Report: All Tomorrow's Parties, New York, 2012
Pier 16, New York City
Friday 21-Sunday 23 September
Last year: Asbury Park, New Jersey, home of Bruce Springsteen, the boardwalk and a curious little venue in a vintage bowling alley (TheVine review). This year: a converted warehouse on the East River that goes by the name "Basketball City" during the day and reminds TheVine of one of the places they used to hold raves in Footscray during the '00s. Last year: Portishead, Jeff Mangum, Swans and Public Enemy. This year: The Afghan Whigs, The Roots, Frank Ocean and José Gonzalez. Um.
It's fair to say that expectations have never been lower for an All Tomorrow's Parties event than they are for the festival's belated New York debut (curated by Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs). The decision to move from Asbury Park to Manhattan was only revealed in July, and disappointed a whole lot of people who were looking forward to another weekend by the beach, along with those who'd booked tickets to see any of the acts who cancelled in the wake of the move (including Factory Floor, Louis CK — especially since his other NYC shows sold out before the cancellation was announced — and Sharon Van Etten.)
The idea of an ATP in the city also rather flies in the face of the identity that the festival has built for itself over the years — part of the fun of going to one of these events is heading somewhere weird for the weekend and staying in a converted dorm room or something similar. Add to this a curiously disjointed bill and it's hard to get nearly as excited about this weekend as we did about ATPs past.
This is a shame, because considered in isolation, this turns out to be a fine weekend, although we can't pretend we'd have been willing to pony up $200 for a ticket. Things don't start on a particularly great note — we arrive at the site on Friday evening to find that Lee Ranaldo's set has been cancelled and replaced by one Edan the Dee Jay, a pretty poor show considering there were only four bands scheduled to start with. Still, Lightning Bolt start things off with a typically manic set that clearly terrifies anyone who's booked tickets just to see Frank Ocean and decided to turn up early. The Lee Ranaldo-shaped hole in the line-up is filled by retreating to the traditional ATP cinema — this year staged on a boat that's moored out the back of the venue — to watch Koyaanisqatsi in preparation for Philip Glass's set with Tyondai Braxton (ex-Battles).
Philip Glass & Tyondai Braxton
This set turns out to be one of the highlights of the weekend, even if it's only half an hour long. Braxton is clearly chuffed to be sharing a stage with Glass, grinning like the cat who got the cream and repeatedly pointing at the composer as if to say yes, that really is the Philip Glass right there. In the time-honoured manner of all "experimental" collaborations, there are times when it appears the duo are playing entirely different things, but when it all comes together — as it does, in particular, during the relatively restrained "A2 #2" — the results are really rather lovely. Even the massed Frank Ocean fans at the front of the stage seem to appreciate that they're seeing something pretty special.
And speaking of Frank Ocean, booking him looks like a stroke of genius for ATP, no matter how much he cost them, because we're guessing about 90% of the people who paid $60 for Friday tickets are here to see him and him alone. His appearance on stage is greeted with a cacophany of shrieks and a flood of identical blurry Instagram photos, and he thrills the crowd with a set that's roughly equal parts Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. His voice is pretty spectacular live, and there's something thoroughly likable about him — he comes across with the quiet self-assurance of a man whose moment has come, but hasn't gone to his head yet. Bravo.
Saturday's crowd is definitely the biggest of the weekend, although the event still feels far from sold out. It's kinda brutal that two of the acts that TheVine would love to have seen — namely Emeralds on Saturday and Blanck Mass on Sunday — are scheduled super early, meaning that tedious real life constraints result in us missing both of them. Curses. Happily, though, we arrive in time to catch the end of an unexpectedly wonderful set by soul singer Charles Bradley.
Bradley — a highlight at Golden Plains this year — looks every bit as world-beaten as his reputation might suggest (he lived on the streets as a kid, drifted across the USA for decades and didn't release his debut album until last year, at the age of 63.) There's something of James Brown about him — he has similar stage presence, a similar vocal range and a similar penchant for yelping a lot (yes, he once was a James Brown impersonator) — but a lot of his appeal lies in the fact that he's still such a rough diamond: despite his age, there's something ingenuous and rather lovely about him. His show finishes with the autobiographical 'Why Is It So Hard?', which narrates the struggles of his life — "I tried so hard / To make it in America" — and features a long extended monologue about how Bradley doesn't care about religion, creed, colour, etc, because everybody believes in love. It's easy to sneer at such sentiment, but if you set aside post-millenial ennui long enough to listen to what he's saying, it's really quite beautiful. And then, when the song finishes, he descends into the crowd and, quite spontaneously, starts hugging everyone. TheVine isn't ashamed to admit that the whole thing brought a little tear to our eye.
Afterwards, the Dirty Three feel somehow underwhelming. Sure, the band's music is as powerful as ever, and Warren Ellis's inter-song banter remains amusing — this time around, he suggests 'The Pier' is about bagging the entire world up in a sack and throwing it into the East River to drown — but there's something slightly studied about his antics these days, something contrived about his shouting and his grand gestures. We rather preferred it when he played with his back to the audience instead of playing to the crowd, to be honest.
Outside, The Dirtbombs continue the revivalist flavour with a polished set of neo-garage rock, although sadly they don't tackle any of the techno tracks they covered on their most recent album Party Store — we'd rather like to have seen a live guitar version of 'Strings of Life'. After their raucous set, The Antlers' downbeat sounds aren't exactly what TheVine is in the market for, and we decide that this is a fine moment to sample what the Venezuelan arepas truck has to offer for dinner.
Chavez were supposed to be playing next, but they've cancelled for reasons unclear and been replaced by, um, JEFF The Brotherhood, which isn't so much bait-and-switch as bait-and-whack-over-the-head-with-a-sledgehammer-then-run-away-laughing. Ugh. Happily, Mark Lanegan is on hand inside to rescue proceedings. His set is heavy on material from Blues Funeral, with only 'Hit the City' and a storming 'Methamphetamine Blues' (featuring a guest appearance from Greg Dulli) representing his earlier records, but even though we're not huge fans of the hard rock sounds of his latest LP, he's still great — after all, with a voice like his, Lanegan could sing the phone book and still sound arrestingly good.
José Gonzalez? Well, you know what you're going to get — quiet acoustic music and a couple of studiously offbeat cover versions. Quite why he's headlining the second stage tonight is unclear — he hasn't released an album in five years, for Chrissakes — and while his set is perfectly competent, it's not exactly inspiring. The same, sadly, can be said about The Afghan Whigs, although in fairness I've never been counted amongst their fanbase and thus is perhaps not best placed to judge the merits of their 90-minute headline set this evening. So we'll just say that it wasn't for us, but that the band's hardcore fans — of which many, many are here — seem to lap their set up with glee.
The Afghan Whigs
Next page - SUNDAY