The change of venue for New York’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival—from a country club in the Catskills to Asbury Park, New Jersey—seemed fitting, going as it did from one faded summer-vacation haven to another. But while Kutsher’s and many of the other dilapidated (or defunct) resorts still dotting the Borscht Belt are no longer what they once were, Asbury Park has been experiencing a much-needed resurgence over the past few years. The city that Bruce Springsteen wrote about in “My City Of Ruins” just a decade ago has new condos under construction, restaurants along the boardwalk, and perhaps a new annual music festival to call its own.
Springsteen first performed that song in Convention Hall, a cavernous gymnasium and occasional roller-derby venue that served as ATP’s main stage throughout the three-day festival. (The adjoining Paramount Theatre, along with a retro bowling alley across the street, provided auxiliary stages.) As trainloads of urban bohemians streamed into the grounds on Friday afternoon, it didn’t take long to see that ATP was adapting to its new surroundings nicely. The Brooklyn garage-pop duo Cults had the first slot of the weekend, and as a line formed outside Asbury Lanes, festival-goers were treated to what may have been the real first show of the festival—watching Shepard Fairey, spray-paint in hand atop a large scissor lift, putting the finishing touches on a huge graffiti visage of Joe Strummer. Strummer’s face rested in the middle of a sort of punk-and-hardcore Mt. Rushmore that Fairey plastered across the outside wall of Asbury Lanes, which included Joey Ramone, Johnny Rotten, Glenn Danzig, Ian MacKaye, and Henry Rollins.
Cults were polite, mostly fun, and certainly trying hard, showing off their influences by coming onstage to the theme from Twin Peaks and performing before a projection of Night Of The Hunter. An hour later, Chavez roared onto the Convention Hall stage, the first of many acts throughout the weekend emerging from relative hibernation over the past decade or longer. Chavez, with swaggering, muscular Matt Sweeney at the helm, chugging beers and recounting his own glory days in Asbury Park—getting wasted and taking naked pictures of himself in one of the boardwalk’s old photo booths, apparently—looked glad to be back on the stage.
Jeff Mangum on the other hand, seems like he was quite comfortable in a state of perpetual sabbatical. Before the festival, Mangum had arranged to perform only in the Paramount Theatre, the stage with the best acoustics but second-largest capacity, forcing ATP to enact a tiered ticketing system with access to one or both of Mangum’s shows at a premium. Signs at every door mentioned, at Mangum’s request, a “no cameras or cell phones” policy—enforced by security guards constantly pointing Maglites at anyone glancing at their phone. It felt like the slight hurdle in obtaining a ticket and the tech-free atmosphere were little safety barriers Mangum put in place to ensure that anyone who was there wanted to be there. The Pop Group, another long-dormant act that played the Paramount the following night, looked uncomfortable performing before a quiet, seated audience. Nudging the audience to their feet, singer Mark Stewart warned, “We’re not really a sit-down band.” Mangum is, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
There’s definitely a lot of insufferable twee-ness out there inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel, but that’s no more Mangum’s fault than The Graduate is to blame for Garden State. Alone on a big stage, with just a handful of worn acoustic guitars, Mangum was just as captivating as any of the noisier, more boisterous bands of the weekend. His voice is strong enough to comfortably fill the Paramount, and his quick strumming made even an acoustic, hornless rendition of “Holland, 1945” sound rich.
Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy, whose sound is about as acoustic as Mangum’s, garnished with harmonies, organ, and an upright bass, made nice use of the main Convention Hall later that evening, though the venue wouldn’t sound quite so tranquil for a while.
Foot Village, which utilizes four drum sets on a square elevated platform (like a condensed version of Boredoms’ various Boadrum experiments and with equally polarizing sound), is exhilarating/draining at best, and agitating/grating at worst. Writhing bodies and pounding drums push the music past the point of coherency, unless you already know the lyrics, but the performance was admirable for what it was. Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, whose style is experimental in its own right, though much more pleasing on the ears, was one of the best surprises of the festival. Ribot has a lengthy discography through a variety of acts, and beyond that he’s a prolific session player: He’s played on everything from Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs to spoken-word projects with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs to the soundtrack to The Departed. Pegging Ceramic Dog to a particular genre, I’m forced to go with “jazz fusion”; though almost always mentioned in the pejorative, Ribot and his band’s impressively rocking take on Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” was that genre at its best. (Later that day, I was lucky to catch Ceramic Dog again, during a fantastic stretch of Oneida’s eight-hour Ocropolis performance at Asbury Lanes.)
The rest of Saturday was certainly busy, but All Tomorrow’s Parties has a skillful way with scheduling that enables festivalgoers to experience minimal conflicts despite three stages going on at once. Forty-five-minute breaks between performances on stages weren’t uncommon, and for those not bent on experiencing every last set, the Asbury Park boardwalk was quite inviting, when it wasn’t pouring outside. Kutsher’s Country Club had a nice little arcade room along the main hallway between stages, but Asbury Park’s Silverball Museum Arcade puts it to shame—with hundreds of pinball machines all set to free play—and free admission for festival ticket-holders. I saw fans and band members sneaking off throughout the weekend to the Silverball, where there’s never an argument over who has dibs on the mint-condition 1977 Evil Knievel cabinet because, bless them, they have two.
Still, there were occasional tough choices. Swans and Ultramagnetic MCs presented a definite scheduling dilemma, disparate as their respective fan bases might be. Swans’ sound filled the Paramount with almost deafening force: Even in the balcony, where I sat for the latter half of their set, the roar of guitars and Michael Gira’s furious screaming were relentless. Their songs don’t so much end as they bleed into each other, and it’s hard to say if there was ever really a pause from the ominous, building opener “No Words/No Thoughts” until the band left the stage two hours later.
Portishead provided a more calming end to the evening. The group’s Saturday night show, just its second time playing in the U.S. since 1998, was one of the few times a band was able to corral the whole of ATP into one room. Intimate-feeling in spite of the crowd, Beth Gibbons’ gentle wailing over the band’s jams even rustled a couple of hula-hooping girls out of their seats, like we were at a Phish concert all of a sudden.
The following night, Company Flow got the crowd moving in its own way, effectively serving as the warm-up for Public Enemy. EL-P, who put on a manic, aggressive spectacle two years ago at Kutsher’s, seemed to be holding back—moving around the stage with way more energy than compatriot Bigg Jus, but dissatisfied with the crowd, which was enthusiastic, but sparsely populated with Rawkus diehards. Attempts at audience participation on “Blind” and “Vital Nerve” weren’t received as well as they could have been, although that was partly because El-P and Bigg Jus’ dense verses were hard to decipher with the muddled sound system.
This wasn’t as much of a problem for Public Enemy, in part because Chuck D has always had an easier time getting his words across to the crowd, since all the emphasis lines get tag-teamed by Flavor Flav, hip-hop’s quintessential hype-man. Despite Flav’s awkward self-introduction—he thanked the crowd for their support of Flavor Of Love, which he claims made him the number one reality star of the decade. Chuck D is not much of a smiler to begin with, but at that moment in particular, he looked capable of shoving that clock right down Flav’s throat. For the rest of the show, they seemed to have fun together. When Flav was hunting for people in the crowd to rap along, he had no trouble: During one surreal moment, he pulled rock critic Christopher R. Weingarten—looking deliriously excited—out of the crowd to return Flav’s “Are we that type?” with an emphatic “Don’t believe the hype!” (Understandably, Weingarten was Twitter-bragging about the experience within minutes.) Chuck D returned to the main stage later that evening, guesting during Portishead’s second set on “Machine Gun” (as he did in 2008 with the band in Barcelona), and bringing ’88 back with a bit from “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos.”
Portishead’s second set was the ceremonial closing act of the festival, though ATP lingered on for a few more hours for those unwilling to accept that this fantastic weekend was coming to a close. Droning English rock-trio Thought Forms, on Portishead’s Geoff Barrow’s label, played Asbury Lanes, as did Shepard Fairey in the form of a DJ set. Hopefully the Asbury Park locals will keep his artwork up for a while, at least until next year, when All Tomorrow’s Parties returns to the boardwalk.