From the moment I embarked the 10am train to Taunton, it was obvious this ATP would be a very different kettle of fish to my previous excursion Minehead way. Whilst the journey to The Fans was like being trapped in a feature-length episode of Skins, all flannel-shirted youths sporting Converse and polka dots, the clientele this time was, let’s say, a little richer in years…and volume. But with ATP: Breeders focusing on more established acts than last week’s indie-schmindie extravaganza- over half the bands have been around at least a decade- that’s no real surprise. Neither is it a criticism; in many ways having a line-up I was far less familiar with (being but a twinkle in the milkman’s eye when Gang of Four and X were first around) made this a more interesting experience to review, and indeed, it also proved that these old-timers could show their more youthful counterparts a lesson or two…
Etiquette informs me that if you’ve got nothing nice to say, say nothing at all and in that spirit I shall swiftly pass over The Holloys and expound upon the unexpected charms of Giant Sand. A stalwart of the Americana genre, I was subconsciously expecting a dreary Iron & Wine-esque jam-fest, perhaps with the odd sprinkle of contrived emotion but Howe Gelb’s wry, weathered vocals, compelling stage presence and penchant for discordant piano and ultra-distorted guitar swiftly dispelled my cynicism. Another unexpected pleasure was LA hardcore punk band The Bronx; not normally something I’d go out of my way to see, but their electrifying energy and positive, non-aggressive attitude struck me as a welcome (and very entertaining) antidote to the tiresome faux-anarchical posturing that too often pollutes the genre. Plus, their bassist looks like Andrew WK with a porn-star ‘tache, and that really amused me.
Throwing Muses were a tad disappointing, though Kristin Hersh remains a forbidding presence- steely-eyed, impeccably focused, as if struggling to contain barely contained rage. Their performance was commendably tight although perfunctionary in terms of emotion, but there was just something a little bland about them- in a weekend full of similar acts, they never threatened to truly shine. It almost looked like Yann Tiersen was to suffer a similar fate- his accordion long-ditched, he’s reinvented himself as some guitar-heavy post-rock type and the first quarter of the set came across as a pale imitation of much better acts. But he eventually hit his stride and by the time he unleashed his jaw-dropping violin skills he was mesmerising to behold, not so much rearranging songs as deconstructing and rebuilding them entirely. Indeed, La valse d’Amelie, reinvented as a cacophonous symphony of glitchy electronica and frenzied virtuoso strings was so spellbinding I clean forgot Bon Iver had already started downstairs.
Rivalled only by Fleet Foxes as the alt-folk breakthrough act of last year, Justin Vernon had exceedingly high expectations to live up to and verily, he didn’t let us down- well, for the most part. True, the Blood Bank material seems tepid compared to the glorious peaks of For Emma and once again the vastness of the Pavillion fought tooth and nail against the intimate, intense emotion at the heart of Vernon’s appeal but when he hit the mark, there’s absolutely no denying his remarkable talent. The swirling keyboards of New Buffalo cover “Emotional Champ” was an interesting hint at a new compositional direction, and not even the atmosphere-sapping environs could rob ‘Wolves’ and its plaintive, ever-crescendoing refrain of its devastating power- a breathtaking end to a top-quality performance. Winding up this fine day of music was Pit Er Pat; sounding like the result of a sexy liaison between Gang Gang Dance and Fever Ray, their heady mix of ice-cold vocals and electronic drums got the audience dancing well enough, although it was seriously screaming out for a light-show of some variety.
Saturday was promisingly inaugurated by the Jenny Lewis-endorsed Whispertown 2000- if I’d venture that the rapturous (mostly male) audience reaction was down to their exceptionally short shorts as much as their country-tinged indie pop, their energetic, charming performance and quality songwriting was certainly commendable on its own merits. Unfortunately, it was a high the rest of the day struggled to live up to. Angular boy-girl duo Blood Red Shoes initially piqued my interest with their visceral drumming and suitably moody vocals (one part Howling Bells, one part Kills) but they soon proved themselves one-trick ponies. Ditto Th’ Faith Healers, whose 90′s Krautrock-influenced indie may have admittedly left a more favourable impression if I’d been in a less lethargic state of mind. Scottish indie veterans Teenage Fanclub (a horrific misnomer- they, and their fanbase are all about a hundred years old) were a little better, though their unostentatious performance was far from electrifying- whilst established fans were having a whale of a time, I’d imagine the uninitiated were wondering what all the fuss was all about.
Thank God for Shellac. Steve Albini’s minimalist rock trio may have jokingly grumbled at being superseded in the ranks of Indie-Rock royalty by The Jesus Lizard, but their performance was just as gripping as David Yow and co. Exceptionally talented musicans all, veering between subtle, amelodic instrumentals and ferocious, angular rock-outs, they’re the kind of act that could so easily succumb to pretentiousness, but to their credit remain resolutely tongue in cheek throughout. This sense of fun also applies to The Breeders- having not expected much of them given their reputation for scrappiness live, they ultimately produced the day’s most accomplished set. Much tighter and disciplined than expected, the interplay between Kim and Kelley Deal’s voice works particularly well on their more reserved moments and despite a duff encore, there’s no denying that ‘Cannonball’ is a choon. Pitiful excuse of masculinity that I am, I then went back to my quarters for a “quick nap”, only to wake up nine hours later, having obliviously slept through the double-whammy of Mariachi El Bronx and Holy Fuck. I’m reliably informed they were brilliant. Sad times.
Thankfully, my lengthy repose left me refreshed and raring to go for what was undoubtedly the strongest day of the three. I’m naturally inclined to give the benefit of a doubt to any band with the gall to include a font-based pun in their name, and Times New Viking repaid my faith by being one of the revelations of the weekend. Whilst Rip It Off can be a trial to listen to, with its mercilessly abrasive mix regularly overwhelming its melodic qualities, their live show strikes a far more successful balance of succinct punky lo-fi synth pop and ear-splitting distortion. Plus, at 30 minutes their set was short enough to avoid running their formula into the ground- Heartless Bastards played for an hour but had exhausted theirs in ten. They’ve got a decent front lady in the form of Erika Wennerstrom, her powerhouse vocals and striking vivacity recalling Rhydian from the Joy Formidable, but despite a respectable line in melodies they’ve not got the slightest iota of originality. Perfectly competent, but disappointingly obvious with little to distinguish them from the mire, I soon departed for the much more intriguing Dianogah. Claiming only to have been invited because they’d jump-started The Breeders’ van at the Shellac ATP seven years back, the Chicago three-piece’s atmospheric mathrock-y instrumentals were given extra impetus by their unusual bass-bass-drum set-up, and their sardonic, self-depreciating attitude was never less than entertaining.
Cult Japanese grind-core/noise-pop mentalists Melt-Banana went straight for the jugular with 15 minutes of ear-piercing noise overlaid with a smorgasbord of sound effects, sirens and general insanity conducted in total darkness (but for the torches they wielded). Masters of the disorientating aural assault, they eventually began to coalesce their chaos into songs with identifiable structures and were even better for it- the blistering bass-line of ‘Shield For Your Eyes’, the fractured bounciness of Specials’ cover ‘Monkey Man’ all underpinned by astonishing, if unconventional musicianship. After that exercise in hyperactive brilliance, the normally reliable Deerhunter felt a little sophorific, despite a wonderful spot of guest vocals from the Sisters Deal (Bradford Cox’s obvious joy at performing with them was oddly touching). Another band ill-suited to the sterility of the Pavillion stage, their melodic fuzz was voluminous without being particularly immersive and being still on a post-Melt-Banana adrenalin rush I desired a little punchier. As a result, I went to see…Kimya Dawson? Good logic there, Elmahdi. In fairness, as long as you don’t suffer from a chronic allergy to twee (in which case, you’d be stone-cold dead in 3 seconds) , there’s far worse ways of spending half-an-hour than watching the engaging and likeable Moldy Peaches frontwoman. She invited some fans on stage to contribute backing vocals and impromptu interpretive dance-moves to a set heavily drawn from kids album Alphabutt- which, as the title would suggest, is steadfastly fixated with bodily functions- and used her undeniable charm and emotional sincerity to cover up the pedestrian nature of her songwriting. Must admit her schtick got a little tiresome after a while though- she’s just not varied enough to sustain interest for an extended period.
One glance at the apocalyptic rainstorm that beset the Somerset coast persuaded me venturing back to town would be ill-advised, so I ended up sticking around for Gang of Four, who, as happy chance would have it turned out to be the most downright enjoyable act of the weekend. Vintage post-punk shot through the heart with a massive dose of funk, it’s the only Pavillion set I witnessed at either ATP which got everyone around me dancing. Jon King is a shameless entertainer, his crazy moves and OTT demeanour only topped by his admirable ability to rhythmically whack a microwave to smithereens with a steel baseball bat, and their hour-long set rushed by in what seemed to be a matter of minutes.
From a review perspective it made sense to now check out Foals‘ headline set at the Pavillion, on account of them being a big popular band people care about, but then I realised enduring 75 minutes of self-important, third-rate Battles wannabes appealed to me less than, say, applying my scrotum to a cheesegrater. So I went and saw Shellac instead. Truth be told, the set was pretty similar to Saturday’s but if anything the band seemed even more focused, Todd Trainer stalking round the stage like a sinister revenant beating his snare drum like a man possessed, whilst Bob Weston flew around pretending to be an aeroplane. There’s certainly worse ways to end a festival.
So, with all thing’s said and done, was this better than The Fans? Well, it’s a close run thing- the first weekend did have an formidable roster and a couple of spectacular performances (not to mention better weather) but the wealth of unexpected gems and a more genial atmosphere- something I’m willing to attribute to the lower proportion of Hoxtonites in attendance- are strongly in Breeders favour. Ultimately, I reckon the old folks just clinch it by virtue of the deeply philosophical conundrum posed to Shellac’s Bob Weston by a particularly astute member of the audience- “If you had to be spit-roasted by Steve and Todd, who’d you have at which end and why?” A worthy question to ruminate upon whilst we wait the long wait ’til December…
Read our review of the ATP vs The Fans Strike Back weekend here.
Also! Look out for a bumper ATP Photo Special coming later this week!