Friday, 16 March 2012

Jeff Mangum's ATP Festival 2012


The All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel was postponed from its Christmas slot for undisclosed reasons, which was a blow for those unable to reschedule their lives, but frankly a blessing for others in that meant that it took place during a clement spring weekend and precluded the need for enduring shivering nights in thinly walled chalets. The spring festivals at Minehead Butlins have been abandoned in favour of the winter Nightmare Before Christmas events (now just singular, too), so this was maybe one last chance to experience their pleasures. Minehead itself has much to offer, with a pub, The Queen’s Head, serving its own ale alongside others from the Exmoor brewery, and a lovely little restaurant called Pinocchio’s, which offers simple but tasty Italian fare at astonishingly reasonable prices (for fancier meals, they’ve also opened a new place called Fausto’s opposite where Pinocchio’s used to be housed). The weekly Friday farmer’s market also provided tasty treats to smuggle into Butlin’s later on. Since we were coming up to the north Somerset coast from Exeter in neighbouring Devon, we arrived fairly early, although it amused me to hear Matana Roberts later talking about the six hour journey she’d made from the US – just three times as long as it took us to get the train and circuitous bus route across the county border. Normally we’d take the steam train which runs along the old Beeching-axed West Somerset Railway line from Bishops Lydeard, just outside Taunton, into Minehead, but it was only running on the weekend during this out of season period. The bus journey is a nice meander through the villages if you’re in no hurry (and this is not a part of the country where being in a hurry is ingrained), though, and you get to see the only church dedicated to Saint Decuman in Watchet, the old copse of radio masts just beyond, the romantic rise of Dunster Castle on its mount, the Keith Richards Antique Centre and a trail of associational SF pubs (the Lethbridge Arms in Bishops Lydeard, which I reflexively double-barrelled with an added Stewart to conjure up images of Doctor Who’s Brigadier enjoying a whisky or two in his retirement, and the Wyndham Arms in Williton) leading to the old hometown of Arthur C Clarke (commemorated by one of the local information boards in the old 19th century coaching inn The Duke of Wellington in Minehead, now a Wetherspoons).

Elephant 6 promenade concert
The first act of the festival was the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise, a loose assemblage of individuals drawn from the various acts making up the extended family of the Elephant 6 Collective. They were first gathered together in Denver in the early 90s by Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart (Olivia Tremor Control) and Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo), and numerous bands and projects branched off from the mutually supportive circle. The crowded stage exuded the good cheer of people who knew each other well, and the constantly shifting configurations and swapping of instrumental duties all added to the sense of a merry jamboree, a grand opening ceremonial. This was followed through when the brass players, including Scott Spillane (mainstay of the band The Gerbils), a white-bearded and baseball-capped fellow with a white tuba coiled around his sturdy frame, marched outside and played an impromptu promenading parade concert, reawakening the spirits of Minehead’s Edwardian seaside heyday. There was a wide range of instrumental colours to hand within the collective, from the aforementioned white tuba through musical saws, violins, cellos and clarinets. For someone (like me) unfamiliar with the Elephant 6 bands’ music, however, the songs, for all the good spirits behind them, sounded like rather standard indie fare. Only on a klezmer-inflected lullaby, with lilting clarinet and violin melodies and a slow and steady rhythm evoking camels lolloping across a desert horizon, did the music achieve the potential of the forces gathered.

Charlemagne prepares
Legendary New York minimalist Charlemagne Palestine was a benign and friendly presence, a shambling bear in a garishly patterned shirt. He was relaxed and chatty, and keen to shine the spotlight on the soft toys tumbling out of his propped open suitcase. These add a totemic presence to most of his performances, and I noticed that his menagerie on this occasion included Iggle Piggle from In the Night Gardend and an old Rupert Bear, examples of the native English fauna (and perhaps picked up at the extensively stocked soft toy shop just beyond the railway station, where Charlie Brown jostled for position alongside Captain Caveman, Tintin, Hello Kitties, Spongebob Squarepants and other unlikely companions). A gradually swelling drone emanating from a laptop proceded the actual performance, as Charlemagne wandered about the stage preparing himself. It rose to a volume which demanded people’s attention, and after it suddenly cut out, Charlemagne poured a glass of wine (he had red and white on hand, and chose the former), took a sip, and then produced a ringing tone from the rim, softly singing in harmony with the crystalline overtones. He then settled down at the piano, lamenting that his favoured Bosendorfer had now been taken over by Yamaha, a promising to try to make the instrument magically sound as if it was being electronically enhanced (after the performance, he suggested, with an air of wistful regret, that the days of acoustic instruments were reaching an end). He then proceeded to play one of his extended pieces of ‘strumming music’, beginning with two alternating notes in the upper middle register and building them up into repeated chords which slowly worked their way down the length of the keyboard. The piece flowed in a riverrine fashion, the insistent, swirling rhythm occasionally speeding up in small whirling eddies of sound, sometimes shifting back up in pitch in a flurrying backwash on its general downward course. Finally, in the lower regions, the deep, sonorous notes piled up on top of one another, colliding in thunderous waves of distortion. Charlemagne was lost in rapt absorption throughout, and whilst the amplification of the piano and the lack of a suitably churchlike resonant space meant that the apocalypse didn’t quite blossom on this occasion, it was still fascinating to witness his absolute focus of attention, and to hear the piece slowly unfold, erupt and then return to its point of origin and die down to the simple base elements of those two opening notes. Charlemagne continued to be a notable presence throughout the weekend, whether dancing in the night with a couple of young women on the paths outside the chalets, or craning over people’s heads to catch a glimpse of Earth playing (investigating fellow musical spirits, maybe).

Next up was the first of the weekend’s free jazz musicians, alto sax player Matana Roberts. She was playing in the Crazy Horse bar, which hadn’t been a venue in previous ATP festivals I’d attended here, but was co-opted for service now that the stage at the end of the central tented area was no longer being used. Matana came up through the Chicago based AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), which has a noble history of nurturing inventive and offbeat talent. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, whose saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell was to play later in the weekend, were another group of musicians who benefited from its services, so Roberts takes her place within a fine lineage. She also has connections with the rock world, both via the cross-pollination of the modern Chicago music scene, and through Constellation acts such as A Silver Mount Zion and Godspeed You Black Emperor (she played clarinet on their Yanqui UXO LP). Her album Coin Coin is an emotionally overwhelming experience, with glossolaic vocals occasionally spilling over into cathartic, Patty Waters-style primal screams and wails. Her performance here was rather more restrained, however. In an interlude in which she took a few questions from the audience, she pointed out that the intense vocals of that album were a reflection of the particular state that she was in at the time, and that it was unlikely that she would be able to repeat them. She played in a duet with Seb Rochford, the wild-haired drummer who plays with Polar Bear and the now-defunct Acoustic Ladyland (who played at last years I’ll Be Your Mirror festival at Alexandra Palace) and other forward-thinking British jazz bands and collaborators. It was a sax and percussion pairing which immediately brought to mind John Coltrane’s 1967 duet with drummer Rashied Ali, Interstellar Space. But this was a much more tentative meeting. Rochford didn’t provide the constantly roiling, driving percussive undertow which Ali created for Coltrane to ride above, taking much more of a back seat, and remaining silent for lengthy periods of time. I’m not sure why he was so reluctant to get involved. Perhaps he wanted the spotlight to fall more on Matana’s alto playing. She did occasionally come out with the keening, bugle-like calls which Coltrane blew on the LP, and there were some sections of blazing fire music. But the tone was frequently more thoughtful, with her breathy stutters into the sax’s chamber suggestive of musical thought processes slowly but surely taking shape, and being allowed to take their own time in coming to life. Matana herself was an engaging and gregarious presence, entirely dispelling the sometimes aloof preciousness of jazz performance – looking disdainfully down from the heights of the jazz loft. She took pictures of the crowd so that she could prove to her friends back home that people had turned up to see her, and fielded questions and comments from the audience with honesty and good humour. She was also thankful that she’d returned to Butlins in less wintry conditions, having previously come over for the Godspeed You Black Emperor Nightmare Before Christmas festival in 2010, when thick snow had fallen.

Young Marble Giants - Alison and Philip
Next in Crazy Horse, Young Marble Giants were the first in a potential triple bill of performances by late 70s/early 80s Rough Trade bands. They have carried the anti-rockist stance of Rough Trade through to middle age, making no attempt to appear anything but what they are. The Moxham brothers, Stuart and Philip, were here joined by a further offshoot of the family tree, with brother Andrew bucking the trend by replacing machine drums with actual percussion. Philip remained in the background, providing the clearly outlined, echoing bass lines which underlie the music. Stuart, on guitar and small, reedy organ, was clearly enjoying himself, and with throwaway quips and self-effacing asides, gave the impression of someone relishing his renewed moment in the spotlight, whilst not in any way hogging it. Old dreams of cult stardom were being dusted off and realised once more. After the first number, he waved his arms triumphantly in the air, as if to say ‘hey, this is actually going to work’. The projections didn’t, soon breaking down, but it didn’t matter. They’d acted as a good anticipatory prelude, as the prefaratory checks had given us glimpses of Wurlitzer jukeboxes, classical statuary, testcards and 60s models. The sound of the Colossal Youth LP was faithfully reproduced in all its sparse, spacious glory. Alison Statton stood at the front, a still, calm and composed presence in contrast with Stuart’s charming nervy excitability. Her vocals retained all their cool poise, finding their place perfectly in between the choppy guitar or guitar chords and the pointed punctuations of the bass lines. All the favourites were there (Wurlitzer Jukebox gaining a particularly rapturous response), including the instrumental The Taxi, which Stuart approached with some trepidation, but whose organ lines he negotiated with no problems. They spared us the nuclear war-themed Final Day, perhaps not wishing to sour the party atmosphere with songs about impending apocalypse. The set was greeted with enormous warmth, and indicate the enormous affection which they still command. The fact that they packed the hall even though they were playing against the first of Joanna Newsom’s two sets was testament to their enduring appeal.

The Raincoats, playing in The Reds bar (the least conducive of the three performance venues to the weekend’s music) were an ideal follow up. They held up a vinyl copy of their first, self-titled LP to indicate that this was what they would be playing, in its original track order. The songs were more direct than those on their second, and more experimental album Odyshape. There was even a cover of a hoary old classic from yesteryear, in the shape of The Kinks’ Lola, whose tale of transvestite love takes a dizzying turn when sung, unaltered, by a female group. It got them dancing crazily at the side of the stage, anyway. On Black and White, they were joined by Verity Susman from the all-female band Electrelane, who blew some honking blurts of baritone sax. She then enjoyed the rest of the show from the wings, acknowledging ancestry and the passing on of the flame. The experimental side of the band came to the fore in the latter stages, with some scratchy, improv guitar and violin stabs and glides, a glimpse of what was to come. The Raincoats clashed with The Fall, who also enjoyed (if that’s the right word) a brief tenure on the Rough Trade label in the early 80s. I passed the chance to catch the latter part of their set, however. When I saw them live a few years ago, they seem to be operating largely on autopilot, and I can no longer understand a word that Mark E Smith says.

The Music Tapes were another offshoot of the Elephant 6 Collective, a lo-fi, playfully surreal endeavour incorporating music, storytelling and stage props invented by Julian Koster. I only managed to catch a little of their set, but it was great fun. Koster played bowed banjo (eat your heart out Jimmy Page) and musical saw, and told the tale of his childhood portable TV, which would only tune in to static, and which led him to relate the legend that television sets were in fact alien beings who had lost their ability to move or communicate, and had placed themselves in the houses of earthlings in order to learn more of their ways. Indicating the fact that he had brought that childhood TV set over with him (it rested atop an amplifier stack), he proceeded to turn it on and play an instrumental piece, with electronics booming ominously in the background. The static soon started to define itself into a wavering, jack-o-lantern smile, whilst voices rumbled half-comprehensibly from the aural white noise, hinting at grand and not at all friendly plans.

Thurston Moore, the Sonic Youth guitarist, was playing on the Centre Stage, the major venue on the site. I knew that he was tall, but was still struck by how strikingly so he was in person. He effortlessly strikes great rock guitar poses, the instrument looking small resting against his lean, plaid shirt clad frame, which frequently leans back in an ecstasy of unleashed noise. He looks impossibly youthful, and with his studied New York punk attitude and lazy downtown drawl, he is something of the eternal adolescent, albeit knowingly so. He played old and new material, partly signified by the picking up of acoustic or electric guitars. Last year’s Demolished Thoughts was an uncharacteristically pastoral affair, and although violinist Samara Lubelski was on hand, they generally steered clear of the material from the album. Its atmospheres are too reliant on the chamber music colours added by producer Beck. Moore drew significantly from his first solo LP, Psychic Hearts, playing numbers such as Queen Bee and Her Pals, Patti Smith Math Scratch, See Through Playmate and the title track. The extended heart of the performance was Ono Soul, his tribute to Yoko (‘bow down to the queen of noise’) which collapsed into a squalling noise improvisation, Moore’s already battered electric guitar subjected to further maltreatment, sculpting feedback alongside his fellow guitarist (Mark Ibold?) and Lubelski’s violin. The guitarists both picked up their acoustics for the Demolished Thoughts track Circulation (I think), only to demonstrate that these too could be overdriven to produce a noise tsunami. The performance deliberately went slightly over time, a rather calculated way of acting out a bit of rock ‘n roll rebellion. ‘We have to go now’, Moore drawled to the crowd, as if being forced off against his will, bowing to the inevitable protests with a brief and pointed Psychic Hearts, an anthem of teenage outsiderdom. It was all a self-conscious act, but a good one nevertheless.

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