May 18 – 21, 2018
Following the inspired-as-ever 2016 Moers Festival, there was a worrying period where it looked like this deeply entrenched alternative German institution would suffer a sudden death. Its artistic director for just over a decade was Reiner Michalke (he runs the equally alternative venue Stadtgarten in Cologne). After the 2016 edition, Michalke was locking horns with the newly-elected local politicians over cash and compromises, the usual bad shit. He quit twice. Perhaps realizing that the small German city of Moers had grown quite an international reputation as the home of such a vanguard festival, and the fact that the event was deeply rooted in the surprisingly radical local community’s psyche, the 2017 edition went ahead, largely following the style established by Michalke. A new team entered the fray, new artistic director Tim Isfort being both a sympathetic musician and a local resident, raised in Moers.
Last year’s festival had a low international profile, but in 2018, it is now exuding a palpable strength of renewal, an expansion and confidence that continues to present a heady line-up of performers that could be said to loosely spring from the jazz world, although mostly hailing from its more unusual nooks. As with the fest-of-old, there are many acts that lurk in the spheres of rock and electronic music, and no shortage of players who are committed to completely free improvisation. Back when it started, in 1971, the Moers Festival was more directly intent on free jazz as its core, and in 2018 it’s still fundamentally following that trail of unshackled invention. Now, though, fresh generations are applying similar attitudes, but with different instrumentations, and altered genre forms.
Your scribe’s first attendance of the Moers Festival was for the final year inside its traditional circus tent (2013). Following this, there was a move indoors to a specially constructed hall, where most of the core program is still presented. The old concept of the extended outdoor surrounding free festival has been intensified in 2018, with many more sets being played on stages around the local parkland. There has also been a spread into the actual city of Moers, a couple of miles away, but the reality of being in the central field is that there are so many crucial sets happening around the main Halle that such diversions can prove risky, in terms of losing valuable transfer time. The best strategy was to remain in the Halle, or saunter out to the nearby Festivaldorf open air stage, and still get to greedily consume most of the prime bands.
Talibam! opened and closed the long weekend, also providing conceptualized sets over the middle days, as the duo-in-residence, augmented in novel ways. The core twosome of Matt Mottel (keytar) and Kevin Shea (drums) were joined by saxophonist Matt Nelson and pianist Ron Stabinsky, the opening set’s Hard Vibe band generating what amounted to a systems music version of a 1960s organ groove number, repeatedly swooping up to next-stage climaxes, Nelson rarely letting up in his streaming solo passages, as the general suspended funkiness pulsed onwards. Hard Vibe performed in the dark, until a midpoint shift cued a sudden burst of strobing flashes, before the old blackness resumed. This was apparently a strategic choice requested by Isfort and company, the first of many personalized touches littered across the weekend—inflatable sharks with whirring tail-fins were led around on long string leads by the fest-staff, as if they were perambulating their poodles. A table of strawberries mysteriously appeared. There was a Sunday infestation of garden gnomes, both inside and outside the Halle.
And seconds after Hard Vibe slammed to a halt, the second stage erupted into life with a rabid attack by CP Unit, led by NYC altoman Chris Pitsiokos. This was a radically jolting way to unveil a stage—if the audience hadn’t noticed its existence—situated in the dark, on the dividing line between flat seating and raised chair-ranks. CP Unit hit hard, their leader hyperventilating above (and against, and aligned with) electric guitar and bass, shooting out hard, tight jets of percussive solo notes, careening amongst jagged riff contortions, complex and accelerated. John Zorn comparisons are tough to avoid.
Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain seemingly exists in an ongoing state over the last few years, with various parts performed by varying-size ensembles. The Moers manifestation must surely be its fullest expression so far, with an expanded cast of players, and an epic scaling of sonic masses, from subtle post-colliery brass up to majestic drone colorations. It nodded to Colin Stetson and Phill Niblock, and perhaps Faust and The Velvet Underground, or, oddly, Merzbow and Arvo Pärt. Ultimately, it is wild Wooley. The composer woved together the layerings of the massed players, who included C. Spencer Yeh, Samara Lubelski (heavily amped violins), and Ryan Sawyer (drums), with a host of European guests on vibraphones, guitar, reeds, plus a large brass battalion, the latter setting the scene in the beginning then promptly filing off after making their fanfare statement.
The soundscape soon became skeletal, populated by long tones and decaying bells with isolated thunderings. A cumulative, hovering drone was layered with scuffed, abrasive details, Lubelski rising to prominence, doubled drums adding to the composite thrum. The brass returned to create a tumbling wave-crashing, and the illusion of voices was created via commingled accumulation. Was much of the vocalizing emerging from Wooley’s throat? His aim was surely to build a oneness of sound, where individuals become inextricable parts. The full blow-out arrived, as Wooley took his microphone off its stand, plunging it into his trumpet, and then leaning his head back, instrument aloft, for the final crescendo sustain, heavens cowering above.
The itinerant Chicago trumpeter Rob Mazurek runs several versions of his Chicago Underground, whose absolute core consists of himself and drummer Chad Taylor. For Moers, Mazurek brought along the London twinning, with Alexander Hawkins (piano) and John Edwards (bass). They opened up on the last afternoon, demonstrating how to begin the indoor dark-day with a huge heft of concentrated energy. Mazurek and company had been limbering up during the previous late-night improvising Moers Session, and their actual official appearance continued the festival’s presumably unplanned sequence of ‘ritualistic’ performance. Mazurek stuck to piccolo trumpet throughout, peppering the set with projectile extremity, operating at ultra-precise levels, and displaying a certain stamina for the piercing note scattershot. He downed the horn a few times, to shake his Brazilian-style Candomblé cluster of cowbells, sometimes slamming them hard on the stage-floor, vocalizing with an invocatory cry. Hawkins and Edwards already possess a significantly explosive rapport, but this was spread into a vibrating canopy over the two Americans. Taylor engaged all with his full-on torrent, but also cooled down on the electrified mbira thumb-piano, as the piece moved though its varied phases. It was seamless, but also frustratingly brief: either the Chicago/London Underground were only allotted a short spell, or their sounds were so involving that the show sped by with the uncanny time compression of heavy joy.
Talibam! returned to the Halle for the closing set on the last night. Big Impakt corralled (barely) most of the drummers who had been playing throughout the festival, ranging them across the large stage in a majestic battalion of (semi) organized thunder (with a strange sort of subtlety being an occasional option). Rarely has such a total blow-out performance concluded a festival. Kevin Shea led from his drum electro-pads, the only drummer without a kit, coaxing on a stick’n’skins ensemble that included Taylor, Christian Lillinger and Tcheser Holmes.
Ron Stabinsky had undergone a remarkable transmogrification into a death metal emcee, dashing out from the wings, locks flowing, on repeated occasions to hold up coded prompts for the drummers, then chundering into the vocal microphone alongside Shea. Turning around, your scribe suddenly noticed that Mottel had the secondary stage all to himself, as he too prompted switchings of mass potential within the ranks. As Big Impakt careened and rumbled to its conclusion, Mottel strode from mid-stage to front-stage, stepping from bench to bench, as he made his inevitable progress towards complete and united cacophony, clambering up to combine with the core. The Moers Festival closed with awe-striking frenzy, delivering its biggest communal ritual of the long holiday weekend.