ATP shifted its East Coast operation to Asbury Park in New Jersey for this year’s North American event, after three years in the endearingly ramshackle upstate New York venue Kutsher’s Country Club. The setting was a windswept beach town, largely made famous by Bruce Springsteen, where you could suck on an ice cream and pretend it was summer again while foreboding waves crashed into the shore. It wasn’t exactly ATP: Jersey Shore, but it’s about as close as we’ll ever get to that concept, with a series of bands delivering the most anti-Springsteen racket the good citizens of Asbury have ever heard.
If feels like Shellac barely operate outside the parameters of ATP anymore, but here they were again, taking to the cavernous Convention Center stage to bludgeon everyone with their ten-foot riffage. The sound initially echoed around the still-filling venue—which looks so much like a Seventies high school basketball court that I half expected the cast of Freaks and Geeks to appear — but after a couple of tracks Bob Weston’s bass gained its thump and Steve Albini’s guitar found its mettle. When they execute songs like ‘Wingwalker’ with such ruthless efficiency, all thoughts of them resting on their laurels quickly dissipate. Their noise might be incongruous with the cheerful kiss-me-kwik-hat surroundings of the nearby boardwalk, but it provided a hell of a wake up call for anyone settling into festival mode.
Friday was a little scarce on musical acts. Most people seemed primarily interested in seeing the first of Jeff Mangum’s sets, but Hannibal Buress and Reggie Watts did a decent job of entertaining people who either didn’t care about Neutral Milk Hotel or were seeing Mangum play later in the festival. Buress was particularly amusing, even doing a bit on Odd Future and outing himself as the person who fed 30 Rock star Tracy Morgan a line that got him into considerable trouble recently.
Will Oldham had the task of following Jeff Mangum in his Bonnie 'Prince' Billy guise on Friday. Strangely, his set started far ahead of its scheduled time, meaning Oldham and his full band initially performed several songs to only about 20 people. That’s in keeping with the oddball persona he’s developed over the years—perversely, he seemed progressively less happy as more people flooded into the room. This was a glossy set of country songs, with all the ragged edges that made his earlier work so endearing long gone and, it seems, never likely to return. It was a pro outing that probably would have worked better on a hungover Sunday afternoon than as a Friday night headliner, but Oldham’s cracked voice can still send shivers when he wants it to.
Part of the ATP Asbury Park experience involved converting the nearby Asbury Lanes bowling alley into a makeshift venue, where Brian Shimkovitz of the Awesome Tapes From Africa blog DJ-ed on Friday. Apparently Shimkovitz DJs with those tapes he unearths, but it was difficult to see exactly what he was doing behind the piles of equipment. It didn’t really matter, because he got people to dance to a broad range of music from his collection, most of which we’re unlikely to hear again without downloading everything from his blog and scouring through it (which frankly isn’t such a bad idea).
The Paramount Theater is a beautifully old all-seated space that made a near perfect spot to see Saturday’s opening act Colin Stetson. Lounging around in chairs while Stetson blew great sheets of metal from his sax, then tempered that material with loops and gentler strokes of sound, made it easy to get totally lost in his sound. Most of the songs were drawn from his excellent New History Warfare Vol. 1: Judges, with Stetson wowing the clearly impressed crowd through the sheer emotional heft of his work.
After Stetson is done laying waste to the Paramount it’s back to the bowling alley for the first check-in on Oneida, who once again transported their studio the Ocropolis to ATP for a mammoth jam session. James McNew from Yo La Tengo was sitting in on bass when I arrived, with a couple of guys from Chavez adding to a four-guitar onslaught that was as intense as it was hypnotic. Drummer Kid Millions was soaked in sweat early on — how he made it through the whole eight hours is a mystery — but at one point he was joined by Geoff Barrow on the kit, turning it into an incredible Oneida/Yo La Tengo/Portished supergroup that was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the whole festival.
Oneida’s set ranged from repetitive krautrock jams to contemplative electronic works, and two people familiar with both those fields are Simeon from Silver Apples and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster. Back at the Paramount they performed together as Silver Qluster, delivering a set full of thoughtful ambient passages that (like Stetson before them) offered the hungover masses a chance to zone out prior to the more abrasive fare on offer later on. The music never really gelled to a satisfying degree, it was one of those hit-or-miss collaborations that ATP sometimes delves into, but it was entertaining to watch them try.
The Horrors were one of the poppier outfits on offer here, but their new mode of operation—essentially channeling various strains of Eighties rock acts like Echo & the Bunnymen, the Psychedelic Furs, and Simple Minds—sounded impressive over the immense Convention Hall sound system. Tracks like ‘Endless Blue’ and ‘I Can See Through You’ from Skying demonstrate how far they’ve come as songwriters, although occasionally they can get a little too heavy handed in a live setting, with the otherwise excellent ‘Sea Within a Sea’ losing some of its grace and subtlety.
The Battles set that followed the Horrors was initially mired in muddy sound and Spinal Tap-esque problems with their films, but those quirks quickly dissipated. John Stanier really is a man-mountain of a drummer when he gets his groove on with ‘Ice Cream’ and ‘Sweetie & Shag,’ while ‘Mirrored’ remains a great bolt of energy that surged through the venue via its shuddering bass hits. Todd Trainer from Shellac was watching Stanier with interest from the crowd — a future ATP collaboration by that pair might be the time when all other drummers are forced to hang up their sticks for good. Also: Ian Williams really needs to lose that ‘stache.
Mark Stewart of The Pop Group took an instant disliking to the seating at the Paramount — 'we’re not really a sit down kind of band,' he said early on, getting the masses to rise to their feet. It’s striking how vital the Pop Group sounded here, despite the years passing and the post-punk revival now long gone. ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’, ‘Thief of Fire’ and ‘We Are All Prostitutes’ are all belted out early on, with Stewart a sinewy mess on stage as he contorts his body around the words. Later in the day he’s seen enthusiastically dancing again, this time to the sounds of Factory Floor.
The main act people have come to see on the Saturday beside Portishead is undoubtedly Swans. The Paramount is packed with people, all told to rise out of their seats by Michael Gira, which everyone dutifully obeys (would you really want to disobey Michael Gira?). Swans look fantastic as Gira leads his group of aging reprobates through plenty of songs from My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, which are delivered through an alternating mix of sheer brute power and subtlety. There are other factors stirred in too, like hate, loathing and a great swell of dissatisfaction. Norman Westberg looks fantastically evil at stage left, hammering riffs out of his instrument with a grace and menace that put the younger performers here to shame.
This was the first Portishead show on the East Coast of America for as long as anyone can remember, so the stakes were high when they took to the stage. Those fears were quickly quashed, with the Third material neatly combining with the older songs and a set of impressive projections helping people in the cavernous venue become more immersed in the experience. It’s fascinating watching Beth Gibbons perform — an artist we barely know anything about, looking so small and fragile and scared up there on stage, all hunched up and pouring every fiber of her being into the songs. It’s no wonder Portishead don’t play live often — when the projections zoom in on Gibbons her downturned face resembles a disarming monument to sadness and anguish. But then, at the end, she turns that all around by stagediving into the crowd, leaving preconceptions about her completely up in the air.
Technically Portishead were the Saturday headliners, but Factory Floor played after them at the tiny Asbury Lanes, where they delivered one of their first North American shows. It’s packed and people quickly succumb to their mix of acid electronics and Throbbing Gristle-esque noise. They only really have one song, which is thoroughly milked over the course of this set, but it’s difficult not to give in to their sound when it’s so loud and all consuming.
Anika looked shy and nervous as she took to the stage at the Paramount early on Sunday, but her confidence grew as the set progressed and the guys from BEAK> lent a generous portion of low end to her sound. Her take on ‘Masters of War’ was a standout, with the original song completely obliterated by her dub-heavy take on it. The guy who shouted “I like your tights” at Anika, which quite visibly threw off her concentration, wins a special 'douchebag of the festival' award.
ATP organizer Barry Hogan is obviously a persuasive chap, and getting Company Flow to play their third show in ten years (which El-P announced from the stage) was one of his biggest coups here. The sound faltered and echoed a little, ultimately getting better as the set progressed, but the devoted out front cared little as they quickly got lost in the cut-glass sound that is Company Flow’s province. By the time they got to the set closing ‘8 Steps To Perfection’ it felt like everyone present was willing them to play more, just in case another decade or so passes until the chance comes around again.
Much of the hype around this incarnation of ATP was due to Jeff Mangum’s presence, which ended up with him playing two sets amid high security lest anyone take out a camera and try to capture the event for posterity. In truth it felt great to be at a show where rows of cameras weren’t being held aloft, and a suitable reverence and nervous hush descended on the Paramount when the lights dimmed for his Sunday show. Mangum seemed like an affable guy, cracking jokes with the audience and encouraging sing-alongs, which helped overcome his natural reticence as a performer. I’m not a Neutral Milk Hotel fan, but it’s hard not to be swept up in the moment when you’re in a room full of fans for whom this meant so much, where people were singing their hearts out to set highlight ‘King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2’ and keeping a respectful silence at other times.
The reconfigured sound of Earth has shaved some of the dense blackness out of their work, leaving in its place an odd take on Americana that they don’t seem entirely comfortable with yet. Dylan Carson tells the audience that he briefly went to high school down the street from the venue and plays one of the first Earth songs he wrote to tie in with that period, which is a neat touch in a set that felt lacking in the bite that classic Earth material sinks into your veins.
ATP seems to have thankfully shied away from the “[insert band name] plays a classic album” format lately, with just Public Enemy and their 1990 record Fear of a Black Planet holding up that concept on this bill. Fortunately Chuck D quickly announces they are abandoning that idea, instead playing the bulk of the album plus some greatest hits, and allowing Flavor Flav plenty of mic time to remind us (like we could ever forget) what a huge reality TV star he has become. The sound is powerful and taut, with Chuck’s voice still bring ten tons of steel to a noise that’s already doubled up in density thanks to some borderline-metal shredding and the undeniable skills of DJ Lord on the turntables.
Demand to see Portishead was so great that the band returned for a second headline spot on the Sunday, delivering a set of material that only differed slightly from the previous night. Chuck D came out and rapped a few verses from ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’ over ‘Machine Gun,’ and Simeon from the Silver Apples added a few analog tweaks to the Portishead song that owes the greatest debt to his work (’We Carry On’). There’s a nice touch at the end when Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley come out and thank the crowd for coming out and ATP for putting it together, despite both seeming ill at ease with public speaking. Is this ATP better than the one at the fabled Kutsher’s Country Club? It’s difficult to compare the two, especially with the lack of on-site accommodation at Asbury Park. But it seems likely that everyone at this one will be more than eager to return next year.
photos by Abbey Braden