Monday, January 18, 2010

My bloody ears: ATP Nightmare Before Christmas 2009 curated by My Bloody Valentine

(First installment here.)

Saturday 5th December

(Thanks to Abbie for the Membranes, Horrors and Sonic Youth photos, and to Mel for the J Mascis & The Fog photo.)

On a day when our eardrums are set to get a real workout, it seems that even the bloody seagulls aren't prepared to allow us a lazy morning doze. You squawking bastards have been stationed beneath our bedroom window at the personal instruction of Kevin Shields, haven't you?

There might not be a kitchen or living room, but at least we've got that old staple of shabby, miserable, stuck-in-the-80s B&Bs the country over: the tea and coffee making facilities. (No Corby trouser press, though, sadly.) But what's this? Two measly sachets of coffee?! We've got a caffeine crisis on our hands here.

It turns out coffee isn't the only thing in short supply. Predictably enough given the average ATP goer, there's only one copy of the Independent left in the newsagent.

A snatched snippet of Sonic Youth soundchecking on the Pavilion Stage ('Malibu Gas Station'), enjoyed from the comfort of the chalet, is rudely interrupted by the sound of one of our party disgorging the contents of his stomach into the toilet. He emerges shamefacedly, his Metallica T-shirt a calculated affront to the ATP massive.

£7.49 for the all-you-can-eat buffet, including pizza, pasta, salad, breads, condiments and those weird little crunchy sprinklings? Pizza Hut effortlessly cruises to the number one spot of places to eat on site - and that's before I sip the berry smoothie that tastes like detox in a glass or note that special compilation soundtracking our meal features Nick Cave, Fleet Foxes, Deerhunter and Neil Young. No wonder several others have been drawn here like bees to honey, including The Quiz Blogger and friends. Faris Badwan of The Horrors paces about outside, looking tall and lost.

I'd quite fancied going along to Ian Svenonius's Soft Focus at ATP interview with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, but I'm late, the queue's massive and most of us aren't going to get in. How else to while away the early afternoon? Some friends have gone for a swim, others are watching Sex Pistols film The Filth And The Fury in the cinema, but we opt for air hockey (undefeated champion: yours truly) and shooting triceratops with machine guns.

"We didn't think anyone would come to see us - no one did 20 years ago!" John Robb - yes, him off the telly - freely confesses his mob have hardly practiced at all: "The Pastels are backstage rehearsing right now and they'll still sound tighter than us..." The first ever signings to Alan McGee's Creation, THE MEMBRANES also have the distinction of being one of the first bands to be recorded by Steve Albini. Influential, apparently, and much-loved by those in the know, but it all sounds a bit dated and artlessly shouty to these ears.

How to describe SUN RA ARKESTRA (Pavilion)? Well, that old cliche a jazz odyssey isn't too far off - though unless I'm misremembering the story at no point did Odysseus' adventures take him out into the cosmos. That's where we're headed courtesy of the glitter-robed high priests of jazz, for whom "Space is the place!" Opening with a freewheeling skronk in which everyone seems to be deliberately out of synch, they do gradually embrace slightly more conventional forms and rhythms. A shame that Yo La Tengo don't turn up for 'Nuclear War' - perhaps they're afraid of getting bottled off for not playing 'Sugarcube' last night...

The stratospheric theme continues with HARMONY ROCKETS (Centre Stage). Performing their one-track, 40+ minute 1995 album Paralyzed Mind Of The Archangel Void, though, the seven-strong post-rock troupe don't exactly live up to their name, taking what seems like an eternity to get anywhere. Still, when they do, the intensity is rewarding. A big influence on Mogwai's Young Team - and not just the use of a flute, either. (It's only later that I discover this is the side-project of Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donohue and Grasshopper - which comes as something of a relief, knowing that I wasn't just hallucinating Donohue walking around earlier.)

Back in May, the Saturday afternoon of the Breeders-curated ATP saw a great big nail hammered into my team Newcastle's Premier League coffin. Improved fortunes today, though - we've beaten Watford to stay well clear at the top of the Championship table. And to think - I would have been willing to wager money on them souring my day.

Ah, they seem to have decided to leave that to THE PASTELS (Pavilion), who are fucking atrocious. Drab, flat, lifeless, a suitably weak pastel-brown smear. The sort of ambling bumfluff that gives indie a seriously bad name. Inspirational, though, and so they prove - I'm sufficiently inspired to walk away vowing never to let them darken my ears again.

How exactly to define the distinctive aroma peculiar to the Centre Stage? I find myself in agreement with a random punter's suggestion, pea soup. "We were walking around town today", he says, "and someone walking past us stopped, sniffed and said 'Mmm, ATP'..."

"OK, thanks", mumbles J Mascis. My companion turns to me and says with a smile: "Woah, he's in talkative mood". Still, you have to feel for Ian Svenonius' chances of coaxing much more than that out of his Soft Focus interviewee tomorrow. It soon dawns on me that I haven't listened to More Light in a long time, and that my recollection of J MASCIS & THE FOG (Centre Stage) being rather quieter than the band for which Mascis is better known is somewhat misplaced - to all intents and purposes, they ARE Dinosaur Jr, albeit with a different supporting cast for the grey-haired fretboard wizard. 'Same Day' and 'Ammaring' we might have anticipated - but Dinosaur Jr tracks 'Thumb' (three bands with flautists in a row!), 'The Wagon' and 'What Else Is New' we certainly hadn't. The latter closes the set, and the fact that it's quite possibly my favourite song from my favourite Mascis album (1993's Where You Been) should give you some indication as to how much I enjoy our second rendezvous of the year.

Who should be waiting outside but the other members of Witch? So much for turning up to support your bandmate...

Much has been made of THE HORRORS' (Pavilion) complete change of direction between debut LP Strange House and its 2009 successor Primary Colours. Goodbye to the Cramps, Screaming Lord Sutch and goth-punk schtick; hello The Jesus & Mary Chain, MBV, Krautrock, out-of-focus photos and dry ice. The Quiz Blogger is dismissive ("They've listened to some albums - so?") and I'm also inclined towards scepticism, challenging them to impress. But impress they don't, for any number of reasons: a lack of stage dynamism, the unfortunate submersion of the electronics, a drummer who can't keep time, a clutch of songs that are no more than mediocre and mundane. Just like The Horrors' first incarnation, this second one is style over substance, a hollow echo of what it could be.

Just two snippets of conversation from our time spent refuelling back in the chalet: "Simon Cowell is a bastard but he's a genius" and "Gary Busey is the Betamax of Nick Noltes". Meanwhile, someone helpfully trying to clear up defenestrates my pint of cider, not realising it was still live. Everyone else seems to find it funny, though.

And so to the band whose appearance on the bill was the prime motivating factor in prompting me to buy a ticket. Last time I saw SONIC YOUTH (Pavilion) at an ATP, the Mogwai-curated Camber Sands bash, the New Yorkers ruffled a few feathers by opening with an half-hour-long instrumental called 'New Drone' and then concentrating almost exclusively on tracks from the as-yet unreleased NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Nine long years later and again the set's focus falls squarely upon their newest material - though this time The Eternal has already seen the light of day and, what's more, is a pumped-up, amped-up, pedal-to-the-metal ripsnorter of a rock 'n' roll record. If opener 'Sacred Trickster' doesn't quite have the impact it might, other hitherto less appreciated album tracks like 'Calming The Snake' and 'What We Know' are superb, eclipsing established favourites 'Antenna' and 'Poisoned Arrow' and even two classics from Daydream Nation, 'Hey Joni' and 'The Sprawl'. When Thurston Moore reaches for the stool and acoustic guitar, there's an audible intake of breath, as though it's like Dylan going electric in reverse - but if heresy sounds as gorgeous as 'Massage The History' then I'm all for it. (Is it just me, incidentally, or is there something about the song that suggests farewell?) Any grumbling naysayers are no doubt appeased by the encore, an incandescent rendition of 'Death Valley '69'. Charles Manson may have murdered a few people but, y'know, every cloud and all that...

[It's at this point that the stabilisers come off. Jottings are fine as long as (a) you remember to make them and (b) you remember where you've put them. Suffice to say the rest of the evening will have to be recounted from alcohol-addled and very vague memory...]

It's customary for the curators to occupy a headline slot on the Pavilion Stage, but, thanks to their stubborn refusal to drop the infamous "holocaust" section of 'You Made Me Realise', MY BLOODY VALENTINE have been forced to play the Centre Stage instead, putting on a show each night to allow all who want to see them to be able to do so. We've plumped for the Saturday night assuming it may well be the high point of the weekend, but sadly our hopes are disappointed. While 'Soon' is (as anticipated) one of the festival's most glorious moments, the sound quality overall isn't perfect and the indefinable magic that made last June's Roundhouse gigs so utterly dumbfounding and mesmerising is missing. And what of the "holocaust", signalled by Kevin Shields stamping on every pedal within a mile radius? A brutal, punishing declaration of war on the ears which makes mincemeat of any attempt to describe them as "dreamy" and for which we've coined the term "brown noise" because its physical disruption to the internal organs leaves you fearing you might soil yourself. At the very back of the room, two forty-somethings sit un-ear-plugged and open-mouthed, pinned against the wall. I suspect a change of underwear may be required.

Who's next? Why, only the band responsible for my second favourite album of 2008. Hats off to the schedulers who realised that NO AGE (Centre Stage) and their psychedelically ambient punk (or - viewed another way - shoegaze wired up to its eyeballs on cheap speed) would beautifully bridge the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the curators and the final band of the night. Material from the aforementioned record Nouns makes up the bulk of the set, 'Things I Did When I Was Dead' and single 'Eraser' the pick of the bunch. But then another guitarist emerges from the wings and the trio kick into Husker Du covers. Ah, that would be Bob Mould then. Given that Mould is due to play tomorrow and that they appeared together on the ATP NY bill earlier in the year (Pitchfork mini-documentary here), it really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise, but it does. As does the omission of what remains No Age's finest song, 'Everybody's Down' - but then we do get the likes of 'Something I Learned Today' from Zen Arcade instead. Let's just say you can't hear many complaints. Actually, come to think of it, you can't hear much at all anymore.

Now this is heartwarming. Fucked Up have generously invited a terminally ill fan up onto the stage to introduce them. "I'm so grateful to these guys. I mean, I asked Sonic Youth and they said if I wasn't in a wheelchair I could go get fucked". Ah. Turns out the terminally ill fan is actually stand-up, acerbic founder and editor of Chunklet and one of the most loved/hated men in rock journalism, Henry Owings. Cue beery heckling from members of Witch and The Fog, gathered together at the barrier. A half-drunk pint of lager arcs its way through the air, and Owings laughs. "You throw like a limp-wristed dick..."

Owings gone, it's time to get FUCKED UP (Centre Stage). And fucked up we get. The six-strong Canadian band aren't your average hardcore mob - your average hardcore mob doesn't cover The Shop Assistants or release 18-minute-long singles about sex trafficking, for instance - but they certainly know how to play hard, fast and straight, and how to raise merry hell (admittedly not that difficult when you're playing to a room full of well lubricated festival-goers intent on losing the plot). As at Glastonbury, I'm amazed at the intensity and discipline of those on the stage while vocalist Pink Eyes immerses himself in the human maelstrom and flying bodies ensure the security staff have to earn their crust. No beard-stroking pretentiousness in sight, just a lot of sweat and smiling faces.

[What followed is a mystery - in all likelihood air hockey and the Crazy Horse disco, but I don't remember - so let's just leave it there for the night.]

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