Wednesday, 27 May 2009
All Yesterday's Parties
A couple of weekends ago we made our way upcountry to Minehead for the third year in a row to see the second of this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals at the Butlins holiday camp. We’re very lucky to have this taking place so close by, particularly given the fact that very little music of any vaguely exploratory or experimental or really interesting in any way whatsoever stripe tends to make it beyond Bristol in its journey westwards (our correspondent Mr Orphan’s musical extravaganzas notwithstanding, of course). I did go and see Jackie-O Motherfucker last year (or Jackie-O MoFo as I, a sparing user of profanity, had been calling them) and myself and the five others there enjoyed it very much, but the sparse attendance didn’t bode well for a return visit or indeed for any departure from the city’s tendency to go for the safe middle of the road bet every time. One of the pleasures of the festival is the opportunity to discover music you’d never come across before. Previous years introduced me to favourites such as Stars of the Lid and Grizzly Bear, both of whom put on fantastic late night shows. This year’s festival was curated by The Breeders and contained a mix of the old and the new, several of both camps associated with the 4AD label. Alas, School of Seven Bells, Young Marble Giants and M83, all of whom I’d have liked to see, played at the first festival weekend. But there was enough at the Breeders bash to more than compensate for this.
The bus from Taunton station to Minehead takes you all the way past the ‘border guard’ into the camp. Your ‘papers’ are checked whilst you are still on the bus, a moment which occasioned a murmured ‘what the fuck are we doing here’ from a couple of festivalgoers behind us. I know how they feel, but we’re kind of used to the setup by now. Indeed one of the attractions of the festival is the very incongruity of the setting as a site for alternative music. Seeing spindly indie kids smoking fags and drinking Bud outside the bright primary colours of Bob the Builder World, or plaid-shirted and beardy Yank new-folksters carefully aiming a put on Ye Pirate crazy golf ship is wonderfully surreal. The rather old-fashioned preponderance of Wild-West themed attractions such as the Crazy Horse Saloon and the Old Fruit Mine must seem a trifle bizarre to the many American bands and visitors who come over. The food on offer is strictly of the chain variety, but luckily Minehead itself is only a short walk away and has much to offer.
Our regular haunt became the Queen’s Head, which had the local Exmoor Ale brews on tap, alongside selected guest ales, which well earned it its place in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. And someone put The Monkees’ Porpoise Song from the film Head on too. Adjacent was Pinocchio’s, an Italian restaurant of considerable charm packed with gewgaws related to the wooden puppet and his Tyrollean surroundings, which provided a hearty lunch for a ridiculously reasonable price. Of course, you have to have a cream tea at some point, and this was provided, with gorgeous local whortleberry jam, at the Apple Tree cafe. All of which beat the Butlins Burger King and Stella bill of fare.
The first band we saw on Friday was Giant Sand, a fine introduction afforded by the affably urbane Howie Gelb, who felt like a genial host welcoming us to the festivities. His humour and delivery were as dry as the Texan desert guitar licks and barroom piano stylings with which he accompanied his mordant songs, which were often about ‘love...and its ramifications’. As he bade us goodbye, he revealed that ‘we’re gone – we’re not even here anymore. These are just holograms you’re watching up here’. Next up, after a stroll along the strand, were Throwing Muses, who I’d been particularly looking forward to. Playing as a trio, with Bernard Georges on bass and David Narcizo on drums, the focus was very much on Kristin Hersh. There were surprisingly few songs from the excellent recent (well, most recent) self-titled 2003 recording. This was essentially an exploration of the back catalogue. Hersh and the band were on fine form, kicking up a compact storm with Kristin’s voice stepping up to a rasping bellow on demand and even essaying some of the ‘speaking in tongues’ from an early song. Great stuff.
We dashed from the tented pavilion to the Centre Stage to catch the second half of Yann Tiersen’s set. Anyone expecting a display of arpeggiated accordion Frenchness a la Amelie was liable to be disappointed as Yann cranked up his guitar and displayed a tendency displayed throughout the weekend, with sometimes frankly wearying inevitability, to rock out. The most interesting feature of his accordion-free line-up was the ondes martenot, the electronic instrument invented in the thirties and much favoured by Olivier Messaien. Indeed ,the last time I had seen one being played was at a performance of his Turangalila Symphony at the Proms. Its swooping and modulating tones had me craning for a better view. In fact, it is housed in a rather unprepossessing wooden box. Back to the Pavillion Stage for Bon Iver, who was already underway. It was difficult to envisage how his intimate and hermetic solo album would translate to the big stage, but he managed it without losing the fragility which made the songs so engaging in the first place. Particularly impressive was a largely instrumental (using keyboards and layered vocals) Steve Reichian piece from the recent Blood Bank ep. It all ended with a big group sing-along to the chorus of The Wolves, a warm and fuzzy moment taken from a wintry work of loss and heartbreak – some transformation.
Buffalo Killers were comfortingly recidivist rockers, mountainous and full of beard and with a sound to match. A guitar/bass/drum trio with a pleasingly West Coast acid-drenched lead sound. Finally came Pit er Pat, whose music I’d really enjoyed discovering. Some of their Lps ‘Pyramids’ and ‘High Time’ sounded a little like Pram in their dreamy drift and home-made clatter. Live they were reduced to a duo, with percussion also triggering off various samples and Fay Davis-Jeffers playing guitar and singing. Her spidery guitar lines were a welcome alternative to the default recourse to the distortion pedal and the interaction between them and the pots and pans and kitchen sink percussive trickery which surrounded them could have provided the soundtrack to a particularly strange Czech animation film. I would have liked more of her vocals, though, and the odd song from the aforementioned albums. But you can’t have everything, can you.
Saturday, the same mix of sunshine and blustery showers, saw us back in the Queen’s Head and also sheltering in the beautiful church on the hill, with its medieval font and antique illuminated books. Thank goodness for the good old British weather, which ushers you to places which would otherwise remain undiscovered. In the afternoon, Whispertown 2000 were something of a disappointment. The voices of the two singers seemed a little bland and the guitars were once again cranked up, which was unnecessary for what was essentially country music. Later on the Pavillion stage, CSS were obviously in party mood, their instruments gaily bedecked with balloons. Singer Lovefoxxx (that’s three Xs, not one more or less) took command of the stage in her multi-coloured leotard, proving adept at flicking up a hat with her foot and catching it without breaking her stride. Unfortunately, we had to leave as she was detailing how ‘the bitch (Paris Hilton) said yeah’ as we went to see Wire on the Centre Stage. Lacking the presence of the experimentally inclined Bruce Gilbert, this was a back to basics set with a stripped down guitar led sound. I would have liked a bit more of Colin Newman’s wry and oddly gentle art pop songs, but this was a set aimed at pleasing the aging punks in the crowd, dusting off old Roxy and Pink Flag favourites such as 12XU. I particularly liked the ‘how long can we keep playing this one chord’ numbers.
Back to the Pavillion for Teenage Fanclub, whose perfected Roger Mcguinn/Gene Clark harmonies and unerring sense for a wistfully uplifting chord sequence temporarily turned the Minehead coast, with its view of the lights of the refinery at Barry across the water, into a sunny 60s West Coast dream. Lovely stuff. This was followed by hosts and headliners The Breeders, who were funny and friendly and informal and featured a fiddle in a surprise turn towards country music for one song. And it worked. Not always coming across successfully on record, the songs really came alive onstage. This was really the Kim and Kelley show, the twins continuing to chat and chide one another as they presumably do in daily life. Kelley reminded everyone to attend her knit-in the next day - hangovers not accepted as an excuse.
Later at the Central Stage came one of the most remarkable performances of the weekend. A solo drum set sounds distinctly unenticing, but Zach Hill was amazing. He’s known for his work with the group Hella, and also as the drummer in guitar-wizard Marnie Stern’s band. Here he pounded the drums in everchanging circular rhythms (and triggering off samples, I would guess) whilst his duetting partner knelt on the ground with guitar and laptop. The drums worked with (and against) cascading runs of Cecil Taylor-ish keyboard notes and juddering, flesh and bone-shaking bass pulses. It was essentially high-energy free jazz and as such attracted a, shall we say, select audience, but those who stayed were transfixed. At the end, Hill staggered from behind his drum kit and stumbled offstage, drained and exhausted, having given his all and a bit more besides.
There was a bit of a break until the next act I wanted to see so I retired to the Butlins cinema for a midnight screening of The Exorcist, which proved to be the Director’s Cut. Frankly, I could see why the much-vaunted extra scenes had been left out. They added nothing other than rather cheap shock effects to the film, and Regan’s ‘spider walk’ down the stairs just seemed faintly ridiculous. I didn’t make it through to the exorcism proper (and alas neither did I see Max von Sydow’s arrival at the house, silhouetted in the light from the bedroom window) as it was time for the late night appearance of Holy Fuck (or Holy Heck as I, a sparing user of profanity, had been calling them). Using vintage and probably quite inexpensive electronic equipment in conjunction with a rock rhythm section of bass and drums they stir up a largely improvised and highly infectious mix of slowly building keyboard arpeggios and melodies and casio bleep and blip electronic beats. The crowd responded with arms in the air in classic Dance fashion. A great end to the day and a hurried return to our chalet, which was about as far away in the really quite sizeable Butlins fiefdom as it was possible to be.
Sunday morning was wet and therefore an ideal time to retreat to the cinema to see the wonderful Wall-E. The first half hour or so of this film was just so beautiful and reminded me of why I fell in love with science fiction in the first place. I could have watched a whole film of Wall-E trundling aroung the ruins of a despoiled Earth, following its futile programming and stacking the mountains of junk into towering sculptures reminiscent of the ‘outsider art’ edifices of Sabato ‘Simon’ Rodia Watts Towers and Ferdinand ‘Le Facteur’ Cheval’s Palais Ideal in Hauterives, France. The moment when he leaves the polluted cloud of Earth’s atmosphere and enters the starry realm of space is a classic moment of conceptual breakthrough and is simply gorgeous. As is the dance using the fire extinguisher later on. The engine of the plot tends to be something of a distraction in the face of such moments of abstract and melancholy beauty, but the satire of the scenes onboard the ship is initially very funny. The idea of a ‘generation starship’ which has forgotten its original purpose may not be terribly original (see Robert Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of the Sky’, Brian Aldiss’ ‘Non-Stop’ and Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of the Long Sun’) but it is brought neatly up to date with a swipe against the stupefaction engendered by corporate brainwashing. The ending might be a little bit glib and skip lightly over the harder questions raised, but it is a children’s film after all, and needs to leave some room for hope and a feeling that the problems aren’t insoluble. So I’ll allow for that touch of Hollywood sheen on what is generally a fantastic film.
The first act we saw on Sunday was the incredible Melt Banana. Feted by John Peel, who once remarked after a broadcast concert that it was ‘one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve seen in all my life, to rate alongside things like Captain Beefheart in Hollywood’, they were indeed amazing and really have to be experienced live. The set began in darkness, the band wearing headlamps which swept around like lighthouse beams, elucidating the movements and sounds of the musicians. When the lights do come on, they reveal the guitarist, whose face still remains hidden as he wears his characteristic dust mask, and the singer, who may be slight of figure but is able to unleash a formidable series of barking yelps at the top of her lungs. The guitarist doesn’t so much play his instrument as unleash a torrent of effects laden sounds, staccato chords and sliding notes which swoop up and down the fretboard in undulant waves of queasy oscillation. The effect is quite the opposite of much noise music, which attempts to drag the listener down into a slough of despond, emphasising the dark and perverse. As with fellow countrymen The Boredoms, this is the sound of pure exhilaration, a concentrated blast of the life force. Marvellous. Rather charmingly, their part of the long merchandising table in the Pavillion featured a couple of bananas which were decorated with Japanese writing (kanji?). No idea what it said or indeed whether they were for sale as well as the cds and t-shirts. If so , it would be a strictly limited edition, limited life-span piece of memorabilia. Indeed, they were already looking a little past their best.
Back in the Pavillion for Deerhunter, the singer from which, Bradford Cox, we’d seen the previous year in his solo electronica guise as Atlas Sound. Then, rather thrillingly for me, he’d bought Broadcast on as guests. It has to be said I didn’t realise this until the end, as we’d come in just after he’d started and Trish Keenan and James Cargill were crouched over the devices on the floor. This year, he was playing Deerhunter music, dreamy songs drenched in echo and reverb and occasionally building up into a noisy storm of sound. Bradford was clearly enjoying himself, and when he invited Kim and Kelly Deal up on stage to sing an old Amps song, a fine time was had by all, as he and Kim attempted to suppress fits of giggles. Very enjoyable. Gang of Four were somewhat perplexing. Ina way, they painted themselves into a corner right from the start of their ‘career’ (no doubt a term they’d despise) with their withering analysis of the forces of the entertainment industry (on the 1979 LP ‘Entertainment’) and the packaging and manipulation of individual choices and relationships which it represents. But here they were coming on like 80s pop stars, singer Jon King with jacket but no shirt throwing shapes like a hyperkinetic Jim Kerr reborn as a hardline leftist. Full marks for effort, but I’m not sure what the systematic destruction of a microwave oven was supposed to symbolically convey. It all just came across as a bit aggressive in an unpleasantly macho way.
Foals ended the weekend’s Pavillion performances with an energetic set of their ‘math’ rock. Interlocking high-pitched guitar lines and chopped rhythms, the spectre of Steve Reich hovering once more as well as unexpected echoes of deeply unfashionable 80s acts such as (whisper their name) Haircut 100 and Kid Creole. Which is good. Experimantal music which you can dance to. Singer Yannis Philippakis led the security guard a merry dance at one point as he leapt from a stage swollen by guest tribal drummers and ran through the crowd, still beating the rhythm with his drumsticks. A bit of low-key Bono-ism, maybe, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of diverting showmanship.
Having eschewed the Fuck Buttons (or Fun Buttons as I, a sparing user of etc. Etc.) DJ set which everyone seemed quite excited by I made my way to see X, having listened to and quite enjoyed a couple of songs by Distortion Felix, whose name pretty well sums up their sound. X seemed to come with the epithet ‘legendary’ regularly attached, but I’d not really got it from what I’d heard. An efficient if unoriginal rock band, but legendary? Their set did nothing to change my mind. They themselves seemed a little uninvolved. After a perfunctory introduction where they thanked The Breeders for inviting them, they said they would dispense with formalities and just play the songs. Fine, except that singer Exene Cervenka reneged on this statement of intent to announce that they had t-shirts on sale at the back. Hardly the kind of hawking that punk ‘legends’ should indulge in, surely. Co-singer John Doe rather obviously glanced at his watch at one point and they left slightly before their allotted time was up having given the distinct impression of going through the motions. Billy Zoom was the most interesting member on stage. Standing stock still most of the time, he cranked out rockabilly riffs with a fixed Val Doonican-esque smile permanently attached to his rather waxy looking face. He even gave the odd Val nod and a wink. It was funny but also a bit disconcerting. God, I thought, I’d hate to think he was directing one of those at me.
Thankfully the weekend ended on an eccentric high. One woman, a drum and a ukulele. This was tUnE-YaRdS, the one woman show (and she’s also apparently a puppeteer) who took the Red stage single-handedly by storm. With Indian-style warpaint cutting a transverse stripe across her face, she created drum and vocal loops over which she sung songs interspersed with full-blooded whoops and ululations, holding nothing back. Bantering directly with the audience, she completely won them over and was clearly having a great time herself, which fed back and enhanced our enjoyment. She created a real communal atmosphere and it was a marvellous way to end my weekend’s musical experiences.
The next day we stumbled out into the cold light of morning and headed into Minehead for breakfast (your basic Wetherspoons this time – not bad, mind). Then it was time to travel back in style on the West Somerset Railway. We settled down into one of the old single compartment carriages and waited for the engine to steam up. Gratifyingly, there were quite a few festival goers who had decided that this was a far more stylish mode of transport than the grotty old bus. Indeed, one was describing to his partner in some detail the class of engines on the sidings at Williton (where the Diesel and Electric Preservation Group can be found). I love the idea that an enthusiasm for post-punk music and railway engines can co-exist. On such disparate connections is happiness founded. Film fans may recognise the West Somerset line (originally from Taunton to Minehead, now stopping a little short at Bishops Lydeard) from a couple of sources. In A Hard Days Night, this is where the boys’ (along with Paul’s ‘very clean’ grandfather Wilfrid Brambell) excursion ticket takes them. In Christopher Petit’s Wim Wenders-funded ‘Radio On’, the protagonist runs out of road (a hazard in any British road movie) and hops on a train at Blue Anchor station to begin his journey back to London. Unfortunately the train is heading towards Minehead, so he’s going in completely the wrong direction (dear sir, my viewing of the film was completely ruined by the factually inaccurate depiction of the branch line train to Taunton. The clock reads 3.30, when there was no train timetabled in that year until 4.27...etc.) A great weekend in all. I’m already looking forward to next year. Broadcast for curators?