Better than: That cousin of yours who has fantastic taste and knows he has fantastic taste coming to your house and playing you fantastic music and showing you a great time, and every so often you catch him looking at you in a condescending way and you want to enjoy yourself less but you just can’t.
A festival like I’ll Be Your Mirror, the latest ATP offering, curated by Greg Dulli and ATP and taking place this past weekend at Pier 36 on the lowest part of Lower East Side, operates as a kind of adult playground. The festival’s target demographic is older than that of your Bonaroo or your ACL, which means that the fun provided doesn’t necessarily require the assortment of greybeards present to exert themselves. True, there were two stages, both loaded down with critically-approved musical acts, many of which played at an extraordinarily compelling and high volume. But there were benches and couches littering the venue, as well as a triple-decker boat, on which movies were screened throughout the weekend. “Do what you want and enjoy yourself, but don’t try too hard,” seemed to be the message that the curators were going for, one that suited the assortment of grown-up cool kids who showed up for a kind of relaxed bacchanalia.
One of the more appealing extra-musical offerings was stand-up comedy. I arrived on Friday just in time to see the riotous Hannibal Buress, who has mastered an art which a lot of the artists at Mirror had down cold: namely, that of seeming spontaneous, making it look as if his jokes, rather than being drafted and redrafted, just pop into his head as soon as he hits the stage. Burress was followed by comedy legend Jaeneane Garofalo who started off well, but then took a hard left into pedantry, a Sorkin-style turn during which she railed against a clichéd list of sins committed by conservatives and young people, and told very few jokes.
Luckily, Friday’s other legend, New York icon Philip Glass, was in top form when he took the stage with former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton. Though Glass didn’t need the extra hype, any fans that wanted to spike their anticipation were able to catch a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, a movie that functions as a kind of gateway drug to Glass’s oeuvre. Even for those who had seen the movie countless times, the gentle rocking of the good ship Queen of Hearts (seriously guys) made another viewing worthwhile.
But a recording, no matter how compelling, pales in comparison to seeing a titan like Glass live. Though he and Braxton only played three pieces, they commanded rapt attention from a (mostly, explanation to come) awestruck crowd.
By playing on a relatively cool Friday night, Glass, kinetic rockers Lightning Bolt, and eclectic DJ Edan avoided the necessity of competing with Sunday’s unbeatable autumn weather and the awesome spectacle of two bridges and the Statue of Liberty. The somber two-piece Tall Firs and glistening pop-landscape artists The Album Leaf, who played on the expansive indoor stage, were not so lucky. Though the Firs’ banter was pleasant enough, their heartbreaking guitar songs (described by bandmember Dave Mies as being “nine out of 10 on the scale”) drove less tolerant, more fidgety festivalgoers back into the sun.
There, on stage two, just off FDR Drive, fans caught one of the best acts of the festival, the(e) mind-meltingly energetic Oh Sees, another act which delivers a dynamite performance while making every aesthetic flourish seem almost accidental. Thee Oh Sees are part of a revived San Francisco garage rock scene which includes tourmate Ty Segall (unfortunately absent on Sunday) and the Fresh and Only’s. These acts from cloud city have mastered the art of writing catchy, melodic pop songs, and then beating the shit out of those songs with a huge amount of noise and gusto, an act that sounds good on record, and positively unbeatable live.
Other highlights from this weekend include Sonic Youth cofounder Lee Ranaldo‘s unassuming full band holding down the fort as noise-rock pioneers and the absolutely jaw-dropping Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose steady ambient crescendos into blazing heavy rock were accompanied by visuals of mug shots and broken file cabinets and lots and lots of text. Also worth mentioning are Godspeed’s fellow Canadians Braids whose haunting, airy glitch-pop was reminiscent of some buzzworthy combination of Beach House and Grimes.
Friday’s headliner Frank Ocean was also a standout, but it’s worth mentioning how much of an outlier he was when compared to the rest of the acts at the festival. Most artists kowtowed to ATP’s gentle rigidity; they ended their sets on time, they thanked (often effusively) the organizers and they seemed overjoyed to be included in such a highly-regarded scene. Ocean, to his credit, appeared to care far more about his fans than the prestige that comes with such lofty billing–he took requests liberally from an enthusiastic audience and kvetched charmingly and mildly about being cut off at the apex of his song “Pyramids.”
Sections of Ocean’s audience were less charming than their idol, particularly a group near the front of the house who had no time for other artists, and vocally dismissed Phillip Glass in a way that drew ire from some of the older folks around them. And while it’s absurdly obnoxious and aggravating when dedicated fans of one artist dismiss another entirely, it strikes me in retrospect as one of the few moments of unbridled spontaneity that took place at I’ll Be Your Mirror. The festival, though it was a wonderful experience (as I’m sure you’ve picked up from the adjective choices above) was at times a little suffocating in its old-line, rockist, you-stop-performing-when-we-say-so bent. Curation, inherently, especially curation that’s signed off on by the critical establishment and holier-than-thou’s everywhere, can make certain neurotic critics feel a little placated, as if they’re being baited into loving something, buttons being obligatorily pushed. And so a couple of unruly kids and an R&B singer who weds the alternative to the mainstream, ended up being the perfect antidote, a dose of populist cool to remind the music academy and its disciples that dissent put into practice makes for noise that’s a little more difficult to escape from, even if you do have a boat docked out back.
Random Notebook Dump: All Tomorrow’s Parties throws festivals that are so well-calibrated towards their audience that it seemed everyone present was enamored.
Overheard: The most common refrain from artists was epitomized by Braids’ gushing front-woman Raphaelle Standell-Preston: “ATP, you have so much integrity; you are just great people.”
Critical Bias: Previously a committed fan of Ocean and Glass. Had been told that that Thee Oh Sees are great live, which could have gone either way if they hadn’t lived up to the hype.