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NEON RetroFest: A Family Reunion and a Homecoming

How do you process something like the NEON retrofuturism festival that happened last weekend in Rhode Island? Something so all-encompassingly marvelous and important, filled with a community that makes and supports art and music that is so significant to me? Warm, loving people make up the synthwave scene, and I feel blessed every time I get to see them. I’m still in a bit of a shock. So, how do you process or assess something like that? I suppose you just do it.

This post is just one of the pieces I’ll be posting about NEON. In addition, there will be a piece about the performances with interviews. I’ll have a separate post about the Ladies of Synth panel. Artist interviews will populate next month’s Vehlinggo Podcast. You can also find a bunch of photos and videos online live from the event. Diamond Field’s Andrew B. White took professional photos for Vehlinggo, which you can find here. NEON’s over, but it isn’t over. Hopefully, it’ll never be over.

Anyway, here goes. I’ll be injecting my own weirdo lens into the experience, while also including interviews with some attendees and artists.

A Real Human Connection: The Most Retro Concept of All

I was about a dozen deaths into what used to be an easy level in Super Mario World, hands clenching the familiar round-edged Super NES controller tighter and tighter as I repeatedly led the poor plumber to his doom.

It was my last go at the NEON festival’s impressive collection of old video game systems before I would return to the auditorium for the final two sets of the evening: synthwave legends Betamaxx and Dana Jean Phoenix. I’m not sure if I sucked at Mario because I haven’t played it in years or because I was distracted by the fact that this beautiful and meaningful event would soon come to a close. It all went by so quickly. It all goes by so fast. The mono no aware vibe is so strong — that melancholic feeling of the ephemeral nature of things.

The NEON festival filled up the expansive Crowne Plaza Hotel, which sits prominently in the vicinity of a mall and freeway in Warwick, Rhode Island, not far from the airport. It towers over its environs like some kind of castle or biodome or megachurch — its grounds occupying a 17-acre, heavily landscaped footprint that surrounds a facility with 266 guest rooms and 45,000 square feet of meeting space, which NEON used to maximum potential from Aug 24-26.

The gaming rooms, the film-screening space, the panel discussion room, the giant ballroom for the music venue, the vendor areas, the bars and restaurants – it all meant that, in theory, once you checked in you’d never really have to leave. Why would you, anyway? You’re home. God, do I miss it already.

The retro element of the console and arcade areas — systems offering experiences that largely pre-dated things like the web and smartphones — are just one element of the suburban Providence-based NEON festival’s most retro offering ever: sharing moments in person. This Church of NEON cultivated a sense of belonging and community that those of us who are interested in these weird, niche things don’t always experience on a daily basis.

From left to right: Absolute Valentine, Aaron of Vehlinggo, Robert Parker, and Waveshaper pose for a group shot at NEON RetroFest on Saturday, Aug. 25. Photo by Andrew B. White (Diamond Field).

Consider the online nature of the synthwave scene. (I’ll focus more on the music here than the other components of the festival, at least for this piece.) Musicians, visual artists, bloggers, podcasters, and fans are spread out over so many cities and countries, interacting primarily on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and email. If they get to know each other better, you can include Skype and phone calls.

Members of the synthwave community have to spend most of our lives talking about this art that in our world of fragmented audiences leaves most people nodding politely with some perplexion in their eyes. Thankfully, more and more local meetups and shows have been popping up over the years — I’ve been able to get to know a lot of great people at events in Los Angeles, New Jersey, and here in New York. 

And yet, this global phenomenon was born and matures online. But events like NEON are crucial. After all, we can’t be buried in our screens forever. We are real human beings who need more than what the digital world can offer. 

NEON attendees wouldn’t be confused when I talked about the merits of performers like Dana Jean Phoenix, Mecha Maiko, Betamaxx, Robert Parker, Waveshaper, Absolute Valentine, FaceXHugger, Future Holotape, Rolly Mingwald, Bonggita, Straplocked, The Rain Within, Tonebox, Let Em Riot, Glass Apple Bonzai, Protector 101, Glitch Black, Street Cleaner, Dreddd, Neuron Spectre, or any of the other talented souls to hit the stage.

Straplocked and NIGHT.wav's Faith in the Glitch enjoy some quality time near the stage at NEON Retro Fest.
Straplocked (left) and NIGHT.wav’s Faith in the Glitch enjoy some quality time near the stage at NEON RetroFest. Regrettably grainy photo by Vehlinggo.

The Community Grows

The NEON team, led by Grant Garvin and Amanda Grosvenor, created a singular, comprehensive space that could prove to be an important annual gathering — a kind-of family reunion. The gaming-convention-meets-music-festival gave us the opportunity to share a meal and throw down some drinks together and see our favorite acts perform songs that have earned serious listens on our playlists over time. Coincidental moments like running into a friend randomly while exiting the elevator — a friend with whom you’ve only ever chatted on Facebook Messenger for years — are some of the most cherished surprises. The serendipity of IRL is hard to mimic in the world of ones and zeroes.

“The synthwave community is like a family and NEON was our homecoming.” – Let Em Riot

That serendipity led to celebrations with some shots in Alfred’s bar in the hotel; some folks straying off-site for breakfast at IHOP; an after-party at the fantastic Free Play retro arcade in Providence; or, after all was said and done, a sunny beach day in Newport Beach. We also just danced together when someone on stage was killing it in the most intense of ways. I suspect some of us might have even felt a tad teary-eyed with joy or sadness.

First-time connections or long-time friends truly bonded. It was a beautiful thing.

From left to right: Julie Chang (Future Holotape), Hayley Stewart (Mecha Maiko), Alexandra Bonilla (Neo-LA), and Dana Jean Phoenix held court during the fantastic and insightful ‘The Ladies of Synth’ panel at the NEON RetroFest. RetroSynth Records founder Scott Forte, who released a female-centered synthwave comp, moderated. A full piece on this is forthcoming. Photo by Vehlinggo.

Hayley Stewart (AKA Mecha Maiko) says the camaraderie of the synthwave community was a major part of what made the festival “so magical.” I think that Garvin and Grosvenor no doubt harnessed that energy in a profoundly deep and important way.

“Nick [Morey AKA Betamaxx] and I drove in on Saturday night and before we could even check into the hotel, we found ourselves being led to the bar for a giddy catch-up session with a couple friendly faces in the scene *winks*,” Stewart told Vehlinggo in an email.

“But then you’d turn a corner and see 10 more people to talk to,” Stewart added. “The whole vibe that emanated through the building that weekend was that of a gathering of old friends, even if many of us had never met before. People were genuinely excited about what was happening, and it was great to see fans, artists, and staff all mingling and enjoying it together. As an artist, I have never received so many heartfelt comments about my work before in my life, many of which came from people that I really look up to.”

As an artist, I have never received so many heartfelt comments about my work before in my life, many of which came from people that I really look up to.” – Mecha Maiko

Let Em Riot’s Alan Oakes praised the event organizers, staff, artists, and fans, in a note he wrote to Vehlinggo.

“Rarely do we get the chance as artists to meet face to face with the ones we’ve been chatting and collaborating with,” Oakes said. “As listeners, rarely do we get the chance to watch our favorite artists perform. Never before has there been a gathering on the scale of NEON. This was truly a historic event… To be part of such an important event was such an honor… The synthwave community is like a family and NEON was our homecoming.”

From left to right: Marko Maric (Synthetix Sundays), Ernest Mancia (Future Holotape), Aaron of Vehlinggo, Jazzi Marzcat (Synthetix Sundays), and Julie Chang (Future Holotape). Photo taken at Free Play Bar Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, at the NEON RetroFest’s after party.

Marko Maric, who hosted the Synthetix Sundays podcast for about three years until its final show last fall, was at NEON with his wife and fellow synthwave fan and mix-maker Jazzi, whom he met through the community. His show — affiliated with Synthetix.FM, the erstwhile, foundational synthwave blog started by Rick Shithouse — introduced me to Robert Parker’s music and the work of so many other great synthwavers. Even before he had his show, Marko was a major voice in promoting the scene for years.

Hanging out with Marko and Jazzi, both of whom I originally met in person in 2015 during a “synth meetup” in New York, was like spending time with the most beloved people in the room. Fans, performers, and everyone else who encountered them was so excited to see them — there were hugs and maybe even some tears of joy. It was a great sight to behold. I imagine you could guess that they loved being at NEON.

“It’s incredible just the amount of talent involved,” Maric told me at the event. “A lot of these guys I’ve interviewed back in early days had 300 followers on SoundCloud and now they’re touring the world performing the music we love so much. It’s heartwarming to see and I’m glad to be a part of it. As a fan, it’s incredible to see this. It was really nice to meet them as well.”

Abigail Ferguson (Bunny X) and Mecha Maiko
Abigail Gordon from Bunny X and Mecha Maiko pose on Sunday, Aug. 26, at the NEON RetroFest in Warwick, Rhode Island. Photo by Andrew B. White.

I caught up with Aaron Hollis, a synthwave fan from rural Texas who made his way to New England to dive into the experience.

“NEON was a great experience,” Hollis wrote me. “It was a tactile reminder of how fun synthwave is and can be. As someone coming from a rural area, it meant a lot to see how engaged the fans and musicians were, since it can be a somewhat insular experience with no one to share it with. The arcade, the panels, and the events were all top notch and the volunteers could not have been more welcoming and helpful.”

Chris, who performs as The Unholy Rat King, flew in with his wife, Christine, from Minnesota. He told me on Sunday that he had a blast seeing friends (that he’s met in person or not) and enjoying the music, in addition to playing video games.

“It’s awesome to get all these people together,” said the King, who was there for virtually all of the three-day event. “It’s been really cool to connect with people you’ve only spoken to online before.”

I’ve often said this in the past about synthwave meetups — the first one I attended in 2015 in Manhattan, the second a year later in Queens, and the Human Music Festival in Newark after that: that a deep connection is pervasive in these spaces. Family, friendship, whatever you want to call it. The scope of NEON showed that the community is growing and the connection is getter more profound.

Clearly, I’m not the only one to feel as if that was what NEON felt like. The artists came from states across the US and countries across Europe, and the fans I talked to were from far-off reaches of the country. Although we all became part of the community through largely disparate online means, we left with a strengthened bond and deeper ties. NEON was, indeed, a game-changer.

Being a part of NEON RetroFest was a dream come true,” FaceXHugger’s Albert Bonilla wrote me after the event. “Being a part of it as both a performer and fan felt very special. The vibe was very positive and every single minute I was there was filled making memories. A big thank you to the people at NEON for creating such an amazing weekend.” 

Stay tuned for more posts about NEON. I realize we’re already almost a week out, but the event’s impact is only just fully being realized in some ways.