Thursday, 29 March 2012

Jeff Mangum's ATP Festival 2012


On Sunday morning, a sea mist rolled down the Bristol Channel and veiled everything in muffling billows of cool, suspended moisture. With great and presumably entirely serendipitous appropriateness, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble came onto the stage of the Crazy Horse Bar at midday to play Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes II, a piece which uses recordings of voices and sounds spatially distorted and made spectral by the fogs which so frequently envelop San Francisco Bay. Marshall is an American composer who studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky at the legendary Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Centre in New York before moving West to study with Morton Subotnick in California. In the book American Originals, a collection of interviews with modern composers conducted by Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker Smith, the authors suggest to Marshall that ‘some of your music…could almost appeal to a thoughtful alternative rock audience’, to which he responds ‘well, I hope it would. A lot of my music is actually quite accessible – it’s not that hard to like it’. This proposition was put to the test here, and the results came up positive. It’s a piece which has definite affinities with the atmospheric electronica of Oneohtrix Point Never and Blanck Mass, both of whom draw a great deal from the pioneering concrete and synthesiser music of Marshall’s mentors, if not from Marshall himself.

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) specialise in modern classical repertoire, having performed music by the likes of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Cage, George Crumb, Kevin Volans, Olivier Messiaen and Iannis Xenakis. They also have connections with the leftfield rock and pop world, having played on 4 songs on the Grizzly Bear record Veckatimest, appeared on the LP A Winged Victory for the Sullen (a recent project from Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid), and supported Jeff Mangum on his recent comeback shows in the US. For their ATP performance, they operated as a string quartet, and in addition to Fog Tropes II, played Marshall’s Entrada and Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. I’d not heard Fog Tropes II before, but was familiar with the original Fog Tropes, which used a recording of the resonant, mournful echo of a distant fog horn, to which the searching instruments of a brass sextet sent out fragmentary responses of varying lengths and pitches. Fog Tropes II takes a similar approach, with the string quartet enveloping the fog-altered voices and dim quayside sounds with a sinuous miasma of shifting sound. Entrada followed immediately on, a rather melancholy piece, with notes dying away in arcing descents, and a sense of stillness pervading. It had something of the feel of the Estonian composer Arvo Part’s meditative laments.

The audience in the Crazy Horse Bar squatted, sprawled or sat on the floor and listened in hushed silence. Clarice Jensen, the cello-playing leader of the Ensemble, thanked them for their attentiveness, and commented that this was the festival’s equivalent to going to a Sunday morning church service. This carried self-effacing connotations of people having turned up dutifully, out of a sense that this was somehow good for them. But ATP appeals to and attracts a broad range of believers, and this congregation was a reverent one, open to such spiritual sustenance as was on offer, whether it be through the loud testifying of The Boredoms’ percussion rituals or the quieter prayers and meditations delivered up here. Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yey centres around a recording he made outside Waterloo Station in the 70s of a tramp declaring his faith, or perhaps just singing an old remembered song. The tape is looped, and the string quartet gradually adds its individual voices and fills in an accompaniment around the repeated refrain. There is a certain inherent irony in the meeting of high and low, the blending of rough street song with refined chamber music, the opposite ends of the social spectrum harmonising in unlikely collaboration. I was doubtful as to whether I would enjoy or even be able to tolerate this piece, having found the recording released in 1993 unlistenable. There was still the perceived need to fill as much of the disc’s capacity as possible at this point, leading to a hopelessly distended arrangement of the piece, with full, lush orchestration taking over and unnecessary vocals by Tom Waits intruding on the tramp’s singing. But hearing it live, and at a more reasonable 20 minutes or so length (more akin to its original appearance on one side of the first LP released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975), it was far more involving and moving. The repetition of the song fragment led to a focussing in on its every element, with the character of the voice, the fine details of its London accent and its occasional frailties, leding an ever-increasing sense of actual presence, an invocation of a real person and a specific time and place. The tramp’s singing is surprisingly sweet and phrased with easy assurance, and bears repetition. The quartet builds up its accompaniment with accumulated layers, enveloping the voice in a glowing, protective aura. It provides a gently cocooning bed on which the tramp can lie, soothed to sleep by his own comforting lullabye. The strings never obscure the voice, however, and eventually die down one by one, falling silent once more, leaving the naked fragment of song, a ragged scrap of stubborn hope, to slowly diminish, a fading memory. It was a performance which mesmerised a good proportion of the audience, who rose and gave ACME a round of standing applause. The quartet stayed on stage to play an encore of a piece by New York composer, singer and performance artist Meredith Monk from her opera Atlas. It was a more rhythmic, angular dance piece which acted as a recessional to send people out with a spring in their step.

Lost In The Trees elsewhere, not in Minehead
A walk up through the old town, past the church which we’d looked round the previous day, with its beautiful 16th century oak screen, medieval door and font and 14th century illuminated book, took us up onto the ness, and above the level of the mist, which lay over the channel below us in soft white drifts. It sent exploratory tendrils drifting towards the town in a manner which couldn’t help but remind me of John Carpenter’s 1980 film The Fog, with its throbbing and pulsing synthesiser soundtrack probably an influence on the impressionable young minds of the electronica acts who’d played the previous night. We walked through the clifftop woodland and scrambled down a path to double back into the harbour area and along the sea wall, arriving back at Butlins and entering the Crazy Horse Bar once more, in time to see Lost In The Trees. They were one of the major discoveries of the weekend for me. Lost in the Trees is the musical project of singer, songwriter and composer Ari Picker, an native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He stood centre stage dressed in workmanlike folk shirt, acoustic guitar firmly grasped and played with a muscular rhythmic attack. He was flanked by two women strikingly clothed in vivid scarlet dresses, perhaps in thematic reference to the song Red, a single from the current LP A Church That Fits Our Needs. Jenavieve Varga remained standing to play the violin, whilst Emma Nadeau (they all have such great names) sat behind a small keyboard, the puffed sleeves of her dress giving her something of a Victorian look, a red-dyed version of PJ Harvey at the time of her White Chalk LP. Picker’s songs are rooted in a sense of place and particular landscape, with rivers, lakes, woods and forests, and the houses and gardens which are built and cultivated within or by them all featuring in his lyrics. These draw from personal experience, whilst retaining a universal. Their rural backdrops and sensitivity to the changing seasonal atmospheres connect them with folk traditions, and through their haunted symbolism, shade them with a touch of American gothic. Picker’s voice is light and pleasing, delivering his intensely felt words without resorting to quavering emotiveness or overdramatic shifts into anguished falsetto. This matter of fact delivery allows the strong melodies and the varied and inventive arrangements to convey the powerful feelings contained within the songs.

The Church That Fits Our Needs (continuing our Sunday service music) addresses, with grater or lesser directness, the suicide of Picker’s mother three years ago. But the music is not in the least maudlin or dispiriting, refusing to be weighted down by the depression which weighed down her life. Picker’s knowledge of and schooling in classical music has led him to create some exhilarating arrangements, richly blending singer songwriterly folk with orchestrated chamber music. It’s a sound which brings the North Sea Radio Orchestra to my mind, or more closely the baroque, hymnal music of Sufjan Stevens, as well as Arcade Fire in their more instrumentally augmented moments. The latter influence certainly comes to the fore in Fireplace, with its declamatory, anthemic quality and driving energy. Picker may be the guiding light of Lost in the Trees, but the star of the show in many ways was Emma Nadeau, who displayed an almost comically diverse range of instrumental talents. She sat behind the keyboard playing swirling organ lines, but also pounded out aggressive martial drums on Garden, traced more delicate percussive patterns on celeste for Song for the Painter, and rose to play the French horn, her red-sleeved arm plunged into its mouth as if to forcefully extract its sound. Her most striking instrument was her voice, however, a soprano of penetrating classical purity which provided wordless accompaniments to several songs. It varied from operatic Callas dramaticism, to soaring Yma Sumac swoops on This Dead Bird Is Beautiful, to Edda dell’Orso Morricone widescreen romanticism on Artist’s Song. She was quite extraordinary. Jenavieve Varga’s violin was also highly expressive, producing grand, dramatic sweeps of sound, colouring the songs with heightened emotional flurries and ascending slides. Picker, with his unassuming folk everyman garb and solid but unspectacular guitar style, seemed deliberately to be casting himself in the scarlet shadows of these two charismatic accompanists. There was a drummer too, who performed his function perfectly, but he remained firmly in the background, as did the cellist, who naturally had to remain seated. There was a slightly religiose air to the show as a whole, appropriately enough for a group who’d just released an album entitled A Church That Fits Our Needs. It was a paradoxically joyous act of valediction and remembrance, a very public acknowledgement of loss which we could all identify with on some level, and a continuation of the Sunday service which had been inaugurated by ACME.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Roscoe seated centre
This diverse and non-denominational gathering crossed over into the next performance. Roscoe Mitchell began his solo set with a continuous, held note blown with circular breath through a small wooden flute. Its rough-edged, softly burred arboreal sound tuned the audience up and served as a preparatory introit for the ensuing music. Its zen-like asperity was perhaps an acknowledgement of his long-term musical colleague Joseph Jarman’s absorption in the activities of Buddhist monkhood in Brooklyn. Mitchell was a member, alongside Jarman, of the legendary free jazz group The Art Ensemble of Chicago, who incorporated elements of ritual, theatre and playful humour into their performances from the late sixties through to the eighties (and sporadically beyond). They wore self-assembled ‘tribal’ costumes, painted their faces or wore masks, and played a wide array of instruments, both ‘proper’ and toylike. This gave their concerts a self-consciously artistic extra-musical and ritualistic aspect which linked them to the similarly visually arresting appearance of the Sun Ra Arkestra, which also used unconventional and ‘improper’ instrumentation, forcing the musicians to diverge from familiar instincts and patterns. Like Ra and his people, they were also attuned to the pop currents of the day, and channelled elements of them into their diverse musical collages alongside passages of abstract composition, freely improvised wildness and small ‘toy’ sounds. Indeed, before he set up his own band to record the seminal 1966 LP Sound, with layed the foundations for the Art Ensemble, Mitchell’s first appearance on record was an alto break on Nick ‘The Greek’ Gravenites single Whole Lotta Soul, which featured Paul Butterfield and his future Blues Band members Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield, the latter of whom would accompany Bob Dylan into his electric phase. Gravenites himself would prove instrumental in the formation of the San Francisco acid rock sound through his connection with Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company. The Art Ensemble of Chicago collaboration with the soul singer Fontella Bass (who was married to their trumpeter Lester Bowie) on Theme de Yo-Yo, from the soundtrack to the 1970 French film Les Stances a Sophie, is fantastically funky, free jazz which you can dance to. All of which made Mitchell an ideal choice for an ATP festival, a musician who has hurdled musical barriers with nonchalant disregard.

Here, he was smartly dressed in suit trousers and shirt, the only hint of former stage extravagance confined to a brightly coloured and boldly patterned tie. After his initial held flute tone, a prolonged, breathy exhalation which suspended time, he picked up his tenor sax and set out on an improvisation which was abstract yet maintained a consistent internal logic hinting at a compositional basis. Mitchell, both with the Art Ensemble and in his solo projects, has always combined improvisation with his own modern chamber compositions, creating what would once have been known as third stream music, following Gunter Schuller’s 50s terminology. That swiftly fell out of fashion, however, as it seemed to be too much of an attempt to dress jazz up in respectable clothes in order to usher it into the academies where proper music was made. Mitchell used overblown and split tone notes to widen the range of his horn’s sound, giving the sense of ghost accompanists casting flickering sonic shadows. It’s a difficult feat to sustain interest in an entirely solo saxophone performance over a lengthy period of time, but the intensity and focus of Mitchell’s playing, and the sense of concentrated purpose exerted a mesmeric effect. If you made the effort, you were drawn into the sound. He next picked up his soprano sax and once more employed circular breathing techniques to produce an unbroken stream of sound, a jostling Brownian motion of swirling and colliding scales and runs. It was reminiscent of some of Evan Parker’s solo soprano performances, although without his trademark sparking off of glinting overtones in the upper register. A flute interlude explored extended techniques such as tonguing, key-tapping and semi-articulated, percussive rasps of breath sounding the resonance of the metallic tube. A reminder, perhaps, of Eric Dolphy’s playing of Edgard Varese’s solo flute piece Density 21.5. A further piece on tenor horn began with short, abstract phrases, some only a couple of notes long, interspersed with pauses in which Mitchell removed the mouthpiece and stood in silent contemplation for a second or two, mentally calibrating his next sound. These fragmented shards gradually began to expand and coalesce, until eventually they fused together. The piece then built up momentum and once more sped into roiling, perpetual motion. Eventually, Mitchell began to decelerate and deconstruct the music, parcelling it off into its base component elements, from which it had initially sprouted. Overall, it was an uncompromising set, abstract and without introduction, contextualisation or explanation, offering no concessions to the casually curious, more rock-oriented spectator. Most of these would presumably have opted for the Olivia Tremor Control show, which was playing at the same time and had drained off the majority of the potential audience. Indeed, I’d have loved to have seen them too, but there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to see such a legendary figure, being a huge fan of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Mitchell didn’t disappoint, and I have to confess to being mildly awestruck at standing in such close proximity to him as he was in full flow. Never uttering a word throughout, he ended by slowly and deliberately turning in three directions, giving a deep and stately bow in each, making sure he encompassed all who’d come to see him. It was a respectful and sincere gesture, an appreciation of our appreciation, and a marking of the end of another performance with profound spiritual foundations.

Sun Ra Arkestra - Marshall Allen
A swift exit and dash over to the Centre Stage allowed for an exciting leap from one free jazz legend to another, although in this case the legend was an abiding but absent presence. The Sun Ra Arkestra were just emerging to fill the stage, their spangly, iridescent capes and caps glinting under the lights. These days, the stage costumes are worn lightly over more serious jazz suits. There were about ten musicians filling the Ark in this incarnation, with a front line of three seated horn players, a trumpeter standing behind them, a percussionist and drummer, bass player and pianist and to the left, leader and alto player Marshall Allan, a Ra veteran who came on board in 1958 and is still sailing, now as captain, at the age of 88. The Arkestra is now essentially a heritage outfit, keeping the music and memory of former times alive. There’s no longer likely to be any of the fierce exploration of the 1965 LP Magic City, or the adoption of new pop styles. Sun Ra, during his lifetime, progressed from Elligtonian big band dance music (he’d started out in the Fletcher Henderson band), through free jazz, singalong pop, Disney songs, disco (on the 1978 LP Disco 3000), and a planned suite of Michael Jackson arrangements he was contemplating shortly before his death in 1993. Whilst Arkestrians are still alive, however, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t keep playing, and the legend of Sun Ra has grown to such magnitude that it seems a privilege to hear the musicians who collaborated in creating it.

Sun Ra Arkestra - Knoel Scott rejoins the fray
The band was sharp and finely tuned, and moved effortlessly across the various styles which Ra had encompassed, sometimes within the breadth of one number. They started off with traditional, old-fashioned big band jazz, rooted in Sonny Blount, aka Sun Ra’s early musical life in the forties and fifties, before his Saturnian transformation. Its simple, uncomplicated pleasures seemed at odds with the space age paraphernalia and gaudy clothing, until you remember the ‘exotica’ with which Ellington’s peerless arrangements were surrounded in the Cotton Club of the twenties. It’s a small step from an imaginary ‘jungle’ backdrop to an otherworldly galactic spacescape. The dance band jazz evolved seamlessly into the interstellar music of the space chants, cosmic singalong incantations which, as John F Szwed has pointed out in his Sun Ra biography Space is the Place, echo hymnal church music, with the concepts of Heaven, ascension and the holy chariot replaced by space, Saturn and rockets, red and white choir surplices by multi-coloured band capes. We were still in the prolonged, multiform Sunday service here. The Arkestra concerts of old were always theatrical affairs, encompassing more than just the music. The dazzling costumes provided visual stimulation, and parades through the audience and dancing on stage further distanced them from more sober notions of jazz performance, lending them the air of grand communal celebrations. This was reflected in the colourful capes here, with little modern additions such as the spectacles with tiny spotlights on either side, giving them an odd affinity with Orbital’s live appearances. The swaying from side to side of various Arkestra members emphasised the underlying pulse of the music, and alto sax player Knoel Scott performed some impressively athletic back flips at the side of the stage, which left his cape tangled and askew, but the man himself unruffled.

Sun Ra Arkestra - James Stewart blows
There was space for an old standard, sung with relaxed urbanity by trumpeter Michael Ray, with appropriate lyrics about starlight and romance (I’m not sufficiently au fait with the old Broadway songs to identify it, however). One of the more unexpected curios from the old Sun Ra trunk was taken out and dusted off (although in the Ra universe, nothing is truly unexpected, and anything possible). An old single which offered an alternative theme for fellow caped and garishly costumed outsiders Batman and Robin. Farid Barron played spiky, splintered piano throughout, never failing to swing, however, even at his wildest. If he embodied the spirit of Ra’s blend of conservatism and avant garde exploration at the piano, without ever resorting to slavish imitation, then Marshall Allan reproduced the sound of his abstract synthesiser splashes, albeit via a wind instrument metamorphosed into a piece of technological gimcrackery. This enabled him to recreate the aural spiral galaxies, ring nebulae and globular clusters which Ra pounded, wrestled and shook from his long-suffering Moogs. Drummer Craig Haynes was introduced as ‘showing that the apple never falls far from the tree’, a reference to the fact that he is the offspring of Roy Haynes, who has played drums with the likes of Charlie Paker, Lester Young, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John and Alice Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill. Not much to live up to there, then. The pressure was also put on relatively new crew member James Stewart, who was introduced as having stepped into the position vacated by the late John Gilmore, a tenor player who was held in huge regard by his fellow players, including John Coltrane, but who had chosen to subsume his identity within the body of the Arkestra. Stewart played several forceful and confident solos which would in no way have shamed his illustrious predecessor. The Arkestra paraded off at the end of their set, leaving Allan to blast off a few more choruses of electronic spacerocket fire, before departing himself, safe in the knowledge that the wisdom of Ra was still being preached. At various stages, Yamatsuke Eye of The Boredoms could be seen peering on from the wings, taking in what could be seen as a spiritual ancestor of his own groupings, and observing an alternative way of conducting a musical ritual designed to launch listeners into the aether.

Following the big sound of the Arkestra, The Magnetic Fields opted for a distinctly lo-fi set up. The piano, ukelele, cello, guitar and harmonium instrumentation was defiantly small and acoustic, and played with a quietness which seemed to deliberately reject the restless festival ambience. Settle down, they appeared to be suggesting, and listen. This was made more difficult by the bass beats once more thumping up from the Reds stage below, which led frontman Stephin Merritt to comment ‘you’re listening to our last festival performance’. The band further eschewed overt drama by remaining seated throughout. Well, Merritt stood, but his lower half was obscured behind a table, atop which his harmonium was perched like an oversized typewriter. He was dressed in flat cap, scarf and tweed jacket, as if he’d just come in from a pheasant shoot on nearby Somerset farmland. Any minimal rhythmic movements or rock stances were thus discretely hidden away. The harmonium is the chosen instrument of musical eccentrics, ranging from Nico to Ivor Cutler. With his wryly humorous and occasionally rather jaundiced worldview, Merritt definitely tends more towards the Ivor pole of this binary harmonium pairing, as opposed to the humourless Teutonic nihilism of Nico, which he could only approach with a massive dose of inoculating sarcasm. Merritt also occasionally took up the kazoo, as if the rest of the instrumentation was proving a little too high-tech for him, and he needed to get down to basics. The whole set up was more suited to the environs of a hushed concert hall or a hip supper club, but the audience was attentive and, save at the bar counter peripheries, politely silent.

The set opened with a song from the triple, thematically indexed A-Z of love songs, 69 Love Songs, whose title and format tells you all you need to know about Merritt’s approach – a contemporary, more liberated and open incarnation of Noel Coward, without the sentimental patriotism. Highly literary, clever and enamoured of witty word play. The song was A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off, its lovelorn protagonist metaphorically likening himself to the hapless decapitated fowl and sadly observing that ‘no-one loves a chicken with its head cut off’. It’s a good example of the bathetic quality of many of Merritt’s songs, which blend heartache with humour, undercutting any maudlin wallowing with an occasionally cruel undercurrent of mockery. Sometimes the songs are merely silly, which seemed to be the case with several from the new album Love At The Bottom of the Sea, as evidenced by titles such as My Husband’s Pied-A-Terre (about a wife finally growing sick of her spouse’s louche infidelities), All She Cares About Is Mariachi, and I’ve Run Away To Join the Fairies. Merritt introduced the new single Andrew In Drag with a brief explanation of its perversely ironic but strangely touching tale of a straight man falling for another straight man during his one night of donning convincing drag, and accounted for the precise number of times he would sing the words ‘Andrew in drag’. It’s an interesting take on the perennial themes of impossible love, hopeless yearning and mournful pining which run through the Magnetic Fields work. Claudia Gonson, sitting at the piano, also remarked on another theme of many songs, that of revenge for a love betrayed, and another new song, Your Girlfriend’s Face, was a slightly creepy addition to the canon of fantasies of retribution.

The vocal duties for the evening were shared out between Merritt, Shirley Simms, who sat plucking her ukelele (or was it a mandolin?) and Claudia Gonson, all three of whom engaged in some enjoyable inbetween numbers banter. The words are everything here, and they were clearly articulated and crystal clear throughout. Simms’ voice tends towards a sweet fragility, which suits the more vulnerable songs, whilst Gonson, with her long black hair and sideways glancing piano stool posture, reminded me a little of Laura Nyro, the ultimate accolade in my book. Merritt has his patent deep and resonant Scott (Walker) intonations, also employed by his fellow master of clever dickery (I mean this as a compliment) Neil Hannon. It’s a sardonic Scott voice, the Scott who sang the supremely cynical Jacques Brel song The Girls and the Dogs. But Merritt is also capable of adopting the Scott voice of Boy Child or Big Louise. The song The Book of Love from 69 Love Songs was prefaced by a call for raised hands from anyone who had had it as their first song at their wedding – a few shot up. It’s a sincere and, needless to say, bookish analysis of true love which implicitly acknowledges its reality and attainability, the grail which still beckons beyond all the bitterness and disappointment. Also from 69 Love Songs came Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old, a call to live for the moment and enjoy simple, unaffected (and non-rock’n roll) pleasures, with its refrain ‘tonight I think I’d rather just go dancing’.

Merritt had at one point promised, in recognition of ATP’s experimental tendencies and the music which had preceded him, a free jazz set. He could have perhaps unleashed a brief blast of Experimental Music Love from 69 Love Songs, with its Come Out To Show Them style Steve Reichian phased loops. The band did play a number of older songs, shorn of their electro-pop sheen (which has returned on the latest album) - Fear of Trains from Charm of the Highway Strip, and Swinging London from Holiday amongst them. It was all very urbane and low key and rather unsuited to the setting, but enjoyable nevertheless. It would have been even better if I had been sitting at a small table in a conducive club, candles providing a flickering, subdued and romantic lighting, and a glass of fine wine before. But needs must, and I made do with craning over the necks of those standing in front of me in the packed venue, a pint of Exmoor Beast ale in hand, which was none too shabby (in fact it was bloody gorgeous, a little too drinkable).

We all had to pile out after the Magnetic Fields had departed, in order to allow Jeff Mangum to set up and do a sound check. Given that he was performing solo with nought but an acoustic guitar, this seemed a little unnecessary, and together with his ban on any photography or filming, gave an impression of slight divadom and preciousness. The queue outside swiftly grew to gargantuan proportions, and was hugely dispiriting for any who found themselves at its tail end. Eventually everyone made their way inside, leaving the venue absolutely packed, this despite the fact that this was the second time that Mangum had played over the weekend. The sense of anticipation was palpable, and when Mangum did appear, there was a huge reaction. He performed the Neutral Milk Hotel album In An Aeroplane Over the Sea in its entirety, with an interlude for a cover of a Daniel Johnston song, True Love Will Find You In the End. He revealed that he had wanted Johnston for the festival, but that he wasn’t available, and the programme revealed another tantalising possibility, as Mangum had also invited the electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry to be on the bill. The Neutral Milk Hotel material was greeted with a reverence bordering on worship, with people singing along in ecstatic communion. I must admit to be an agnostic when it comes to this music. I’m not keen on the strained quality of Mangum’s voice, its gruff emotionalism, and I’ve never quite got the appeal of the Neutral Milk Hotel albums. They seem lyrically opaque, offering a stream of consciousness flow of words which might be psychologically revealing, but is desperately incoherent and distractedly all over the place, never settling on one idea or image before darting off to another. Mangum seems repeatedly to equate women with birth, death and pregnancy, using them as the primal carriers of his instinctive symbolism, and spatters semen across several songs, whether on a mountaintop or in garden, hoping something will germinate. He wildly conflates history with personal experience, dreams and sexuality in a way which doesn’t seem to shed much light on any of them. God and Jesus are called upon, but in the end, ‘God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life’, which suggests that no reply has been received. Perhaps it’s the very nebulousness of the songs, their scattershot assemblage of richly allusive imagery without any readily apparent meaning, which allows people to imbue them with their own personal feelings and emotions. The ever popular tortured artist effect may also play a part, with Mangum’s disappearance after Aeroplane leading to an accumulating mystique. The idea of the romantic agony, with the work of art being painfully torn from the sensitive and tormented soul of its creator, is also still powerful. There’s a lot of art of this nature which I love, but it tends to rely on a certain level of personal identification, requiring the spectator or listener to empathise with the artist’s struggle, and therefore risks leaving others cold and uncomprehending. The Aeroplane album is filled with interesting instrumental sounds, with marching bands and a startling burst head-clearing bagpipes overlaying the fuzzy guitar and Lennon-esque vocals at its core. Their absence from Mangum’s acoustic performance of the songs was keenly felt, leaving them sounding exposed and a little ragged. He was joined on stage for one song by Scott Spillane, with his white tuba, and Julian Koster, bending and bowing his musical saw, but other than that, Mangum was on his own. I know this was an intense and magical show for many, but I’m afraid I remain a non-believer. A curious one who may investigate more, however.

Mangum asked that the set by Western Saharan band Group Doueh be delayed, a reasonable enough request given the sound leakage from the Reds bar below the Centre Stage evident over the weekend. Group Doueh, like their fellow Saharans Tinariwen, base their sound around a harsh, burning lead guitar. This is played by the pater familias, Doueh or Salmou Baamar, who takes his Jimi Hendrix fixation to the point of physical emulation, playing the guitar behind and also on top of his head, turning his back on the audience so that they can better appreciate his showmanship. The rest of the band are largely drawn from Doueh’s extended family, with two female singers, one of them his wife Halima, sharing chanted vocals which lead into extended instrumental passages. These are largely carried by the guitar, which is backed by Doueh’s sons El Waar and Hamdan, the former playing swirling 60s organ, the latter circular, off kilter drum patterns. There was something reminiscent of the freeform nature of San Francisco acid rock to these open ended songs, the guitar and organ pushing on and on to the point where it seems they might never end, leading dancers in an ecstatic St Vitus’ dance. There was a certain disjuncture between the Muslim basis of the music and the beer-soaked surroundings, and mild gambling opportunities provided by various slot machines in the background. But they adapted to their surroundings, and the women danced and provided a bridge to the audience, whilst the men stood stolidly in the background and got on with things.

A helpful ATP attendant told us of a secret jam session to be held in the Reds bar after Group Doueh had finished their set. This proved to be a grand sprawling affair which gathered together members of various groups, members of The Boredoms, The Sun Ra Arkestra, the Elephant 6 Collective and ACME. They packed the stage, slowly finding their way into the simple chant and riff of Sun Ra’s Englightenment, an appropriate enough sentiment with which to round things off. It never developed much, and frankly became musically tiresome pretty soon. James Stewart and Michael Ray from the Arkestra tried to raise everything with some fiery outburst of tenor and trumpet, but to little effect, and after a while wandered off. The Boredoms guitarists looked a little bewildered, and joined in as best they could. Yamatsuke Eye, who I suspect was instrumental in bringing everyone together, looked on from the sidelines. Scott Spillane took up his white tuba once more, which had by this time become a visual signature for the weekend, and paraded out into the audience, Julian Koster, another inveterate collaborator, following him and playing his musical saw percussively against the large horn’s resonant bell. It may have been a mess, but it brought everyone together in a great spirit of bonhomie, and spread a general feeling of different worlds meeting and having a great, raucous blast. It brought the festival to a fitting end, and given that there are to be no more Spring weekends for the foreseeable future, with Minehead ATPs now confined to the dark (and cold) days of December, it may well have also been a last blast as far as I’m concerned. I hope not.


Steve said...

Great to hear the the Arkestra is still going strong - at Butlins of all places! Wish I had seen them.

Jez Winship said...

The odd disparity between performers and setting is one of the incidental pleasures of the Minehead Butlins ATP festivals. Actually, the Arkestra are one of the acts that blend in rather well with the surroundings (The Boredoms, too, who were happily snapping each other by the bizarre statuary and themed attractions scattered throughout). I can imagine Sun Ra himself enjoying the gaudy, colourful artificiality of it all. One of my favourite 'is this really happening?' moments from previous years was hearing Patti Smith tell us she'd just come from watching Doctor Who in her chalet. A new addition to her pantheon of pop cultural outsiders, maybe.