It’s perpetually 1972 at Kutsher’s Country Club, the utterly perfect location for the New York incarnation of ATP. The event may attract several generations of indie rock fan, but for the people who run the resort this is no different to a local wedding or bar-mitzvah. So Jim Jarmusch and David Cross stalk the corridors while high haired ladies staff the cosmetics counter and a lovely old man performs Patsy Cline covers on his organ. Imagine Steve Albini walking into the department store inAre You Being Served? while Mrs. Slocombe carries on regardless, and you’re somewhere close to picturing the bizarro world of ATP New York.
The large white grand piano on the stage should have been a tell-tale sign. People are still finding their feet at ATP and the first big surprise of the weekend has already occurred. Warren Ellis leads his band onstage with a grin spread thick across his face, because this isn’t going to be a show by The Dirty Three; it’s a Dirty Four performance. Yes, Mr. Nick Cave is in the house, sitting at the piano and fumbling his way through a set of numbers from the Ocean Songs album. Ellis is in great form, pulling some Alex Harvey-esqe moves as he wreaks havoc on his violin and making a bid for inclusion on the adjacent comedy stage with his witty in-between song patter. The monolithic ‘Deep Waters’ is the high point, with Cave spending part of the time looking for cues from guitarist Mick Turner and the rest with his eyes tight shut in deep contemplation.
Ellis seems awe-struck when he announces that Suicide are up next. They’re also here as part of the Don’t Look Back series, and have promised to dredge up the now-ancient gear they used on their classic first album. Martin Rev plays impassively behind shades and still looks like someone you wouldn’t want to meet while taking a leak down a dark alley. Alan Vega looks a little rough around the edges as he dodders around the stage, just about holding it together. The volume is punishingly loud and the crowd thins out towards the end, no doubt driven from the venue by the exact same musical nihilism that rained down on audiences’ heads back in ‘77.
Noah Lennox’s Panda Bear set is at odds with the retro theme of the day, but he presumably played here to avoid a two-gigs-in-one-night scenario on Saturday. His live show is divided between new numbers, a few Person Pitch cuts, and reworkings of Animal Collective songs. The new material feels like sketches of tracks and ideas that haven’t been fully realized yet, with Lennox’s choirboy vocals acting as a constant thread throughout. An entirely beatless song is built from watery samples that sound like they were recorded in the vast lake outside; another is all jerky, jagged edges, more ‘Chores’ than ‘My Girls’. A reggae-fied ‘I’m Not’ is the highlight. The set ends with Lennox lost in music and running overtime, causing an official to politely ask him to pull the plugs.
This isn’t the first time David Cross has played ATP, but it’s unlikely he was this drunk last time around. People are packed into the second stage to see his headline act, where he frequently rambles off topic and forgets where he was heading. At times it feels like he’s dissecting his own material as he goes along, but he just about manages to avoid wallowing in his own self-indulgence. Bits about paedophiles, a mug that tells the time, his hopeless alcoholism, and a postcard with a date rape theme all amuse, but Cross’s near-constant compulsion to remind us that he’s really, really drunk gets a little tiring.
First thought on seeing The Jesus Lizard as they hit the Starlight Ballroom for their headline act: Time has been surprisingly kind to David Yow. Sure, he looks a little weathered. But didn’t he always? He’s already in the crowd during first song, spitting bile into people’s faces, occasionally resembling an angry farmer telling a group of kids to get off his land, and thankfully neglecting to drape his cock and balls across the sweat-soaked faces in the front row. People are still arriving as they begin their set, and Yow lands smack on his face on the floor as the crowd parts during one painful early stagedive. That’s gotta hurt a man of his advancing years. The village idiot stomp of ‘Nub’, the elasticated guitar of ‘Mouthbreather’ and a frantic ‘Fly on the Wall’ are all delivered with gusto, and Steve Albini’s assertion that Mac McNeilly and David Sims are the best rhythm section in the world doesn’t look far wrong, even if the latter looks like he’s passing a particularly troublesome stool while he plays.
Friday night’s partying at Kutsher’s stretched long into the night, so Sufjan Stevens announces that he’s going to play the ultra quiet Seven Swans album to sooth hangovers. It partly works, although at times his somnambulant pluckings are in danger of sending the audience back to sleep. The pristine sound and endearing politeness of Stevens’ performance are somewhat at odds with the rest of this ATP lineup, and the main bugbear is that his work often resembles country music shorn of all the elements that make the genre interesting. There are no tales of 3am bar scraps or women who have done him wrong, and ‘All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands’ is an unpalatably mawkish song title. But, to his credit, he does play some neatly understated banjo lines.
A mobile massage team has set up in the entrance to the Starlight just before Black Dice perform their set, providing festivalgoers with the chance to relax while listening to some of the most coruscating music on the planet. Like Suicide on Friday, Black Dice crank up the Kutsher’s PA to ear-bleeding levels, causing people to flee the venue before they’ve barely struck a note. It’s a feeling akin to intravenously ingesting a great pile of rotten food, but it’s a thrilling experience to see them stick their skewed Pynchon pop through such a powerful system, with filmmaker Danny Perez mixing visuals behind them and great globules of distended noise causing the entire venue to shake and rattle at the hinges.
Bradford Cox should win a Most Garish Shirt award as he spends an interminable amount of time setting up to give us his Atlas Sound set. He’s decided to perform acoustically today, with occasional electronic accompaniment. The sound is occasionally reminiscent of a lo-fi take on Neil Young’s Harvest, especially when Cox blows heavy through a mouth organ. Technical difficulties blight the performance, sparking plenty of amusing between-song banter, but the decision to not perform anything from Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel engenders a lukewarm reception at best. Only a handful of people respond affirmatively when Cox asks whether we’ve all heard Logos, suggesting that it’s wise to keep a few familiar songs to hand. And he cruelly taunts us that he was going to perform ‘Walkabout’ with you-know-who at the end, although he doesn’t seem entirely serious in his intentions.
ATP mainstays Shellac deliver their brute strength rock to a strangely subdued crowd during the middle of the day. Shellac now feels like an autopilot no-brainer for Steve Albini and Bob Weston, who are respectively running an executive card room and a baseball tournament at ATP. Their earliest material (‘My Black Ass’, ‘Wingwalker’) still receives the liveliest reception, with Albini smothering the songs with great sheets of iron ore guitar and the whole band generally operating like a very precise piece of industrial machinery. Their sound and repartee hasn’t changed much and probably never will, although Albini does briefly adopt a terrible borscht belt accent for this show.
Bradford Cox is a picture of serenity as he swaps his shirt for a more tasteful number and leads Deerhunter into their Saturday night set. He announces that this will be their last performance for some time, causing the band to roll out the hits in quick-fast fashion. They gallop through ‘Cryptograms’ and ‘Nothing Ever Happened’, the positively herculean double guitar sound feeling unstoppable and a sense of jubilation ricocheting between the walls as people succumb to these great big shining pop songs. The closing ‘Calvary Scars’ is a slab of beautiful kraut-pop, with Lockett Pundt’s metallic Tim Gane-esque strum leading the way, face-painted kids jerking their bodies back and forth, and Cox looking genuinely sad that this will be the last time these songs will be wrung from his fingers and throat for a while.
ATP causes tough choices to be made, and the amount of people revealing themselves as dual Melvins and Animal Collective fans raises a few eyebrows. I plump for the latter, mainly because the last show they played in New York was over two nights to 12,000 paying customers. In short, they’re not going to be playing a venue of this size again any time soon. The bass is utterly overwhelming as the opening ‘Grace’ whorls around the room, arms are held aloft and a huge swell of people start dancing as the hypnotic pan-flute sample kicks in. A twinkling, heliocentric guitar passage sucks all the energy in the room into the centre of ‘Fireworks’, which replaces the former ‘Essplode’ section and causes the song to be so all-consuming that it feels too short in this close-to-20-minute version. The closing ‘Brother Sport’ is utterly euphoric, with the whole venue bouncing up and down and screaming along to Panda Bear’s chants as the immense volume becomes simply overwhelming.
Oneida have transported their Ocropolis recording studio to ATP for this performance and are playing an all-day-long jam alongside various luminaries from the festival. I check them out at 2pm, 6pm and 9.30pm, and by sheer luck that first stint happens to be the precise moment that Steven Drozd and Kliph Scurlock from the Flaming Lips are both accompanying the band on drums. The music remains recognizably Oneida-esque, with Drozd and Scurlock adding pounding, eardrum-strangling beats behind them. At 6pm the band members are still going strong and are joined by another group of players, but by 9.30 Hanoi Jane is sitting on the floor, looking like he might be about to pass out, and probably questioning his decision to go through with all of this. Remarkably, there’s always something interesting going on despite the colossal effort facing them, and checking in on Oneida becomes a bit like visiting an ailing patient in a hospital ward. “Shall we go and see how Oneida are getting on?” is heard throughout the day all over Kutsher’s, the concern in people’s voices rising as the night wears on. Sadly, I don’t get to see them perform with this next band, although I’m reliably informed it did happen…
We’re ridiculously spoilt for choice at this ATP, but no one was going to forgo the chance to see the Boredoms' opening set at the Starlight on Sunday. This is a Boadrum set, culled from the same nine-drummer lineup that performed at 9:09pm on 09/09/09 in New York City. Initially, Yamantaka Eye strokes his seven-neck guitar like an affectionate pet while eight drummers sit in a circle around him. Eye begins to beat the guitar with sticks, the pace picks up, and suddenly the ninth member of the circle is being carried into the venue on a platform held aloft by wheezing minions while he thwacks away at his kit. Truly unbelievable stuff. Eye starts to resemble a Japanese Lee 'Scratch' Perry as he leads the ensemble on the march towards bedlam, and the music flows between ragga, tribal thumping, and a bordering-on religious fervor. To cap the performance, a towering Kutsher’s worker begins to dismantle the drum kits in mid performance after the Boadrum crew overshoot their time slot.
The Flaming Lips curated this day of the festival, and it’s no surprise to find the Dave Friedman-produced Black Moth Super Rainbow on the bill. Their sun-dazed bad acid hippy sound doesn’t translate particularly well to the live arena, although it might have worked if Kutsher’s had provided a flotation tank for every audience member. A person in an ape suit larks about half-heartedly as they play, and the mysterious Tobacco proves to be so stage shy that it’s impossible to see him as he crouches in a corner somewhere.
Similarly, Super Furry Animals are disappointing by their (admittedly, extremely high) standards. The opening ‘Slow Life’ and ‘Rings Around the World’ indicate this is going to be a greatest hits set, but they quickly settle into a string of songs from the disappointing Dark Days/Light Years, causing people to shuffle out of the venue. Gruff Rhys is as charming as ever as he holds up a series of daft signs, but even he doesn’t seem particularly enamored with the new songs. He’s clearly a kindred spirit of Wayne Coyne, and sometimes it feels like Gruff just needs a swift kick up the bum so he can find his very own Soft Bulletin.
The closing act on the second stage is No Age with Bob Mould, who promise to deliver a set of Hüsker Dü songs. As it turns out, they give us a mixture of choice No Age cuts and Hüsker Dü classics, beginning with a rip-roaring canter through ‘Something I Leaned Today’. Mould looks like a little kid filled with joy on stage, while Randy Randall and Dean Spunt still have those is-this-really-happening grins plastered to their faces. Everyone turns everything up to 11 to offset the lack of bass, and Mould puts just as much of himself into No Age tracks like ‘Boy Void’ and ‘Eraser’ as he does to ‘Makes No Sense At All’ and ‘New Day Rising’. Mould even gives us some Pete Townsend windmilling before the set is done, and the by-now ubiquitous Bradford Cox joins the jubilance for a run-through of the Heartbreakers’ classic ‘Chinese Rocks’ while a watching Jim Jarmusch nods his approval.
How to end this? With The Flaming Lips, of course. Even hardened Jesus Lizard and Shellac fans, standing at the back, their arms tightly folded, seem to cave in as Wayne Coyne works his charm on the crowd. Like most Lips shows, the venue is instantly covered in confetti, balloons are everywhere, the singer is being passed over the crowd in a bubble, and yes we’ve seen it all before, and no it hasn’t gotten tired or old, not even for a second. A few new songs are scattered liberally throughout the set, but all anyone here wants to do is to put their arms in the air and sing their hearts out to ‘Do You Realize??’. It’s the end of a magical weekend, and Coyne knows it, getting all teary eyed as he muses on whether this might be the greatest collection of bands ever gathered together on this side of the pond. He may well be right. The surprise highlight is ‘The W.A.N.D.’, which is drilled into our skulls via Drozd’s bigger-than-God riff, causing the entire venue to buckle and quake under its sheer density. With a bit of luck, Kutsher’s will still be standing so we can do it all again next year.
Photos by Abbey Braden