So, ATP America scoots away from The Catskills to the infinitely more Rock'n'Roll (TM) surroundings of Asbury Park, New Jersey – hallowed birthplace of both The E Street Band and The Asbury Jukes, as well as boasting the spiritual home (The Stone Pony) of countless other Springsteen associates.
First of all, let it be known that this is a great move: the twin venues of the beautiful art deco Paramount Theater and the cavernous-but-welcoming Convention Hall – augmented by the quintessentially American Asbury Lanes – are perfectly suited to staging the world’s favourite underground music fest; the desolate, out-of-season feel of The Boardwalk in late autumn provides the perfect backdrop to a weekend of strange and off-kilter performances.
Down at The Lanes, New Yorkers Cults arrive onstage with the Twin Peaks theme as entrance music (a good start to any weekend in our book), before galloping through a set of breathy, vaguely ominous-sounding indie pop to rapturous applause. Obviously some people are seeing special things here that others are blind to.
First up at The Paramount are The Album Leaf. Jimmy LaValle's mesmeric, almost entirely instrumental soundscapes are both compelling and comforting, unfurling a blanket of sonic warmth and pleasure that takes in influences from Vangelis and Moroder to Kraftwerk and Slint.
Over at The Convention Hall, meanwhile, Matt Sweeney's Chavez seem determined to kick out hard, despite (or perhaps due to) their protracted absence from live engagements. Although, like most Convention Hall acts over the course of the weekend, the band has to contend with muddy sound, the furious, jagged guitar assault of their Mission of Burma-styled post-hardcore clamour acts as a welcome refresher. An unfortunate mix-up over timings aside (they end up rolling out a very early encore indeed), they convince as a band back on track and firing on almost all cylinders.
A Hawk and A Hacksaw benefit tonight from featuring an ex-member of Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeremy Barnes) in their ranks; the hall quickly fills up for their post-teatime slot, with plenty of over-eager Jeff Mangum fans no doubt hoping for a precious collaboration or two. While this doesn’t transpire – and won’t until after the festival, at Mangum’s faultless standalone Paramount show – Barnes proves that leftfield world music really can possess bite, depth and of course the kind of lyricism that rock can often find so hard to attain. Their set is equal parts novel and absorbing as a result.
Soon afterwards, Shellac are busy stalking the stage like the battered old hounds of ATP that they are. The legendary trio's exclusive live performance relationship with organiser Barry Hogan ensures they end up playing almost every event he organises - often multiple times across a given festival (twice this weekend). The most satisfying aspect of this arrangement is that, in this scribe's experience at least, the Chicagoans are never less than excellent. More than that, Albini and co. are invariably brutal, fascinating, smart, corset-tight, loud as hell and – for all their raw viciousness – thoroughly loveable to boot. Their presence at ATP always raises the bar, and so it proves once again this evening: 'The End of Radio', in particular, sounds every bit as invigorating tonight as it did back in '07. New album immediately please...
Over to The Paramount we quickly scurry, and there waiting for us we have, for the first time in years, a real life Jeff Mangum solo show. Don't worry, we'll spare you the hype – everyone knows who Neutral Milk Hotel are/were at this stage, as well as just what their music means to so many people.
The man of the moment is, for want of a better word, glorious: his voice bell-clear, his playing strong, his (limited) audience interaction both good-humoured and charmingly self-deprecating. Setlist-wise, he plays his best songs, and he plays them darn near perfectly: ‘Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone’, an audience-requested ‘Naomi’, ‘The King of Carrot Flowers’ and (but of course) a stormingly great ‘Holland, 1945’. He plays everything we all want to hear, basically, and then leaves. The world does not stop spinning on its axis, and the gig doesn’t turn out to be the answer to the world’s spiritual problems; but it is a rousing and brilliant hour and a bit nonetheless.
Shellac photo courtesy of Abbey Braden/ATP
Michael James Hall also compiled his thoughts on the rest of this year's IBYM USA weekender. Go here to read what he made of Saturday's festivities, and here to get his verdict on Sunday's goings-on at Asbury Park.