Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series covering the inaugural NEON RetroFest, which happened on the weekend of Aug. 24-26 in suburban Providence, Rhode Island. The first post focused on the meaning of NEON and my first-person reaction to being there. This one discusses the musical performances from each of the three nights. I delayed posting this until I had photos to go with it.
If you ask me, I’ll say the musical performances were the centerpiece of each of the three nights of NEON. If you ask someone else, they’ll say it was the video games, or card or board games. Others will swear by the panels. That’s one of the festival’s charms and successes.
Each of the two-dozen performers’ 30- to 45-minute sets saw them put on compelling live shows — from changing up their studio cuts to dancing in the audience or just giving off a raw energy that filled the room. Each act stomped to dust the idea that synthwave is best suited to laptops in a bedroom. (Anyone who’s attended a synthwave show in the past couple of years would know this, but it often takes a big display like NEON to drive the point home.)
I won’t be able to get to everyone in this post, but I’ll try to cover as many as I can. (For example, during some performances I was doing interviews.) You’ll find photos and/or video paired with some of sections. Where applicable in a section, I’ll also link to the big Facebook photo album that has photos of some of the performances and other aspects of NEON. (You can also find photo albums for the following acts and others not mentioned here.)
Dana Jean Phoenix
I’m going to start right out of the gate with the massive headliner and show-closer, Dana Jean Phoenix, who injected an unbridled mass of energy into a Sunday night.
The synthwave pioneer has been making her mark on the scene for about six years, both with her own albums and as the go-to collaborator for the likes of Highway Superstar, Timecop1983, Robots with Rayguns, Sunglasses Kid, Betamaxx, Straplocked, and Mecha Maiko, among many others I’m failing to mention here. She certainly made a mark in the auditorium at NEON.
Standing behind a synth rig, while often sporting a keytar, Phoenix danced and sang her heart out, commanding every moment of attention from an enchanted audience. During her performance she busted out an extended, searing keytar solo, face imbued with raw energy like Hendrix at Woodstock.
The Torontonian showed how much energy and intensity — and just plain fun — one person can generate when they let themselves get vulnerable on stage. Her 45-minute set was alone worth the price of admission. (Below is a vertical video clip of her on the keytar from my Insta story.)
When he released The New Girl in 2012 on Telefuture, Rolly Mingwald was a student of the Miami Nights 1984/MPM Soundtracks school of synthwave that focused on sunny and colorful synths reminiscent of the ‘80s work of Jan Hammer and, of course, songs on John Hughes soundtracks. Along with the likes of Makeup and Vanity Set and Mr. Nissness, Mingwald (AKA chiptune maestro Carl Peczynski) was an early act on a label that before its slumber featured some of the most influential acts in the scene.
The NEON performance on Saturday, Aug. 25, marked perhaps the first Rolly Mingwald performance in three or four years. And oh was it good to have him back. Mingwald, with an MPC and a couple synths, deftly unleashed unto NEON his upbeat, outrunnish blend of warm synths and catchy melodies. It was a performance that, like Killstarr’s “Wonderland,” could serve to create nostalgia for nostalgia.
I caught up with Peczynski on Saturday night after his performance. Sitting on some chairs on the main hallway between two bars and the yacht rock lounge on one side and the auditorium/ballroom where the performances were, we talked about Rolly Mingwald and what he’s been up to while his project has been dormant.
“People tell me why can’t you just stick to one thing?” he says, when I asked what he’s been up to all these years. He’s been working on chiptune, grunge, old-school hip-hop, and other projects. He says he doesn’t know what he’d do if he couldn’t do all of his projects. He’s a creative guy, I’ll say.
He had been making his chiptune songs for years — he recalled one time he and Disasterpeace drove a van to Montreal on one tour — when in 2010-2011 he discovered Miami Nights and MPM.
“It was more soundtrack-based and melodic, so I was really excited to hear that,” Peczynski said. “I was like ‘Wait, this is more my speed, I have all these synths from the ‘80s… I’ve always loved the ‘80s sound…”
After writing an album specifically for Telefuture (The New Girl), he played a few shows with Arcade High and a Telefuture showcase in 2014 before moving onto the other projects. Now he’s back to work on a new release. Basically every piece he performed at NEON was from the forthcoming release, he says.
Pittsburgh-based Betamaxx was a surprise addition to NEON and ended up putting on a feisty Sunday night set, the penultimate one of the festival. With ‘80s films and other retro imagery in the background, Betamaxx commanded a crowd in awe of a synthwave pioneer standing before them behind his powerful synths. He performed a host of classics, including Vehlinggo favorite “Dreamer,” and an instrumental version of “Only in Movies.”
His stage banter was hilarious, which included smacktalk against Drake and an homage to former Synthetix Sundays host Marko Maric. Betamaxx was clearly having an amazing time and the sentiment rubbed off onto the crowd.
Let Em Riot
Southern California artist and early synthwaver Let Em Riot, fresh off a putative greatest hits release on NewRetroWave Records, put on a stunning and energetic performance on Saturday night, Aug. 25. Alan Oakes, the man behind the project, wore a light-colored shirt that radiated the colorful imagery behind him as he sang his heart out and played his axe and keys like his entire career depended on this one gig.
He played a bunch of cuts, including “Let’s Stay Out,” taking catchy, well written studio cuts and turning them into something visceral and enlightening. The crowd was in awe, immersed in sacred and inspiring vibes that made the whole thing feel like some kind of religious experience.
The college sweethearts who comprise Future Holotape have been creating synthwave for more than five years, all that time adding to their hardware synth collection and bringing their engaging live performances to audiences in their native LA and beyond.
At NEON, they brought out everyone’s favorite songs of theirs, including collaborations with Botnit and Kiile. Ernest Mancia gave each vocal note his soul’s life force and producer Julie Chang intently and deftly unfurled the duo’s impactful compositions before a very welcoming Sunday night crowd. I hope to see them live again soon.
Marseille, France’s Absolute Valentine, an owner of Lazerdiscs Records and Drive Radio, was among the headliners of Saturday’s lineup. He brought to the auditorium his gorgeously seductive iteration of heavier and darker synthwave, contributing a new type of French Touch that is sexier and more earnest than Ed Banger. Adorned in a Slipknot t-shirt and a leather hat and leather jacket, Absolute Valentine coolly danced behind his rig as his music got progressively more in tune with the bodies of the audience. It was a great time.
Swedish producer Waveshaper was the penultimate act on Saturday night, coming up after Absolute Valentine and before Robert Parker. Building off the momentum of the former, and digging deep into his entrancing blend of synthwave and club beats, Waveshaper conjured up an intensity that had the NEON audience hanging on every kick drum.
Robert Parker, the longtime friend and collaborator of Waveshaper — they recently scored Videoman together, which they talked about with me earlier this year at Dread Central — closed out Saturday with great aplomb.
As he did in the smaller room of The Knitting Factory in late May, in the large ballroom of NEON Robert Parker unleashed a fury of synthy dance bliss that had everyone going. He bounced around as intensely as those in audience, sweating their faces off to Parker’s killer variety of outrun and synth-pop. The show went ’til at least 1 a.m. and when it stopped no one was ready for the night to end.
FaceXHugger’s Albert Bonilla and his wife, Alexandra, who runs the fast-growing Neo LA promotional machine, are a case study in manifesting your dreams. They’ve only been at this for about a year and already Albert is touring the country with his compelling darksynth music and Alexandra is putting on shows headlined by the likes of synthwave originator FM Attack. She also spoke at the Ladies of Synth panel at NEON.
The FaceXHugger show on Friday night of NEON, which The Encounter joined, was a killer set. I found his dedication to his craft and well organized sets rather inspiring. He went on to do some West Coast dates with NEON headliners Absolute Valentine and Waveshaper and I imagine he garnered a wealth of praise over that time.
California-based Dreddd was one of the first artists to play NEON, occupying Friday night’s largely dark lineup. Although to call Dreddd “dark” is an understatement. He graced the stage with a demonic horned mask and an equally profane growl for vocals, tearing the building apart at the seams over the blood-curdling intensity in his music. Perhaps most demonic of all was his Celtics jersey, surely playing Azrael with the hearts of the LA contingent in the crowd.
NEON was not Mecha Maiko’s first show, but it was the first time the Toronto-based artist (also known as Hayley Stewart, formerly of Dead Astronauts) was invited to perform live under her new moniker.
On Sunday, Aug. 26, just a day off a successful Philly show with Dana Jean Phoenix and Betamaxx, Stewart hypnotized the NEON crowd with a variety of songs, including cuts from her latest album Mad but Soft, such as “Electric Heat” and her Phoenix-collaboration “Cold,” which she performed with Phoenix.
Stewart’s icy, neon-noirish disco and synth-pop numbers paired well with the red lights and psychedelic cartoons dancing about the video screen behind her. Each lyrical passage she delivered seemingly from the ethereal plane bounced off her instruments and into the souls the enraptured audience.
The NEON invitation was a major catalyst for Stewart to get the courage to take the stage, she wrote me after the event.
“It got me to take the leap into live performance, which had been too intimidating to even consider,” she said. “Just a few months ago, I could count the number of people I had ever sung for on my hands. At NEON, I would finish a song and at the exact moment I would start thinking about the mistakes I probably just made, I would get hit with a wall of sound — the audience. I could have never fathomed a response like that.”