Once a year the music geek Illuminati meet in their secret headquarters tucked deep in the Catskill Mountains of New York to revel in an orgy of booze, obscure band t-shirts, and unbelievable live music performances by the best-of-the-best in underground music past and present. They call their yearly gathering All Tomorrow’s Parties New York (ATP NY); this weekend the Catskills played host to the third such meeting of the music-minded with a phenomenal three day festival that is really unlike any other. Only at ATP NY could I be dancing at 2AM on a Sunday in a microscopic hotel lounge to the live DJ skills of Kool Herc (the undisputed father of Hip-Hop), spot Jim Jarmusch and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan across the room, and get high-fived by a group of complete strangers because I am wearing a t-shirt for the obscure noise-rock band The God Bullies. For a music geek the trip to ATP NY is a pilgrimage that must be made at least once before you die. This weekend was my second time attending this spectacular celebration of live music and the international music-geek community.* It was one of the most pleasant and enjoyable weekends of live music I’ve ever had.
Each year ATP NY opens with an evening of full album sets as part of their Don’t Look Back series.** This year’s festival opened with the ridiculous Friday night line-up of The Scientists, Mudhoney, Iggy & The Stooges, and Sleep. Each would perform at the highest level and raise the bar for the band to follow. After watching the legendary Australian post-punk rockers The Scientists play their first ever US-show, Mudhoney time-warp us all back to the dirty and dangerous Grunge emergence, and The Stooges whip the crowd into a sweaty inferno fueled by their own mashed human bodies, Sleep emerged to crush us with two-hours of ultra-heavy stoner-doom metal. How any of us survived the first night to continue rocking for another two full-schedule days is a miracle.
The Scientists performed “Blood Red River”: I guess it didn’t make economic sense for this Australian post-punk band to tour the US back in their 80’s heyday or maybe it just took longer than the band’s original lifespan for them to gather a following here; whatever the reason for The Scientists having never played on US soil before. The reunited band made up for almost 30 years of lost time by putting on a fantastic set of their dark-tinted post-punk. Front-man Kim Salmon is a legendary figure in music down-under but here in the US his status is more that of a myth of the underground. I can see where Nick Cave and The Birthday Party may have crowded them out of the US market back in the 80’s due to the bands’ sonic similarities, but on Friday night The Scientists were finally receiving the US recognition they deserve. Salmon delivered a raw and violent vocal performance on Friday that showed off the chilling deepness of his voice as frequently as it did his trademark growl. Tearing through the enhanced “Blood Red River” reissue track list, The Scientists’ heavy rhythm/angular guitar attack was in top form; particularly on the track ‘Demolition Derby’ where the rhythm section chugged along behind Salmon, whose voice ranged from fuzzed-out crooning to sleep deprived howls, while the dual guitars’ jagged jangle descended into noisy chaos. Theirs is a timeless and influential sound that proved the perfect warm-up for Mudhoney, a band that cites The Scientists as a major influence.
Mudhoney performed “Super Fuzz Big Muff plus Early Singles”: This is a band I have been trying to see in concert for twenty-years and on Friday night I finally did. Mudhoney are far and away my favorite band from the Grunge period; they represent the roots and potential of grunge and serve as a constant reminder of the raw essence of a genre that became so over-commercialized that it was barely recognizable by the mid-90’s. I don’t think any band bridges the gap between punk and grunge better than Mudhoney does and their early EP “Super Fuzz Big Muff” as collected with their early singles is the perfect document of all that they represent. Genre pontificating aside, what all of that really means is Mudhoney are exciting as hell and kick tons of ass.
Their set on Friday night was the perfect dichotomy of punk energy and lackadaisical sludge. The set built in energy from the grinding early tracks like the invincible ‘Sweet Young Thing…’ and ‘Mudride’ to the punk riot marathon of ‘In-N-Out of Grace’. The ATP NY main-stage is in this great, tiered, Borscht Belt ballroom and when Mudhoney launched into the body of ‘In-N-Out of Grace’ the crowd went so ballistic that it seemed like bodies were crowd surfing from the highest tier all the way down to the floor. One of the many things I love about ATP NY is that the crowd is mostly composed of true die-hard music nuts, so when a band is lighting it up on-stage that crowd reacts in whatever way their genre demands. During Mudhoney the crowd didn’t disappoint as they transformed the Starlight Ballroom into a sea of bobbing heads for the uber-enthused to stage-dive into. I was watching in complete satisfaction as Mudhoney stirred the crowd into a good old fashioned, good natured, early-90’s melee.
The Stooges performed “Raw Power” (and then some): I previewed The Stooges in Atlantic City a week ago and they gave it the gusto playing to a half-full House of Blues. I had seen The Stooges in 2007 with Ron Asheton on guitar (RIP) and that was one of the best things I have ever been to. The AC show featured the return of James Williamson on guitar and “Raw Power” material for the first time in just about forever. The show was a real stunner put on for the small but dedicated crowd and after seeing it I thought I knew what I was in store for at the upcoming ATP. Boy, was I wrong.
Iggy Stooge is the great punk rock madman and on Friday night he let loose in a violent, dangerous way that was different from the demented but friendly Iggy I saw in 2007 and in Atlantic City. I think playing the violence-themed “Raw Power” album for such a ridiculously excited and music-savvy audience really gave Iggy a shot in the arm. Not that he needs one – ever. The man has boundless, freakish energy when performing and a crowd giving Iggy their energy like they did on Friday is like giving an adrenalin shot to a meth-addicted, rage-monkey from the film 28 Days Later. As the band tore through “Raw Power” (slightly out of sequence) and then tunes from “Funhouse” and “The Stooges”, Iggy ran around the stage ramming into speaker towers, spitting on the crowd, dousing himself in water, whipping his wet-hair around, and beating his mic-stand against the floor. Iggy sang his heart out while flailing around like a maniac, completely in the moment and ignoring the consequences of his actions. The bouncers, usually in place to protect the talent, alternated between protecting the crowd from Iggy and then protecting Iggy from himself. At one point Iggy tipped over a massive speaker and then started swinging from an even bigger speaker that hung from the ceiling. I mean this thing was massive and could have crushed the entire floor crowd. The bouncers had to pull him off of it. While he spun off in another destructive direction the stage crew had to quickly dislodge the first speaker from where Iggy had wedged it under the ceiling-hanger. It was tricky work to do while Iggy bounced around like a pinball. It was a captivating performance from one of music’s all-time legendary performers.
Musically the band were overly-loud and tight. James Williamson’s guitar playing was nasty and brutish to match the infamous amped-to-11 “Raw Power” sound. His solos were really impressive too, considering he hadn’t touched a guitar in 20 years before being called up from the rock-n-roll reserves about a year ago. Mike Watt and Scott Asheton laid down the rhythm like nobody’s business, especially on the awesome ‘Shake Appeal’; so good to be hearing that played live. The personal highlight of the set for me was hearing ‘You’re Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’; there is just something so inappropriate feeling about hearing that song performed live. It also didn’t hurt that Iggy was swinging his mic-stand dangerously close to the faces in the crowd as he screamed that song’s eponymous chorus. This was a legendary performance.
Sleep performed “Holy Mountain”***: By the time Sleep took the stage I was (along with the rest of the audience) completely mind-blown by the one-two-three combo of performances I had just watched. No rest for the wicked at ATP NY though. Sleep are perhaps the definitive Stoner Doom Metal band. While not the first in the genre, their epic-length, ultra bass-heavy, monster jams set the standard for most of the stoner doom to follow. While I don’t partake of the green stuff, I am hooked on a lot of its musical by-products. Listening to Sleep is like having my headbanger friends from high-school retell their pot-fueled Dungeons & Dragons adventures over a water-damaged cassette copy of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” playing on a tape-deck wrapped in a down comforter.
I always knew Sleep were an ultra-heavy, grinding, metal band but it wasn’t until witnessing their two-hour, fog-shrouded, sludgy onslaught on Friday that I realized their absurd yet hypnotic power. I guess I never listened to “Holy Mountain” loud enough to fully get it; or maybe, without marijuana, one must see Sleep perform to even begin to fathom how huge they sound. Much like The Stooges’ set Sleep’s performance was less about recreating an album than it was meant to bludgeon the crowd into a dazed state and drag them along by their ears to a higher plane of musical enlightenment. I know this sounds ridiculous but it is true. Sleep were on a mission to completely rock the fuck out until they leveled the place. And that they did. People were dropping like flies as Sleep relentlessly pounded the crowd over and over again with slow and heavy fists of sound. By set’s end, what casual listeners that remained shook their heads in disbelief at the stoner doom power that had been unleashed before them, while the truly dedicated and the truly high-out-of-their-minds were amassed at the band’s feet, tossing up the horns in honor of one of metal’s finest reunions.
* I attended the first ATP NY in 2008 which was curated by none other than My Bloody Valentine.
** ATP is a UK concert promotion group and they started the whole full-album set trend years ago.
*** I think they mixed in excerpts from their hour-long single “Dopesmoker” and maybe some unreleased stuff also.