Because I’m a lazy ass, I never got round to writing about last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Butlins in Minehead (a surreal location for a very independent event), which was curated by Les Savy Fav, Battles and Caribou. It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, featuring such brilliant moments as Les Savy Fav’s lunatic headline set on Friday (“tell no-one what you saw here!” shouted Tim Harrington at one point), Battles tentatively but triumphantly reclaiming ‘Atlas’ from the spectre of Tyondai Braxton’s departure, Sun Ra Arkestra offering us delirious space-jazz, Pharaoh Sanders providing smooth, soulful sounds on Sunday afternoon, and far more besides – Wild Flag, No Age, Holy Fuck, Nisennenmondai, Cults and Factory Floor all proved to be highlights. As such, it didn’t take much for me to persuade myself to part with the cash for this year’s event, especially as it was curated by The National – a band who I’d only managed to see previously while surrounded by disinterested Strokes fans at Leeds Festival.
Several months and one change of venue later (thanks to ATP’s financial turmoil earlier in the year), we’re at Pontins in Camber Sands, which is no less of an odd location for such an event. I’ve heard various horror stories about the quality of accommodation there, but thankfully my friend Jonjo and I seem to have lucked into a decent enough chalet – basic, but serviceable and clean, and with the added advantage of a seemingly limitless electricity meter (we were warned that some people would have to purchase electricity, but apparently not us). There are some minor issues – the cooker and water heater share a switch, and there are only about four plug sockets in the entire chalet, but it certainly beats staying in a tent. Onwards…
Friday 7th December
The weekend starts with somewhat of an oddity thanks to Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, who’s playing three completely different shows this weekend, the first of which is entitled Drones/Revelations. The larger of the festival’s two main rooms has been converted into a makeshift velodrome, and the piece is performed by a dozen or so cyclists, who circle round with cylindrical speakers attached to their bikes – the end result is that the music changes subtly, different melodies and noises peaking and dropping as each individual cyclist passes by. The word ‘Drones’ in the title turns out to be both a reference to the style of music and the unmanned drones used in modern warfare, as a looping voice provides quotes about them over the PA throughout the set. As an overall audiovisual spectacle, it’s a pretty mesmerising way to start the weekend – it’s probably one of those things that’s far more interesting to watch than it is to listen to someone talk about!
After taking a bit more time out to stock up on food, I decide to go catch a bit of Nico Muhly – his modern classical compositions are enjoyable enough, but I must confess I don’t remember much about the set apart from the fact that Owen Pallett apparently makes a mean sandwich. Hayden, on the other hand, provides us with some excellent folk-rock, matching his understated sounds with engaging storytelling.
Back in stage one, Hauschka prove to be a little too avant garde for our liking, so we head back to stage two. The lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me, so I make my first (and last) purchase of Monster energy drink and discover that it tastes like disappointment in a can. At least it seems to have the desired effect – or that might just have been Buke & Gase kicking my ass and providing one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. At first, they sound a bit like Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing ramshackle homemade instruments – the ‘Buke’, a modified 6-string baritone ukelele, and the ‘Gass’, a self-crafted guitar/bass hybrid. But the instruments aren’t just a cheap gimmick, as Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez bring a real mix of sounds together to form some sort of grunge-funk-folk-punk brilliance – the pair conjure up a storm of scintillating, invigorating riffs backed up by an incessant 4/4 kick drum stomp, making their set a propulsive marvel from start to finish. Their debut record Riposte is an immediate impulse purchase afterwards, and it’s absolutely worth a listen.
We then attempt to watch Kronos Quartet, but don’t last more than five minutes as they’re currently in minimal, ultra-arty post-classical mode. The sparse, delicate folk of Luluc proves to be a much more appealing proposition – their lyrics and melodies are incredibly simple, but no less affecting for it. Zoe Randall’s vocals have an understated beauty to them, quietly commanding the audience’s attention throughout the duo’s set – on this evidence, their Aaron Dessner-produced new record will definitely be worth a listen.
Later on, Bear In Heaven seem pleasant enough on the main stage, but for some reason we decide it would be a better idea to go check out ambient noise artist Tim Hecker. The set is one, long flowing piece that transforms itself at a frankly glacial pace – it’s basically like listening to one of those ‘slowed down 800%’ videos on Youtube. Occasionally, something resembling a melody might drift into view, only to be quickly be obscured by a swell of bass. Oh God, the bass – it’s quite literally the most visceral thing we’ll hear (and feel) all weekend, with the low end frequencies reaching ribcage-shaking levels. It’s so visceral, in fact, that to leave would almost seem like pussying out, and so we stay until the end to claim our unwanted badge of honour – if it were a physical thing, it would probably read something like “I survived the Heckerpocalypse.” After about 40 minutes of bewildering noise, I’m not sure if I’ve had some sort of transcendental experience, or if I’ve simply been wasting my time – though I have a sneaking suspicion it’s probably the latter.
Japanese noise-rock band Boris are a chameleonic force – their first three songs alone span death metal, minimal psychedelic rock, and what can only be described as a more crazed version of Motörhead. It’s fair to say that some of these aspects come off better than others – for me, their pinnacle comes with their penultimate track, a sprawling, dynamic rock epic. There’s certainly no lack of energy throughout their set, particular from their drummer, whose animalistic yelps and frenzied playing are a definite highlight.
Saturday 8th December
Saturday starts out with an attempt to give Kronos Quartet another shot, and whether by chance or design they prove more accessible this time around. Sure, the perturbing avant guarde piece about 9/11 is perhaps a little much this early in the afternoon, but by contrast we get some tasteful Bollywood strings and a beautiful Swedish piece called ‘A Thousand Thoughts’. They finish their set on a lighter note, with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which is either genius or sacrilege, depending on how you look at it.
I struggle to really connect with Lower Dens, so after half an hour I decide to go watch Richard Reed Parry’s folk set, entitled Quiet River Of Dust – and afterwards I wish I’d seen the whole thing. It proves to be a quirky and engaging performance – the first song I hear is about a boy who gets lost at sea and turns into a fish, if you want some sort of indication of what we’re working with. The fact that this is the trio’s first ever show also highlights ATP as the kind of festival where you get to see things you don’t get anywhere else.
Having seen This Is The Kit earlier in the year, I knew I was going to enjoy their performance – but I had genuinely forgotten how brilliant the band actually are. Mumford & Sons may have single-handedly ruined the banjo for just about everyone, but Kate Stables does the near-impossible and turns it into an instrument of subtle beauty – ‘Easy Pickings’ and ‘White Ash Cut’ being particularly strong examples. It doesn’t harm that her band surround her banjo lines with serenely atmospheric instrumentation – and it works equally well when Kate dons a guitar, as on the breathtaking ‘Spinney’. The set is peppered with equally impressive new songs, and even the band’s equipment has its admirers, with a random scouser describing the collection of instruments on stage as “like guitar porn.” Guitar porn or not, I’m absolutely looking forward to hearing a new record from the band next year.
Indeed, the evening is pretty stuffed with talent. Firstly, Polaris Prize nominee Kathleen Edwards delivers her folky, bluesy Americana with complete conviction – ‘Going To Hell’ in particular sounds like she’s really inhabiting the song and imbuing it with meaning. Next is Sharon Van Etten, whose captivating set is a timely reminder that I really do need to give her new album Tramp a proper listen – as it stands, ‘Give Out’ and ‘Serpents’ are my highlights. Finally, The Antlers suffer some technical difficulties but still manage to deliver a luscious set of their dream-like indie rock.
Without wishing to trivialise the other performers, however, tonight is all about Wild Beasts for me. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m a huge fan of the band, and particularly their third album Smother – so their setlist tonight is pretty perfect for me. The first half of the show is Smother played in its entirety – finally getting to hear the gorgeous ‘Invisible’ live is a major personal highlight, but the whole record is impeccably recreated live, in all its damaged beauty. After a brief pause, the band then proceed to follow up with a flawless selection of songs from their previous two records – that is, ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ from Limbo, Panto, and all the best stuff from Two Dancers. Ending on the delirious one-two punch of ‘All The King’s Men’ and ‘Hooting And Howling’, Wild Beasts have yet again confirmed that they’re one of the finest bands that the UK has to offer – and yet, they’re humble in deference to the weekend’s curators, with Hayden suggesting that The National’s High Violet served as a blueprint for Smother. Clearly, that inspiration has served them very well indeed.
Sunday 9th December
Our first act on Sunday proves to be another of the weekend’s most surprisingly brilliant artists, Ethan Lipton, presenting a piece of musical theatre entitled No Place To Go. Together with his three-piece band, he delivers a story of a man forced to reconsider his place in the world after his company makes the decision to relocate to Mars. What follows is humorous, charming and even insightful in places – highlights include the ominous ‘Shitstorm’, the song about moving in with his ‘Ageing Middle-Class Parents’, the frantic hilarity of ‘Soccer Song’, and the sub-plot about the final sandwich in the conference room. By the time we’ve gone from the comfort of having a ‘Place To Go’ through to the triumphant, joyful conclusion, there’s no denying that Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra have delivered something fantastically entertaining.
Up in stage one, My Brightest Diamond gives one of the weekend’s more theatrical performances thanks to her quivering vocals and striking costume – but the mask does come off when she sings ‘I Have Never Loved Someone’, a particularly touching dedication to her young son. We switch stages again to watch The Philistines Jr, whose geeky indie rock manages to make something as ordinary as waiting for the cable guy sound charming. I elect to watch a bit Youth Lagoon afterward, and while it’s not the worst decision I’ll make all weekend, their floaty indie-pop is a little lacking in substance for my liking.
So it’s back to stage two, where Richard Reed Parry is presenting his final show of the weekend, Music For Heart And Breath. It’s a set of chamber music featuring an all-star cast of those playing over the weekend, including Owen Pallet, Nico Muhly, Gaspar Claus and the seemingly ever-present Dessner twins. There’s a twist, however – as the name might suggest, the piece is written to be played to the speed of the performers’ heartbeats – to aid this, they’re all wearing stethoscopes, which is an odd sight. It’s most apparent when the music is played in a staccato style, and it’s interesting to hear how everything fits together while still being slightly off-kilter. It’s also the quietest the crowd will be all week, with the lone exception of the sorry moron who saw fit to heckle the performers – seriously, who does that?
The crowd could have stood to be as quiet for Perfume Genius, whose beautifully fragile songs should have reduced the room to stunned silence – fortunately, his sheer talent is enough to shine through the incessant babbling from the early evening crowd, epitomised by the heartrending brilliance of ‘Hood’. Owen Pallett, meanwhile, spends the entirety of his set making me feel very silly for not listening to more of his stuff before now – his looped synth and violin compositions are backed by a rock solid rhythm section to form music of propulsive beauty, topped off by his soaring vocals. He introduces several new songs throughout the set, and their quality indicates that his new album will surely be one to watch out for next year – but there is also room for tracks from his back catalogue, including a wonderful rendition of ‘The Great Elsewhere’ to close the set out with. Local Natives provide our last piece of pre-National entertainment – they’re one of those bands who I think I’m not that bothered about, but then end up being fairly impressed by when I catch them live. They may not be Arcade Fire or anything, but they still manage to pull off the whole expansive, anthemic indie rock thing pretty well.
Tonight’s headliners are, of course, the event’s curators, and the reason that we’re all here – The National, who are ably assisted throughout by guest appearances from Richard Reed Parry, Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett. Taking full advantage that we’ll all be eating out of the palms of their hands for the next couple of hours, they begin with an understated new song, entitled ‘Lola’ – but it doesn’t take long for them to ramp things up with the storming guitars of ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ and the sweeping emotion of ‘Anyone’s Ghost’. From there on in, the band can basically do no wrong, whether it be the glorious rush provided by ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ or the raw, heartstring-tugging power of ‘Sorrow’ or ‘England’. Frontman Matt Berninger is on good form too, wryly blaming his “stupid daughter” for the cold he’s caught before playing tender, fearful ode to parenthood ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, and joking that one of the new songs they play is called ‘Buttered Buns’ – “so go ahead and blog away,” he quips. The song in question is (apparently) called ‘Sullivan’ in reality, and demonstrates a more propulsive side to the band’s new material as it’s played back-to-back with another new song, ‘Prime’. There’s room for some older songs too though – ‘Secret Meeting’ gets a rapturous response and is dedicated to a fan who showed Matt a ticket from a London show during the Alligator tour, while ‘Abel’ sees Matt absolutely bursting with cathartic energy. Boxer, on the other hand, provides many of the set’s moments great beauty, including the gorgeous ‘Slow Show’, the quiet, contemplative ‘Green Gloves’, and serene, slow-building set-closer ‘Fake Empire’.
We all know they’ll be back for more though, and the band provide a near-perfect encore – tender, touching new number ‘I Need My Girl’, fist-pumping anthem ‘Mr. November’, the glorious, squalling crescendo of ‘Terrible Love’ and the fragile, beautiful ‘About Today’. And then, to bring the weekend to an emotional close, Matt leads the crowd in singing along to an unplugged version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ – and as the song finishes, I’m genuinely left breathless for a second. And with that unforgettable moment, The National bring the festival to a close in truly spectacular style.
But wait, there’s more! Matt Berninger encourages everyone to go see Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra once their set is done, and having seen them performing No Place To Go earlier we don’t take much persuading. They continue to display copious amounts of the wit and charm we saw earlier as they run through songs from their back catalogue, and the set features the best sub-30second songs I’ve heard since I last saw Brakes play. By the end of the set, pretty much everyone in the room is singing along to a song about running a way with a girl from a Renaissance fair (“Her bosom was heeeaaaving, and her hair smelled like steak!”), before cheering for the band to play just one more song – and they duly oblige. ATP, you’ve been amazing.