ATP presents I’ll Be Your Mirror, various venues, Asbury Park, New Jersey, Friday 30th September-Sunday 3rd October 2011 by Seymour Quigley.
Moving from its former home in the Catskill Mountains (owing, rumour has it, to bedbugs), this year’s US wing of ATP finds itself in the pleasant New Jersey seaside town of Asbury Park. Famed as Bruce Springsteen’s hometown, boasting far more than its fair share of excellent venues – one of which, perfectly preserved 50’s bowling alley the Asbury Lanes, has a mural of punk icons (Lydon, Strummer, Iain MacKaye) painted on the outside – you could well believe the entire town was purpose-built for ATP.
“I’m so glad there’s an audience!” Madeline from Cults needn’t have worried; as her band kick off proceedings in the Asbury Lanes, festival atmosphere is already in abundance. Fleshed out to 5-piece, Cults sound far more muscular and satisfying live than their recent, self-titled debut would suggest, and with 60’s pop gems like ‘Go Outside’ in their arsenal they deliver the first feelgood moments of the weekend.
The Album Leaf continue their 10 year anniversary celebrations in the ornate environs of the Paramount, surrounded by glowsticks-on-sticks (cooler than it sounds) and a backdrop of stars. At once understated and majestic, they’re a band who let their glacial post-rock do all the talking, and when de facto frontman Jimmy LaValle pipes up mid-set to ask, “You guys excited?”, the roar of audience approval is deafening.
Chavez overcome the clattery sound of Asbury Park’s cavernous Convention Centre by genially bludgeoning a small but appreciative crowd with their proto math-rock (a genre, lest ye forget, they helped invent) at maximum volume. Good to have you back, chaps.
To criticise A Hawk And A Hacksaw for being self-indulgent is like criticising rain for being moist. They may not be making music for anyone’s benefit but their own, but they are genuinely refreshing and, as a rapt full-house of rock, dance and hip-hop fans demonstrates, their ragtag Romany folk, unhindered by genre concerns, is utterly mesmerising.
Everyone knows that Shellac make records by screaming at a slab of vinyl until it cries, and they apply the same principle to playing live. Tonight even the drums sound like iron girders raining on sheet metal, it’s a rare pleasure to see a band so totally together and, to no-one’s surprise, they are seriously, hilariously, brutally amazing. Props also to the monitor guy, who, according to the band, once “fucked somebody on a tank.” Outstanding.
The signs outside the Paramount read: “At Jeff’s request, anyone using any electronic equipment of any kind will be ejected.” You have to queue for special tickets just to get in. It’s clear that Neutral Milk Hotel mainman Jeff Mangum is a Big Deal round these parts. So it’s a surprise to the uninitiated to discover an unassuming fellow, seated alone on the vast Paramount stage, mumbling twee banalities over uninspired acoustic strumming. Not that my opinion counts for anything; from the whoops, cheers and standing ovations erupting from all sides, it’s clear that many here would kill or be killed for this man, and when his disciples catch up with me, I’m finished for sure.
Thank God then for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and his (marvellous) band, who deliver an emotional, life affirming set of alt-country warmth to the freezing cold masses. As deceptively ramshackle as Shellac are ninja-precise, when Will Oldham sings, “I’m not impressed by fields of cane / Our house is good to me and plain” on ‘With Cornstalks Or Among Them’, you find yourself nostalgic for the Puritan deep South upbringing you never had.
Beak> are one of Geoff From Portishead’s many extra-curricular projects. At their most satisfying when they eschew blatant Neu! worship for a more expansive, movie soundtrack-of-your-mind post-rock style, they start off a tender Saturday in fine style.
Foot Village are that rarest of things: a genuine musical one-off. Sadly, whilst the idea of a drums and voices-only hardcore band is intriguing on paper, the reality of four people simply screaming and bashing on drums quickly becomes wearisome and we run away to the bar to prepare ourselves for The Horrors.
Before we get to The Horrors, though, honourable mentions must go to their roadie, whose straight-faced and extended “one-two-woah”‘s are greeted with spontaneous applause by the mischievous crowd; an appreciation taken gratefully by the man himself, it’s a perfect ATP Moment.
When The Horrors take the stage, it seems churlish but necessary to compare their slightly embarassing origins as a well-meaning but inept garage-goth band to the festival-eating monsters they are today. New material from ‘Skying’ sounds grand – recent single ‘Still Life’ bringing unexpected near-pop thrills to proceedings – but it’s on the roadworn and familiar ‘Primary Colours’ songs that the band really cut loose; guitarist Joshua Hayward and keyboard wizard Tom Cowan MBV-meets-Eno’ing the fuck out of ‘Mirror’s Image’, ‘Who Can Say’ and an almighty, inevitable ‘Sea Within A Sea’. The Horrors are a triumph of everything they’ve become over everything you thought they were. Never attached to any scenes or outwardly concerned by outward concerns, their tenure as a truly great alternative band in the grand tradition of The Cure seems all but assured.
My significantly better half and I have an in-joke that when our future children misbehave, we’ll make them listen to The Pop Group. Reformed and angrier than ever, the same middle-aged spreads that made The Sex Pistols into a jokey anachronism make The Pop Group even more terrifying: ‘We Are All Prostitutes’’ assertion that the children should attack their parents is given howling irony by the physical stature of the men screaming it at us, while ‘Thief Of Fire’ sees singer Mark Stewart falling sideways across the stage, incandescent with unquenchable fury.
Battles have their own flashy video screens, expensive guitars, and dance like rich kid drama students. They’re also crushingly heavy. Whilst not exactly on first-name terms with The Tune, they win the crowd over with a relentless set of beat-heavy dance rock that takes the template laid down by forebears PWEI to its logical, if slightly joyless, conclusion.
Of course, Crushingly Heavy is in the eye of the beholder, and today Swans make Battles’ battles look like playground skirmishes. A band formed specifically to confront and destroy, Swans’ legacy as accidental progenitors of post-rock and doom is one they wear graciously, but not so graciously that they have any intention of toning down the sonic violence for the benefit of the “children” gathered awe-struck here today.
Meanwhile, over in the Asbury Lanes, Oneida are drawing to the end of their regular, ATP-sanctioned 8-hour jam session. Joined for the most part by James from Yo La Tengo, the only clear signs of fatigue show up in the band’s own onstage ramblings on the inherent ridiculousness of deliberately playing for 8 hours straight.
Portishead have a problem directly inverse to that of The Horrors: a past so outstanding it threatens to overshadow their future. They are a superior band, but for a good portion of tonight’s show they seem conflicted, unfocused and, insanely for a outfit who overnight became – briefly – almost the sole reference point for British dance music back in 1994, slightly unsure of themselves. Things lift mid-set when, stripped back to the core trio of Beth Gibbons, Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow, Portishead stall time with a disquieting ‘Machine Gun’, but elsewhere, an expanded line-up all too often delivers diminishing returns. All that aside, ‘Glory Box’ and ‘All Mine’ are creepily amazing and for a band who make no attempt to openly wow the crowd, Beth’s obvious, genuine delight at being onstage in front of devotees – culminating in a bout of decidedly non-enigmatic crowdsurfing – propels proceedings forward and into the night.
An extremely tender Sunday finds your correspondent desperately seeking salve for the soul; a poultice which, unfortunately, DD/MM/YYYY do not provide. As irritating as their name suggests, DD/MM/YYYY play that tired brand of bleepy-jerky smug indie that’s nowhere near as clever or interesting as it thinks it is. Apparently this is their last US show and they’re stoked to be playing with Deerhoof, so that’s nice.
Deerhoof are on fine form; taking to the vast convention stage in front of around 50 people (a rare scheduling conflict means almost everyone is over in the Paramount watching Jeff Mangum’s second set of the weekend) they quite literally rock the house, leaping around, grandstanding, and delivering the weekend’s best banter (drummer Greg Saunier making regular sojourns to the front to laconically update us on how well things are going). 16 years and going strong, Deerhoof live are a masterclass in how much fun rock music should be.
Older but still possessed of an urgent need to tell us what time it is, Public Enemy are here ostensibly to play 1990’s seminal ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ in its entirety but, given an extended slot (Mogwai have pulled out, citing ill health/bigger boys/the dog ate it), treat the crowd to a value-for-money Greatest Hits set. That alone would be awesome enough, but there’s always time for one more ATP Moment, and later that night, Chuck D will join Portishead on stage to spit PE’s ‘Black Steel (In The Hour Of Chaos)’ over Portishead’s ‘Machine Gun’, to the fanboy delight of everyone onstage. Sated, but still hungry, the entire festival heads off to queue outside the Asbury Lanes for a late-night slice of DJ Peanut Butter Wolf.
But the last word of the weekend should go to Pete The Security Guy. Drawing to the end of his 24-hour shift but chatty as you like, Pete stops us to wax lyrical: “I used to come here back in the 70s. All the big bands played here: The Doors, Zeppelin, Ozzy Osborne, Springsteen of course. It was a dump back then, so it’s amazing what they’ve done with the place. I love this festival. I’d pay just to work here.”