All Tomorrow's Parties is an extra special music festival. Oddly, it's not just about the music. It's about film, comedy, lecture/conversation and new friendships all bound together by everyone's love for eclectic and passionate music. This year, following a move from Asbury Park (which followed a move from its original Catskill mountain hotel home) to a giant pier on southern tip of Manhattan, it felt more like a convention than a camp. Gone was the coziness of hotel lobbies where artists and participants co-mingled at all hours. Of the two venues for concerts, one was the size of an airplane hanger, the other next door, under a freeway.
Despite the coldness of those two spaces, ATP did manage to hang on to some of its essence. It's sponsorship-free and I can't thank them enough for that. The festival's organizers gave me the chance to watch movies like Koyaanisqatsi and This Is Spinal Tap on a boat docked to the pier with friends, which was fabulous. Hearing comedy from Janeane Garofalo was good (though my memories of a Jim Jarmusch and Thurston Moore talk had me hoping for a moment like that, which never arrived).
The musicians and fans who come to ATP are a dedicated bunch with an attraction to the intense. There's a love for those visionary niches of noisy and darkish music by somewhat-outsider artists with limited commercial appeal. That would seem to make the curator of this year's festival, Greg Dulli of the fairly successful, eventually major label '90s band Afghan Whigs a perfect fit. But Dulli's selection of bands was, frankly, the weakest of the five U.S.-based ATP festivals, in my opinion. The bands Dulli and the festival curated were often born in the '90s — some having come and gone and come again. Very few acts were born in the 21st century; Frank Ocean, The Antlers, Jose Gonzales, Demdike Stare and the collaboration between Philip Glass and Tyondai Braxton come to mind. I'd loved to have seen more discovery and less looking back.
I think the size of the crowds, which didn't seem very large even at the festival's biggest moments (performances by Frank Ocean, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and The Afghan Whigs themselves) may support my feelings about the curatorial weakness. But that's partly a conjecture based on anecdotal conversations and the vibe in general.
There were some shows I didn't see. I missed The Psychic Paramount and Emeralds and ran to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Danish band Efterklang instead of seeing The Antlers, one of my favorite bands. I saw Afghan Whigs, and though they're not my thing, the crowd sang along with every song, except maybe their Frank Ocean cover.
If ATP returns to New York next year, I'll hope for some tweaks. Maybe two days instead of three, maybe some more contemporary curation instead of celebrating the more mature bands and maybe some way to foster conversation amongst the music loving population that attends. But All Tomorrow's Parties is a festival with its heart and ears in the right place. Here are some of my highlights from this year's festival.
Most Creative: Philip Glass and Tyondai Braxton
Of all the music this weekend, this is the one I came for. Such a mix of talents: the brilliant and cinematic minimalist Philip Glass at 75 with the young Ty Braxton, known to most as the co-founder of Battles and quite an innovator as a solo artist with his orchestrations and guitar work that can seem in and of itself like an orchestra. The two performed reworked versions of Glass's Etudes 1, 2 and 10. And though the sound was an overly-loud, muddy mess, somewhere in there was a nugget of very exciting music. And the smile on the face of Philip Glass at the appreciative crowd was an unforgettable moment.
Biggest Surprise: Thee Oh Sees
I'd never seen this San Francisco ball of fire before. This kind of beachy, sometimes Cramps-style rockabilly is something I thought I'd only enjoy in a small club with friends and maybe a drink, but under the freeway, in the sunlight, it was the most rousing set of the weekend.
Best Performance: The Make-Up
It took a few security guards to keep singer Ian Svenonius from losing himself in the crowd as he hovered above us on a steel barrier. His monkey-like dance is part frenetic Mick Jagger and part Question Mark from the Mysterians. He's engaging, funny and has a band that is such fun and so there for him.
Best Sonic and Visual Experience: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Nearly two hours of music complete with film loops (yes, real film). This one shook my hat, my bones and made my nostrils vibrate. Such a dense, slow, thrill ride.