Best Fit’s Will Fitzpatrick heads to Somerset for a weekend of cult status bands, Bill Murray rumours and ear splitting noise for the Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel curated All Tomorrow’s Parties. With photographs by Tim Ferguson and Daniel Mackie.
Friday, 9 March
We get underway courtesy of Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise, a 12-headed beast comprising members of Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel and various less-celebrated acts from the titular psych-folk collective. Largely playing the hits (such as they are) of their main bands, the set alternates between jaunty melodicism and wonky beauty, and by gosh, it looks like they’re having fun. Climaxing with a gleeful Sun Ra cover, their winning enthusiasm spreads across the possibly-too-sober ATP crowd, making for a thoroughly pleasant means of warming into festival mode.
Veteran performance artist Charlemagne Palestine follows – opening with some heavily-treated electronic drones, his grinning visage lit up by the glow of the laptop screen (insert your own ‘just checking his Facebook’ gag here). A grand piano bedecked with stuffed toys looming ominously on stage left. It’s his second trip to Minehead, but his first on a bigger stage – “I’ll do what I can,” he promises, before howling eerily into the mic whilst rubbing his finger along the rim of a wine glass. It’s unsettlingly sparse, but utterly beautiful. In what looks likely to be a recurring theme of the festival, the strains of the second stage thump through the floorboards from the room below. But rather than detracting from the performance, it forces us to concentrate harder, making the experience even more rewarding. You could theorise wildly for months on end about Charlemagne’s bizarre, fractured journeys into repetitive minimalism (incidentally, he prefers the term “maximalism”) and still not come close to describing the strange exhilaration of his music. Its peaks are as thrilling as any fully-charged punk band, and as heartbreaking as the most fragile ballad. Admittedly, watching him play a series of piano intervals for fifty minutes gets a little draining, but fuck man, what a ride.
The annual ‘Bill Murray is at ATP’ rumour is already ping-ponging across the Twittersphere by the time festival curator Jeff Mangum makes his first of two appearances. He’s understandably one of the most eagerly-anticipated performers of the weekend, as indicated by the near-religious fervour which greets his entrance. ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt 2’ is first outta the cage, and the audience watches in rapturous silence. Everyone’s favourite resurgent reclusive doesn’t really attempt to engage with the crowd, although you could argue that the sheer volume of willing hearts held out before him means he doesn’t really have to. In any case, it’s ok – we’re only just getting reacquainted, after all. ‘Holland, 1945’ and ‘Song Against Sex’ provide some jauntier moments, while all three parts of ‘The King Of Carrot Flowers’ inspire a spine-tingling singalong from the transcendently-happy congregation of fuzz-folk fans. There are cameos from Scott Spillane and Julian Koster, prompting the possibly-irrelevant question of why they didn’t just go ahead with a full Neutral Milk Hotel set. All in all, though, it’s hard not to go along with the crowd’s devotion to those wonderful songs, and indeed the reluctant genius singing them.
We pop our heads round the door for Joanna Newsom, whose ethereal charms still hold sway over the affections of the male-heavy crowd. Love her or hate her (and most here seem to be in the former camp), she’s pretty darn captivating. Young Marble Giants’ post-punk jams are as menacingly brooding as ever, although the effect is tempered slightly when their computer-generated backdrop crashes, leaving them to play in front of a rather less impressive Windows menu. Luckily, The Raincoats are on fire, tearing through what seems like their entire recorded output with inspirational levels of energy and zeal. They’re just about trumped by a triumphant set from Half Japanese – Jad Fair beams throughout, clearly thrilled to be here, while the band raise the rowdiest of ruckuses behind him. Sumptuous pop hooks, thunderous strafes of Some Velvet Sidewalk-style axe heroism, and an irresistible rendition of old favourite ‘Red Dress’ – this, kids, is how you play a rock show.
There’s slightly less fizz during Thurston Moore’s hour on the main stage. As ever, it’s impressive – would you expect anything less from the Sonic Youth guitarist? – but it never quite topples over into ‘incredible’. There are nice outings for old friends like ‘Ono Soul’, alongside the Red House Painters flavour of his recent material, but we’re left feeling like a kid who was promised a day at the ice cream factory but had to spend the majority of it in the packaging room.
Luckily Mike Watt and George Hurley are here to ensure the day doesn’t end on a downer. It’s commendable that they opt to perform a set of Minutemen classics as a duo, rather than hiring some unwanted fanboy lunkhead to fill in for the much-missed d. Boon, and even if the songs seem a little more empty than usual, they’re no less powerful or downright awesome than you’d hope. The reunited Jon Spencer Blues Explosion feel a little extraneous after that, although the leather-trousered frontman still conjures up a good sweaty party. He doesn’t seem to shout ‘BLOOZE SPLOSHUN’ as much as TLOBF remembers, but even so, it’s been a pretty fucking solid opening day.