Moonrise Festival: a strong lineup amid the sensory overload

Each year, Pimlico Race Course hosts the Preakness Infieldfest, an all-day music event that has added a concert-like atmosphere to the Triple Crown weekend. It is but a tame warm-up to the Moonrise Festival, a weekend-long celebration of electronic dance music where sheer volume and youthful exuberance are the main constants.

On Saturday and Sunday, thousands of mostly millennials descended upon the city’s storied infield to watch more than 70 producers, DJs and musicians across four stages, spaced closer together than you’d imagine. The effect was a near omnipresent throb from exaggerated, meant-to-rattle-ribcages, low-end rumbling through the towers of speakers.

For followers of EDM, this year’s Moonrise — in its fifth year -- boasted arguably its strongest lineup yet, with headliners like Kaskade, Afrojack, Zed’s Dead, Excision and Pretty Lights Live. Rap acts including Lil Uzi Vert and Run the Jewels injected much-needed variety.

Migos, the Atlanta rap trio, was scheduled to perform but the set was canceled due to inclement weather. (More on that below.) Despite the shortened Saturday, there was still plenty to see. There’s a sense of sensory overload -- open-air cacophony, uninhibited fashions, watching people have what appears to be the Best. Time. Ever. when the bass falls out, only to return again -- with two days of Moonrise, especially if EDM is something you more often engage in irregularly and from a distance. (Guilty.) At one point, I wondered if the effects felt similar to seeing the recent Phish residency at Madison Square Garden, albeit in a very different way. It’s fascinating to be in the presence of music creating euphoria, and to not feel it.

Moonrise felt scattershot, so here are some similar takeaways:

  • Baltimore’s TT the Artist kicked the Lunar Stage off Saturday with a crowd-moving performance that featured members of the local TSU Dance Crew and Mighty Mark as DJ. TT, whose song “Real Bitch Problems” was featured on HBO’s “Insecure” recently, exudes charisma on stage, a lacking element to the weekend. The “performances” of producers and DJs naturally lack a physicality that is hard to replace. Seeing a natural center-of-attention performer like TT underlines it.
  • Chicago duo Louis the Child brought a soaring set midday to the Stellar Stage, playing groove-heavy cuts cut with smooth female vocals from their “Love is Alive” EP, released earlier this year. The thump from the 808 drum was oddly soothing.
  • The disappointment of Saturday came shortly before Migos were scheduled to take the Lunar Stage at 6:30 p.m. In red letters, “WEATHER EVACUATION” flashed across the screen. Any hopes of it being an elaborate, over-the-top stage performance were soon dashed by a voice over the loudspeakers instructing festival-goers to head for cover as a storm approached. Staff members directed foot traffic toward exits and the grandstand seats. Some chose to wait out the rain, while others left for the night. Doors reportedly reopened shortly after 9 p.m., and the lineup picked up as scheduled, which meant no Migos this Moonrise. One of the most influential rap groups of the past five years, Migos -- with their gloriously placed ad libs and slippery flows -- were missed.
  • The most charming display of star-power came Sunday when Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert played a lean, 45-minute set that showed the wide-ranging appeal of Uzi’s near nursery rhyme-inflected flows about his own awesomeness. There was some perfunctory about the performance, which included songs like “Do What I Want” and “Money Longer.” It’s as if Uzi knows he’s such a magnetic force that he’s fine with skipping stage banter or revealing much of anything. The crowd wasn’t there for that anyway, so he delivered what they wanted -- sing-songy Soundcloud rap by one of the subgenre’s most effective architects. He didn’t stagedive from any tall platforms, as is his wont at festivals, but that sort of heavy lifting wasn’t required either.
  • A festival of Moonrise's size can feel overwhelming, so sometimes the small victories -- the minor sets you don't plan to see but stumble upon -- are the sweetest. Jai Wolf, the New York producer born Sejeeb Saha, was a reminder of this on the smaller Celestial Stage on Sunday afternoon. His set felt like one continuous crescendo, constantly rising and building until the warm, positive vibes touched the entire crowd.
  • Porter Robinson, the North Carolina DJ and producer, has become a top-tier talent in EDM making unabashedly emo video game music that is charming in its shamelessness. His set would have looked and sounded familiar to anyone who’s played a “Zelda” game. That sort of instant nostalgia is an easy target, but boy, does he hit it square. “Sad Machine,” from 2014’s “Worlds,” was anthemic and affirming.
  • Events like Moonrise are a reminder that EDM festival culture -- and its dominance of college-aged attendees -- is mainstream, and feels more of the culture than counterculture. It’s also ripe for parody, especially when confronted by an act like Hippie Sabotage, the California production duo of brothers Kevin and Jeff Saurer, whose headbanging commands to the crowd during generic drops felt silly and mindlessly cliche.
  • And while Moonrise and EDM aren’t exclusive boys clubs, on stage or in the audience, it’s difficult to ignore the sense of masculine aggression that feels woven into the event. It’s seen in the mosh pits, and heard in the robotic, angular and harsh electronic sounds being programmed and played by the majority male performers.
  • For an example of both, see Excision, the Canadian artist who performed on the Stellar Stage on Sunday. Born Jeff Abel, his ominous productions sound like lasers bouncing off close quarters as sledgehammers raze skyscrapers. It is hilariously aggressive music. It also explains why an act like TT the Artist feels so refreshing in such a male-dominated setting.
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