All Tomorrow's Parties at Kutsher's Country Club, Day 3
Monticello N.Y., Sunday, Sept. 5.
Words: Max Burke.Photos: Tim Bugbee.
Sunday dawned quietly at Kutsher's, with a dedicated group reverently listening in on a book reading and discussion with Luc Sante and Samantha Hunt. On the main stage, Thurston Moore, a last-minute addition to the ATP schedule, began a set that was likely to go in one of two directions: songs or noise. Moore split the difference, playing three brand-new tunes on an acoustic 12-string guitar. Emphasizing the effortless pop sensibility that has colored Thurston's all-too-rare proper solo LPs, the enchanting songs combined with Moore's slyly hilarious between-song banter and the beatific halo of light that surrounded the gangly legend made for the perfect start to Sunday. But just when Moore had lulled the audience, he brought out Bill Nace, his partner in the long-running guitar noise project Northampton Wools, for a short burst of improvised dissonance, using bastard files and rasps to alternately coax and force unworldly noises from their guitars.
Although the second half of Moore's set served as a wake-up call for the heaviness that would characterize much of Sunday's lineup, it was no match for the guitar frenzy and driving percussion that White Hills would unleash on the second stage just as Moore's set ended. The group played as a quartet stateside for the second time ever, and their impressive mix of glam theatrics, Hawkwind-inspired space rock in overdrive, and plain wild enthusiasm whipped the impressive crowd into a frenzy; if the pounding fuzz of "Dead" didn't shake off those cobwebs from Saturday night, nothing would. White Hills set the precedent for the second stage, which would see little relief from heavy guitar rock of various stripes throughout the day.
Kurt Vile followed suit, bringing out The Violators for an all-rock set that kept the pace on up; I've never seen a heavier version of "Hunchback," even accounting for Adam Granduciel's guitar cutting out on him mid-song. Meanwhile, Fucked Up lead singer Pink Eyes only made it through one song on the main stage before diving into the audience, going shirtless and launching into a junk food performance-art piece that included the laying on of Oreos and a baptism-by-cereal.
The jolt of energy provided by Fucked Up and Kurt Vile was slightly dampened as news began circulating that GZA was not on-site and that his set would be moved to 12:15 a.m., directly conflicting with headliners Sunn O))) and Boris performing Altar. As an alternative, the Ricky Powell slide show was scheduled to start in the interim at the Deep End bar. Powell is a veteran music and fashion photographer who most famously bore witness to the first explosion of New York City rap superstars in the 1980s. The slide show is a loosely assembled collection of Powell's favorite snapshots over the years, along with his one-of-a-kind commentary. From the minute he opened his mouth, he had the audience -- including ATP founder Barry Hogan -- in the palm of his hand.
Powell is a true character, a done-it-all, seen-it-all egomaniac and the embodiment of a certain kind of over-the-top New York personality that is becoming rarer. Throughout his rambling performance, fueled by a steady stream of tequila shots, Powell produced a perfect one-liner with every other sentence; on an unfortunate ensemble Mike D is wearing in a vintage photo: “He thinks he's Echo & The Bunnymen or something.” On Frances Ford and Sofia Coppola: “This is Frankie and his daughter. He made that movie Tootsie I think.” On Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon: “These guys are pretty cool, I just can't snap my fingers to their music.”
San Francisco's Wooden Shjips played the first Kutsher's ATP two years ago, and the group's idiosyncratic take on throbbing psych rock wasn't fundamentally different this time around. Their aesthetic is ultimately about driving a groove into the ground and layering thick slabs of keyboard space cake, biting guitar leads, and echo-y vocals on it. They certainly own their own corner of the psych revival universe but remain a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. On the main stage and bathed in the glow that rivaled the wattage of your average firefly, Hope Sandoval was plodding through a stolid set of mid-tempo snoozers that was trying desperately to be moody but ended up just being pretentious. Sandoval has a cult, but the reason for the adulation of her die-hard fans is as elusive as signs of life in her music.
Swedish psych quartet Dungen executed one of the tightest short sets of the weekend on the second stage, opening with a couple numbers of their latest full-length, Skit I Allt, before getting into “the old shit,” as frontman Gustav Ejstes put it. The sound mix was immaculate, with Reine Fiske's singular guitar work front and center. (He self-deprecatingly mentioned that he plays no guitar leads in the interview we conducted earlier in the afternoon, but the run through of "Mina Damer Och Fasaner" showed a facility on the frets that would make fellow Swede Yngwie Malmsteen drop his pickled herring and take notice.) The hazy, nostalgia-inducing intentional murk of their records remained perfectly intact. Forty-five minutes passed in a flash as Ejstes modestly thanked Jim Jarmusch and the crowd erupted in appreciation.
T Model Ford was next on the second stage, performing what was at least his third set of the weekend, after a couple of impromptu solo sets in the hallway. Like Moore and Jarmusch, T Model was seemingly everywhere during the weekend despite his wheelchair and advanced age (supposedly 90, but the man claims no birth certificate). His proper set was a bit of an anticlimax, however, marred by tuning problems and a lifeless backing group that didn't add much to Ford's distinct voice and playing style. Still, Ford's personality shined through and offered a welcome respite from the heavy guitar blasts that had characterized many of Sunday's earlier sets.
Over on the main stage, the highly anticipated penultimate performance of the day by Raekwon was beginning with an inexplicable introduction by none other than Ron Jeremy. Once The Chef took the stage, the set mostly avoided the pitfalls of live hip-hop, and the room was cleared on both far wings as the huge blasts of beats coming from the PA stacks were stronger than Hurricane Earl turned out to be. Backed up by a single hype man and dedicated DJ, Raekwon blazed through verse after verse of classics from all over the Wu-Tang catalog. At one point, Ricky Powell pulled off a stage invasion and was unceremoniously booted back into the crowd.
No single study in contrasts represented the diversity of ATP more than the fact that Raekwon's high-energy set was followed by festival closer Boris and Sunn O))) playing Altar, their 2006 drone-rock collaboration. This was more than just a meeting of the two legendary doom/experimental metal purveyors, however, as they were also augmented by Jesse Sykes and Joe Preston. Given that everyone was wearing robes and hoods and the entire stage was covered in smoke, it was hard to say who else may have been up there. At least in terms of the low end, Altar blew My Bloody Valentine's previous ATP volume record away. The set grew in hypnotic power as it unfurled, the ritual of the live performance outshining the recorded source material and casting a spell over the entire audience as Atsuo manically beat his drum kit and/or gong to add counterpart to the massed drones of guitars and the wall of amps stacked at the back of the stage. This scene led to one of those moments that perfectly captures the only true “problem” with ATP: the overwhelming desire to be in two or more places at once.
Playing to a modest but dedicated crowd on the second stage with only a responsive DJ to back him up, the tension in the Kutsher's dining room was palpable. GZA was commanding the audience with a freestyle built around a minimal bass line one minute and berating them for their lack of Wu-Tang knowledge the next. The Clan's most enigmatic and technically skilled rapper was revealing more of himself than one might imagine, blowing past his allotted set time and returning to the stage for multiple encores. Many sights and sounds throughout the weekend at ATP could be described as surreal, but this set from the GZA was one of the most transfixing. Raekwon appeared on stage for a time, but he was apparently just there to watch the GZA control a crowd in the most classic sense. A superb turn of phrase summed up the mix of exhaustion and euphoria that accompanies the winding down of ATP: “Y'all in Andromeda galaxy right now; you still don't know.”
But the night was still young. As the crowd filtered out of Altar past 1 a.m., the legendary DJ Kool Herc was beginning a crowd-pleasing set at the Deep End bar. Just as he had been for much of the weekend, Jarmusch was right up front watching the master at work until the wee hours of the night. There were whispers the next morning that Kool Herc had returned around 6 a.m. to play another intimate set for the true diehards who remained. Taking one last walk around the lake before saying farewell to Kutsher's in the morning was a sobering experience for the stragglers unwilling to admit that things were really over.
Writing about the music and scene at ATP only gives the roughest impression of the emotional highs the weekend produces. Quite simply, ATP celebrates the transformative power of music and culture in the most earnest and affecting way imaginable. Unknowingly, T Model Ford perfectly encapsulated the essence of ATP during a downtime stretch of guitar tuning: "It all works out if you get it right." And ATP has a pretty immaculate track record of getting it right.