The UK festival stalwarts throw a Portishead-curated event in America.
This year’s American edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties was held in a town whose history is steeped in grandeur, decline, regeneration, and music: Asbury Park, New Jersey. It’s is a seaside town roughly sixty miles south of New York City that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th century. Its boardwalk was flanked by many world-class hotels, piers, theatres, and theme park rides. At its peak it rivaled the casinos and grand Victorian architecture of many of the globe’s seaside holiday spots. From the 1940s to the early 2000s, there was a steady decline in tourism and wealth due to redevelopment, competition from nearby parks and resorts, and even destruction during the early 1970s riots. Most of Asbury’s Parks buildings and piers were either demolished or were in hazardous states of disrepair going into the new millennium.
It was during this time that Asbury Park became a music and arts community due in part to its small circuit of rock clubs. Bruce Springsteen famously name-checks the town on his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park and a song on his next LP. In 2002 a group of local and national artists started a revival movement for the area. By 2005 most the boardwalk re-opened with one of its biggest structure still intact: The Asbury Convention Hall and Paramount Theater complex. The two slightly dilapidated venues served as the main venues for the festival alongside the nearby retro bowling alley, Asbury Lanes. The mixture of a shabby experimental setting in the midst of revival fitted ATP’s lineup and philosophy very nicely.
I’ll Be Your Mirror, which keeps with ATP’s penchant for naming things after Velvet Underground songs, was originally a two day festival that took place at London’s Alexander Palace this past July. The American edition shared more than half the lineup with its predecessor, and marked the third time that Portishead had curated an ATP event. Recently re-formed bands such as The Pop Group, Swans, and the headliners themselves played alongside long-running musical constants like Public Enemy, Jeff Mangum, Marc Ribot, and Bonnie Prince Billy. Pioneering legends like Cluster and Harmonia’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Silver Apple’s Simeon performed an amazing one-off collaboration as Silver Qluster. Newer artists were few and far between with Factory Floor, Foot Village, and the-not-really-all-that-new Colin Stetson leading the contemporary contingent. This was largely a festival based on nostalgia and, again, that constant theme of revival. Even the humorous ATP Pop Quiz, held at Asbury Lanes, rested on knowledge of yester-year over present day.
Thinking back on highlights, it would be impossible not to mention Factory Floor. Their late night performance at Asbury Lanes was a front-facing celebration of new music that nodded appreciatively to artists and innovators of the past. It’s not often that a band gets it right when they combine live drumming with drum machines and triggers, but these guys have mastered it and have a rhythm section that could equally rock a music venue or the techno monstrosity of Berghain. A snarling arpeggiating array of analogue synth squelches and bleeps complemented the beats and were punctuated by jangling, delayed jabs of sound from Nik Void’s bowed guitar. The band appeared to be struggling with the sound a bit, but their performance remained a perfectly executed hour of intense energy and fantastic musicianship. Their ATP show, and NYC gig earlier in the week, have solidified my opinion that these guys are arguably the most exciting thing in music right now.
Even with all the emotionally heavy music present at the festival, it felt odd to be so happy finally seeing a band as unnervingly depressing as Portishead. I’d been wanting to see them for almost fourteen years, just missing them when they re-formed a couple of years ago. Finally seeing them perform on both the Saturday and Sunday was a personal celebration of nostalgia for the teenage years they played a huge part of. The band looked incredibly happy to be onstage whilst Beth Gibbons, arms folded protectively around herself, was the epitome of the tortured anti-diva. Her shy, diminutive appearance seemed in complete discordance with the powerful vocal performance that reverberated throughout the Convention Hall. It was hard to keep a dry eye as she expertly conveyed the crushing emotions behind her lyrics to the audience. Highlights from the two nights included Chuck D performing a verse from Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos over Machine Gun, the stripped-down version of Wandering Star, that gut-wrenching breakdown at the end of Glory Box, and surprisingly Beth relaxing a bit and having a wee smile and stage dive (!) at the end of one of the sets.
My last highlight was an exercise in musical masochism. Have you ever lost yourself in pure enjoyment whilst being bludgeoned for two hours? If you haven’t then you should probably see when Swans are next playing near you. The New York no wave pioneers reformed last year after a thirteen year hiatus and are as crushingly heavy as ever. Michael Gira howled and sweated his ensemble, as if possessed, through a 120 minute grotesquely beautiful wall of sound. There was a point where I had to leave the venue for ten minutes and sit on the beach alone to keep my mind from exploding it was all so much. The moment I was able to comprehend what I’d just been through, I grabbed another pint and ran back, enthusiastic to be brutally assaulted by their sonic apocalypse for another hour. It was awesome. Go see Swans. Get to the next ATP whilst you’re at it.