Haven’t checked yet, but I’m sure the nicknames are out there — ‘Boardwalk Mopepile’ or ‘Carnival of Old Souls’ or ‘Bummershoot’ or something like that. Not that folks weren’t rowdy at ATP’s Portishead-curated I’ll Be Your Mirror event, but there was a pretty noticeable cross-section of us who weren’t. I can’t speak for everyone in attendance, but the preponderance of dirge and post-apocalyptic skree made me feel rather somber. But ATP, being the extraordinarily keen event that it is, did present the more lighthearted side of decomposition. I’ll start with those, as these were some of the most infectious, joy-inducing performances I’ve seen since Times New Viking at the end of the summer.
Oneida did their circuitous, all-drones-and-Kid-Mil-set-on-throttle thing (“The Ocropolis”) up proper on Saturday. James McNew held down bass duties, and a slew of other guests jammed for eight hours that I would’ve killed and ate a full-grown manatee to spend my day enjoying. But I had responsibilities. I had to finish Colin Stetson, see the Silver Apples/Cluster collab, The Pop Group, and of course it would’ve been highly negligible to miss the almighty Swans. But I saw a good chunk of the boys at Asbury Lanes, and it was fantastic. I am beyond disheartened to report that Matt Sweeney guesting with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Oneida was the closest I got to seeing my beloved Chavez. I arrived on Friday just in time to see the boys packing up their gear. It made me sick to my stomach every time I saw them, just thinking what I had missed. There was no one on the bill I wanted to see more. Ah, well — that’s what I get for settling for a less-than-flexible work situation.
Due to Mogwai dropping out, there was some overlap preventing me from seeing Deerhoof’s full set. Even though I saw about half of it, I regretted not getting the full treatment, as they are one of the most intense and mirth-making prog poppers working today (though the masterful DD/MM/YYYY gave ‘em a run for their herky jerk anthem $). But I couldn’t miss Jeff Mangum, or at least I got that feeling. He was one of the many capital ‘A’ artists performing. So capital that he got his own concert apart from the fest, replete with cell phone-barring wardens scanning the aisles. What can I say? I was out of the loop for Neutral Milk Hotel. Always liked “Song Against Sex,” but never really got religious about it like nearly everyone in the room, able to sing along with every word. Much as I enjoyed the set, I felt like an impostor — especially when I ducked out before the encore to catch Satomi and the gang at the Convention Hall. With all the reverence afforded Mr. Mangum, I feel almost sorry liking Deerhoof more. However, I’m no less a convert and grateful for the opportunity to get better acquainted with such a well-heralded artist firsthand.
Public Enemy (pictured) was another bombastic yet enlivening performance — possibly the most uplifting set of the weekend (if not Colin Stetson). It moved fast and was louder than hell — and they rocked Fear of a Black Planet along with every PE staple you could hope to hear. I highly recommend seeing these legends if the chance comes up, as they aren’t just jacked up on nostalgia — they sound and look as fresh as ever. I’m not even all that much of a rap person, and I was floored. So intense! Underground rap heroes Company Flow were perhaps even louder. In fact, so much louder that it was tough to make out what song was being performed. Not sure if that’s what they wanted, but it was exciting to see El-P in person just the same. Guy’s a freakin’ walking thesaurus. I’d hate to play the man in Scrabble.
As far as the comedy goes, Hannibal Burress was fun, if a little hit and miss. Unfortunately, I missed Rory Scovel before him (A Hawk and A Hacksaw and Shellac), but there was no way I was gonna miss any of Reggie Watts, easily the best new comedy type thing I’ve seen/heard. The man is defiantly absurdist, and people go with it due to that soulful melodicism he cooks up seemingly out of thin air. Not to mention the man nearly resembles a giant, huggable luck troll. He did take some strange, bedroomy risks, but weirdos like — idunno — ATP festival goers, could appreciate that. He would’ve been great at The Paramount, with its superior sound (the massive Convential Hall was a bit too much boom and reverb), but instead we watched him and the other comics in a hotel lobby. It was more intimate that way, perhaps, but Watts is so replete and alien as to deserve a little more space to himself. Still, the man was hilarious and infectious and ridiculous and over far too quickly. Do see him if you know what’s good for you.
Back on the music front, there was Shellac with their contrapuntal photo-negative grind (love the Q&A tuning sections — funny guys). Colin Stetson with his furtive foghorn/whale song soundings. (His set moved me to tears, even when he was sort of metronomic and Philip Glass-like). Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy with his grounded, slow burning balladry. It was a revelation to hear Oldham in person. His is a voice that simply cuts through you, and his band backed him up flawlessly. Getting to hear “Beast For Thee” (admittedly a few mess-ups on that one) and “I See a Darkness” live was pretty sweet too. Swans (pictured) really beat the shit out of us. I don’t know if this was planned, but when I saw them in Austin earlier this year, it wasn’t nearly this brutal. It seriously got to the point where it seemed the grandiose, yet effete Gira would start pissing all over us, perhaps even scaling to the Paramount’s balcony in one great golden arc. He tried to make things intimate, calling us up to the stage, but the staff had to keep the aisles clear. So he just rabbit punched us masochists into mush and did his little fake, fuck-you anti-climax encore and left. It was great and all, but I just might’ve enjoyed “The Ocropolis” more. At the risk of sounding ungrateful for my much overdue bludgeoning: despite a fantastic new album, I think the Swans are half what they were without Jarboe. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way too.
Continuing on the theme of shrugging at giants, I’m sorry to say I found both Silver-Qluster and Earth mind-numbingly dull. At best, it was pleasant music to nod off to. And I know these are seminal artists, but beyond a deep love of drone and early electronic music, my heart just wasn’t into these guys in the live setting. It seemed rudimentary and plodding — the academic, dareisay anemic side of experimental music. But I overheard similar reactions to Oneida, particularly the plodding part. I guess one man’s hearty, savory bowl of stew is another’s cold bucket ‘o chum. As far as sleepers go, I’m willing to bet Anika’s propulsive, spooky set made some converts.
There’s something about Third and Geoff Barrow’s new projects that are thrillingly macabre. Though Beak> may’ve been a little less enticing than Anika, both sets served as superb appetizers for the riveting cold steel chute that is Portishead (pictured). Although I’d hoped that they would do two different sets, I was hardly bothered once the songs got going. After hearing the Third track “We Carry On” just kill it two nights in a row, it is now my new favorite from the album. Generally, the stronger performances were Third and Portishead tracks, the Dummy stuff sounding a bit dated and maybe a little hokey by comparison (Am I the only one that thinks “Sour Times” is a little played out?). But when that “Cowboys” opening kicked in on the Sunday set, my heart skipped a beat. Holy cow did they slay with that one. Not to mention the Chuck D guest spot on “Machine Gun,” a tune that I think a lot of fans for whatever reason don’t seem to appreciate as much as they should. That song is just massive! When that Terminator theme-like synth line comes on at the end, I feel like I’m beaming out somewhere destroyed and miraculous. As long I’m spouting off on the headliner here, I’ll add that the rear-projection was absolutely perfect. With all the pointless-seeming, overly busy light shows and the barely visible rear-projection at the bowling alley (not video artist Mighty Robot’s fault — it just didn’t really work in the venue), it was nice to have something neat to look at besides the band that actually corresponded well (the tracking shot down Eraserhead alley for “Machine Gun,” the scrolling red lines for “Threads”) with each song.
J.G. Thirwell’s Manorexia was nowhere as fun as it sounds. It was kinda like Bernard Herman outtakes with a chamber ensemble. The set was pleasant, plaintively evocative, but a little uninvolving and — again — academic. A Hawk and A Hacksaw’s Hungarian folk music was equally so, but a lot more spirited and down to earth. One of the members even donned a ridiculous court jester-meets-father Christmas outfit and danced through the crowd. They were a breath of fresh air amid all the post-whathaveyou. Then there was that Tra-La-La quandary. Silver Mt. Zion can be a vexing live show experience. They reach amazing GY!BE-like heights, but then they come close to making you cringe when they cut out all the music for that bawling a cappella Efrim. But perhaps that’s the point. There’s nary a better band (cough, cough Do Make Say Think) for grandiose, pitch-perfect sad soaring instrumental rock prowess, and he’s the wretched, snot-nosed punker wheezing in the eye of the storm. I gladly skipped the beginning of Portishead’s festival-closing set for them. Theirs is a sound that is demanding, but undoubtedly rewarding when you stick with it. And they are best experienced live, so don’t miss them if you’re at all curious.
Seeing The Pop Group (pictured) was an honor and a privilege — the next best thing to a This Heat reunion. It was very jarring at first, sounding almost like a sleek version of The Contortions. But the more you went into their set, the more their unique brand of disquieting convulsion-inducing punk funk felt right. It was great to hear “Trap,” its ferocious stop-start mania reminding me of that excellent GoGoGo Airheart cover. (Now there’s a band that should get back together for a weekend — wink, wink.) Anyway, I nearly shit when they closed with my absolute favorite Pop Group tune — “We Are Time” — and it’s echosome grandeur made me wonder if everyone in the room knew how lucky they were to be hearing it. I like to think they did, but I couldn’t be sure.
Sunday, I attended the screening and Q&A for Stanley Warnow’s superb documentary Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott. The story of this mercurial and unparalleled genius is told with great intimacy by Warnow, the composer’s son. Warnow admits to having a somewhat distant relationship with his father till the man’s passing, but he seems to’ve, through making this film, found a degree of closure. And it’s obvious that he’s quite proud of his father and the path he meticulously forged as a composer striving to let the music communicate on its own terms, not so much as a reflection or refraction of human imperfection. He was doing the work, never being so bold as to think that he was where it started and ended. The man was a true experimenter, in the sense that his invention — the Harmonium — was never quite finished. He sought to take himself out of the equation, to allow the sequencer to create on its own. For Scott, the means seemed to be its own end. And this was his pride, his obsession. With family he was distant, and much is made of this remoteness, in particular through Warnow’s (occasionally ostentatious) voice over narration. I strongly recommend checking this film out, whether you’re interested in early electronic music or not.
So hats off again, Barry. You outdid yourself, despite the usual minor annoyances any festival is going to inevitably contain (I guess I’ll never get used to walking out on sets; it just feels so rude!). All Tomorrow’s Parties is still one of the best one’s going, and I hope there weren’t too many assholes (everyone seemed alright to me) so that you can set up at Asbury again. As we’re all getting old and distant, I no longer get to visit the lovely Jersey shore with my family. So I can’t think of a better excuse to go back. Oh yeah, and next time — maybe get Banksy instead? Sorry, I just don’t really appreciate the whole totalitarian pop art thing. Alright I better clear out before I go and choke down the whole leg.
[Photos: Abbey Braden]