Uncertainty gathered like foreboding clouds above the beach about the logistics of All Tomorrow’s Parties presenting the fourth northeast iteration of their festival in Asbury Park as opposed to the beloved and admittedly decrepit Kutsher’s resort in the Catskills that hosted the three previous iterations. Decidedly more urban than bucolic Monticello, the locations share a rough-around-the-edges charm. Both are perfect staging grounds for an invasion of die-hard music fans to take over in an adult summer camp atmosphere and baffle locals. Security was in full force as the festival kicked off, and a capacity crowd for Cults at Asbury Lanes (the smallest of the three venues presenting music at I’ll Be Your Mirror, as this Portishead-curated iteration was dubbed) left some early arrivals waiting outside. A sedate but beautifully lit set by The Album Leaf showed off the acoustic and aesthetic merits of the historic Paramount theater, a far cry from the scruffy but charming Stardust Ballroom of previous ATP’s.
Any worries that the crucial “ATP atmosphere” would be impossible to import to the Jersey Shore were ebbing away by the time Chavez inaugurated the main stage in the early evening. The Matador-signed 90s guitar heroes have only been sporadically active in the last decade and their irresistible of deceptively hooky pop songwriting married to front man Matt Sweeney’s distinctive guitar tone lit the crowd up. Even a mention that Bob Weston (of Mission of Burma and later playing bass in Shellac) was running their sound brought a roar from the crowd, indicative of the hardcore aficionado crowd. Shortly after Chavez’s triumphant set, the first of a few thunder storms that would continue through the night broke, dumping rain on the dedicated fans running from the Convention Center over to Asbury Lanes, hoping to catch cult noise-pop innovators Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. The low ceiling and under-powered PA were a bit of a drag, but the novelty of watching a band flanked by active bowling lanes on either side was a typical “only at ATP” experience. For their part, the band powered through an hour-plus, career-spanning set of head-bopping, astute pop rock, with members alternating lead vocal and guitar parts throughout. One highlight, “Cup of Dreams” had a small group of crazed dancers going absolutely wild. Thinking Fellers appearance was even rarer than Chavez, and harkened back to a quirkier time in indie rock when skronky off-kilter dirges comfortably rubbed elbows with earnestly melodic passages, petals among the thorns. The group’s eclecticism was a strong match for the typically diverse ATP lineup.
Guitar noise was the key element of the first half of ATP’s Friday night program, brought to a close by a monster set from perennial fest favorites Shellac. Last year’s set at Kutsher’s was abbreviated and, unbelievably, a bit off. Perhaps for the first time ever, Shellac had something to prove? And they did so, powering through an aggressive set list that spilled past their allotted time and into the beginning of Jeff Mangum’s much-anticipated set across the hall at the Paramount theater. Along the way, they answered plenty of the crowd’s questions, one response invoking a graphic description of Steve Albini’s favorite “instrument” (let’s just say it’s more medieval torture device than musical) offered to young girl in the back and elicited plenty of boos for their baseball opinions (Mentioning the Phillies to a New York crowd is never a good gambit, following it up with perfunctory Yankees trashing less so). They finally answered the shouts of a group of desperately enthusiastic fans for “I Am A Plane” with the definitive performance of that particular tune, replete with on-stage choreography.
Transitioning from the hat trick of rock offered by Chavez, Thinking Fellers and Shellac was a bit challenging. I wasn’t inside the Paramount for Jeff Mangum’s breathlessly anticipated set, but most of the reports I heard were complimentary, if not overly rhapsodic. Mangum served the same role as My Bloody Valentine at the first east coast ATP, a rarely-seen cult act who hasn’t released new material in years. Whether the buildup and release of such a years-in-the-making appearance can satisfy one’s hopes and dreams was a subjective calculation. There were no authenticated reports of full swooning, but I haven’t thoroughly scrubbed the Twitter stream. As Mangum’s set was winding down, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and his band ambled onstage unceremoniously while the houselights still on. They ran through a couple tunes without much fanfare, to the delight of the early diehards gathered for their closing set. As the lights dimmed and the proper set started, Oldham and his band including guitarist Emmett Kelly and singer Angel Olson cast a spell over the Convention Hall and the front-row devotees. Leaning heavily on material from Oldham’s upcoming Wolfroy Goes To Town on Drag City as well as fresh arrangements of tunes from his last few albums (“The Seedling”), the predictably wonderful happened when Matt Sweeney appeared on-stage for “Beast For Thee,” a cut off the group’s beloved 2005 collaboration Superwolf. Sweeney stuck around for “Life In Muscle,” an older tune recently released on a 10”.
Oldham’s confidence in the power of brand new material was admirable and the newer songs demonstrated the same power to captivate as the older material. A stirring take on Oldham’s best-known “I See A Darkness” was a proper denouement to the masterful set, now running well over an hour-and-a-half. It’s easy to feel with his cult following and general notoriety in indie rock circles that Oldham is at once over-praised and taken for granted. The truth is he is as astute a student of the song as anyone and his masterful and much-deserved headlining set, mustering the full power of his band and catalog, was testament to that fact. The late night parties that follow the close of music each day are as much a part of the ATP experience as the music itself. As new and old friends, musicians, and journalists gathered to debrief the night’s events and enjoy the Awesome Tapes From Africa DJ set under the seedy neon lights and pin-up girl posters of Asbury Lanes, it was clear that the spirit of ATP had taken residence in Asbury Park.