Noizefest featured many acts exploring new and unconventional sounds. Before his murder in April, Keith Moore (aka Deacon Johnson) created and curated the annual Noizefest, a giant bill of duo and solo techno and noise artists. This year, Moore's friends continued the festival in his honor, in my Bywater backyard, out by the goat pen.
Months before each Noizefest, Keith would obsess over every detail, talking, shouting and ranting about nothing else. In an inverted tribute to the proclaimed "King of Ambient Noize," we decided to barely plan or discuss anything -- no admission charge, no lineup. The fest would plan itself. All 20 confirmed acts were instructed to arrive before 11 a.m. and pull their time slot out of a hat. By 11:30, however, only one act, Zosimus, had shown up.
Zosimus is an improvisational bass/guitar/keyboard trio obviously trained in jazz -- their noodley, skronky string solos washed in a noisy analog synthesizer. The band's many shifts flowed smoothly, even when wandering into Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and "Delta 5" by Alvin Batiste. I assumed Zosimus looked young to me because I am not young, but after its extended set, the members admitted it is a NOCCA band. Zosimus' bandleader and guitarist Cliff Samuel-Hine, 18, bassist Martin Saito, 16, and keyboardist Julian Labat, 17, usually play what one of them calls "Sonic Youth-influenced, seven-minute pop rock songs with solo sections and weird noises" at places like Hi Ho Lounge, Dragon's Den and Neutral Ground. "At school, we're taught straight jazz," Samuel-Hine says. "But for my senior recital, I got a bunch of guys together and did a noise jam. We were trying to do something like Miles Davis' Live at the Isle of Wight, with two drummers and a trumpet player. I wasn't playing guitar, just doing sound effects. I wanted to see if my teachers would be weirded out. But they're very open-minded and were just glad to see my training show through, and that we'd learned how to listen and interact with each other."
The Zosimus crew exited Noizefest early, after finding out their teacher Alvin Batiste had just died. "We had to go listen to the farewell concert on the radio," Samuel-Hine later explained. "He was our most open-minded teacher. Bat was always checking out our electronic stuff and saying, 'I really like this!'" Samuel-Hine wishes more New Orleanians shared his teachers' attitudes toward new music. "I wanted to move away after college," he admits. "I could make money playing jazz here, but New Orleans is not a good scene for original music. I knew if I wanted [Zosimus] to survive in this city, I had to meet other people doing similar things. At Noizefest, we met guys who are taking it way farther than us." He adds, "I'm gonna stay here at least one more year and try to help make a scene."
Noizefest had many experienced noize artists who have developed their own sounds. Local hyper-talented one-man-band Ratty Scurvics manned the soundboard and CD player between Noizefest acts, as King Louie played harmonica through a wah-wah pedal, and the day's official DJs, Quintron and Pasta, constructed their enclave of turntables, samplers and Drum Buddy. Noizefest's second and third performers -- Vargr Wulf and Starr of Chaos -- were both bedroom electronic acts who'd never played a live show. Vargr Wulf's Joseph Gates mauled a bass guitar and, he explained, "performed a destruction ritual" with sword, mask and unlitÊcandles. His partner Vanessa Stegeman (aka Kalliope) backed Joseph with "electronic trapezoid recreation via computer." Instead of hiding behind their laptops and gadgetry, both Vargr Wulf and Starr of Chaos featured confrontational frontmen screaming at the audience over industrial beats and sounds -- although, in the tradition of this music, both also included the right amount of soft, pretty, ambient curveballs.
Next came the electric bicycle by Siamese Cocks, better known as Stephen Cronvich, the silver-haired father of three cute small children who themselves contributed loudly to Noizefest. Cronvich stacked four guitar amps in the grass, through which he played a rusty bike equipped with a guitar pickup. Distortion shrieked and thrummed in amazing patterns congruent to the pickup slamming the spinning spokes. People screamed and laughed, their minds already blown.
Keyboard rock duo The Hate Moms next used a Theramin, as played by a live rat. The rat crawled around in his box triggering haunting soundscapes as 51-year-old psychadelic guru Ray Bong set up synthesizers, bongos and toy guitars. Ray became the first Noizefester to cross the line into unsanctioned jamming. Whereas other big events need a leader to be "the glue," Noizefest needs a Ray Bong to do the opposite of holding the thing together. Acts soon began setting up all over the yard, giving attendees the option to see a performance, or watch someone piece together a temporary laboratory of homemade instruments.
One Man Machine (Bernard Pearce) planted his microphone in the yard's strongest, hottest rays, and when all was relatively quiet, sang a storm song over a pretty, complex guitar loop. Pearce built upon the loop with trumpet wails as drummers Endre Landsnes (who often plays in James Singleton projects) and Steve Garofano (Triple Delight) broke up the piece's fugue dynamic. Pearce constructed his next loop collage with bass guitar, then a third using a very nice black Les Paul copy -- which he smashed to splinters, "For Keith f***ing Moore!"
Indescribable, pedal-hopping noize act, C-Section-8 was the last act the people of Noizefest focused on in the normal manner. At around 5 p.m., the Noisician Coalition -- best known for its annual Mardi Gras noise parade -- arrived wearing full-body noisemakers, lowering the barrier between attendee and performer. Sound emanated from every corner of the yard. I'd been excited to hear The bALLY who? play its sprawling, meditative psych-rock, but as Jacques and Rene Duffourc moved their equipment, I realized they were actually breaking down. "We just played," they said.
Luckily, even as six, seven, eight people hummed, buzzed and screeched, everyone listened and interacted. Every strange instrument could be heard occupying its own layer. Quintron and Pasta laid Louie Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" over Ray Bong and Rob Cambre's guitars (Ray's being a small, red plastic toy), Mikronaut's Casio beats and Cronvich's screaming daughters hammering on a gas tank. There were tears in some eyes for Moore, but many were also moved by the sheer joy of realizing how many people consider this music truly likeable and as fun as any brass band concert any of us had been to.
"This just wouldn't happen this way in New York," said the only visitor that had actually been lured away from Jazz Fest. Ruth Garon was in town from New York in the hopes of curating her own progressive music and art event in New Orleans. "It's all right here in your yard," Garon said, looking around wide-eyed. "This is it exactly. But New York artists would just never be this ... unpretentious."
An attempt was made to stop the superjam to make space for the delicate ambient mandolin songs of The Buoyant Sea. But the crowd wanted superjam. An hour later it all grew too loud and devolved into white noise. But that was because the people wanted chaos -- and it was glorious to see and hear that choice be unanimously made. Several acts who couldn't miss Steely Dan at the Fair Grounds arrived at Noizefest during this musical climax and not seeing the appeal of such a mess never set up.
I could only tell them they'd picked the wrong fest.