It’s another high-school day in 1991, and my best friend and I are poring over concert listings for the venerated Austin, Texas, concert hall Liberty Lunch, excited by a twin bill of Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine, yet crestfallen by a ticket price neither of us can afford on our allowances. So it was agonizing to read the Rolling Stone review a week later, which declared MBV loud enough to wake the dead. From then on, we had to learn second- and thirdhand how their mythology grew with every stop on the Loveless tour, just as a furiously strummed E chord on “You Made Me Realize” swelled from mere interlude to half-hour epic with teeth-rattling decibel levels. These shows were less a musical experience than a physical one. We took solace in the fact that we would see the band next time through, when they finished up their follow-up to Loveless, an album fans still anticipate to this day.
Seventeen years on, My Bloody Valentine re-formed to play (and exceed) the legend during the early part of Monday morning, capping the first installment of what will hopefully become an annual iteration of Britain’s venerated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the Catskills. While tickets for the Friday-to-Sunday affair far exceeded those bygone $12 days (that amount now just gets you a gyro platter; the total’s around $250, plus accommodations), the festival offers a throwback of another kind: a festival with no corporate sponsorship, no advertising banners, no tables of Boost Mobile or Camel with piles of marketing brochures and tchotchkes littering the premises. Instead, we get a three-day weekend not unlike a Jewish family retreat in Monticello, held at Kutsher’s Country Club, which oddly echoes the trappings of the resort in Dirty Dancing.
But if the physical location is stuck in the early ’60s, the musical content over the course of these three days is similarly suspended in the ’90s, with the yellow school buses shuttling attendees between hotels wholly cementing that high-school sensation. Friday night’s lineup is curated by Don’t Look Back productions (responsible for last year’s Sonic Youth restaging of Daydream Nation) and features re-formed groups performing entire albums, such as Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die and Meat Puppets II. Situated in the Stardust Ballroom, the dark venue, topped by what looks like the Statue of Liberty’s crown, radiates out from the stage in concentric circular tiers, with the most promising sightlines of any venue in recent memory. While neither Bardo Pond’s Lapse nor Thurston Moore’s Psychic Hearts rightly deserve “classic” status, tonight both artists break free from such strictures and deliver straight-ahead yet incandescent sets.
Simultaneously, a screening room (hosted by Criterion Collection) plays early indie films like Allison Anders’s Border Radio, Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, and Richard Linklater’s Slacker, the latter’s aleatoric story line of the collisions between unrelated people and surreal events presaging the weekend’s underlying structure of chaos. A second stage, this one dark and made of concentric squares, turns Friday night over to comedians riffing on the accommodations: Opener Joe Derosa deems Kutsher’s where “homeless Jews have their bar mitzvahs,” while headliner Patton Oswalt believes the dilapidated fixtures to have been rubbed down with ham. As the night crawls on, the grounds begin to take on the appearance of yet another movie resort: the one in The Shining, with its mazes of dark, moldering corridors roped off.
By Saturday morning, the town is already bereft of Styrofoam coolers and Jameson bottles. Germany’s Harmonia, another old band re-formed for the occasion, offer an afternoon set in the pitch black of the second stage, combining bright MIDI effects with more turbid analog drum machines, gently updating the electronic ambient form they helped father in the 1970s against a backdrop of old band photos. Meanwhile, the Executive Card Room, another on-site attraction (in addition to golf courses, paddle boats, and trapped-in-amber bars like the Sportsman and Deep End), only shuts down for a few hours on Saturday night so that “The House,” a/k/a Steve Albini, can play a show with his band, Shellac; barely an hour after their dutiful set concludes, Albini is back dealing at the table, relieving drunken sots of their poker chips.
The dominant template of the festival (beyond featuring bands who could’ve headlined a similar festival a decade previous) involves three-guitar monoliths like Polvo, Mogwai, and Mercury Rev, so as to bolster slight songs with pummeling dissonance. But a few acts do more with less. With only bass and drums, Saturday-night headliners Lightning Bolt provide contrast with both a similar duo (the lumbering, glowering Om) and Friday-night three-guitar headliner Built to Spill; while BTS reached their rapture via frontman Doug Martsch—delivering his skyward solos with closed eyes and body unmoving—Lighting Bolt are a furious blur. Tucked into a corner on the floor of the main stage, the duo (who could barely be glimpsed save for a concave security mirror mounted above them) are all kinetic energy, heat, and flash, teeming bodies whipping about them, all toward ecstatic release.
By Sunday, that day’s lone hip-hop entry, EPMD, even gets on the backwards-looking tip, hollering “Let’s keep it 1991!” before cutting into their hits from that year. A few hours on, Bob Mould’s set is decidedly unsentimental: Revisiting his Hüsker Dü back catalog, his band tears into decades-old songs as if they had just finished bashing them out in a practice space, while Dinosaur Jr. romps through their near-hits with palpable glee and at deafening volume, setting the table for their old tourmates.
An extended silence sets the packed Stardust Ballroom on edge. One of the site’s main benefits is the lack of a decibel limit; the walls of speakers loom ominous. The moment My Bloody Valentine saunter on, it’s as if the intervening years never happened: Kevin Shields and band remain as blurry and androgynous as they seemed in their videos from 120 Minutes. And that sound . . . it’s of a physicality beyond belief. I won’t be using adjectives like “face-melting” and “head-expanding” lightly ever again. If anything, the feedback the band looses and channels during the 20 or so minutes of “You Made Me Realize” conjures a leviathan, wholly beyond human scale, nonchalantly making vertebrae, innards, and skulls vibrate throughout the room. Behind the din, the band is a tad rusty, but whatever: The chance to experience MBV after nearly 20 years feels not merely priceless, but ageless.