Is there any sight that warms the heart of a rock band more than a sea of upraised middle fingers? That's the scene that greeted recently reformed British shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine midway through their Saturday night set at All Points West Festival in New Jersey's Liberty State Park.
Though the gesture was mainly the response of impatient Tool fans reacting viscerally to My Bloody Valentine's measured, enveloping music, it also handily summed up the mood of the day, one where a lion's share of the music could be characterized by either ticked-off or tempestuous. If All Points West was a trilogy, Saturday would be its darker second installment.
The clear skies and blazing sun were a welcome respite from Friday's torrents of rain, but large expanses of thick, gooey mud and large pools of collected rainwater still made traipsing the festival grounds a singularly unpleasant experience. By the end of the day one of the larger patches of mud was spotted with several pairs of abandoned flip-flops, helpless victims of the greedy muck.
In theory, Saturday's roster made a strange kind of sense: Tool are no one's idea of a conventional metal band, so placing them at the end of a day filled with artists known for their sonic restlessness should have allowed for a welcome dismantling of musical borders. But instead of a warm musical reciprocity, what occurred mostly was separation. Liberty State Park was suspiciously underpopulated for most of the day, most of the acts being greeted with either indifference or hostility — like, for example, that My Bloody Valentine single-finger salute.
Which, to be fair, did not arrive without provocation. Part of the magic of a My Bloody Valentine show is the way the band members — all the while passive and distant — seem to take an impish thrill in pushing their audience to the physical breaking point. Saturday's show featured their trademark gazillion-decibel onslaught, the twin guitars of Kevin Shields and an eerily trancelike Blinda Butcher punctured by Colm Ó Cíosóig's astonishing, artillery-style percussion. Even by conservative standards, it was one of the day's best performances — shocking and transfixing.
Sheffield pranksters Arctic Monkeys have gone a bit grouchy lately, too. They opened their manic set with a barrage of minor-key numbers: "This House is a Circus" was stormy and cataclysmic, frontman Alex Turner bending an endless stream of harsh notes from his guitar. Ditto "If You Were There, Beware," an imposing sculpture built from jagged, twisting riffs. With a mane of unruly black hair and a severe gaze, Turner has begun to take on the demeanor of a young George Harrison. "I'd like to lighten the mood a little," he announced before "Flourescent Adolescent." The sudden shift in tone was welcome.
St. Vincent — Annie Clark to her parents — keeps her anger more expertly repressed. Her tight, toothy set was full of songs with frustrated protagonists: bored housewives, lying actors. Augmented by a flutist, violinist and oboist, Clark reinvented songs from her spellbinding new record Actor, using distortion to warp her butterfly voice, ratcheting up tempos and attacking choruses with impish glee. "You kind of resign yourself to the fact that it may not be the most nuanced performance you give, but it will make up for it in energy," she explained to RS earlier in the day. "Luckily, I have two albums now, so I have some more rocking, uptempo stuff to draw from. As I was making this record, I knew I wanted to make songs that were more guitar-driven." Fittingly, Clark's prowess was on full display: she turned a cover of the Beatles' "I Dig a Pony" into an opportunity to show off her nimble guitar work, lacing up the center of the song with slick, silvery runs.
The darkness in Neko Case's songs comes mostly from heartbreak, and was expertly offset by the sharp wit of co-vocalist Kelly Hogan. Hogan acted as a surrogate frontwoman for Case, supplying wry between-song banter, at one point referencing black metal band Venom. Case and Hogan have the perfect partnership: Hogan schticks it up so Case can simply emote. Case's voice is a wild, remarkable thing, and on Saturday she simply tilted her head back and let it come rolling out, shooting up the center of songs like "That Teenage Feeling" and "Maybe Sparrow" like a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July.
Gogol Bordello didn't court darkness so much as embrace the inevitability of disaster. Their revved-up Balkan punk sounded like the last dance before the apocalypse, and marked the first instance of audience participation the entire afternoon. Chalk most of that up to frontman Eugene Hutz. He's a dynamo, leaping and kicking and lunging his way across the stage, often yanking himself from one end of it to the other by the neck of his guitar or standing near the edge, egging on the eager crowd.
Hutz wasn't the only one given to a bit of audience baiting. "Are you guys here to see Tool?" Judah Friedlander asked early in the afternoon. After receiving the anticipated applause, he added: " 'Cause I just beat up the whole band. Bunch of pussies."