ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES: I’ll Be Your Mirror

Asbury Park, N.J.,
Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, and we were on hand for curator Portishead, Public Enemy,
Swans, Jeff Mangum, Shepard Fairey, and more.

 

BY EVAN HAGA

All Tomorrow’s Parties’ recent 2011 stateside festival, dubbed I’ll Be Your Mirror, was an example of
something that isn’t supposed to happen in our current economic climate, when
show producers and fans alike supposedly have no resources. It took an already
excellent idea, deftly executed in the past, and made it even better. (Go here to see an image gallery of most of
the artists who performed.
)

 

            Since 2008
ATP’s fall soirees had taken place at Kutsher’s, a Jewish resort that time
forgot in the sticks of the Catskills. In certain ways it seemed ideal, with
some acoustically excellent show spaces and a generally curious, weird vibe
that suited the outré culture that ATP bolsters. But funky-chic has its limits:
There was nothing hip about the rodents I saw scurry through the lobby, or the
bedbugs I heard rumors about from people who stayed there, or the winding drive
into Nowheresville.

 

            Kutsher’s
was passed over this year for Asbury
Park, N.J., and what
a spot-on relocation it was, with improved numbers from 2010: Just under 3,000
on Friday and Sunday, and around 3,500 on Saturday. Relatively artsy and
remote, Springsteen’s stomping ground is, as far as beach towns go, the Island
of Misfit Toys. Along its short boardwalk is an arcade with two solid-sounding rooms
that hosted most of the action: Convention Hall, a mid-sized arena with plenty
of floorspace and seats all around, and the old, large, seated Paramount
Theater. Also essential were Asbury Lanes, a hipster bar and bowling alley that
regularly doubles as a music venue, and the nice-looking Berkeley Hotel, where
the Friday-night comedy went down and where the Criterion Cinema theater was
set up. And indie-propaganda artist Shepard Fairey, who gave a festival-closing
DJ set, installed murals around town and had a show going at a boardwalk art
gallery.

 

            Certain
aspects of the ambience went unchanged, but not all. Once again there was a
juxtaposition of people and place – pasty Brooklyn
types in mostly black eating ice cream on a boardwalk or walking along the
beach. But the element of coexisting among the talent that made Kutsher’s cool –
saying what’s up to Wayne Coyne; drinking beer with Jim Jarmusch – took a
nosedive. There was also a much stronger police presence this year, even if the
ATP-hired security was as reasonable yet responsible as I remember.

 

            What was
consistent with ATPs past was, thank God, the programming. As with other bills,
this year cast a wide net stylistically while abiding by a specific school of
hipness. The artist curators were Portishead (pictured above), who also
made a perfect headliner, seeing how ATP’s aesthetic center of gravity lies
with Gen X and the alternative ’90s. Other big news: Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff
Mangum, out of hiding and, like Portishead, performing two shows. (The Mangum’s
gig I attended on Sunday required a separate ticket and boasted what could be
the most adamantly enforced no-cell-phones/no-cameras policy in indie-rock
history.) In all, there was a nice mix of unearthed record-geek history, newer
bands still ascending, and welcome curiosities.

 

            At ATP,
reformed (or in the case of Michael Gira’s Swans, reactivated) bands do not
automatically mean nostalgia; these are rarely bands with hits, so there’s no
big cultural moment to make them seem dated or silly. If they were good in 1979
or 1991, they can be good now, too, and taken just as seriously. Case in point:
Even hip-hop, one of the timeliest, most fickle genres going when it comes to
taste, got the record-shop-clerk treatment. Public Enemy performed its classic
#Fear of a Black Planet#, and Ultramagnetic
MCs’ Kool Keith pleased many a backpack-rap fan when he pulled out “Blue
Flowers,” from 1996’s underground hip-hop essential #Dr. Octagonecologyst#.

 

            Keith and
company were chosen by Portishead, who also summoned up a bygone but thrilling
time in hip-hop. On Saturday night, the band’s sly, trundling beats were
reminders of acid-jazz and jazz-rap records I haven’t listened to or thought
about in ages. About half of the set was culled from 1994’s #Dummy#, and all of the band’s
trademarked textures sounded crystalline: the surf-noir guitar, at its best on
“Sour Times,” Geoff Barrow’s golden-age wicka-wicka scratching and Adrian
Utley’s quivering moan of a voice, frail in character but delivered with
strength.

 

            Jeff Mangum,
too, sounded mightily on-point for someone whose songs deal in emotional
fragility. At the Paramount on Sunday, playing the Neutral Milk Hotel songs his
cult had been waiting for, his voice filled the room with some wow factor. ATP
was full of wailing, screaming, mumbling, prerecorded vocals and
just-plain-lousy singing, but Mangum’s vocal instrument was well intonated and
stout. He also seemed comfortable, cracking the odd joke and requesting
everyone sing along. His guitar playing hovered just above that of a college
kid with a strong, rhythmically adept right hand, but it was the sort of
performance that a layman could’ve stumbled into and enjoyed – quite rare at
this fest. And kudos on the Roky Erickson cover, “I Love the Living You,” which
was surprisingly more sentimental than Mangum’s own music.

 

Sentimentality didn’t figure into Shellac,
who played two sets, including an expectedly taut, steely and magnificent one
at Asbury Lanes on Sunday. Nearly as transgressive was the Pop Group, who, despite
hardly performing anymore, sounded stronger and more inspired than some of
their postpunk contemporaries who are still releasing albums. The band,
consisting almost entirely of original members, brought to mind a few times and
places: Bristol in the late ’70s; the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1982
(Defunkt, anyone?). Despite the pointed irony in the name, the set, with heyday
material and a Subway Sect cover, smartly balanced the combative with the
accessible. Vocalist/instigator Mark Stewart howled his atonal social critique
above the scratchy fray of Gareth Sager’s guitar, but the rhythm section locked
into funk grooves that demanded a dance floor rather than the seated Paramount.
Some songs, like their classic single “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” engineered
in brilliant dubby detail, had honest-to-god hooks. With a little bit of
touring, this band could become positively combustible.

 

            Swans were
already there. Gira’s latest, six-piece incarnation combined tribalism, the
base principles of heavy metal and primal-scream therapy into an impossibly
loud two-hour set that will prove impossible to forget. Dylan Carlson’s Earth,
now albums into its second life as a quartet playing metal-derived chamber
music, found its great intensity in quietude and slowness and repetition. Effective
repetition figured into the krauty postrock of BEAK> (featuring Barrow) and
Oneida, who performed another continuous daylong experiment at Asbury Lanes
with special guests. (It was something worth checking in on between sets.)

 

Throughout the weekend, fans of
instrumental music, or at least rock bands who take their instrumental side
seriously, had a lot to think about. There were chops on display, but never for
their own sake; a lot of double-drum-kit bands, plenty of instrument swapping.
Deerhoof impressed with its reliably explosive prog-rock. Battles fell out of
sync with its prerecorded material at times, but solved a common logistical
problem with fantastic ingenuity. When it played material off its latest album
that features guest vocalists, those singers appeared on large panel screens,
singing their parts against a black background. So, on “Ice Cream,” the band
performed alongside what looked like an art installation on Argentina’s
Matias Aguayo – same with Gary Numan on “My Machines.” It was more interesting
than if the guest singers actually made the gig.

 

[Photo by Abbey Braden;
courtesy and © ATP America 2011
]

 

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