Never bet against Steve Albini. The Shellac frontman won't deal you a bad hand. He'll simply wait for you to tire and overplay the odds. The man's mechanical at no-limit Texas hold 'em, calculated yet courteous. Small stakes can still make for a big payout.
Every night at All Tomorrow's Parties New York last weekend in Monticello, Albini bankrolled the executive card room at Kutsher's Country Club, hosting marathon games in the afternoons and evenings. ATP's reportedly one of three things the legendary producer and guitarist openly endorses, the others being Nutter Butter sandwich cookies and Abbey Road.
UK born in 1999 as an alternate to massive festivals like Reading and named after the Velvet Underground tune, All Tomorrow's Parties has earned a cult following on both sides of the pond for its hospitality and two trademark features: selecting seminal artists to curate the lineups and, as part of its Don't Look Back series, booking marquee acts to perform their watershed albums front to back. The Pixies' upcoming Doolittle retread at the Austin Music Hall (Sept. 21-22) and Sleep's Holy Mountain pilgrimage on Friday (Sept. 10) at Mohawk began at ATP.
"ATP is fundamentally different from any other festival out there," stresses Christopher Hrasky of Explosions in the Sky, which curated the UK edition in 2008. "It's really more like a camp. The whole thing is much more intimate than the typical giant festival, and it's nice that bands reflect personal and specific tastes as opposed to whoever has put a new record out in the last six months. I felt like I was living out a ninth-grade fantasy."
T-Model Ford serves as the greeter at Kutsher's early Friday evening sit-down. With his cane resting beside him, the Fat Possum dignitary plugs into a pocket-sized turquoise amplifier and holds court in the lobby. The elderly bluesman's in better shape than his surroundings, which bear the musty odor of an old casino. The wallpaper, in pastels of pink and blue, peels at most corners. The lone survivor of the Borscht Belt grand resorts, Kutsher's offers a bohemian rhapsody tucked away in the Catskill Mountains, 1,400 acres of paradise lost. National Lampoon's indie rock vacation.
"I ain't scared," spouts Ford with a knowing wink and smile.
No corporate sponsorships. No exclusive VIP section. Only two unspoken rules at Kutsher's: Stay out of the synagogue, and don't break anything.
Iggy Pop plays by his own rules. Hurling a mic stand across the stage Friday, he contorts his body with a manic fervor, possibly controlled by some free-basing puppeteer. As his Stooges rip through 1973 masterpiece Raw Power (see "Shake Appeal," May 28), the Detroit piston becomes poster boy to this year's Don't Look Back series, triumphing over mere nostalgia.
Castroville, Texas-born guitarist James Williamson's searing leads spar with guest saxophonist Steve MacKay on nuclear invocation "Search and Destroy" and rockabilly furnace blaster "Shake Appeal," the latter turning into a stage-crashing dance party.
"That was Raw Power," Pop concludes in short order. "Now '1970'... fuck everything."
Mike Watt, hobbling backstage on crutches earlier, morphs into a sadist of the bass, violently biting the instrument's strings before thrusting it into his amplifier cabinet. The rolling thunder revue continues with "I Wanna Be Your Dog," Pop/Williamson rarity "I Got a Right," and an encore coupling of "Funhouse" and "No Fun." The singer doesn't want it to end, either, crowd-surfing and continuing his spastic jitterbug tap dance well after Scott Asheton leaves his drum kit.
The Stooges' carnal pummeling had already surfaced in the Scientists, a post-punk outfit from Perth, Australia, that, like Radio Birdman, never broke stateside other than on a Sub Pop retrospective. In fact, the foursome – guitarists Kim Salmon and Tony Thewlis, bassist Boris Sujdovic, and Leanne Lamie on drums – never even washed ashore in North America.
Marking the band's first performance on U.S. soil, the Scientists' opening ATP set spins off its Blood Red River EP, a six-song debut from the early 1980s later expanded into a greatest hits of the band's definitive era, 1982-84. Salmon proves a one-man Beast of Burden, barking primitive murder ballads and "Swampland" blues to make Jon Spencer look like mere blackface parody in comparison.
"I never thought I'd get to be the sweet spot of a Scientists-Stooges sandwich," surmised Mark Arm of Mudhoney, which bridged its two forefathers in the spirit of grunge. The Seattle fourpiece then blitzes through Superfuzz Bigmuff and a handful of early singles, most notably "In 'n' Out of Grace" and the Dicks' "Hate the Police."
Nothing tops the Stooges the first night, but Sleep eases the comedown. Kicking off its first reunion tour, the Uncle Tupelo of stoner metal, whose 1997 split resulted in Matt Pike's galloping High on Fire and bassist Al Cisneros' epic Om, reprises its monolithic breakthrough Holy Mountain in its entirety, then lurches on for another hour. It's the sound of a giant awakened, Black Sabbath in slow motion, rolling Sisyphus' boulder uphill for an eternity.
Huddled into a corner of the piano room, the Breeders sneak in a last-minute rehearsal Saturday morning. Unplugged and at little more than a hum, the Ohio outfit casually works the kinks out of its forthcoming set as a small crowd gathers – checking cell phones, sipping drinks, trying anything to blend into the walls. In this setting, the sparse gallop of "Drivin' on 9" engenders genuine Americana heartache, accented by lonesome violin. A polite, two-finger applause greets the band upon conclusion.
"Merci, merci," nods Kim Deal in response.
This sort of indie rock voyeurism runs rampant at ATP. There's no separation between artist and audience, not even in the hotel accommodations, and both parties seem to relish the scenario. Lee Ranaldo supervises family air hockey in the lounge as comedian Hannibal Buress butchers Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" on karaoke on the neighboring dance floor. Across the lake on the playground, Dungen breezes through an acoustic session of pastoral, Swedish folk for the Ice Cream Man's Road Trippin' Web series.
The remainder of Saturday serves as a symposium of noise, brandished with exacting precision. Half-hidden behind a laboratory of synths and effects, guitarist Michael Rother leads Hallogallo 2010, a tribute to Neu!, his pioneering Krautrock group of the early 1970s with Klaus Dinger, who died in 2008. Psychedelic in scope and minimalist in execution, Hallogallo creates linear expressionism with a metronomic pulse, Rother's gleaming guitar tones drifting in and out of the heartbeat rhythms of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Tall Firs bassist Aaron Mullan.
Portishead's Geoff Barrow updates that blueprint only slightly with his new project, Beak>, adding traces of Bristol trip-hop and Can's Soon Over Babaluma. Ranaldo's Text of Light screens its own Rocky Horror Picture Show afterward, improvised free jazz and Hurricane Earl turbulence set to avant-garde cinema. The distress signals bleed into the psychobabble of Shellac's "The End of Radio," Albini's Chicago trio ripping through a bare-bones set ("Can we have a no mist experience?") with industrial menace and math-rock complexity. ATP's former curator calls his own bluff in the terse "Steady as She Goes" from 2007's Excellent Italian Greyhound.
Even Explosions in the Sky sounds more aggressive than usual, trading its post-rock grandeur for No Wave assault. When the frontline of guitarists Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith, and bassist Michael James hammers down "Memorial," the local juggernaut moves the same heaviness as Sleep the previous night. Then comes perennial ATP favorite Sonic Youth.
The NYC heroes spiral down "Death Valley '69" and never let up once, issuing vintage psychosis in white-heat epics like "'Cross the Breeze" and EVOL's "Shadow of a Doubt." From Thurston Moore's pendulum music intro to "Eric's Trip" and Ranaldo's bowed "The Sprawl," Sonic Youth conducts a noise symphony for its ever-devout Daydream Nation.
The last shuttle buses from Kutsher's depart at 5am. After a few winning hands and one last all-in push, the Black Angels' Alex Maas still isn't ready to call it a night.
"I'll check out in a little bit," he says, echoing his refrain from a few hours earlier.
Don't worry about him. The Angels know how to make the most out of a bad hand (see "I See Dead People," May 9, 2008). After being dropped from Suretone Records in January 2009 – before even stepping into the studio – the local psych aviators used their nonrefundable advance to finance sessions for third LP Phosphene Dream, recorded over six months in Los Angeles. That's when Maas' poker face helped tie up some loose ends.
"We were totally in limbo that whole time," recalls Maas, arriving on time for Sunday's 10am sound check. "We didn't know what we were going to do. When the record was finally done, that's when we knew we could get it to someone that could help us out."
Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein came knocking after South by Southwest in March 2009 and tapped the band as the marquee first signing to his recently revived British label Blue Horizon. Phosphene Dream, out next Tuesday (Sept. 14) with an in-store at Waterloo Records, illustrates why, condensing the illusionary hypnosis of 2008's triple-vinyl Directions To See a Ghost into sniper-rifle immediacy.
Guitarist Christian Bland likens it to the Beatles' entire career filtered through the Black Angels, a Magical Mystery Tour flying higher than Mr. Kite and spanning the Fab Four's early R&B jive through the more kaleidoscopic mind-warp triggered by Revolver. Multiplatinum producer Dave Sardy earned the credited role of George Martin, helping tweak the arrangements and speeding up the tempo.
"Dave had a great way of getting us to do things that we normally wouldn't have, like backing the reverb off or not putting on so much delay," furthers Maas. "We trusted our voices."
That much is evident later when the quintet anchors the second stage, the official first performance in support of Phosphene Dream. The band rattles with confidence and low-end swagger in Maas' London calling card "Telephone" and "Sunday Afternoon," which levitates behind Bland's fuzz-guitar locomotive and Stephanie Bailey's propulsive beat. Multi-instrumentalist Nate Ryan leads "Yellow Elevator #2" straight to the 13th Floor, while panoramic keys by Kyle Hunt stretch out across the Far Eastern overdrive of "Entrance Song."
As their national television debut on the Late Show With David Letterman reiterates just three days later, the Black Angels have not only arrived, they've finally learned to loosen up without psyching out.
Most aspects of Sunday's finale with GZA and Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan could pass for scenes from one of curator Jim Jarmusch's landmark films (say Mystery Train), with Ron Jeremy standing in for Bill Murray's customary cameo.
"I really wanted to get Tinariwen," adds Jarmusch at an intimate ATP press conference. "We were not able to locate them or find out how to get them. I could've booked like 50 bands, but you've got to stop somewhere."
Asked why his group Sqürl didn't make the cut, the auteur deadpans in response. "We're not ready yet; we've been focused on recording," he says. "Besides, our band would've been way down on the list."
The day plays out like Jarmusch's real-life mixtape, reigning hardcore champs Fucked Up, Philadelphia's Childish Prodigy Kurt Vile, and the ever-efficient Vivian Girls issuing a teen dream of reverb and clouded melody. Brooklyn's White Hills surprises early with a psychedelic speed freak-out that suggests High Rise by way of a Hawkwind tailspin, supplemented by ice-cold electronica and a female bassist/hex dispenser. The organ-pierced garage-blues of Cincinnati's reunited Greenhornes illustrate why Jack White recruited the rhythm section of drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence for the Raconteurs. Frontman Craig Fox struggles to keep up.
"You all look tired," remarks Hope Sandoval midway through an evocative set with her Warm Inventions. It's partly fatigue, but more so the former Mazzy Star leader's lullabies paralyze, her hazy, twilight vocals emerging like a shot in the dark. The bleached pop confessionals of San Francisco's Girls prove even more affecting. The band unfolds a miniature song cycle in "Lust for Life," "Hellhole Ratrace," and "Morning Light," but singer Christopher Owens steals the show in his solo encore, introducing several new songs that suggest Roy Orbison on Valium.
Headliners Sunn 0))) and Boris close the evening with Altar, their 2006 collaborative temple of doom. Cloaked in black monks' robes and in front of their respective double-stacked amp towers, the Southern Lord captains and the Japanese trio bow their heads alongside guests Michio Kurihara (see "Your Satori Mind," July 23) and Thrones' Joe Preston and summon prayer.
With long stretches of experimental drones, the performance transcends in ways that the album never could, its sheer volume forcing the audience to succumb to the physical experience. Imagine My Bloody Valentine's live jet engine sequence, then prick your finger and make the sign of the cross. It's the blackest Sabbath, amplifier worship for a high Mass service.
Back at the executive card room, Steve Albini's already shuffling a new deck.
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