I’ve never been to an All Tomorrow’s Parties event in the United Kingdom, so maybe I’m way off base here, but it sure felt like Asbury Park gave it the old English try when the coastal community played host to its first ever I’ll Be Your Mirror event between September 30 and October 2. On Friday, the first night of the festival, the temperatures dipped and the skies opened up and any time spent fussing with one’s deliberately tousled indie-approved hair on the way into town was rendered pointless.
Thankfully, none of that mattered. Any discomfort or fumbling virgin hiccups in Joisey — and there were a few, some more notable than others — was ultimately relegated to an afterthought when the sheer magnitude of what was about to unfold was three days of jaw-dropping, life-defining moments. I mean, where else are you going to see various members of Portishead riding bicycles along a boardwalk? Where else might you share an elevator with Flavor Flav, Bob Weston and Bill Murray all in the same day?
Where else are you going to randomly run into granny-sweatered troubadour Jeff Mangum? Well, everywhere actually. The enigmatic nerve center of Neutral Milk Hotel was spotted all over the place: In the lobby of the Berkeley Hotel; eating an Asia Dog in the Brooklyn Flea food court; standing five feet away from me for half of Public Enemy’s Sunday evening set.
Mangum was on hand to play Friday and Sunday night sets at the Paramount Theater, one of three official venues where music was scheduled. It’s Asbury Park, so there’s live music all over the place. The Stone Pony was a stone’s throw from much of the ATP scene. The Wonder Bar had big burgers, cheap beer and a lousy band on Friday night that covered Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy”.
These are the weird moments that will last with people after a festival like ATP; odd little vignettes that will pop up in your dreams and remind you that you once had the best festival experience of your life in New Jersey.
Let’s get the problems out of the way first, because while they matter — some more than others — it’s much more preferable to end on a high. The security was overenthusiastic at various times, with a number of attendees at Swans’ Saturday night set at the Paramount complaining that they’d been shoved, grabbed and generally mistreated. Others said they experienced loudly chatting security and other non-ATP staffers ruining the atmosphere during Mangum’s acoustic Friday night performance at the Paramount.
Though press was given access to Mangum’s Sunday afternoon show, a friend had a spare ticket for Friday night, and down in the lower orchestra seating the mood was far more appropriate. Mangum, seated at center stage and surrounded by guitars, opened with “Oh Comely”, the 8-plus minute epic in the middle of Neutral Milk Hotel’s recognized high water mark, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was a bold move, one he wouldn’t repeat two days later. And that’s a shame, because it was stunning. But truth be told, every second of that 75-minute set was stunning, and was still just one of the slackjawed “I can’t believe this is happening!!!” moments that are par for the course with ATP. It’s a music fan’s festival, but also an experience for people who revel in experience.
Sorry, I got sidetracked. Much like when you’re actually in the middle of the festival itself, ATP gripes are often quickly forgotten when remembering something wonderful. The all-weekend Criterion Cinema was a fantastic idea, and organizers did the best they could with the available options, but the large conference room on the first floor of the Berkeley that served as a theater was less than ideal. Daytime screenings like Putney Swope and Rushmore, were marred by sunlight streaming in over the tall curtains surrounding the room’s interior. For those two films in particular, the crowds were large, as they features Q&A sessions with director Robert Downey, Sr. and music supervisor Randall Poster respectively. Those guys were great, and Downey was especially generous when someone asked which of the Iron Man movies was his favorite (for the record, it’s the first – he thought the second stunk).
Nighttime films weren’t without their issues either, as a midnight screening of Quadrophenia on Friday jumped back a chapter on the Blu-ray player, so the same lengthy scene was shown twice.
But even looking back at everything I’ve typed suddenly seems so petty, because on Sunday night in the Convention Hall, Portishead had both Chuck D and Simeon of Silver Apples on stage, and as cool as that was, the band was already so monumentally brilliant it was almost too much to handle.
Asbury Lanes was the third and smallest of the official live music venues, but was also maybe the most fun once Friday night was over and the attention to capacity wasn’t so severe. Lines were long throughout the weekend, so brilliant sets by the likes of Factory Floor and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 might not have gotten the attention they deserved. But maybe that’s also part of the ATP experience: Swooning over stuff you were there for and gnashing your teeth over the stuff your friends told you later you fucked up because you missed.
It seemed like the schedule was put together perfectly, with little possibility of overlap. The splendid booklets with all the festival info handed out upon arrival made it all look so cut & dry, and of course there was still just no way to take it all in. Even before they wound up coming on 15 minutes late, it was either to see the Horrors and Battles in Convention Hall or the Pop Group in the Paramount. Or, as many did, just jump back and forth between the two. And in truth, that wasn’t such an unreasonable option, because they were only 20 feet from one another.
I could go into best sets or disappointments, but honestly, who cares? The great thing about ATP is that it’s a collective experience, but also one tailor-made for having it however you see fit. During a Public Enemy set that began with one song followed by 10-minutes of Flavor Flav sounding like a remix of someone reading his IMDB page, I turned to a friend and mentioned how disappointed I was that they’d screwed around with “Welcome to the Terrordome”. He very magnanimously shrugged his shoulders, said he liked it anyway, and then I was crushed under the sheer brilliance of “Bring the Noise” and “Fight the Power” and it didn’t matter what I thought about their skilled-but-who-cares live band taking solos. I hadn’t really given occupying Wall Street any serious thought until Chuck D mentioned it, and by then I’d have done anything for the guy because he’s so goddamn cool, even his lone stage maneuver that involved tossing his microphone a few feet into the air like a kid with a Nerf football in the yard pretending he was in the Super Bowl didn’t seem nearly as dorky as it should have.
Look, I got a birthday hug from Flavor Flav in the lobby of the Berkeley late on Sunday night, so maybe I’m not in a position to offer an unbiased opinion. But really, forget those other festivals where the bands are a thousand miles away and the beer is seven bucks and the dust gets so deep in the crack of your ass you’ll think it’s a new tattoo. ATP is where it’s at. It’s a music lover’s festival, curated by musicians with (mostly) impeccable taste. And if it comes back to Asbury Park next year and you’re not there to have some “I can’t believe this is happening!!!” moments of your own, you deserve the regret you feel when your Facebook news feed is filled to the gills with constant frothy updates from your pals who had the good sense to jump on the train and make the scene.