The air was foul with the smell of stale beer and cigarettes in a few dark corners of the Berkeley hotel as dedicated rock fans peeled themselves off their floors and mattresses and headed, zombie-like, toward Asbury Lanes to guarantee a spot inside for Shellac’s impromptu matinee performance. The set kicked off with Albini playing the vaguely “Paint It Black” guitar lines of “Paco”, as Trainer slowly raised a drumstick over his head, increasing the tension level until he swiftly brought it to a crashing halt on the snare, Weston and Albini simultaneously flooding the room with volume. The band repeated only a few songs from their Friday night set (including a devastating version of “Prayer To God”) and upped the banter and question-taking quotient. Once their set ended, it was as if I mainlined cheap trucker speed and was ready for anything the rest of the day tossed my way.
DD/MM/YYYY (“Day Month Year”) took to the stage for what was to be their last performance in America. The art-punk five piece announced their imminent plans to break up (four of the members will reconstitute themselves in November as a new band called Absolutely Free) after honoring some remaining dates in their native Canada. Although not lacking for enthusiasm, the group’s haphazard compositions failed to overcome the cavernous Convention Hall space’s mediocre acoustics. A few moments succeeded in inspiring and the band’s youthful spirit gave hints that further projects might be worth keeping an eye on.
In the Paramount, political journalist turned singer (already I was worried) Anika was playing a tepid set backed by a Barrow-less Beak>. Her monochromatic voice and the lifeless instrumentation made for the first set of the weekend with zero redeeming value. An atrocious cover of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” certainly didn’t help either as she read the lyrics from a small book and her Nico-esque monotone dulled the room. ATP perennials Deerhoof were a good antidote to an Anika-induced stupor. Over the years, their sound hasn’t so much evolved in giant leaps as it has been refined into an elegant pop-noise hybrid. Live, the coordination between the groups’ guitar acrobatics and bare-bones powerhouse drummer Greg Saunier provided a much needed mid-afternoon jolt of energy.
I was enjoying Deerhoof but had to make it over to the Paramount for my much-anticipated mid-afternoon date with Jeff Mangum. After all the anticipation and varied reports, it was rather disappointing to realize that, yes, Jeff Mangum is a human being who plays guitar and sings songs, like countless other people. The set predictably leaned heavy on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea material and was delivered with unadorned sincerity. Though the music is simple, the lyrical imagery of a song like “Oh Comely” is hard to deny, and resonates hugely with a certain demographic. The environment inside the theater was surreal, however, with security guards pacing up and down the aisles and aggressively confronting anyone who so much as checked the time on their cell phone. The crowd sang along tentatively or shouted emotional exhortations at Mangum who replied to one that they would have to go together to his therapist. The comment was a telling of the mood inside the theater, the kind of queasy artist-performer dynamic I’ve only had a taste of at mid-career Cat Power shows, before the cripplingly insecure Chan Marshall made herself over as a spokesperson for Chanel.
Shaking off the weirdness of the Mangum set, I headed over to see Company Flow, the second act of reunited hip-hop legends of the weekend. The group’s dense beats couldn’t penetrate the sonic haze of the Convention Hall and their intricate rhymes were lost in the murk, an unfortunate occurrence as El-P announced from the stage that this was only the third CoFlo show in ten years. A historic event, no doubt, but compromised by the venue and technical shortcomings. Compared to the previous day’s giddy Ultramagnetic MCs show, it was difficult not to be disappointed despite the high levels of energy and commitment.
Another group whose impact was dulled by context was legendary drone metal innovators Earth. The last time they played New York, they hit the stage near midnight so a 5:45 slot was not conducive to their bone-rattling, slow-burn workouts. Numerous reports of napping in the uncharacteristically comfortable Paramount seats were made and I even saw one gentleman seated way up in the rafters using his laptop. Not a knock on Earth’s performance (setting the PA level to “Swans” would have helped Carlson’s cause here), and more an indication of the obligatory calm before the storm of ATP’s final night.
And what a storm it was. After an interminable sound check, Public Enemy hit the stage with dancers, a full band and entourage in tow. The mood was bombastic and celebratory: a non-stop barrage of rhymes and shout-outs and Twitter contests (an autographed clock to the best Tweet about PE), the requisite self-promoting monologue from Flava Flav, and plenty of cameras in the air. After the dour and restrained art rock that characterized much of the day, the sense of release during the Public Enemy set was palpable. The group amply filled their now-expanded two hour slot and even brought out guest drummer Dennis Davis (responsible for the beat on David Bowie’s “Fame”) to hit the skins, providing the cap on a world-class weekend of drumming.
As PE’s set was just getting started, J.G. Thirwell’s Manorexia Ensemble was filling the Paramount with finely tuned compositions played by an expert group including a full string section, piano and treated guitar. Thirwell is most widely known for his Foetus project (and more recently his music for Venture Bros.) and is a legend in industrial and avant-garde circles but here brought to ATP a gorgeously unfurling set of contemporary instrumental music.
I had purposely avoided Portishead’s Saturday-night set, as I wanted to experience them straight-through with virgin ears for the first time in one go. The group’s impressive production included live surveillance video camera feeds projected against the wall, while the sound they achieved inside the hit-and-miss Convention Hall was even grander. The silence and space in the music equaled the impact of a driving beat or the dissonant scratch of a turntable. The set also put the two days of music Portishead had curated into perspective, showcasing the influence that jazz, noise, hip-hop and electronic music have had on the band’s work, whether it was heard in the restrained percussion flourishes of Geoff Barrow or the uncanny dirge-surf tone that guitarist Adrian Utley coaxed out of his instrument. Perhaps most mysterious was Beth Gibbons, her contralto voice anchoring the ambitious compositions. Although her hunched, stoic figure has become an iconic image of Portishead live, the joy she takes in performing is rarely captured and watching her run the length of the front row barrier to touch and hold hands with fan after fan was one of the more unexpected moments of the festival (the previous night she had executed a stage dive to conclude the show). The strongly rumored Chuck D cameo on “Machine Gun” materialized but perhaps less predictable and more rewarding was Simeon Coxe of Silver Apples sitting in (or actually sitting off – he was barely visible stage right) on oscillator for the final song of the night, “We Carry On.”
Openers for Portishead’s remaining U.S. Dates, Thought Forms, were at Asbury Lanes concluding their convincing set of punishing guitar noise ahead of a last hurrah DJ set by Shepard Fairey. The artist had designed the posters and promotional materials for this year’s festival, as well as putting up murals throughout the festival site. What he would play was anyone’s guess, and he delivered in the most base way possible with a rapid-fire set of mashed-up hits. Aside from a drop-in off a Sleep riff between the familiar Queen, Joan Jett and Talking Heads bits, the choices were as obvious and undignified as Mr. Fairey’s art, and just as irresistible. The euphoric rush of excitement that accompanies ATP every year can result in grandiose proclamations of the festival as somehow utopian, almost sinister in its perfection, or too good to be true, but the simple truth is that its the best event of its kind anywhere in the world.