Friday, February 26, 2010

The birthday party: 10 Years Of All Tomorrow's Parties

(First and second instalments here and here.)

Sunday 13th December

Up with the lark for a swim? No, best conserve my energies for the day ahead.

After Zardoz yesterday, there's more nudity on ATP TV - don't they know it's the Sabbath? This time it's Human Nature, which features Patricia Arquette prancing about in the woods in the buff, her decency barely concealed by a thin covering of fur. She then hooks up with a man whose life's work is devoted to teaching table manners to mice. It doesn't seem quite so odd when you know that Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were all involved.

There'll be no more sneaking into the multi-storey kids' play area in the Pavilion - following last night's invasion, the hole in the netting has been blocked up by a massive pot plant.

Ah, the traditional Sunday dinner ATP style - at Pizza Hut, with a soundtrack courtesy of Sleepy Sun, wondering whether the asparagus topping on today's veggie offering is something you'd find at any other Hut in the country.

Now here's a first: Steve Albini having the nerve to make a noise complaint. Turns out he was kept awake last night by the sound of enthusiastic shagging in the neighbouring chalet, declaring himself impressed with the amorous couple's persistence if not stamina and recommending "more or different gagging". As ATP's unofficial house band, SHELLAC (Centre Stage) must have been the very first act pencilled in for the weekend and have been given the honour of two sets, this being the second, as well as an enormous mosaic of festival photos arranged to depict drummer Todd Trainer. Trainer - after whose beloved pooch Uffizi their last album Excellent Italian Greyhound was named and whom Albini claims was "genetically engineered only for fucking and playing drums" - helps kick off an hour of charmingly brusque, jolting aural nastiness by wandering around in the crowd with his snare held above his head as Bob Weston cranks out the bass riff to 'The End Of Radio'. For those of us who saw them here back in May, the set - comprising 'Dog And Pony Show', 'Steady As She Goes' and 'Prayer To God' amongst other tracks - holds few real surprises (though that's certainly not to say it isn't very much enjoyed) while Weston's traditional Q&A session fails to elicit any interesting queries: "Thank you cunts". Albini, as is also customary, invites us all to join in a game of poker, and the show ends with he and Weston downing their instruments and impishly dismantling Trainer's kit bit by bit as he carries on playing - and when only the drummer himself is left, he's borne off over a shoulder to the wings.

Here's someone else who clearly didn't get much sleep. "We shouldn't have had that party last night", chuckles a jaded and barely all-there JOSH T PEARSON (Centre Stage) repeatedly. No wonder Warren Ellis is such a big fan, having invited him to tour with Dirty Three in 2005 and then play when they curated ATP two years later; straggling unkempt beard, wild eyes - it must be pretty much like looking in the mirror. Once Pearson's run through a clutch of drummer jokes (none of which, he insists, are directed at former Lift To Experience sticksman Andy Young, with whom he's reunited today) and had his trademark brimmed hat brought out, this genuine son of a preacher man proceeds to conjure up fire-and-brimstone blues and images of "Satan and his armies marching". Welcome to Sunday school Texan style.

From one kind of blues to another - this one distinctly less harrowing and more boogieful. THE MAGIC BAND (Pavilion) hadn't performed together for over three years when they were invited to play ATP - so it's a measure of the festival's stature that they gladly reformed for the occasion and practiced long and hard both in the US and here on this stage in the days running up to doors opening. Long-time drummer John "Drumbo" French, dressed like a louche Man from Del Monte, has stepped into Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart's shoes and listening to his between-song stories is like being seated on the knee of a cool and excitable grandfather: "We first toured the UK back in '68 ... I remember John Peel driving us all around in a Mini Cooper..." OK, so they're the festival's heritage act and bassist Rockette Morton appears to be wearing one of those dodgy organic wizard's hats from Glasto, but they're surprisingly sprightly.

It had to happen at some stage over the course of the weekend: a band covering the Velvet Underground song after which the festival is named. "What costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow's parties? Well, I don't know about the poor girl but, looking around, the male dress code seems fairly well established: Christmas jumper, skin-tight jeans, moustache. 'All Tomorrow's Parties' isn't the only song DEERHOOF (Centre Stage) cover, another being dedicated to Tim Ruth of fellow performers The For Carnation. As perky and restlessly inventive as their oddball indie rock is, the likes of 'Fresh Born' and 'Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back' convincing me to invest in their most recent LP Offend Maggie, most impressive is founder member Greg Saunier, who despite incredibly stiff competition still manages to carry off the title of the weekend's best drummer. Saunier, perched atop an entirely unnecessary riser, is so gangly and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki so diminutive that she's only just taller than him even when he's sat on his drum stool, playing bass at the same time as keeping a drumbeat going. Hats off too to him for recording a Keith Richards Dream Log on the band's MySpace...

Disappointments have thus far been few and far between - I was only really expecting much better from Six Organs Of Admittance and Apse. But here is a real letdown. Quite what it is that MUDHONEY (Centre Stage) do - or don't do - to offend escapes me. Raw, unpolished, unfussy garage rock - that's what I was expecting and that's what we get, Mark Arm performing the first few songs as an in-your-face frontman sans guitar. But somehow it doesn't have the electricity, the energy, the excitement that it should for someone like me, whose first real musical passion was for pretty much anything emanating from Seattle in the early 90s. Sure, hearing 'Suck Me Dry' in the flesh is a bit of a headrush, but that aside I find myself strangely bored and disappear off downstairs mid-set long before (presumably) 'Touch Me I'm Sick' and 'Hate The Police', pondering whether the term "grunge" can still be considered to have any validity, covering as is with hindsight even clearer a whole host of disparate bands united by little more than a common geography.

Enough scrabbling around in the gutter - time to look up to the stars. Josh Pearson has already draped the day in a metaphorical Texan flag, and here's a real one draped on an amp. The flag and amp in question belong to EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY (Pavilion), ATP curators in 2008, whose set delights me by opening with 'The Only Moment We Were Alone' from 2003's masterpiece The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place. The contrast with Mudhoney couldn't be much sharper - the quartet are uber-serious, shifting between sitting and crouching with only Munaf Rayani making any concession to rock 'n' roll cliche by slinging his guitar about recklessly when the volume swells, while their music is complex, layered, patient, crafted. The uncharitable might add laboured and pretentious to that list, but it surely takes a special band to build to climaxes like they do in 'The Moon Was Down' that manage, however temporarily, to transcend their surroundings - at a Butlins, under a fake canopy, sandwiched between a Burger King and an overpriced bar.

There's still a massive stack of Wispa Golds in the shop - clearly the anticipated rush still hasn't materialised.

Time for tea: two different types of hot savoury pastry. One of our number does his best to put me off my food, though, exclaiming: "I really must stop getting sex invitations from older women".

The Mars Volta should have kicked off by now but, knowing them, they're probably keeping everyone waiting - perhaps, we speculate, because the grapes in their rider aren't at the right temperature. But then an excited text from our advance party: "A song!" This implies more than simply that they're on stage - could they be embarking upon a greatest hits set?

First, though, to the Centre Stage for a second dose of SUNN O))). Tonight they're supposedly performing latest album Monoliths & Dimensions, though frankly I'm sceptical that I'll be able to detect any difference from The Grimmrobe Demos last night. The earthquake chords and cowls are still in place, and the dry ice is so thick it's crept out of the door and as far as the top of the stairs, threatening to envelop the bemused-looking member of security staff posted there. But what's this I spy through the murk - four members? And what's this I just about make out through the din - vocals? These are contributed, I think, by Hungarian black metal singer Attila Csihar - clad somewhat distinctively in an outfit covered with huge metal plates and wearing a spiked head-dress like something from a pagan ritual. When he starts firing lasers out of his gloved fingers, I decide it's all too ridiculous and pantomimic and leave the claw-handed fans to it.

I never, ever expected to be able to say this, but in the circumstances THE MARS VOLTA (Pavilion) are a refreshingly unpretentious dash of sobriety. It's all relative, of course - there's plenty of self-indulgent noodling for the enjoyment of no one but the band themselves, while bassist Juan Alderete is granted his own solo slot for a showy workout towards the end, musicianship allowed to triumph over entertainment. But even then genuine bona fide songs are, as had been hoped, generally to the fore, several of them (to my delight and surprise) from debut LP Deloused In The Comatorium, back before I fell out of love stroke couldn't be bothered anymore with them (when Frances The Mute was released, basically). And what of notorious diva Cedric Bixler-Xavala, a man who currently resembles a seventeeth-century French count crossed with a 1970s pimp? Well, there may not be a personal grapewarmer, but he does have a stage lackey bringing him out a fresh steaming cup of something every five minutes, regardless of whether or not the previous one's been drained or even touched.

Picture the scene, if you will. The year is 1970. A party at a commune/squat in San Francisco. The early hours of the morning. Half of those present are zonked out on the floor. The other half are sitting barely upright but swaying, still very much in the grip of the hallucinogens rather than sleeping them off. And then someone says: "I've got this awesome new record from England by a band called Black Sabbath. Should I put it on?" That, essentially, is the image that SLEEPY SUN (Centre Stage) conjure up. Just a whiff of debut album Embrace (one of the year's best) is enough to make you feel woozy, and tonight - from the narcotic heaviosity of 'White Dove' onwards - they're beautifully, gloriously out of it. They may take their cues from fellow West Coasters Dead Meadow and Comets On Fire, but they're more pastoral than the former and markedly less intense than the latter. From the side of the stage, a hooded member of Sunn O))) stands nodding in silent reverie. Sleepy Sun, then: yet another reason to be thankful to ATP.

Match Of The Day 2 back in the chalet, and I'm laughing along with Lee Dixon. Surely an indication that I've overindulged?

The long, hairy, drunk queue snaking back from the entrance to Reds Bar puts the kibosh on our hopes of seeing Lightning Bolt close the festival, but we console ourselves with some air hockey (I win one contest, clawing back some lost dignity). The Pavilion Stage has already been mostly dismantled, and by the now empty merch tables we stumble across a picture of a prawn with Susan Boyle's head. I'm not certain, but I think it may have been Photoshopped.

Math rock pioneers POLVO (Centre Stage) split in 1998, only reforming ten years later after being personally invited to play ATP by curators Explosions In The Sky. But the gods of the running order have dealt them a bit of a rough hand here, and they only manage to command a paltry audience of "birthday stragglers" (their words) - an audience which soon thins by three such stragglers who rapidly lose interest and decide the Crazy Horse would be a more entertaining option.

But behold! A tiny queue for Reds Bar, and a rumble from within that signifies LIGHTNING BOLT are still in action. Good things come to those who wait and all that, and we bound eagerly inside just in time to see a shrieking Afrirampo crowdsurfing out from the stage while the two Brians (drummer Chippendale now unmasked) ensure the festival thrashes through its death throes in fine style.

On to the Crazy Horse, then, where Drowned In Sound's Mike Diver is on the decks and has the temerity to interrupt Rage Against The Machine (at this point only a possibility for Christmas #1) with R Kelly's 'Bump 'N' Grind', to the visible delight of assorted members of Los Campesinos!.

Last song of the festival, before we stagger our way past Josh Pearson and his white fur coat and out into the night? LCD Soundsystem's 'All My New Best Friends', of course.

ATP TV just goes on throwing up gems - documentaries on The MC5 and The Ramones are enjoyed before lights out on the evening and another marvellous Minehead weekend.

* * * * *

If you want to actually see some decent photos of the festival, then there's an excellent set here.


skif said...

I can't tell you how green with envy I am that you managed to see what is looking likely to be the last Magic Band show in the UK. Maybe I should have tried to tunnel in after all!

Loving these time snapshots of festival action. May have to steal the idea when I go to Primavera in May, although being a solo mission sans booze it won't be anywhere near as lively as your write-ups!

Ben said...

Cheers Dave - glad to know the write-ups have been enjoyed by more than just yours truly...

As for The Magic Band, I hadn't thought about it like that but I guess it's quite likely, given how they're all getting on. The crowd was quite sparse, to be honest, but those who were there really started to get into them, myself included.

Anyway, let's just say I'm equally envious of your Primavera beano! Brian who was with me for the 10th Anniversary ATP went there last year and said it was great. I'm sure a man of discerning taste like yourself will love it. We'll have to talk over the line-up when we hook up in That London in May...

skif said...

Well, it's not so much their age, but the financing of it. I read Drumbo's MySpace blog and it's pretty depressing the amount of hurdles he has to overcome to get anything done. It's not like being with Captain Beefheart ever gave them any money in the first place!!

Still, I'm currently devouring his 800 page book on life with Captain Beefheart, so that helps numb the pain!

Ben said...

So what hurdles are those, then? Do the other members want too much money for it to be viable? Or do the difficulties lie beyond the band's control?

Thinking about it, Drumbo's little between-song anecdotes were almost like excerpts from a memoir. Speaking of which, I've finally got round to reading 'Margrave Of The Marshes' - you devoured it soon after it was first published, I imagine?