[2 June 2006]
Pontins Holiday Camp, on the south coast of England, is the epitome of the post-war, utilitarian, no-frills working-class destination. Its squat, two-story chalet-blocks—as redolent of the prison-camp as the cheap motel—house cramped living spaces with bolted-down furniture, pay-as-you-go electricity metres, and low-quality fixtures, all penned in by battered railings with flaking paint. The nub of the camp is the entertainment complex, which features flashing coin-hungry fruit machines, video games, fast-food outlets, a garish faux-cockney pub, and night-club areas on two different floors—usually enlivened by the sounds of karaoke, tawdry pop-dance hits, and faded crooners on the nostalgia circuit.
In other words, it’s not the kind of place you would expect to see turned over for a couple of weekends a year to thousands of alternative music fans. Then again, ATP has never been your average concert promoter. With regular high-profile, multi-act shows in both the US and the UK, ATP instinctively capitalises on the eclectic musical consciousness borne from broadband internet collections and peer-to-peer file-sharing—a new musical terrain where free jazz and noise get along just fine with folk and garage rock. An ATP event is the best chance for music fans to see all the bands that matter to them in one place.
In this respect, Weekend 1 of United Sounds of ATP didn’t disappoint. As the name suggests, there was a marked emphasis on American acts. Each day’s line-up was curated by the headliner, and as a result, had a distinct flavor. Friday was organised by grunge survivors Mudhoney; Saturday belonged to art-punk agitators Yeah Yeah Yeahs; and Sunday nestled under the ubiquitous gaze of new-folk troubadour Devendra Banhart. In terms of programming, this trifecta roughly corresponded to the genres of rock, experimental, and folk music, respectively. The weekend’s trajectory suggested something like “rock-the-fuck-out, weird-the-fuck-out, and mellow-the-fuck-out.”
And the beauty is, it worked like a charm. To its eternal credit, much of the event’s success laid with the punters. It’s rare to encounter such a large number of good-natured, intelligent, and considerate individuals. No shell-suited moochers here, trying to knock out moody pills and rip people off. This was a middle-class, university-educated crowd of right-minded liberals gathered in strangely ironic surroundings to enjoy the unspoken fraternity of insider knowledge that comes from digging the bands that don’t do talk-shows.
Case in point: have you ever experienced a furious Friday night mosh-pit where every boisterous bump into your neighbour is accompanied by a friendly apology? Perhaps it’s the legacy of ‘90s, ecstasy-fuelled clubbing. Maybe it’s just innate English reserve. Whatever it is, it made for a super-relaxed atmosphere, where everyone could let down their guard, stop being cool, and get on with the serious business of checking out the music.
And there was a hell of a lot to choose from. With two stages running almost continuously from 3 pm to 1 am, any review is going to be limited by the personal choices of the reviewer. In that spirit, what follows are my highlights.
The Friday night rock-out really kicked into gear with the frenzied, good-time celebration of Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee: utterly infectious energy designed to incubate sympathetic action in its audience. With Mike Carroll letting roar some honest blues-hollerin’ and Tim Kerr handing his guitar out to the audience for some random pummelling, it was hard not to love them.
But for utterly incendiary psychedelic rockarolla, there was no touching San Francisco’s Comets on Fire. They attacked with twin molten guitars, Ethan Miller and Ben Chasny pouring on the waves of scalp-scalding fuzz-feedback. By comparison, Black Mountain’s sluggish stoner rock sounded a little pedestrian, but when the band stretched out extended versions of tracks like ‘Druganaut’, they achieved a momentum far heavier than anything on their self-titled album.
Saturday started freaky with Imaginary Folk’s opening slot: a piece of genuine, non-idiomatic improv scratched out on banjo, violin, viola, and pocket cornet with a deftly manipulated Dansette portable record player dropping in cheeky snippets of Motown soul. Later, Hundred Eyes cranked things up with a set of spiky No Wave-influenced alt-rock, complete with braying tenor sax and stinging, feedback-drenched guitar. The enigmatic Inspektor s. Sodapop sung from within a voluminous burnoose that all but engulfed his face.
If Magic Markers were a disappointingly self-indulgent mess of sub-Sonic Youth noise and straggly left philosophy, Liars were exactly the opposite. Angus Andrews was a towering, dangerous figure, stalking the stage in an ill-fitting suit, smashing his guitar and screaming lyrics. Eyes rolling into the back of his head, he was thrillingly unstable and unpredictable—as were Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross who provided a relentless percussive barrage that whipped the crowd into pure mammalian frenzy.
Predictably, Sunday was a more sedate and exhausted affair, opening with Tarantula A.D.‘s preposterously charming, cello-driven chamber rock. From there, the day rolled by in an agreeable haze of acoustic strumming and rambling folk-noodle, from the meandering folk-prog of Espers to Vetiver’s countrified, Neil Young twang.
It was all building, though, to the big headline triple-bill, beginning with Bert Jansch—veteran folk-guitar legend and mainstay of original folk supergroup Pentangle. Jansch was spell-binding, his finger-picking perfect and his Celtic-tinged voice so pure and unforced that it sounded like he was opening a vein and letting it just flow out. Jansch was swiftly followed by another original, the recently rediscovered Vashti Bunyan, capitalising on her new-found following after decades of domestic obscurity. She glowed with a genuine surprise and happiness at the situation, radiating a charm that won over the potentially rowdy audience and pulled them into her world of hushed lullabies.
The night belonged to Devendra Banhart, however, the last act of the weekend and clearly a bigger star by now than anyone could have predicted. From the get-go, it was obvious that he relishes his new rock and roll persona and had risen to the occasion by getting wasted on pills and booze. It was a ragged, ramshackle performance, with long, incomprehensible asides between songs and his loyal band, the Hairy Fairies, becoming visibly vexed by his unpredictable behaviour. But you know what? By strength of pure charisma, he pulled it off.
It was old-fashioned rock and roll, with a large helping of love on top and—what the hell—everyone had a good weekend, how about just having some fun, right? Besides, there weren’t many more enduring images from a gig this year than that of a bearded, long-haired man wearing a dress over skin-tight jeans, swigging from a bottle of vodka and singing about all the little boys he wants to marry.