All Tomorrow’s Parties: I’ll Be Your Mirror
Asbury Park, NJ
September 30-October 2
Better than: Your favorite worn-out band tee.
Timelessness isn’t a foresight. Most experiences can’t predict their own longevity, and as much as any creator strives to avoid miring his or her work in a dated exterior, the stamp of the clock can be embossed and brutal. Music, perhaps more than any other arts, always seems to be indelibly linked to the era it was produced in, channeling that moment’s trends and social forces to place it in a chronological context. English promoter and record label All Tomorrow’s Parties have different thoughts on experiencing both musical history and its present incarnations, though. With this year’s I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park—curated by Portishead and featuring special guest Jeff Mangum—ATP once again provided America with a glimpse of its own vision of a Utopian cultural exchange.
After three years at the decrepit-but-cozy Kutshers Resort in the Catskills of upstate New York, ATP moved its intimate festival to the Jersey shore. Like Kutshers, Asbury Park has seen better days, although it has experienced a recent renaissance as a vibrant and diverse artistic hub. There wasn’t as much of summer-camp closeness and camraderie as had been at Kutshers, where the hotel and venue were on the same property and the isolation of being within the mountains gave a sense of being lost in a record store clerk’s wobbly dream world. Instead the conglomeration of three venues flanking the boardwalk, the flow of a miniature urban landscape, and the constant background noise of crashing ocean waves made the festival feel more like civilization re-created in an audiophile’s image.
At the center of that image was curator and headliner Portishead. Except for a one-off performance at Cochella in 2008, the elusive English group hadn’t played a US show in nearly 12 years. Focusing on material from their most recent album Third, a mesmerizing puzzle that shape-shifts and fosters new emotions after every consecutive listen, Portishead performed with a transcendent calm. The band’s sound was equally heavenly and Mephistophelian, deeply unnerving yet completely comforting. The dirt and decay of their recorded work was still visible, but live, their music was full of clear motives and perfectly tempered changes in dynamics. On “Glory Box,” Beth Gibbons morphed her voice from the sultriest of snark to something full of longing and utmost beauty. They played some classics with the same approach as in the past, while others were re-imagined, like a stripped-down version of “Wandering Stars” that saw multi-instrumentalist Geoff Barrow kneel down with Gibbons as the lullaby soared. Newer songs like the jittery “Machine Gun” and the Grace Slick meets Sonic Youth meets Beelzebub set closer “We Carry On” were perhaps the highlights. Turntables scratched, bluesy guitar solos by Adrien Utley rose coolly, and dark recesses were seeded with rich flower beds.
Portishead’s reception was perhaps only matched by that of the more reclusive Mangum, mastermind behind two-albums-and-gone indie icon Neutral Milk Hotel. Most of the devotees in attendance didn’t know what to expect. What they got was a man who’d seemingly immerged from a time capsule, his voice, look, and crisp guitar ballads hardly touched and full of life. During his first of two sets over the weekend, Mangum raced through his classic compositions, each word and melodic push stirring deep feelings. His percussive guitar playing and voice always seemed on the verge of breaking down, but it never happened. Songs like “Two Headed Boy” and “Holland, 1945” were chilling and tear-jerking, and his voice pushed through every limitation one could conceive, leading to standing ovation after standing ovation from a generous and loving audience.
Flavor Flav of Public Enemy gave a shockingly poignant tribute to recently fallen radio icon and one time adversary Mr. Magic. Shellac bounced drumsticks into the audience and flew like planes during their epic set closer “The End of Radio.” English dance and electro trio Factory Floor shook the Asbury Lanes’ parquet loose late Saturday. Guitar legend Marc Ribot was more Hendrix than Zappa while telling a twisted fairy tale with his group Ceramic Dog. People shouted, “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this” during Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s set. Avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson engrossed a bleary-eyed theater audience enough to bring them to their feet. Post-punk aggression and political intelligence seared out of the raging eyes and violent mouth of The Pop Group’s Mark Stewart. Newcomer Anika had a reticent yet elegant sexiness. Beak >, the side project of Portishead’s Barrow, calmly stated ownership over Kraut and dub before the collaborative effort by original motorik practitioners that went under the name Silver Qluster showed where many of the younger ATP bands had gotten some of their ideas from. During Company Flow’s third show in ten years, “Patriotism,” a song written during the heyday of the Clinton era, sounded even more relevant to today’s world than it did then. All of these experiences defined the beauty of ATP. Relevance, just like timelessness, can’t be predicted. But it sure can be curated.
Critical bias: ATP has its fans (including me) in its palms so firmly, it could probably turn a Fraggle Rock reunion into a sought-after music nerd commodity.
Overheard: “Listening to Frank Zappa is like a music student fucking you in an ear with a pencil.” Shallac’s Steve Albini after being asked about his favorite Zappa song during a suprise morning set on Sunday.
Random notebook dump: There were a couple of low points: The slightly too generic take at gothy new wave by The Horrors; the somber country twang of Bonnie “Prince” Billy that would have been far better served as a matinee instead of a late night performance; and basically everything about the band Earth. Watching them was a bit like waiting for the actual thing to move.