The All Tomorrow’s Parties music marathon continued into day three on Sunday. The line-up for the third day of ATP NY is always hand-picked by an invited curator. In years past the curators of ATP NY have been My Bloody Valentine and The Flaming Lips. Being a DJ, I think this is one of the most unique and cool festival traditions ever; the curator basically gets to program their own music festival, sharing and sometimes inflicting their eclectic tastes with/on the world. This year ATP invited Jim Jarmusch to curate day three of ATP NY. Jarmusch is known as an guiding light in indie film making with films like “Mystery Train” and “Dead Man”, but he also has strong musical connections that make him an inspired choice to curate. Jarmusch’s films are chock full of great music and he has employed a host of great musicians as actors over the years ranging from Joe Strummer to GZA. Perhaps the most interesting and little known Jim Jarmusch music factoid is that the man himself was in a No Wave band in the early 80’s called The Del-Byzanteens. He even did a secret jam with No Age in a hotel room at ATP NY 2009.
Jarmusch did not disappoint as curator. His hand-picked programming featured a wide-range of styles including hip-hop, lo-fi, heavy psych, hardcore punk, blues, and doom metal. Attending ATP on Sunday was like living inside Jim Jarmusch’s iPod for a day. I spent most of the day hanging out at the second stage, which is set up in a large dining hall where one could imagine wedding receptions and bar mitzvah parties taking place for the last 50 years. ATP transforms this room into a bunker nightclub by blocking all outside light with blackout curtains which adds a weird London Blitz vibe to the place too. Second stage makes for a very odd setting to see live music performed and watching a day full of guitar freak-outs and psychedelic melt-downs there seemed like a perfect fit. Adding to the surreal nature of my second stage day, I kept seeing Jim Jarmusch everywhere!*
White Hills: The afternoon started incredibly strong with a rare set by heavy-psych rockers White Hills. I have been hoping to catch these guys for a long time and Jarmusch adding them to his line-up was a big draw for me. White Hills’ sound is a classic psychedelic rock featuring organs, deep stoner bass-lines, and expansive, effects laden guitar trips.
Unceremoniously taking the stage in rather silly get-ups and with painted faces, White Hills donned their gear, plugged in, and got down to work. Within seconds their unholy racket enveloped the crowd and for 45-minutes squeezed tighter and tighter. Each song raised the intensity level, each new guitar solo getting longer and more complex. Having finally seen him play live, I feel safe in declaring Dave W a guitar god. On their records it is hard to believe all that all the noise is him, seeing him generate it a few feet in front of you is simply spiritual. With teeth gnashed and hair flying all over the place, this angry dude in patent leather pants, platform boots, and silver face paint ripped reality a new one.
The band around him were fantastic too. Especially Ego Sensation, the tall, blond bass player and co-singer. Her bass-lines on ‘Countin Sevens’ from their new self-titled album were amazing. Dave W and Ego had some great physical interaction during their jam session that made them a really fun band to watch. That’s them in this article’s lead picture. By the end of their monster set, I was a little shook-up. After Friday, Saturday and White Hills’ blazing day opening set I didn’t know how much more aural punishment my body could take.
Kurt Vile: I have been wanting to check out this lo-fi wunderkind for awhile now. His albums are fantastic. I recommend all of them. Vile embraces weird sounds and yet writes pretty classic songs that remind me of Velvet Underground era Lou Reed. Known for showing up in a myriad of live configurations, I don’t think anyone had a clue what Vile was going to do at ATP. Watching the stage crew load-in for Kurt’s set it became clear that he had a backing band in tow. Calling themselves Kurt Vile and The Violators, the quartet tore through a fuzzed-out, some-what surprisingly rocking set. Vile took the time to slow it down a bit to do one or two of his dreamier tracks but for the most part the set was a noisy punk show. Pretty damn enjoyable.
Fucked Up: I ducked out of Kurt Vile’s set five minutes early (probably missing an awesome finale) to rush over the the main-stage to catch Canadian art-core rockers, Fucked Up. I had heard of these guys (and gal) before the festival but I had never checked them out. Something about how they get described turned me off before I ever heard them. I wasn’t even planning on catching their set until just about every new friend I made while wandering around ATP insisted that I go watch their set. There may have been more anticipated sets that weekend but there were few more buzzed about.
I entered a packed Starlight Ballroom in the middle of Fucked Up’s first song. I already liked what I heard, but I was even more impressed with what I saw. The place was a madhouse. Smack dab in the middle of this music geek celebration of challenging music was a good old fashioned hardcore punk show. God bless you Mr. Jarmusch. Fucked Up are a huge band (7 people) and have a giant man-mountain for a lead singer. They dominated the stage and played a muscle-bound, chunky hardcore with song structure that stretched just long enough to be unconventional.**
Their lead singer, Father Damian aka Pink Eyes (Damian Abraham), is a huge, outrageous dude. Guzzling coke cans, then smashing them on his head, stripping down to his underwear, dousing himself in soda, ripping open giant bags of Coca Puffs (or Count Chocula) and pouring them all over himself and the crowd. And that was just the warm-up. He howled in trad hard-core style, alternated between joke-teasing the crowd and praising them, and lauded ATP for being the best festival in the world. He spent most of the set performing from the floor, mixing it up with the fans. He offered piggy-back rides, suffocated himself with a plastic bag, and choked himself with his microphone cord. At one point he shouted “I have stretched my microphone cord as far as it can go, but trust me, I will touch each an everyone of you with this next song.” And that he did. The band ripped through their big hit “Crusades” and then another two songs, before this half-naked, sweaty, bear-man leapt from the stage and ran through the crowd and out into Kutshers’ lobby. After the set, we all poured out of the Ballroom and there was Abraham off to one side chatting it up with his fans.
Vivian Girls: Riding high off of Fucked Up’s punk riot, I rushed back to the second stage to catch another lo-fi sensation that I have been wanting to see. I have been highly impressed with Vivian Girls’ recorded material for awhile, I just keep missing every opportunity I have to see them in concert. Not so on Sunday at ATP though. I caught their entire sweet and sour set of hyped-up riot-grrrl-trying-to-be-polite rockers and pleasant-as-peaches noisy pop tunes. I read somewhere that there was a line-up change recently for Vivian Girls but you would never know it listening to them on Sunday. Their set was extremely tight and energetic. High points were when Cassie Ramone would unleash her guitar showing off shades of Husker Du, and of course Cassie and Kickball Katy’s superb vocal interplay and harmonizing. Between Kurt Vile and Vivian Girls, I would have to say that the girls carried the day in the battle for ATP lo-fi supremacy (a battle being waged exclusively in my head).
Wooden Shjips: The mood shifted back into psych-rock territory when these San Fransisco legends took the stage. Wearing ratty jeans and beat up t-shirts this rag-tag looking bunch of authentic Bay-area psych masters fired off gnarly sound squalls and dropped an impenetrable sheet of distortion over everything. The pitch dark second stage was doused in dancing lights as a tripped-out projection reflected off of the walls, the band, and the crowd. The set was a real ‘happening’ and I would not be surprised at all if there was more than a fair share of discrete drug use going during this one. Not that mood-altering was really needed. Wooden Shjips are the best classic psych band in current operation and their massive sound was more than enough to synch your brainwaves to get you riding their wave of sound. Like the best shoegazer music, the best psych music is a drug in and of itself. At ATP on Sunday – Wooden Shjips had the good shit.
Dungen: With our brains still buzzing from Wooden Shjips it was time to chill out with the dulcet tones of Dungen. Much like ambient music is to techno, Dungen provided the perfect come down from Wooden Shjips intensity. Hailing from Sweden, Dungen are the brainchild of Gustav Ejstes, an eccentric multi-instrumentalist who incorporates folk, psych, funk, and other elements into his albums. The man only has two hands, so he enlists a three-man backing band whenever performs live. At first glance, Dungen appeared to be the exact opposite of Wooden Shjips. These clean cut, neatly dressed Swedes played with a pleasant and precise sound that matched their appearance. Even their lighting scheme was different, back-lighting them with eye-pleasing colors rather than drenching them in trip-imagery. It was when you closed your eyes and listened to them, that the similarities between Dungen and the other psych acts of the day became clear. Dungen’s sound was just as layered, it was just being made with different ingredients. Flute and piano noodled in and out of the guitar, drum, and bass jams making for a psych sound that was just as dense as Wooden Shjips but a whole lot folksier. As Dungen’s cerebral yet pleasant set came to an end, I began to think that maybe Jarmsuch was going for a whole ‘spectrum of psychedelic music’ thing by booking White Hills, Wooden Shjips, The Black Angels, and Dungen.
T-Model Ford: 90+ year-old blues man, T-Model Ford, was picked by Jim Jarmusch as much for his amazing life story as he was his deeply resonant blues. Hailed as one of the last genuine blues men, T-Model certainly has lived a long and sordid life. Working for years in hard-labor jobs and on the road, the younger T-Model lived a violent life and eventually served a 10-year sentence on the chain gang for murder. He didn’t formally begin his recorded music career until he was well into his 80’s, and his performances have grown rare as age is catching up with him. Introducing his beat-up old electric guitar as “Black Man” and wearing a skull decorated trilby hat, T-Model showed his attitude and spirit were strong even though his body is not. (T-Model had a stroke and a pace-maker implanted recently). Ford delivered a wonderful set of blues vocals and guitar that serenaded the crowd and provided a much needed respite from the weekend’s intensity. Even though I am not much of a blues listener at home, as I snapped my pics of this incredible character and listened to his amazing voice, I felt I was in the presence of a living legend. So glad I chose to see this over Raekwon.
The Black Angels: I am just going to say this up front; I hate leaving sets early. The sightly overlapping, staggered set time schedule of music festivals can be maddening at times. I try my best to watch full sets but some times it is inevitable that you have to ditch early if you want to get a good spot for a headliner or even make it to the start of an anticipated performance on time. I hate ditching out because of what I might miss, but I also hate leaving early because I have to clock-watch and can’t fully enjoy the set that I have to leave.
Unfortunately this happened with The Black Angels. They were slated to end the very minute Altar was scheduled to start on the other stage. There was no way I was going to see all of both sets. Only because I have seen The Black Angels before did they lose out. Their set was everything that makes them a great band. Somewhere between a total psychedelic freak band like White Hills and a shoegazer blue-rock band like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Black Angels offer an awesome custom blend of psych-trickery and straight-forward rock-n-roll. For the most part I was loving their set, particularly the three or four tunes from their first album “Passover” (my favorite). Something just wouldn’t let me completely give in to their awesomeness though. Oh right, I had to rush over to the Starlight for Boris & Sunn O))) performing Altar!***
Sunn O))) & Boris present Altar: I had purchased my tickets to All Tomorrow’s Parties 2010 long before the full line-up was announced. Skipping ATP NY 2009 is one of my great music regrets and I have vowed to never miss this perfect festival ever again. So with each announcement that ATP rolled out over the past year, giving us four or five more confirmed bands at a time, there came surprises and moments of total music geek satisfaction. When it was announced that Jim Jarmusch had asked that Japanese metal geniuses Boris and American experimental doom-metal maniacs Sunn O))) to perform their collaborative album Altar as the closer for his curated day of ATP, my reaction was a mixture of exhilaration, confusion, disbelief, mentally high-fiving myself, and fear.
I could not have imagined a more simultaneously whacko and brilliantly inspired live rarity for him to request to cap off this perfect weekend of music. This album is one of the heaviest, drone, doom, metal recordings ever made. It features two of the most obsessive, noise-dedicated bands of all time working together in ‘total collaboration’ to discover new frequencies and shake the gates of heaven with sound. Altar is the beast and the idea of seeing it performed live in full was pacing its cage at the back of my mind all weekend long.
The Starlight Ballroom was packed to capacity and people kept streaming in. The crowd was a mix of ‘in-the-know’ metal freaks, the curious, and the oblivious. Part of what made this such an insane pick for headliner is that it is such challenging, unfriendly music. As I watched a couple walk in donned in raver glow-jewelry because they heard this would be “trippy” I began to get a little annoyed. A lot of these people had no idea what they were getting into. Meanwhile hundreds of intense looking guys and spooky gals throughout the room glowered in silence waiting for the ritual to begin.
The stage was filled with giant amplifiers that hinted and teased at what was to come. The only time I have seen more amplifiers was when I saw My Bloody Valentine headline ATP NY 2008. Kevin Shields allegedly spent $200K on amps for that show. There were about 45 amps on stage that day. But I don’t know that any of them were as large as the ones Sunn O))) and Boris had set-up. While I stared at the amps and tried to ignore the ignorant, I noticed that the room was steadily filling with fog. Boris are addicted to fog, so this was not much of a surprise, but after awhile the level of fog filling the Ballroom became ridiculous. It was getting difficult to see ten feet in front of you there was so much fog. The house lights just bounced around the fog giving the whole room a white glow. You could barely see the giant amplifiers there was so much fog and glow. And then the house went dark. Like a sudden cloak of night, the house went dark and we all cheered, because Altar was about to commence.
Altar was performed with a level of aural intensity and slow motion theatrical doom that I have never experienced before. I would hazard a guess that no one has, because the ATP NY performance of Altar was a one-of-a-kind performance.**** The endless, deepening drone pierced the air and fog like an air-raid siren in Hades and the crowd erupted in cheers. The music was so loud that all you could see were silent mouths opened-wide and fists pumping in the air. From my position on the first tier of the ballroom the extended arms of the floor crowd looked like an army of zombies rising from their graves.
On stage the thick wall of fog lent a ghostly appearance to everything and everyone. The amps were invisible now, but you could certainly hear them and feel them ripping your guts to shreds with ultra-low bass frequencies and bow on saw-blade high-end guitar whine. Amassed in a line at center stage were several cloaked and hooded figures torturing their guitars. The only recognizable figure being Takeshi from Boris due to his double-neck bass/guitar. On the far left side of the stage Atsou the drummer worked percussive magic and across from him on the far right side of the stage another line of hooded figures played keyboards and other unique instruments of doom.*****
The light show was intense as it bounced off of the fog creating the effect that the crowd were trapped inside a thunderhead cloud pregnant with lightning. The combination of the lights with the Altar’s intense heavy drone was transcendent. The thing about this uber-heavy music is that it can also be quite beautiful if you allow your mind to wander within it. As the album ground forward like a tank over a field of skulls and roses, people were streaming out of the ballroom. The oblivious were the first to go (goodbye, glow sticks) and then the curious began to drop out too. In a sense the crowd were like a broth being boiled down to a reduction by the heat of Altar. By set’s end the Ballroom was still respectably full with a remaining crowd of only the most dedicated listeners.
I don’t know how anyone who is open-minded about music could have resisted being converted to Altar’s cause. This was one of the most unique and wonderful performances I have ever seen. Different segments of the stage would be illuminated at different times to focus the crowd’s attention on new elements added to the performance. During “The Sinking Belle”, guest singer Jesse Sykes took center stage under a blue spotlight. One of many special guests but the only one sans an identity obscuring hood. At one point I counted ten cloaked bodies on stage; a large band for one of the largest sounds in the world.
For the final 20-minutes of the Altar set people around me were seriously freaking out. I think the frequency frontier that Boris and Sunn O))) were exploring had some kind of strange, newly discovered planet on classic Star Trek, affect on people’s behavior. Even I found myself repeatedly clutching my hands together behind my head, as if to shore my neck against the oppressive sonic doom that Altar was pressing down on me. At that volume, with that insane light show, and their demonic ritual stage-routine, Altar could easily be weaponized for a devastating effect.
Of all the performances that I spotted Jim Jarmsuch at during the weekend, I wish had spied him at this one. I would have gone over to him and shook his hand for picking such a brilliant festival closer. I have never seen anything quite like that before and I doubt that I will have many opportunities to again. The performance of Altar was a rare and spectacular end to this ultimate music geek festival.
DJ Kool Herc (after-party): On the way out of Kutshers, with Altar still ringing in my ears, I saw people streaming towards the tiny lobby bar, and suddenly remembered that DJ Kool Herc; the father of beat-mixing, break-loops, and MCs (in other words the creator of Hip-Hop) was hosting an after-party. No way I was missing that. I’ve seen Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bamabaataa spin and Kool Herc was the last of the founding fathers of turntablism that I had yet to watch perform live.
The after-party was a surreal mix of indie-kids, aging music geeks, and real hip-hop enthusiasts dancing like crazy in a this tiny bar. I had to move my table twice to make room for the dancers. Finally I gave up and busted a move or two myself. Kool Herc was the man, spinning a great blend of dance rarities and the occasional recognizable bone. As we danced none other than Jim Jarmusch came by to pay his respects, followed shortly thereafter by GZA of Wu-Tang Clan. GZA even grabbed the mic and hyped Herc to the crowd. In the words of Kool Herc, “You ain’t never heard it like this before!”
We danced until 3 and then limped to our car. As I walked up the road to the parking area, I passed a guy in the darkness who I could have sworn was pornstar Ron Jeremy. On Monday, I found out online that it had been him! Oddly enough, Jeremy had been there to introduce Raekwon’s set earlier in the day and he wandered around Kutshers mingling with fans for the rest of the night. Another random encounter that only makes a weird kind sense because it happened at this most unusual music festival: All Tomorrow’s Parties.
* Jim Jarmusch spent the entire weekend wandering the halls and watching sets. Sometimes with a small entourage but most of the time by himself. This was very cool and a completely un-celebrity thing to do. I even overheard him getting into deep music conversation with random music freaks. I spoke with him briefly after Wooden Shjips’ killer set. We shared our appreciation for Shjips’ set and then he complained a bit about the over-lapping schedule of bands. He said he had wanted to watch all of the bands and to thank them each personally after their sets but there just wasn’t enough time to fit it all in. Mr. Jarmusch, welcome to the plight of every music geek at every music festival in the world. Thanks for the great day of tunes!
** Probably what gets Pitchfork so excited about them.
*** Luckily The Black Angels are playing DC in November with Black Mountain, so I’ll be able to hit that show and give them the full review treatment.
**** There was an Altar show in Brooklyn but power outage issues destroyed most of the theatrical presentation and interrupted the sheer magnitude of the full album performance.
***** I have never seen a Trombone solo done at a metal show before nor one so enthusiastically received.