Is the Immersive, Retrofuturistic Festival ‘NEON’ a Game-changer?

Mecha Maiko, Robert Parker, Waveshaper, Dana Jean Phoenix, Let Em Riot & More Set to Perform

For three nights in the sunset of the summer of 2018, suburban Providence, Rhode Island, will play host to a comprehensive and immersive experience centered on synthwave, genre flicks, classic arcade games, food and drink, visual artistry, retail, and general late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s nostalgia.

NEON is a bold experiment of unabashed determination on the part of a team led by Grant Garvin, a veteran of immersive events who has long sought to establish a festival centered on synthwave and nostalgic things. From Friday, Aug. 24 to Sunday, Aug. 26, the NEON retrofuturism festival will take over the 35,000 square-foot Crowne Plaza in Warwick — not far from the airport — offering people the opportunity to eat, drink, breathe, dance, game, and sleep all in one place.

retro items
Photo Credit: NEON.

The performing musicians draw from an international slate of the light and the dark, the instrumental and the pop, the masked and the unmasked, the pioneering and the new: Robert Parker, Waveshaper, Mecha Maiko, Absolute Valentine, Dana Jean Phoenix, Glitch Black, Let Em Riot, Tonebox, The Rain Within, Bonggita, Dreddd, Glass Apple Bonzai, Rolly Mingwald, Protector 101, Street Cleaner, Triangle Forest, Mellow Fields, Lame Genie, Neuron Spectre, and Straplocked Society. And there’s always the chance of more acts to follow. Check out the festival’s website for updates. 

“The came out of a discussion with a lot of people that, you know, the time is right for something like this to exist,” says Garvin, who along with award-winning journalist Amanda Grosvenor, is leading the charge to get this thing together. I had a phone chat with him a while ago, and came away from it quite excited about NEON.

It’s a bold move to set forth organizing a festival around synthwave, a genre that encompasses several fairly distinct types of music and which has been notoriously difficult to monetize in a scaled-up, sustainable way. There have been others trying it out — Human Music in New Jersey and Retro Future Fest in the United Kingdom are both in their second years. But Garvin, the veteran he is, is covering his bases. This isn’t merely a concert with several performers, but is instead a putative MondoCon-of-synthwave.

There will be be guest speakers at sci-fi and cyberpunk-themed panels; a yacht-rock lounge; 75 vintage video game and pinball cabinets; a non-stop cult film festival, themed like a video store and curated by Providence’s Dreadphile Cinema Club; a retro console gaming room, a vendor expo “shopping mall,” an art gallery, a maker space, and tons of food and drink, among other things. Guests can even get a discounted rate on their hotel rooms. You won’t have to leave the site all weekend.

Save 10% on your tickets when you use the promo code VEHLINGGO at checkout.

The guest speakers and panelists include Tim Lapetino, the author of The Art of Atari; the editors of We Are The Mutants, a Cold War-era cultural magazine; cyberpunk illustrator and game designer Rob Shields; and video game commentator CornshaqGaming. The 8-Bit Guy will also be a special guest. More could be announced.

“There’s so much there [that will be at NEON],” Garvin says. “It has an art, film, and gaming element to it. It’s one thing to run a festival, but another thing is… let’s try to pull this together into something cohesive.” In other words, he wants NEON to be a 360-degree immersion into all things pertaining to the concepts and philosophical leanings of the retrofuturistic experience.

pac man
Photo Credit: NEON.

Early Attempts

Garvin got his start organizing what he calls “geek culture events” in the early 2000s in New England, looking for a way to inject his own interests and passions into an event with an appeal that would bring people together to geek out and, well, fun.

The events weren’t specifically 80s-themed. He would organize steampunk, dieselpunk, and cosplay events, and at a peak ran an event that attracted 6,000 attendees.

Although he had been listening to synthwave since 2011, he hadn’t really incorporated it into his events. But in 2013, when he spearheaded a cyberpunk event, Garvin decided to bring in a couple synthwave acts that had been blowing up online: Pittsburgh’s Arcade High and LA’s Let Em Riot. They’d provide an engaging and propulsive burst of energy to an already vibrant event. He promoted it immensely.

However, the idea was a bit premature.

“I think they had maybe 20 people [in the audience],” Garvin said. “The people who did show up were big on it, though.”

But it wasn’t because the acts didn’t do a good job — they did. They killed it, he says.

“After that, I wanted to revisit it at some point,” as the scene grew, Garvin says. “I had hoped it would get popular enough eventually — I really want to make this all work.”

Of course, in subsequent years synthwave did get much more popular. Its songs and aesthetic have infiltrated popular music, television, and film. Synthwave acts both light and dark, such as The Midnight and Perturbator, are big ticket-sellers, as are smaller acts. Things have changed.

NEON festival

‘Themed Everything’

When Garvin set out to start NEON, he looked locally in Rhode Island, but also at Boston and other places for possible venues to handle the scope of NEON. However, he said, word got around that he was interested in doing something of this scale and his long-time partners at Crowne Plaza were more than happy to serve as the scene for retrofuturistic activities.

“I love running things there,” Garvin says. It has the feel of a multi-purpose convention center, while still feeling small and manageable, he says. “I’ve run a lot of events with this venue.”

As mentioned earlier, the 24/7 NEON goes well beyond music, even if music is its foundation. In addition to the host of performers, panelists, gaming opportunities, films, and cornucopia of food and drink — you can bet your blue Koopa Troopa shells there will be ‘Gansett — local organizations are also pitching in to create a comprehensive, immersive experience. As Garvin says, NEON is “themed everything.” Garvin restores classic arcade cabinets on the side and, given his experience putting on immersive events, is also a prop builder. He and his team, then, are going to ensure that there’s something for everyone.

The nonprofit Rhode Island Computer Museum is contributing to NEON and its has a very appropriate connection to the event. The organization, which has an extensive warehouse of old computer technology and which loaned props to AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, will be providing programming and resources for the event and, according to NEON organizers, has already partnered with them to host a pre-NEON retro tech sale at fellow festival partner Freeplay Arcade in downtown Providence, home to more than 100 vintage arcade and pinball cabinets. Partners from the artistic world — this is the home of RISD, after all — include AS220 arts nonprofit labs and youth program and artists from The Nicholson File studios.

As Garvin and his team busily prepare for the event that is still four months out — and for which tickets are still available; remember to use that VEHLINGGO promo code to save 10 percent — both the organizers and fans of the mixed media, multidisciplinary retrofuturistic and synthwave scenes are anticipating great things from NEON. All of the parties are nerds about the same things and there’s a great hope all around that they’ll have a killer time.

With professionals like Garvin and his team behind the scenes, with talented people set to participate, and with inspired fans ready to descend on suburban Providence, it’s this writer’s prediction that NEON will be a helluva grand time for everyone.

“I’m excited about it and I love it,” Garvin says. “There’s a big team that’s running this, as we have all of these creative design aspects — immersiveness is a big thing. I think a lot of people will show up not sure about what we do, and then they’ll be like ‘holy shit’.”

For more information on NEON, visit the website. There, you’ll find ticket and hotel information, descriptions of the programming, information on how to be involved or buy a sponsorship, and other things.