Portishead's Nightmare Before Christmas: the DiS review
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It’s ATP three of three – I’ve now spent more time at Minehead’s Butlins than I have at my own parents’ house in 2007. Following on from the Dirty Three-curated April edition and May’s Versus The Fans hit-after-hit bill, Portishead’s vision of the annual Nightmare Before Christmas has a lot to live up to. That said, it couldn’t possibly prove as soul-sucking and one-dimensional as Thurston Moore’s lamentable instalment of the December festival twelve months earlier, could it? Certainly the eclecticism of the bill suggested not: the headliners had attracted big names from the hip-hop world alongside some drone and metal heavyweights.
Back to the Sonic Youth guitarist momentarily: he’s here, present and correct on the (main) Pavilion Stage, on Friday evening. I’ve arrived a little later than usual, delayed further by having to drop my belongings for the weekend off at a not-so-near B&B (no on-site stay for Mike this time out; instead, blessed silence come 11pm, a sea view and the most comfortable bed I’ve had the pleasure of being intimate with for ages). Therefore the first act witnessed by ears craving that pleasurable sting and eyes salivating at the prospect of hour after hour of out-there avant-rock expression is… The Horrors. The high-fashion Londoners might seem out of their depth, writhing about the Pavilion Stage like current-sparking pokers had been rammed up their backsides, but they’re entirely capable of kicking up a true shit-storm of a cacophony. Problem: everything’s so fuzzed into distortion that distractions come easily: 2p machines yield prizes and I’m twiddling fingers ‘til Moore.
Thurston Moore - Pavilion Stage, Friday
A warm reception for The Horrors – not unexpected given the open-minded nature of the regular ATP crowd, but pleasing nonetheless given their considerable profile and previous disdain directed their way from would-be indier-than-thou sorts – is followed by one bordering on discomfortingly hot for Thurston. With Steve Shelley on drums and Chris Brokaw on guitar, Moore dissects his recent Trees Outside The Academy LP with smile-spreading venom; how he makes an acoustic guitar squeal like an animal caught under a car’s wheels - like Charlie Says' Charlie, even - is beyond me. Members of The Horrors watch from the crowd, themselves enraptured with the performance. ‘Frozen Guitar’ is sublime, and come the set’s climax the familiar feeling of ATP comfort slips into place. Here I am, entertain me… by destroying my ear drums for three days straight.
To anyone who’s never been to ATP it’s tough to convey the festival’s appeal, even at events where the line-up isn’t as strong as previous curators’ attempts. There’s an atmosphere about the place – even in such odd surroundings as a garishly decorated holiday camp designed to stimulate bratty kids into wearing themselves out come seven so dad can slink off to the Sun And Moon to drink proper beer and watch Sky Sports – that just feels… nice.
So I can shrug off the fact that PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish completely fails to connect with the Centre Stage audience and stroll, instead, down to Hot Shots – one of many on-site bars – for a pint and another go at the 2p slot machine slide-slide things (two keyrings are ‘won’). Here I walk into – literally – someone who I believe to be Serge from hooligan-endorsed indie chumps Kasabian; stunned, I have to seek confirmation from DiS snapper Toby Price and Lovvers’ Henry Withers that, yes, said guitar monkey is strolling about the place. Also seen frequently over the course of the weekend is Colin Greenwood; he doesn’t show for a scheduled DJ set because, apparently, he’s utterly wasted still. Friend-of-DiS Manish Agarwal – Mojo writer and all-round good egg – fills in for the* Radiohead *man at the last minute.
Fuck Buttons - Reds, Friday
Friday night is brought to a climax in Reds (essentially the third stage, if you like) by Fuck Buttons. The London-based duo – signed to the label branch of ATP of course, who will release their Street Horrrsing LP early next year – craft curtains of luscious sonic-scapes that are draped and rippled about the assembled throng with subtlety and grace. Their problem – if you deem it one at all – is that none of their material to date dares to take that final stride into territories they skirt around; it’s neither aggressive enough to trouble minds regularly beset by the bombast of acts like Wolf Eyes and Hair Police, and nor is it as beautiful and enveloping as the best work of Keith Fullerton Whitman, or Growing. Still, with pulsating potential dance-floor fillers like ‘Bright Tomorrow’ in their canon – assuming said dance-floor is the domain of denizens of the very broadest musical horizons, of course – they’re sure to be spreading joyous tinnitus throughout ’08. ‘Less they send you to sleep instead, that is, which they do my tag-along fiancée.
Strolling back through Minehead, long after midnight, it’s refreshing to see youths loitering outside late-night take-aways and not asking for a quid or threatening to cut my fat if I look at them the wrong way. We’re a long way from London, friends.
Saturday begins with shopping in the local Co-Op – saves on over-spending for sandwiches and soft drinks on site – and strolling the Minehead streets in search of a semi-decent boozer to while away an hour in. Failing to locate one this time out, I settle on the Family Pub of The Year 2005, The Hairy Dog. Awful, awful name, but a pint of Exmoor Gold and the first half of Villa against Portsmouth warms me up nicely for Pavilion-openers Oneida.
The Brooklyn boys are in fine, fine spirits, getting the early-doors crowd moving at an unusual hour – namely two in the afternoon; at most ATPs I’m still recovering in bed about now – with the knee-jerkingly brilliant ‘Up With People’. Engaging banter between songs ensures all slope away satisfied, Bobby Matador asking all and sundry to consider his band for their kids’ birthday parties. “Call us,” he shouts; if we could, we would. Less gratifying are Autolux, whose set on the Centre Stage attracts a sizeable crowd but fails to absorb this attendee. While efforts from their last LP Future Perfect sounded sweet three years ago, a discernable lack of forward momentum leaves them sounding stagnant before their time. Perhaps their next album – slated for a 2008 release, but with no date set in stone – will surprise the doubters spawned in the wake of this ATP performance.
Autolux - Centre Stage, Saturday
A clash with Malcolm Middleton – the Scot plays the Pavilion Stage – sees the crowd for both Autolux and the former Arab Strap man alter midway through each act’s set; I roll up to Middleton after 20 minutes in the company of the Los Angeles trio, and just in time for ‘We’re All Going To Die’ and a bout of People Watching. Come on, we all do it: a band’s on but your eyes are flitting about the crowd, partially in hope of seeing somebody you know – a regular happening at all ATPs – and partially because, well, the festival attracts Very Good Looking Sorts. Even the weirdie-beardies are looking hawt today. Look at them all, singing along: “My face is a disease”.
_Interlude: Malcolm Middleton by Chris Alcxxk
Without wishing to turn DiS into The Daily Mail, it must be remarked that it's nice to have some actual songs amongst the rest of ATP's krautnoisespaz, and Malcolm Middleton delivers with aplomb. Managing to successfully combine wit and poignancy in every song is the rare trick that lifts this above being just any other Scottish, folky indie band, as shown in a stream of near-anthems from latest album_ A Brighter Beat. Fuck it - I love this.
Another crossing of paths with Greenwood, C – I should say something, but being an ATP festival-goer restricts your fan-boy desires; when I held a door open for Nick Cave earlier this year, I didn’t even dare utter a “That’s okay” when he thanked me – later, I find myself in the company of GZA, backed by the bounding-about Dreddy Kruger and the hotdog-queuing (minutes after leaving the stage) Killah Priest. Liquid Swords, GZA’s landmark LP of 1995, receives the Don’t Look Back treatment – start to finish, but no less riveting for the no-surprises set-list ordering. With hands aloft, ‘W’ for the Wu everywhere, the party descends on ATP a little earlier than expected – it’s barely gone five.
Glenn Branca - Centre Stage, Saturday
Glenn Branca’s tiresome, shriek-shrill instrumentals (although, perhaps, enough time he was not afforded) have me wandering the halls once more, stopping only to take in a little Hawk And A Hacksaw. Jeremy Barnes’ music is something I can enjoy in isolation, but today on the largest of three stages his arrangements are only of limited attractiveness. It’s curry night at the Sun And Moon, so fiancée and I settle down for a proper meal, off a plate and everything (our sandwiches consumed during Oneida now long forgotten). Reading are thumping Liverpool on the television; everything feels good with the world.
Portishead are playing the second of their two sets; having chosen to perform on the enclosed Centre Stage, the trip-hop legends’ crowd is split into those with black wristbands (first night) and those with silver ones (tonight). I have neither, but hell, I’m a journalist, here on a day ticket essentially – surely I’ll be alright. A hand on my chest suggests otherwise: “If you were meant to be up here you’d have a silver band.” _“What? Really… hang on…” “Move aside, please.”
I – stupidly – lay a hand on the guy whose hand is on me, and apply the tiniest amount of pressure, just enough to knock the gentleman (for I am sure he just that in any other circumstances) off balance. His colleague is less than pleased. Fiancée drags me away before things get nasty – i.e. before I get thumped. I throw an almighty hissy-fit only to calm down five minutes later when it transpires friends of friends, and their friends, have a plan. Another ten minutes later we’re all inside: take that, heavy-handed security and your silver wristband blah blah rules and regulations. Although you do a very fine job, really. Really. Pint?
Portishead - Centre Stage, Saturday
Inside, familiar crackles and scratches. A hunched, marionette-alike figure, clutching a microphone close, like it offered her some sort of hiding place from on-looking eyes, eager to be teary with nostalgia and optimism for the future alike. Portishead go against the ATP grain in some respects, one key consideration being that their particular style of music has, in the wider mainstream, entirely died out. Trip-hop was a short-lived phenomenon, hot stuff in the Bristol area considered its melting pot but hardly the stuff of longevity and heavy influence; the sound-alikes were embarrassingly shallow, and only two acts really continue to stand above the slew of forgotten sorts – Massive Attack and this weekend’s curators. Their music isn’t generally seen as something for tomorrow, though; its place in musical history is assured, but just how often do you go back to Dummy?
Exactly, so it’s vitally important that any new material aired tonight leaves an impression. It does, brilliantly: one arrangement is truly evil-sounding, stripped of embellishments that so often over-egged songs in their catalogue to date, and as it bleeds into a stirring ‘Over’ the contrast between the ambitiously naked and archaically emblazoned couldn’t be more pronounced. The classics are unearthed, of course, for the occasion. ‘Glory Box’ sounds thrillingly visceral, and ‘Wandering Star’ is all the better for its added languidness, guided to a close by deft turntablism; ‘Humming’, meanwhile, remains as chilling as it was upon first investigation in 1997. Despite initial trepidation, Portishead overcome any sceptics in the audience with a set deserving of their curator status, and all that meets Beth Gibbons’ apology of “Sorry if I made any mistakes” is a massive round of applause.
Julian Cope spends most of his Pavilion Stage set yakking away rather than playing anything classifiable as a song, and Seasick Steve’s headlining slot on said stage is followed by the discovery of slashed tyres on his mode of transport for the weekend. Bad form, vandals, bad form.
Julian Cope - Pavilion Stage, Saturday
_Interlude: Aphex Twin by Adam Anonymous
It begins with muted, modest beats, as if Richard D James is gently waking his laptop. Signature locks appear to be shorn. There’s relative calm; hip-hop tempos thump out. Several potential ravers filter out. You people didn’t fulfil your potential. Maybe you never will. Aphex Twin builds momentum. He always does. And then, it’s there: that acid snake of a mutated synth thing. Rarely the same twice – admittedly, you never, ahem, quite remember the finest acidtechnojunglebass burnouts – Aphex Twin is still atop his game, masterful as ever, ruining hundreds of heads, legs and livers in the process._
Sunday’s dawn heralds another slow start – the first act I sit down for is John Cooper Clark, after finally discovering a semi-decent Minehead public house that serves a recommended roast and has a pair of cheap pool tables (won one, lost one; put Grizzly Bear on the jukebox and the landlord turned it down). Jonnie immediately connects with the crowd, who chuckle along with every hit and miss gag he cracks; when his poems end the room erupts, the best – a closing wobble through ‘Evidently Chickentown’, a requested and reprised for modern times ‘Beasley Street’, and the excellently caustic ‘Twat’ – rightly received like the classics they demand to be pigeonholed as. And he’s right, too: you will always get a guy with a pie. He merrily bids everyone a merry Christmas and departs, trumping the comedian seen the night before with his understated stage presence and good-time vibes.
John Cooper Clark - Centre Stage, Sunday
That comedian the night before: Jerry Sadowitz, who plays the second of his two sets in Jumpin Jaks; the room’s rather less than bouncing, of course, ‘cause we’re all sat down. Ish. I’m stood up, actually, and a man with an earpiece is saying where I can and can’t stand. Apparently Jerry’s very serious when it comes to marshalling his crowd – so we can’t stand where we can see his purposefully poor magic tricks executed between jokes that don’t so much toy with topics of racism and sexism as fuck them hard in every orifice available. With a reputation to preserve – that of the most foul-mouthed comedian on the circuit – Sadowitz doesn’t disappoint the faithful, but newcomers are left puzzled somewhat: just what is this motor-mouth’s appeal? He swears a lot, isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, and has a tiny wee penis. A comedian’s comedian is a succinct enough summary.
Boris, upstairs on Centre Stage, are phenomenal. ‘Pink’ and ‘Woman On The Screen’ find the Japanese trio pulling off some fine cock-rock poses amidst a flurry of heavily-amped aggressive rock, melodic for sure but accessibility tempered by volume. The crowd goes off, as it were, for much of their synapses-shredding set. Fiancée turns: “This is the best thing I’ve seen this weekend.” They have a gong. A gong. Intensity levels upped to well beyond eleven, Boris set some precedent for what’s to follow: Earth and Sunn 0))) have a lot to live up to.
Boris - Centre Stage, Sunday
_Interlude: Earth by Adam Anonymous
While soon afterwards on the same stage Sunn 0))) carve grinding hell frequencies and allegedly fight each other, the band that inspired them, Earth, entrance in an entirely different manner. Led by Dylan Carlson, AKA the dude who bought the firearm Kurt Cobain shot himself with, their magical spaghetti western drone shows most up for the heavy-handed chord-holders they are. Carlson’s between-song chatter voice – somewhere between David Yow and Cartman from South Park _– is unnerving to say the least. But the new moments, with slow-building subtlety, suggest upcoming album _The Bee Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull could be their finest. _
Interlude: Sunn 0))) by Manish Agarwal _ My short Sunn 0))) review: Atilla Cshar was dressed like a tree... Greg Anderson smacked Stephen O'Malley right in the kisser... two speaker stacks came tumbling down... end of set... it was really bloody LOUD._
Sunn 0))) - Centre Stage, Sunday
Damo Suzuki is everywhere, all weekend, but sadly I miss his actual set; I do make time for Black Mountain, though, who fill the Pavilion Stage are(n)a, aka the Skyline Pavilion, better than any other act of the weekend. Front to back, the sound is brilliant, and tracks from their forthcoming (and sure to feature in best-of-2008 lists even at this stage) In The Future album nestle comfortably beside more familiar cuts from their self-titled debut of a couple of years ago. Compositionally simple, immediate and absorbing, Stephen McBean and company take all before them on a tumble-ride through psychedelic stoner rock grooves and wig-out rollicking. Amber Webber, also of Lightning Dust, provides sultry back-up vocals which sooth any burn left by blistering guitar weaves and gut-trembling drum runs. If you’ve not already witnessed them in the flesh, be sure to catch Black Mountain in 2008 – on record they can prove patchy, but live they excel.
Madlib - Pavilion Stage, Sunday
Fuck Buttons play another set; Crippled Black Phoenix are great but take an age to actually come on stage; a Coke machine swallows my money; as does Sega Rally; bastard machines; end.
For more, more, more on ATP, click to their website. Coming in May 2008: ATP vs Pitchfork and a weekend curated by Explosions In The Sky.
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