Friday, December 7, 2012

ATP: The Nightmare Before Christmas curated by Shellac of North America

Can you ever go back? When ATP first relocated from Camber Sands to Minehead, there was muttering. The chalets were too nice, the range of eateries too commercial, it was simply too weird seeing Patti Smith performing in a food court, illuminated by light seeping out of Burger King and Pizza Hut. Then, they sorted out the venues, fixed the sound, and we all got used to being able to have a fry-up in the morning, possibly a latte later on, a haircut, maybe a massage.  Old lags would reminisce about Camber’s soul, but Minehead had facilities. 

And then ATP went back to Camber.  ‘Soul’, in this context, means spartan accommodation,  some frankly baffling logistical decisions (queuing for over an hour to check in because they were ID-ing everyone, when the median age for an ATP crowd must be 35; removing all the furniture from the Queen Vic, which puzzled even the bar-staff; instituting a ‘one-in-one-out’ policy on a side entrance used as a thoroughfare, so they were overloading the downstairs venue because the ‘outs’ were actually leaving the games arcade), cheap drinks, bumping into Kim Deal in the merch room, and brilliant music.

Queue-gate meant that pretty much everyone missed Shellac’s first set, opening proceedings on Friday afternoon, and also cellist Helen Money – one of the lucky few to make it in early enough to see the curators said there was less chat than usual, the band possibly annoyed that half their crowd was outside downing cans of lager to keep warm.  But the line-up was made up of about half the bands Steve Albini has ever produced, and he’s a diverse chap, so when everyone was finally in, the festival took off.

Scrawl were an early highlight, forerunners of Sleater Kinney with their driving riffs, shared vocals and close harmonies, Marcy Mays and Sue Harsh gently sending up their longevity – “this is from our first record , most of you weren’t born…this is our new drummer, he’s been playing with us for seven years” – in between pounding out their choruses.  Turing Machine blended guitars with a dance vibe, a drum groove under the rock, a wall of noise in a tank top.  Mono played soundtrack music, swelling and shimmery, a corollary to something but with little plotline of its own, instead working a slow build, or a fade to black.

Saturday, and Buke and Gase – a perennial problem at ATP is a back-to-back running order and bands with a non-traditional approach to songs, so it can be difficult to tell if they have started yet or are still soundchecking – “ta ta ta, hallelu-u-jah, this is just an exercise, ta ta ta, God this is embarrassing” received an encouraging round of applause before they embarked on their rolling, riffing, developing songs, and following an ATP tradition by ‘hiring’ Shellac bassist Bob Weston for one song. 

Bottomless Pit have longevity as well, formed from the remnants of Silkworm and piling on more rock, not trad, of course, but ATP-trad, with wafts of something else, maybe Battles. Then Arcwelder, on which notes say a) singing drummer and b) Pavement have a lot to answer for – they are better when they go off-piste, and a more bluesy element comes in. 

The queues start up again, to see Red Fang and Melt Banana downstairs – Wire are upstairs, heavy not poppy, featuring traditional curator-thanking, and a hardcore of devotees dancing wildly. This is now all about Kim Deal – she starts her first ever solo show with her first ever solo record (Walking with a Killer), plays a song for her father, then one for her mother – “she has Alzheimers, she asks me, are you mine?”.  She plays Oh! and Fortunately Gone from Pod, she switches guitars, plays Cannonball and does almost all the voices (the crowd helping out with in the shade…). Then, after an extended exchange, partly in Dutch, with a man in the crowd, the traditional hopeful request, and her response – initially “no, I can’t, I only played bass on it, I can’t … ah, how hard can it be?” – she plays Gigantic.  It’s a wonderful set; she’s nervous, but her voice is as beautiful as ever and the setlist a great mix of where she’s been and where she is now.

Sunday, and another ATP tradition, that the early sets are a calmer, quieter affair. Watching Rachel Grimes, the chiming sound of a heavy-sustain grand piano (does this explain the JCB outside, which we had assumed was there to hold the building up?) backdropped by the squeaking of a badly-oiled door, is a perfect way to start; this is modern classical to counterpoint the walls of noise constructed elsewhere. She plays Elements, In the Vapour, an extended selection written on a recent retreat, and then, welcoming Shannon Wright onstage, Last Things Last, the only Rachel’s song to have vocals.  Wright sings beautifully, wiping away tears – the song was written by Grimes’ bandmate Jason Noble, who died this August.

This was followed by Nina Nastasia, her spare, gorgeous folk leavened with rambling anecdotes about ‘snot-suckers’, Twinkies, and Steve Albini’s studio ice-breaker, an encyclopaedia of sexual practices (“so, you get a bag of bees…”). She is joined by Grimes, and cellist Alison Chesley, a.k.a. Helen Money, for a couple of songs, one clearly impromptu (“ah, it’s only two chords, and they’re professionals”) for another contrast. Simply beautiful.

Bear Claw amp up the noise with thumping drums, and Future of the Left have a joyous edge to their rage, a danceable flavour to their rhythmic battering – a dozen bands seen, barely scraping the surface of the line-up, and that’s without the ‘extra-curricular activities’ both organised (pop quiz, book club, karaoke) and spontaneous (chalet parties, band-spotting, a bracing trip to the beach). It’s good to be back.

A note for those attending the next event, curated by The National. Bring everything. Everything you might need. You may have been lulled into a false sense of security by Minehead. Bring mugs. Bring toilet paper. Don’t assume there will be a shower. Check if the meter moves before spending money on leccy at the shop. Bring beer and biscuits for the queue. Bring washing up liquid and a tea towel. And for the love of God, bring a sleeping bag. Enjoy!