After three years tucked into Kutsher's Resort in the Catskills, All Tomorrow's Parties brought this year's fest, titled I'll Be Your Mirror and curated by Portishead, to the Atlantic Ocean. ATP is known unofficially as "the festival for grown-ups," and it's true. Not only would many of the weekend's guests be beyond the taste capacity of any normal teenager but the sight of someone under 25 is rare. What that means is: professional-level partygoers, a respectful vibe, lots of eyeglasses and a discerning crowd.
Then there was the setting. At sunset during a downpour (as it was on Friday, the day the festival started), Asbury Park, New Jersey seems as though it was relocated and refurbished from the capital of the Bermuda Triangle, an island of weather-worn, misfit buildings. If you threw your empty beer bottle at the bartender it would probably pass right through him, and he'd still expect a tip. The place is definitely haunted. (The presence of a "Ghost Walk" on the official ATP program supports the assertion.)
Festivities were spread across three venues, all within a block of each other: Convention Hall, a very large, very open sort of gymnasium room ringed by bleacher seats that has hosted Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and the Doors. The Paramount Theatre, open for business since 1930, is a beautiful, rosetted theatre. And then there's Asbury Lanes, a kitsch-and-cozy bowling alley with a stage plopped in the middle of the lanes for the occasion. It was a far different scene than the hermetic Kutsher's, and the reaction was mixed as to which was the better venue for the unique festival. Without a doubt, for the late nighters and the chemically adventurous, this year's increased security presence was probably not a welcome addition.
The lineup was oriented around the subtle and ambient, the experimental, the virtuosic and the reflective –just like this year's curators. Here are the highlights and disappointments.
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Will Oldham's recorded music can be alienating to casual listeners – the dense, modern Appalachian sound, that crackling, twisted voice. No one would feel that way if they could see Billy and his band live. Think jaw-dropping six-part harmonies, mad gesticulations and a clear picture of Oldham's intentions.
The cult singer-songwriter performed twice over the weekend, on Friday and Sunday, to sold-out crowds. (Read our review of Friday's show.) The shows were only his fifth and sixth public performances over the last 10-plus years.
Over the course of an hour and 15 minutes, Gira and his band laid out their personal plans for absolution by way of a very loud and dark wolf. To explain: Swans is at the nexus of pummel, of noise in near-religious fervor and in hypnotizing repetition. A disappointed anger issues outward from Gira, like a preacher baptizing the faithful in his spit and bile. The daze on the audience's faces was quite the sight to behold.
Colin Stetson uses a saxophone like no one you've ever heard – it becomes three instruments in one, with no electronic assistance, flitting around your head like a sparrow after a Looney Toon gets busted on the noggin. His music is virtuosic without alienating, extremely dense while still digestible and absolutely breathtaking to watch being made. To illustrate his headspace, here was his introduction to one song: "There's a moment in the swirling of fear, there is implanted this glimpse of this face like a peacefulness. This song is called 'Home.'"
Portishead's headlining set was the amalgamation of the previous two days' bounty – they are a band who fuse innumerable influences into a indelible, quiet beast of a sound that nothing else compares to. Beth Gibbons' voice has always been a beautiful thing, and only seems to define and swell with age. "Wandering Star" was a serious highlight, as was watching Adrian Utley completely own his side of their spectrum. And what better note to end on than a Beth Gibbons stage dive? Who knew? (Secret winners: the video crew, who were shooting and mixing live footage of the band that was being distorted, snipped and projected behind them, all analog.)
After so much brooding and ambient and klezmer and brutality, sometimes you just want to dance. Factory Floor's dense arpeggiator-and-drum mega-fusion was exactly what the audience needed after all that tugging of the heartstrings and expanding of the mind. Not that Factory Floor aren't on some deep shit. But it's some shit you can get down to.
"I just wanna thank y'all for making Flavor Flav the number one reality television star of the decade!" After a demanding round of sound tests, Public Enemy took the stage to perform "a remix of Fear of a Black Planet, to celebrate over 20 years of the record's existence," as Chuck D described it. With a crack band at their disposal, two definitely weird dancers and plenty of time (though they still had to cut the set short), Public Enemy were absolutely on fire Sunday night. Flavor Flav took to the bass and the drums, and both Chuck D and Flav were extremely, awesomely energetic. Believe what you like, but this was hype.