I'll Be Your Mirror USA
23 Sep 2012: Pier 36 New York
The final day of the festival is always weird. Sure, everything has been building up to this point and there’s the expectation that something special needs to happen to make sure what came before has a worthy finish. But there’s also the lingering realization that the end is nigh, that all the crazy shit you’ve been immersing yourself in will soon be over and it’s back to work, school, doldrums.
On the third day of I’ll Be Your Mirror USA, curated by Afghan Whigs and All Tomorrow’s Parties, it wasn’t always easy to get a sense of any of that. One can’t blame the Make-Up, the reunited Washington D.C. group, who while still a fully active concern over a decade ago, adopted numerous genre classifications including several they may well have devised on their own. It was certainly no fault of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, another recent reunion, this time from Montreal, and with an apocalyptic foreboding which was actually the perfect way to end a festival. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with Lord Sinclair, who gamely gave it the old college try with his raucous and raunchy annual Rock & Pop Quiz.
More on all of that in a moment, because the real problem with Sunday wasn’t any of what ATP gave us, but rather where they chose to hold the thing. ATP did not invent the music festival, but in a sense they reinvented it. Way back in 1999, promoter Barry Hogan saw his new endeavor as an antidote for famously massive, muddy UK festivals like Glastonbury and Reading. Held in well-weathered seaside campgrounds, the festivals often offer dormitory-style accommodations, lineups curated in part by musicians, filmmakers and cred-approved fringe weirdoes. The lineups, eclectic and not even completely avant-garde, reflect that spirit. And it’s all presented in an atmosphere of bonhomie - walls broken down, with impromptu performances breaking out right under your nose, headliners strolling around like it’s no big fucking deal, and attendees not going bananas. There was almost none of that convivial feeling on Sunday at this year’s festival, and at the risk of sounding like one of those old indie farts who can’t even get out of a stained futon in the morning without whining about how this used to be cool, man, well…This used to be cool, man.
It’s probably unfair to judge I’ll Be Your Mirror NYC on this year because if it felt a little thrown together last minute, that’s because it was thrown together last minute. Though announced as a return to Asbury Park, the scene of last year’s excellent installment, those plans fell through a few months ago. And that’s really where the NYC iteration began picking up some seriously bad juju. Though held on the same exact weekend as originally planned, comedian Louis CK pulled out, and even if the reason had been fully explained, it still left a bad taste with many prior ATPers. And so did the move itself. It happened a year ago, too, when the festival moved from Kutscher’s, a rickety Catskills resort half a century removed from its heyday, to Asbury Park, a community on the rise after decades of dingy decline. Music nerds were anxious about that move, too, though for the most part that communal spirit (the one they pretend isn’t remotely similar to hippies at Bonnaroo and Burning Man) was still in place. But if the same fears about NYC were there, well they were probably right this time.
Along the East River with views of the Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn beyond, the Pier 36 location of I’ll Be Your Mirror was primarily taken up by a sprawling industrial warehouse, fairly recently converted into an event space with scores of basketball hoops tucked up into the ceiling like a family of bats. Inside this wide, impersonal space is a long row of couches replete with music fans, many of them looking shell-shocked, perhaps from the incessant drone of Blanck Mass, which if you’re into that sort of thing must be pretty amazing. The creatively-named Stage 1, the festival’s main stage, is in here, and on Sunday that means half of Sonic Youth (Lee Ranaldo, with Steve Shelley on drums) in a performance which should at least have felt like a victory for anyone who felt Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore should have let Lee sing a bit more often. The Make-Up were pretty terrific too, with frontman Ian Svenonius bringing Mike Love’s monkey shuffle into the 21st century. And reports of Godspeed You! Black Emperor bringing people to tears with the sheer magnitude of their awesomeness on prior live dates felt totally plausible after they left the warehouse a smoldering husk of concrete and carpeting. But the sound wasn’t terribly good in there; if the seriousness of a rock & roll festival can be determined with a simple (phony) mathematical formula where if music and drugs are the primary lures, the more the music seems to matter when compared to rampant drug use, ATP events can be generally found on upper end of that scale. They had to look at that room and know it would be a problem, that sound would get muddy as it sought purchase along the furthest corners, and maybe they thought if it was fine for the devotees directly in front of the stage, that would be enough. And it really kind of wasn’t.
It was even worse on Stage 2, which was set up in a parking lot directly beneath the FDR. It looked cool, but the novelty quickly wore off and only bands like the frankly excellent Autolux, who were so loud it didn’t matter, came out of it alright.
The Queen of Hearts served as the festival’s final catch-all, a boat moored to the dock in which the Criterion Cinema was held, as well as other events like the Lapham’s Quarterly book club and anything with Lord Sinclair. On Sunday, the East River was just choppy enough that the boat pitched and fell just enough to induce varying degrees of nausea but not quite enough to threaten to capsize, sending black-rimmed eyeglasses into the murky deep below.
Recently Hogan claimed that it was his goal all along to bring I’ll Be Your Mirror to New York City, and I wonder if a full year of planning can make it work. Losing that collective spirit which was so important to past iterations was enough to make several people I know pull the plug on their trip once the festival was moved from Asbury Park to Manhattan. Maybe some of them knew that bringing these artists to a city in which they might ordinarily play on a tour seemed redundant. Considering I’ll Be Your Mirror after the fact should, for this year anyway, come with an asterisk. It wasn’t complete, even with all the good shit that happened on Sunday. I’ll Be Your Mirror felt unfinished, like a dress rehearsal.