went on his solo tour in 2012, the songs were carried not by Mangum, his guitar, or his occasional brass accompaniment, but by the fans who sang every lyric as if they were gospel. In retrospect, the tour seems like Mangum putting his toe in the pool to test the waters – did people still care about these songs and, more importantly, was he personally able to deliver them with the gusto he had in 1998? The answer to both was a resounding yes, and when Mangum arrived onstage to start the show on Friday night, he seemed nothing like the genius recluse that he’s been so frequently painted to be. Although it was often just to thank the crowd, his fairly frequent stage banter was amiable and direct. Furthermore, Mangum was far from stationary on stage, often swaying, rocking, and even kicking a little when he wasn’t singing. The rest of the band were just as enthusiastic. Jeremy Barnes and Julian Koster seemed to be in competition with each other as to who could thrash about the most onstage (Koster won, barely), and the Scott Spillane-led horn section was nothing short of jubilant. Most of all though, the well-rehearsed, seven-piece band seemed glad to be there. All night, they alternated between being sincerely raucous and raucously sincere. They knew when to rock out and when to slow it down, hitting every note – emotional and musical – with precision. Without naming anyone, the last decade has been filled with band reunions that could be viewed as, at least partially, driven by money. This is clearly not one of them. Even for a casual (at best) Neutral Milk Hotel fan like myself, it was an undeniably euphoric show that served as the triumphant return of a band that’s really just happy to be back.