All Tomorrow's Parties curated by Jeff Mangum, Butlin's Minehead 9th-11th March 2012
Photos by Simon Godley
All Tomorrow's Parties festival is one of my favourite events, but there were a few things that worried me about this one. Would Jeff Mangum be able to pull together a bill and a performance that would reflect his brief but stunning legacy from his Neutral Milk Hotel? Also, after this event was postponed from last December amid rumours of financial difficulties, would the festival itself deliver the same experience as previous years? I need not have worried, because after three packed and varied days where it was difficult to find any musical disappointments, I can report that ATP was its usually awesome self.
The central Pavilion stage was closed during the festival and all the live action was concentrated in the smaller Centre Stage, Reds nightclub and the Crazy Horse pub. Although this was bad for business it also meant that the bands sounded great wherever they played. However, ticket sales may well have been a bit better than rumours suggested and a Butlins staff member told me they had 4000 people on site, which is more than the 2800 Centre Stage capacity. Despite a wristband system to guarantee access to Jeff's second set there on Sunday, apparently there were still a small section of people who failed to see him either night.
Friday was busy from the start, with the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise kicking off events at the early hour of 4.30pm. Sadly that was too early for me, but the buzz was already building by the time I was inside as people told me about this de facto supergroup who had featured people and songs from the Gerbils and Elf Power amongst many other Elephant 6 bands, and they all ended up in the crowd on the last song.
The first act I actually saw was Robyn Hitchcock, who was performing his classic solo album I Often Dream of Trains at the request of Jeff Mangum. This was the only 'Don't Look Back' type event at the festival and it worked very well, with Hitchcock in his usual rambling, humorous form, but it was the slower, reflective songs like the title track and 'Trams of Old London' that stood out for me.
However, for most people today was all about the return of Jeff Mangum who didn't disappoint. When you think about it, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is mostly a solo performance with occasional other musicians dropping in, and so was this. Although it wasn't technically a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion some of them did appear exactly when you expected them too. In particular Scott Spillane who, with his striking beard and ever present sousaphone, was one of the faces of the weekend, and the beautiful musical saw playing of Justin Koster, who has probably caused a post-festival sales spike in that particular tool.
Jeff was in great voice and people were hanging on every word. There were so many highlights – 'Ghost', 'Oh Comely', 'Song Against Sex', 'Naomi', and both parts of 'Two Headed Boy'. The set ended with the instrumental 'The Fool,' which is the closest it came to becoming a full band show. There was a lot of emotion in the room and a lot of love for these songs. It was still only 8.30 on the first day and the festival had already reached a huge peak. Happily when he returned for his later slot on Sunday he played a different set and added rarities like 'Little Birds' and a cover of Daniel Johnson's 'True Love Will Find You'. That would be youtube gold, except all cameras were strictly forbidden at Jeff's request. Despite this rule, he seemed friendly and encouraged the audience to sing along. He was also spotted many times over the weekend, walking around and chatting to fans, perhaps in defiance of his perceived image as a recluse.
An admittedly jet-lagged Joanna Newsom had the hard task of following this on Friday, but clearly a lot of the audience were here to see her too and both of her solo sets this weekend were well received. She alternated between piano and harp for an hour for each of her sets, and she returned to play an even better set on Saturday night. She played many songs from I, although songs like 'Sawdust and Diamonds' on Saturday and 'Cosmia' on Friday were the real highlights. Friday's show stopper was 'Emily' despite some lyrical fluffs which she managed to laugh off and recover from. Superb and very endearing.
Downstairs The Raincoats are also endearing, particularly when Gina Birch apologises for not having her bass amp switched on for the first two songs! Their set gets better as it goes on, touching on old classics like 'The Void', 'In Love' and a stunning, rarely played 'Life on the Line'. They play a delightfully gender-confused version of the Kink's 'Lola' and Verity from Electrelane pops up to play saxophone on one track as well.
Back on the centre stage, Raincoats contemporary Mark E Smith is also briefly touching on The Fall's back-catalogue, with a great version of 'Psychick Dancehall', although most of the set concentrates on their fine recent Ersatz GB album, with 'Nate Will Not Return' and a sneering, edgy version of 'Greenaway'. Smith was on fine form too, doing his 'live-mixing' ( i.e. fiddling with the amps) having a laugh, bashing his microphones and teasing Butlins security. It's the second great Fall gig I've seen in a few months, and one of my main highlights of the whole weekend.
I spent the sunny Saturday afternoon watching A Hawk And A Hacksaw in the makeshift cinema of Crazy Horse as they performed a live score to the Russian film 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors'. Although you could hardly see them, they were sitting opposite each other on either side of the screen, and they played their own music but kept parts of the film soundtrack as well. It was very skilfully mixed and sounded great.
However Saturday, and to an extent the rest of the weekend, was all about Boredoms. By now well known for their epic shows involving multiple musicians, this performance was billed as being “very rare and entirely new” and for the first 45 minutes they played a brand new piece with five drummers and 14 guitarists, all of which were conducted and controlled with precision by Boredoms leader EYE. I'm happy to report that his seven-necked guitar tree was there, although I had difficulty naming the drummers apart from the regular members Yoshimi and Yojiro. If anything, this piece was played with even more intensity on Sunday afternoon, when the band held a one minute silence prior to it, as it was the anniversary of the Japanese tsunami disaster. It started as a delicate, minor key guitar piece with lots of cymbal washes and grew into something very overpowering and emotional. Amazingly after this they played for another 90 minutes and featured a few things that were more familiar to fans. They crammed so much other music into their trance-like mix, you could hear elements of krautrock, miminalism, dub and some of Eye and Yoshimi's vocal exchanges are an almost operatic babble. They closed both sets with an epic version of Acid Police which had to be seen to be believed and left most of the audience stunned. I'm not alone in saying it that this music had hallucinogenic properties.
If it was hard to follow Jeff Mangum, it was impossible to follow Boredoms. Although the festival was very musically varied, I felt it missed the presence of any dance or hip-hop acts and we were left with a schedule that offered Low, Mt Eerie and Earth at peak time Saturday night. Having said that I thought Low played a great set. Alan Sparhawk was wired and angry about Syria from the start, but as a curveball he asked us all to meet him for a jog on Sunday lunchtime. It turned this was one of those brilliant ATP moments that actually happened, and about 30 people ended up going for a run with him. Music-wise they played a festival set, with old favourites like 'Sunflower' and some of the strongest songs from the recent 'C'mon' album as highlights.
Later on Scratch Acid played an intense set of post-hardcore rock which didn't put a foot wrong. Although they haven't played together regularly since the 1980s, they look and sound like the best mid-life crisis ever. They were incredibly tight and they came over as across between the Birthday Party and The Jesus Lizard, the band whom both singer David Yow and guitarist David Wm. Sims went on to form after Scratch Acid originally folded. They were a highlight for many people here.
After that it was a relief to finish off the night with Oneohtrix Point Never in Reds. I can take or leave laptop performances really, but Daniel Lopatin had brought along Nate Boyce's visuals to accompany his set and they are always intriguing to watch. Musically, Lopatin stuck closely to the Replica album and by 3am had sent us into the night content.
Sunday began in a quiet way with the noon performance by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. This string quartet, who have collaborated with Grizzly Bear, Matmos and Hauschka amongst others, played an amazing version of Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet with Julian Koster from Electric 6 adding beautiful banjo and musical saw. If you don't know the piece, it is built around a loop of a homeless man singing which was left hanging in the air when they quartet finished, finally fading to black after about a minute and earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
After the Boredoms blew everyone away again, there was another jam packed schedule looming on Sunday evening. Olivia Tremor Control were slightly disappointing, but this was mainly due to some sound issues in Reds, although the resolutely 90s indie-rock of Versus sounded fine in there later. Magnetic Fields pulled possibly the largest crowd of the weekend but I found they were too quiet and subdued to really carry. They have some great songs of course, Stephen Merrit was in fine form, and they do deserve credit for choosing varied songs and not just playing the new album.
Queues were in fashion tonight, and after an epic queue for the second Mangum show, I found myself in another one for Group Doueh. This band are a family from Western Sahara who have been going for a long time but have been given a bigger audience thanks to the Sublime Frequencies label. Their sound is formed from the trance-like traditional music of Western Sahara and they feature two female singers and very long melody lines, although it was the guitar skills of Doueh that stole the show tonight. Playing his stratocaster behind his head as the women danced in their traditional costumes beside him was a memorable image.
Immediately afterwards Sebadoh finish off the main proceedings with one of the best sets I've seen them play. They included lots of favourites, 'The Freed Pig', 'Soul and Fire' and many more, although my notes had gone astray by this point.
I thought it was all over but I was tempted back downstairs by the Elephant 6 jam session, where members of the collective were on stage with some of Sun Ra Arkestra and Boredoms for a lively jazz-based finale.
As I stumbled out of Reds in the early hours, coincidentally with Scott Spillane right beside me, his sousaphone still attached, I knew it would be several days before the world got back to normal again. That's what a good ATP does, it changes your perspective and opens your mind, and this was a very good one.
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