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Things Learned At: Movement Festival
Albert Freeman , June 9th, 2015 09:37

Albert Freeman reports from The Motor City.

Photo by Bryan Mitchell

You can't take the Detroit out of Movement or Movement out of Detroit, and arriving in the city that birthed Motown, P-funk, techno, and much more, remains an electrifying experience that you can feel as soon as you set foot on the ground. There's an immediate buzz emanating from the city, partially because of the festival but also because of the obvious trials of history written all around. It's inspiring, challenging, and still compelling after many visits, and it's this spirit of perseverance and deeply rooted feeling that makes the event and its surrounding parties the unquestionable front runner in US, even as both local and international corporate brands (Time Warp, Mysteryland, etc.) attempt to make inroads into the festival market. Detroit was here first, and once in the city it's impossible to forget it.

We make our first stop in a classic downtown Detroit hot dog counter, taking in the last few slow minutes we have for the weekend eating and slowly drinking LaBatt Blue from cans, steeped in memorabilia of the city's history in a restaurant that has remained little changed for the better part of a century.

There will be growing pains

It's been intriguing to watch the growth and evolution of Detroit's Movement festival since the electronic music scene in the United States has taken off, but it's not been without growing pains. The festival has not been a stable entity, changing names, models, and directors several times in its history. It's been through experiments in public funding and artist curators until the point of their current, more traditionally commercial model, and has gradually expanded to meet increasing crowds in recent years (although the early, free festivals easily drew far more). Last year was one of the biggest artistic successes for the festival in recent memory and also one of the best attended in numbers, and it is surprising to see the extent to which it was revamped for 2015, with an extra stage, new sponsors, new management, and particularly new additions in the ever-present afterparty sector. If it didn't reach last year's moving heights, we still have a lot of fun there this year, but there are more obvious problems than usual. A breakdown in the will call ticketing system put standard fare holders and VIPs alike in a four hour-plus endless queue that was the subject of talk for the duration of the festival, causing many to miss much of the first day.

The new sixth stage, somewhat awkwardly located immediately adjacent to the festival entrance and away from much of the rest of the action, also makee an uneasy debut. Ostensibly used for showcasing local talent, already a strong element of Movement considering the local names are some of Detroit's strongest draw, the small stage feels mostly underutilised, with only the last day's showcase for the Detroit Techno Militia, including a ripping 30 minute live set from Shawn Rudiman, really achieving much in the way of momentum. It's a long way from the 'silent disco' tent that made its debut as a 'sixth stage' last year, but overall the area needs work and direction.

It's also worth mentioning the abundant technical problems onstage that plague the festival much more obviously than in other recent years. Recondite's early live set on Saturday is brought screeching to a halt not once but a few times, as the performer looks towards technical staff apparently baffled by the continued problems. Jets' Monday live set and Ben UFO's subsequent DJ set on the final day both suffer too. Most notable and persistent is the incredibly boomy sound of the Underground stage on day one, an area always plagued by its own architecture – it's essentially a concrete tunnel – but this year sees wide variances of sound quality. For early, anticipated sets by Kangding Ray and Paula Temple, whose music benefits from more fidelity, it's impossible to make out details through the corrosive reverb, especially for the Raster-Noton artist's impressively detailed work. Paula Temple takes it more in her stride, ratcheting up the tempo and banging it out ferociously while the late afternoon crowd struggle to keep up. I simply push the earplugs in deeper and stand eye-to-eye with the bassbins near the front of the stage, a tactic that particularly pays off when Regis closes that area with one of Saturday's best sets. The sound at Underground mysteriously improves most noticeably on the second day for fine sets from Anthony Parasole and Rødhåd, showing that it isn't entirely the stage architecture itself at fault.

If it's not broken, don't fix it

While some case can be made for Thump's curatorial efforts on the fan favourite Made In Detroit stage, breaking up the flow of one of the festival's most dependable hangout spots into choppy one-hour sets sub-curated by different Detroit entities – Kevin Saunderson, Ghostly, Detroit Love – does do something to scatter the atmosphere. Formerly mostly dedicated to longer blocks and exclusively to local artists from legends to obscure names, in past years I witnessed many of the best festival sets on that small stage, returning again and again to hear locals spiritually channel the city's music within plain sight of the historical skyscrapers in the city centre. There is plenty of outstanding music performed there over the festival, but it falls in short sections of often less than an hour. A pattern ensues whereby the early afternoon hours interesting sets are scattered, but promptly at 4:30pm there are four places to be at once, a feeling that rarely settled down for the remainder of the day or only after exhaustion from running laps around the site ensued. This, combined with a few surprisingly early appearances – a noon opening on Saturday for Detroit legend Sherard Ingram as Urban Tribe, Matrixxman's brief one hour set from 2-3 for Sunday's Ghostly showcase – makes this feeling of jumbled sequencing persist throughout the festival.

Rather than spending much of the time at Made In Detroit as a standby, I find myself flung to various stages around the festival, somewhat of an unfamiliar experience that entails lots of walking and pushing through crowds. Besides the dependable hard techno/rave cave atmosphere of the Underground stage, the festival in general is a bit scattered music-wise, with plenty of non sequitur stage programming where previous years had been more focused on a stage-by-stage basis, or at least had limited the more scattered bits to certain stages where they made more sense. For certain, the past formulas feel disrupted.

At peak time on Saturday, Atom Heart & Tobias Freund clear the dancefloor of Soul Clap's supporters with an altogether more challenging, but still sunset-ready set on the waterside Beatport stage, followed fluidly by Henrik Schwarz. The veteran duo manage to get things going again quickly enough, but it's an awkward moment that seems unnecessary given more thought to set order. Even at the RBMA stage, the festival's standard site for musical diversity, there are abrupt shifts that didn't really smooth out: Octave One, preceded by 4 hours of high-quality house and techno from Kerri Chandler, Kenny Larkin, and Rick Wilhite, is followed by Method Man, or an abrupt transition to the three hour showcase for Metroplex Records that would feel more at home on the Made In Detroit Stage at least. 

Photo by Phil Conners

We know it's the main stage, but…

Underground music listeners never expect copious rewards from main stages at large festivals, which tend to be reserved for the kind of big name acts that we routinely avoid. In this aspect, past years of Movement have shown a certain difference, with long, peak-time periods given over to deserving, classic Detroit talent and an overall effort to steer clear of EDM.

However, I hear more bellyaching about the Movement stage this year than ever before and spend less time there than any time in recent memory. Apart from a subdued early afternoon appearance by Luke Hess and snippets of a classics-heavy set from Josh Wink, most of what is heard is forgettable (the last minutes of Richie Hawtin on day 1), or entirely regrettable – Loco Dice, Dog Blood, GRiZ, and worst of all, the lackadaisically scattered set from Snoop Dogg as DJ Snoopadelic that closes the festival main stage on the final day. The team up of Mano Le Tough, Recondite, and Dixon followed by Luciano and Hawtin on the first day is the only bit of concise programming there, if still predictable, while the remaining two days swung from the lows mentioned above to predictable fare like Maceo Plex and Art Department's lacklustre swan song of a set on the eve of their breakup as a duo.

Even without high expectations, in past years festival directors have stated that it was their mission to preserve Movement as a Detroit festival and not to book massive EDM acts on the main stage, preferring to get them as they were coming up instead and debut them on side stages. I'm not sure going back on these statements really yields great rewards either: it lends the festival a particularly diffuse atmosphere on the final day, already a tough one to attract the crowd to considering the Sunday night-to-Monday afternoon afterparty stretch that always produces a significant casualty rate. The stages on that final day are all noticeably less crowded, in spite of strongly drawing names. Ben UFO is particularly outstanding, Joy Orbison and Jets also perform well, acid legends Phuture kick out a searingly hard live/DJ hybrid set, while Underground major techno figures like Nina Kraviz, Steve Rachmad, and Ben Sims hold it down in fine form. Squarepusher batters eyes and ears to close the RBMA stage and legends May and Saunderson finish off the KMS-curated day on Made In Detroit.  

No matter what happens at the festival itself, Detroit always wins

With so much music history originating in Detroit, whatever the festival programming misses is routinely picked up by the growing raft of afterparties, this year spread further afield than ever before. The historical Tangent Gallery is a destination for most of the festival duration, and the most surprising addition is the Modern Cathedrals event at the stately Garden Theater in Midtown Detroit, featuring a cutting-edge lineup of Silent Servant, Vatican Shadow, Varg, Marshstepper, and Covered In Sand, all performing live in surroundings that could be called properly posh and certainly give added gravity to the event. As is usual, Corktown venues The Works and Motor City Wine return with some of their finest moments yet, in many cases outdoing the festival with lineups, particularly on the stellar final Anthology night at the Works, which sees live PA sets from Move D and Jonah Sharp as rEAGENZ, Tin Man and Gunnar Haslam as Romans, D'Marc Cantu in surprising deeper house form, and a mind-warping three hour live PA from Uwe Schmidt and Tobias Freund that goes into entirely new dimensions compared to their festival set.

For their 10th anniversary, the infamous Monday daytime Need I Say More party at Old Miami makes a staggering return to form having booked a legend-heavy lineup of all Detroit names. There are with back-to-back sets from Mike 'Agent X' Clark vs. Norm Talley and Carlos Souffront vs. Mike Servito leading into a sublime solo set from Dan Bell and then into more tag team action from Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen. That this occurs at the same time as the also-busy Industry Brunch event at Tangent, with the Black Madonna and Rudiman, which immediately follows the twisted No Way Back rave put on by Interdimensional Transmissions at the same venue, says a lot about the strength of the afterparties this year in Detroit, even past the downtown core, itself busier than ever.

As long as Movement and Detroit continue to grow, we're coming back for more

Even for novices visiting for the first time, it's impossible not to get sucked into the energy and feeling of this weekend in Detroit, and as it spreads to encompass more and more of the city, I'm even more moved by new discoveries. Speed bumps aside, the festival organisers Paxahau show themselves to be responsive to problems, consistent in programming, and often quite forward-looking with the edgier choices. As the festival grows and ticket prices have increased, many people are coming to Detroit only for the afterparties, and while that's one way of enjoying the weekend, it's not the way I would choose first. With talk of a Detroit renaissance buzzing around and the city visibly restoring itself with each passing year, the festival and its support of the local scene have played an important part in this growth by bringing tens of thousands of tourists, this one included, to an unfamiliar place and showing them there is meat behind the mythos. It may not be the best year ever for Movement, but like always it brought new experiences, and the sets and the crowds bring things to rousing heights not easily found elsewhere.  

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