Neonfiller’s last jaunt to a three day All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, the holiday camp based event with a guest curator, was two years ago.
The curator that time was Pavement and the event sold out swiftly. In marked contrast latest curator Elephant 6 collective founding member and Neutral Milk Hotel man Jeff Mangum has struggled to attract similar crowds, with the ATP website rather forlornly continuing to advertise tickets for sale right up until the event.
The event has also attracted a small amount of controversy for those that did buy tickets, after ATP postponed it from its original December date without any explanation. For some this move has left a bitter taste. Sure, the rescheduled line up has some added crowd pleasers such as Magnetic Fields, but gone are The Mountain Goats, as well as Fleet Foxes, Superchunk and Panda Bear (strangely all mammal based acts). Also for some, transport costs cannot be refunded and a small minority couldn’t make the new dates.
Despite these problems, a pretty decent line up has been left and one that certainly addresses the lack of variety of Pavement’s guitar rock focused event.
In terms of musical diversity for me it was the best ATP three day event I’d attended, but in terms of organisation it was far from slick, particularly on the Sunday when scheduling problems and ATP’s decision to forego the main pavilion stage for the event left many exasperated.
With the Pavilion stage gone the Centre Stage becomes the focal point, with the cowboy themed pub Crazy Horse and nightclub Reds taking smaller stage duties.
It’s a change that works well in respect of creating a more intimate live experience, but falls down flat when the bulk of the 4,000 attendees want to see an act. For the likes of Mangum himself long queues formed and there were a minority who were left seething after missing both his sets, but more of that later.
Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise were first up in the Centre stage, with its sticky carpets under foot and smell of hot dogs gently congealing on their stand by the loos. Their set turned out to be one of the highlights of the event, with the orchestra comprising around a dozen of the Elephant 6 Collective’s most notable names including Olivia Tremor Control’s Will Cullen Hart, and John Fernandez, Julian Koster of The Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel, The Gerbils’ Scott Spillane and Andrew Reiger of Elf Power.
Hearing Reiger sing the Elf Power tracks such as Spiral Stairs was one of many highlights for me. Another highlight was the tracks Spillane took the lead on, including the Gerbils’ Glue. This large, beaded man leading the collective from the stage for a set finale into the crowd, complete with equally large bright white sousaphone, was another sight I’ll never forget.
This movement into the crowd also served to engage the acts with the audience, a key feature of these curated events. It was an ethos Spillane and Koster took to their heart throughout the weekend, cropping up in the audience and on stage with the acts frequently. With Mangum staying behind the scenes they become the public faces of Elephant 6, a task they excelled at.
The only down point was that all did not seem right with Olivia Tremor Control man Will Cullen Hart, who stood at the side nervously banging a tambourine and his guitar with a drum stick, but once again, more of that later.
Over to Crazy Horse next to be greeted by another hot dog stand and its still unpleasant aroma and a living legend of English eccentricity Robyn Hitchcock, here playing his classic 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains. For those unaware of the album its typical Hitchcock full of whimsy and childlike thoughts but with a dark underbelly as he takes the listener across London suburbs, old tram lines, psychological theory, loneliness and growing old. Each track in the set, where he was accompanied by Terry Edwards, Tim Keegan and backing vocals from female duo Something Beginning with L, was performed perfectly, with warmth and humour. With his banter during the first half in French, the second back to ‘his normal voice,’ his eccentricity credentials remain strong.
Back to the Centre Stage a little before Jeff Mangum was due on stage proved a shrewd move. After we arrived we hear later that a long queue had appeared and many couldn’t even get in. ATP did their best, bless. They provided those in the queue, who must have been seething with priority wristbands to ensure they were first in for his second set on the Sunday evening.
Those that missed out look away now. He was freakin’ awesome. Armed with his powerful distinct voice, an acoustic guitar, and the occasional accompaniment from an Elephant 6 collective he put in a festival rousing set focused around Neutral Milk Hotel’s classic album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. The packed Centre stage crowd was transfixed as Two Headed Boy, King of Carrot Flowers Part I and others rattled by. My highlights due to Mangum’s sheer intensity were Oh Comely, King of Carrot Flowers Part 2-3 and Two Headed Boy Part 2. Powerful stuff from the heart.
We have no pictures. Lord Jeff of Mangum requests none are taken. That’s fair enough, its nice to see a gig without phones waving madly everywhere and made it a better experience. My only gripe was the heavy wording of the posters; a little harsh when the good-natured crowd would have complied anyway and would happily stopped their crappy filming if asked.
Young Marble Giants, back over at Crazy Horse, proved a little disappointing. It wasn’t their fault really. They are cursed by producing one of the most intimate and simple albums of the last half a century with their 1979 album Colassal Youth. Its not a get up and go album and while warm and beautiful on my headphones while dog walking, its tracks just don’t have the same feel on stage. I still love the album and their performance was still friendly and engaging.
Mark E Smith, looking like the bastard grandfather of Senator Palpatine and Alex Higgins, was in no mood to play second fiddle to Mangum over at the Centre Stage and conducted The Fall through one of the best performances I’ve seen by this act over the years. I had feared the worst as his band of drones, including his wife Elani on keyboards, has been with him for a few years now and he usually tires of them after a while.
The middle aged Fall fans went nuts for it, with Mark E Smith smirking down at the unfortunate crowd surfers helped over the barrier by security like an evil mill owner watching his workers collapse from exhaustion. Dominated by recent albums highlights included Theme from Sparta FC and Imperial Wax Solvent’s I’ve been duped, which is sung by Elani.
I’d been looking forward to Thurston Moore. His Beck produced latest album Demolished Thoughts beautifully mixed his trademark melodies with low key acoustic guitar and a string section. Tonight, though, he was in a funny old mood, a little grouchy and without Beck to call a halt to his guitar noodling Moore was left to essentially go off on one too many times. The crowd thinned noticeably during his self indulgent performance, in which tracks from his 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts not his recent album proved among rare high points, especially the title track and Patti Smith Math Scratch.
The first day has been a hectic one with most of my favourites coming at me thick and fast. If it was any other act I’d have gone to bed by the time Thurston Moore had finished shortly after 1am but Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are no ordinary act. I first saw them at the first ATP style event, Belle and Sebastian’s Bowlie Weekender in 1999 at Camber Sands so I was keen to see if they’d changed.
They hadn’t, still relentless, still belting it out like the dirty rock and roll outfit they always were. Spencer in tight PVC trousers and occasional Theremin flourish shamed the largely middle agers that remained with their energy. High points included live standards 2kindsalove and Bell bottoms, with its intro sandwiched in among the many cries of “bluuuuzz exploshion.” Marvellous, even if I had to have a little sit down as the clock approached 2am.
Ever wanted to stand up for an a hour and a half watching a Russian film, seemingly about goat farming, while two people occasionally play Eastern European music? Well, nor did most of those that witnessed Hawk and a Hacksaw perform along to Russian film maker Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in Crazy Horse early in the afternoon.
The venue was constantly packed, but few seem to stay for more than 15 minutes, before their legs started aching. This was the first of many scheduling blunders. There’s a reason films are shown in cinemas with seats and not cowboy themed pubs, which I hope ATP learn from.
The afternoon in the Centre Stage was dominated by Boredoms the Japanese experimental drumming collective, who at times have had as many as 88 drummers. This time round their leader, called Eye, was surrounded by just the five drummers, a large number of guitarists and a couple of totem poles of welded together electric guitars, which he hit with what looked like an old curtain pole.
It was amazing; with the drumming becoming hypnotic and taking the packed crowd to church to melt their faces. The entire hour and half set was too much for me, my brain was starting to evaporate, but I have to admit they are one mother of a band.
As the afternoon was drawing to a close what proved to be my favourite segment of the weekend was starting at Centre stage, with Elephant 6’s most accessible, mainstream act The Apples in Stereo, followed by harpist Joanna Newsom, then Low, who produced one of my albums of 2011 C’mon.
The Apples in Stereo more than delivered to a crowd that was thinned of the middle aged punks and replaced with some bookish men but mostly women. These are the Apples demographic, something not lost on Robert Schneider as he introduces the final two songs Dance Floor, from 2010’s Travellers in Space and Time, and Ruby as “the first is about physics, the second about a girl.” New Magnetic Wonder’s tracks dominated a set that still managed to span their entire career. I challenge anyone to hear Travellers in Space and Time’s Dignified Dignitaries and not at least tap toes and nod a waifish head.
Joanna Newsom is one hell of a performer, with her cat-like, haunting voice, compelling lyrics, stunning harp playing and occasional piano for the more Tori Amos like numbers. A spell binding hour with 2010’s Have One on Me almost, just almost bringing a tear to this hardened music reviewers eye.
Low ended up being and remaining my highpoint. Intense doesn’t begin to describe the way lead singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk approaches a live set. The slow, precise and very American sounding tracks from C’mon proved the best, but I can’t think of a single track that didn’t leave me transfixed, and its worth noting that Sparhawk was one of the rare artists I heard to even mention the outside world, with his lament on the situation in Syria.
One of his few smiles came as he invited the crowd to go jogging with him the next day. Given the way he approaches performing those that attended were in for an intense experience.
Penultimate band for me were hardcore punk veterans Scratch Acid. Formed in 1980s Austin they released only an album and a couple EPs before disbanding. Singer David Yow and guitarist David Wm. Sims are better known for forming cult band The Jesus Lizard. Wm. Sims and drummer Rey Washam also joined Steve Albini’s Rapeman briefly, giving them further legend status. Yow joked that they had been called old men at the airport.
As if to poke two fingers at those who look at their age before enthusiasm he launched into one almighty set of crowd surfing. It was the most energetic show of the night and special praise must go to Headline Security staff for their good natured approach to the granddads on stage and the audience whizzing past their heads. Yow singing (or rather screaming) lovingly into the ear of one smirking but highly professional security guy was another image I’ll never forget. Not bad for a bunch of old geezers.
Last band of the night for me only lasted a song. I decided to pop over to Reds where ATP were curating proceedings. While Mangum has assembled a truly eclectic bunch he had failed to include many young acts. This is where ATP could have stepped in to showcase some new, young talent. Sadly with Demdike Stare they provided neither youth nor talent. Essentially its two blokes on DJ decks making sounds like a vacuum cleaner while crappy video images hurtle by. What a mess and what a waste of a slot where a young talented band could have played.
American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), improbably but effectively joined by Julian Koster on saw, kicked off the day at Crazy Horse, performing a few modern classical pieces as a string quartet. The highpoint was Gavin Bryar’s moving Jesus Blood Bever Failed Me Yet where the strings build up around a loop of a homeless old man’s moving, crazy words of hope and despair. I never thought I’d spend my time in a cowboy themed pub listening to classical music for an hour but I’m so glad I did. This was exactly what Mangum’s ATP was about, broadening the musical palette. A fine and different addition to the bill.
Sadly during the rest of Sunday afternoon time was spent either swimming, eating, twiddling thumbs and wondering what qualifications the ATP schedulers had. For some reason they had the bright idea of providing no musical alternatives to a second mind melting set by Boredoms all afternoon. Sure there was a pub quiz and some talks in the cinema, but like many there I came to see music and they could have provided at least one alternative act for those who didn’t want their mind melted twice in one weekend.
It wasn’t until 4.30 that another band got to the stage, in the form of North Carolina indie folk outfit Lost in the Trees. Quite a queue of people had formed for their Crazy Horse set, more than their light and average sound would ordinarily have got. While a little boring, at least they were a band, so I was thankful for small mercies.
Next up over at Reds was another scheduling error, one that is admitted by ATP with hindsight. While the Magic Band were on at Centre Stage some bright spark at ATP decided to put legendary Elephant 6 outfit Olivia Tremor Control on at the smaller Reds stage. We got there early but it soon became packed and many outside were unable to get in throughout their set.
Here’s what Jamie Summers at ATP PR headquarters had to say:
“As you saw with the Olivia Tremor Control show they had a bit of a queue when The Magic Band were playing upstairs to a less full venue – but The Magic Band can sell out venues more than twice the size of the OTC in London so this stuff is very hard to predict but we think on the whole we get it right.”
I may be unfair, but I think they should have realised that for an audience of Mangum and Elephant 6 fans they are of course going to want to see OTC rather than the Magic Band, no hindsight needed with that one.
Ironically though those unable to get in didn’t miss out. Olivia Tremor Control were quite frankly a mess. Ok, so some might argue that’s the point of this experimental outfit. I concede they are little loose on record, but for me the joy of an album such as Dusk at Cubist Castle is the controlled Bealtes-esque pop songs that emerge from the bleeps and whirrs. Live though they were just uncoordinated. Part of the issue was Will Cullen Hart, who a few years back was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
He was clearly not happy with how it was going, getting more nervous and agitated as the songs progressed. I felt for the guy, especially as he left the stage at one point unannounced leaving the rest of the band to shrug and give each other panicked and confused looks. I got the impression it took all his bravery to carry on and we wish him all the best for the undoubted tough times ahead.
Versus, the 1990s indie rock trio who reformed recently, followed the chaos of Olivia Tremor Control at Reds with a punchy, well-worked set that showed why they are revered by so many bands today. I’ll certainly be looking out for their 2010 album On the Ones and Threes, which featured heavily during their entertaining set.
Magnetic Fields have gone back to synths for their latest album Love at the Bottom of the Sea, but leave them at home when touring. Over at the Centre Stage they instead opted for traditional acoustic instruments, a move that gives a different and in some cases improved take on their latest tracks such as I’ve Run Away to Join the Fairies.
Band leader Stephin Merritt, who was dressed more for a day out at the allotment, in coat, scarf and hat than an hour’s set under hot lights, was on good form tonight, even putting his own unique stamp on the type of stage craft Scratch Acid excel at by hurling a tea bag into the audience.
Highpoints included Plant White Roses, from Merritt’s 2011 Obscurities release and No One Will Ever Love You from the band’s never to be bettered 69 Love Songs.
There’s always tough decisions to be made at festivals and while the whimsy of Magnetic Fields was enjoyable I was keen to see Tall Firs as well, so ducked out half way through their set to head over to Crazy Horse.
Turned out to be a great move with the Tall Firs duo of Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan putting the in the performance I’d hoped to see Thurston Moore do. Their songs sound a little Sonic Youth like, unsurprisingly given they were once on Moore’s Escstatic Peace! label before moving to ATP recently. Just Mies and Mullan and distortion free electric guitars they come across as something like a hungover Kings of Convenience as they showcased tracks from their latest album Out of It and Into It.
I’d hoped to end the festival watching Mangum’s second set. I was left disappointed, but not as much as those that missed him twice. Those with priority wristbands, handed out to those stuck in the queue the first time around, were allowed in first, which was nice, but there was clearly a contingent who hadn’t got these wristbands and once again a queue of people missed out. Solutions could have been to have the pavilion stage available, or at very least to have another act on at the same time over at Crazy Horse. Sadly though with just DJs or the cinema for an alternative I decided against spending my final few hours at the festival queuing and so ended my festival.
Here’s how ATP’s PR man Jamie explains the Sunday queuing situation to us:
Everybody who was in the queue by the time the doors opened got in, it was only people who arrived and joined the back of it 5 mins or so before he started playing who may have missed out, and very few at that. Basically everyone who really wanted to see Jeff saw him, and many did twice. If it had been a big problem I’d have been expecting angry people at the production office and lots of angry emails, but the feedback as a whole has been overwhelmingly positive.
The problem is that on twitter there was plenty of criticism and exasperation. @roadtojoie (Alie Brett) for example who said at 11.20pm, a good 50 minutes after Mangum was due on, “Queue for Jeff Mangum has defeated me.” Another was @mikewinship who simply said “Sunday night queues = vibe killer.”
Also Jamie’s response is contradictory; he admits those who joined the queue before he started playing missed out yet says “basically, everyone who really wanted to see Jeff saw him, and many did twice.”
It was a disappointing end to what was on the whole a good festival. I loved staying with friends in a chalet, watching exciting and unusual bands including some of my favourite acts. But for me to go to ATP again I’m going to need far more assurances that a) the event will not be postponed b) I’ll not spend time queuing in vain to see the main attraction. I hope ATP learns some lessons from Sunday’s mistakes in particular.
by Joe Lepper