Now in its second year, the upstate New York installment of the U.K. concert series All Tomorrow's Parties prides itself on being unlike other festivals. There is no corporate sponsorship, there is no $5 water for sale, and (perhaps most humanely) there are no Port-a-Potties. ATP NY happens at a Catskills country club called Kutsher's, a frozen-in-time sort of place where carpeted walls are common and the bands play not outside on grassy fields but in one of two dark ballrooms. In the larger of the two, a cosmic star-scape mural worthy of an '80s Laser Tag emporium commands the walls.
The festival's first night was given largely to "Don't Look Back" performances: a canon-building exercise in which a band plays a "classic" album, more or less in full, and in order. In the late afternoon, New Jersey's the Feelies took the stage to perform their 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms. The band, proto-indie-rockers, always cultivated a buttoned-up, clean cut, borderline geeky aesthetic, both in the way they dressed and the way they wrote music. Last night, their songs were buttoned up to the point of bursting: kinetic, deceptively simple polyrhythms courtesy of two drummers (and, on album opener "The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness," three) created a pulsating, nervous grid upon which bright, clipped guitar notes were arranged, occasionally loosening into sprays of jubilant noise.
"Loveless Love" started like a gathering storm, moody and foreboding, and gradually accelerated, different elements finally locking into an insistent, almost ferocious formation. But that "almost" was key — the songs generated near-unbearable friction, but the band always kept them hovering on the edge of combustion. The effect was tense and tantalizing, like holding a lit book of matches an inch from an open gas drum.
If the Feelies were all about tightly wound gallops, Dirty Three were about lurching, sprawling funeral marches. (Check out footage from the band's set plus an interview with Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, above). The Australian trio — joined on a gleaming white piano by longtime friend Nick Cave, playing the part of unassuming, almost unnoticeable sideman — performed 1998's Ocean Songs, a plaintive, pained, all-instrumental album in which a violin does double duty as instrumental centerpiece and keening, moaning vocalist.
Dirty Three are more interested in shaggy, shadowy mood than properly sculpted songs — they are a band for fans of very gloomy fiddling. But violinist and frontman Warren Ellis kept the set from sinking into one joyless dirge. He slithered and kicked, making violin-playing look like a lascivious, illicit act. In between songs he rasped about how the band is "not responsible for emo," apparently a theory he'd read online, and to prove his sense of joie de vivre, he encouraged prospective lovers in the crowd to "wear a condom... or at least the bladder of a rugby ball." With a guy capable of banter like that, you almost wished Ocean Songs — written about femme fatales and failed experiments with psychedelic drugs — had lyrics.
Kutsher's is part of the so-called "Borsht Belt" — that string of Catskills resorts where polyester-draped Jewish comedians legendarily hammed it up for vacationing families. At 7:30, the crowd was treated to a manic, shrieking stand-up routine of sorts, courtesy of a 71-year-old Jew born Boruch Bermowitz and better known as Alan Vega, the singer (if that's the right word) for iconic New York noise vandals Suicide.
Ever hear the one about the 20-year-old factory worker who, broke, desperate, and insane, shoots his wife and infant child before turning the gun on himself? That's the plot of "Frankie Teardrop," one of the most harrying songs on the band's harrying 1977 self-titled debut. Using the same primitive keyboards and drum machines he did 30-odd years ago, Martin Rev carved out slabs of pulverizing noise: hammering kick drums, maniacally repeating minor-key melodies, shrill synthetic cymbal clatter swarming the high end. Vega's advanced years did little to soften his assault — he jerked his limbs, howled, and at one point rubbed himself. There are only two guys in the band, but the stage was impenetrably thick with sound, not to mention psychosis.
After Suicide's nightmare parade, the crowd was treated to a set of reverb-dipped, disassembled lullabies from Animal Collective's Panda Bear. (The full band plays tonight). Like the Dirty Three and Suicide, he built moods and lived in them for a bit, and then for a bit longer; like the Feelies, he experimented with eternally delayed gratification. On "Daily Routine," from 2008's Person Pitch, he crafted a shimmering wading pool of sound, and periodically skipped a throbbing dance beat across it like a stone — but the beat. would. suddenly. slow.... down.... and.... fade.... out, leaving us suspended in the noise again. At other points, sampled acoustic guitar strums bubbled sweetly to the surface. Panda Bear's set was a return to a '60s-ish palette of sounds and attitudes: a sunny, hypnotic detour in an an evening full of frenetic time-traveling.