At music festivals, a 1 p.m. performance is typically a ghost town — it's the snoring hour, the sleeping-off-alcohol hour, or for the especially ambitious attendee, the getting-breakfast-and-ruing-last-night's-ungodly-levels-of-beer-intake hour.
So when Sufjan Stevens took the stage to a packed room for the opening set of ATP NY's Day Two, the Detroit singer promised to go easy on peoples' headaches. "This will be an early-afternoon hangover special," he promised, explaining that the set would draw heavily on Seven Swans, his gentle, spare 2004 debut. He started with "All the Trees of the Fields Will Clap Their Hands," in which a plinking banjo riff suggested a tiny music box, mesmerizing and intricate.
Stevens was breathy and hushed, and his backing band — all in matching tie-die shirts purchased at the grounds' kitsch-stuffed gift shop — slowly built up songs around him. In keeping with the mellow vibes, "The Dress Looks Nice On You" played like particularly chaste make-out music: "I can see a lot of life he you," he cooed, "I can see a lot of bright in you/ And I think the dress looks nice on you." Someone in the back of the room wolf-whistled. As far as Christian post-folk pick-up lines go, this was pretty racy stuff.
On Day One, an organizing theme suggested itself: assaults vs. lullabies. On day two, we got our share of both yet again. Squarely in column A were Seattle's the Melvins, who played a brutal evening set in which viscous metal riffs burped and groaned as kick drums stuttered violently. The malevolence of the music was mediated by some moves towards theatricality on stage: two wind machines (or at least very powerful fans) at either side; King Buzzo's trademark 'do, which suggests either a graying Sideshow Bob, a French Poodle or, more in keeping with the metal theme, a French Poodle that has been scalped and worn as a headdress.
Closer to column B were Atlanta's Deerhunter, led by Bradford Cox, a singer so skinny he almost becomes imperceptible in profile, like a cardboard cut-out rotated 90 degrees. Cox's physical appearance can be jarringly gaunt, but his music with Deerhunter is something like indie-rock comfort food: sighing vocals, lush, hazy guitars draped across driving beats.
"Nothing Ever Happened" is the highlight of the band's third album, 2008's Microcastle, and it was the highlight of last night's set, too. The lyrics — "eliminate what you can't repair," "life just passed and flashed right through me" — seem to preach denial, but the song's wordless second section is all affirmation, building steadily over the course of four minutes or so towards a keening emotional climax that splits the difference between '90s shoegaze romanticism and razored, Krautrock intensity.
The evening's headliners were Animal Collective, and during their set it could be gleefully difficult to tell the lullabies from the assaults (check out footage from their set, at the top of the post). Synthesizers shimmered and burbled hypnotically while deep bass pounded beneath. Panda Bear sang swooping, sandpapered harmonies while Avey Tare howled and whooped and hopped across the stage. Jellyfish-shaped lanterns were strung across the ceiling, glowing sporadically in some deep-sea approximation of morse code. Sometimes this Baltimore band likes to frustrate audience expectations — reworking songs until they are almost unrecognizable, removing the beat from a song and slowing it down (as Panda Bear did the night before in a solo set).
Last night's set was a pleasure-delivery system — the tempos stayed high, the beats stayed (spastically) danceable. There was one bit of clever sleight-of-hand, though: Mid-set, the glimmering opening synth loop from "My Girls," the lead single from 2009's Merriweather Post Pavilion, rang out, and the crowd roared in anticipation. A few minutes later the synth was still playing but Avey Tare was singing the words from "Who Could Win A Rabbit," the single from 2004's Sung Tongs — it was like offering up a present and yanking it back, only to offer up another, unexpected one.
Check out our report from Day One.