It’s no disservice to the bands or the organisers that the abiding memory of this, the final ever All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, is of Bob Weston’s choice of stage wear. Steve Albini has his bandmate’s back – “I know you’re all thinking what I’m thinking…Bob’s pants are incredible.” Were they leather? Were they PVC? They were certainly shiny, and the always-comedic Shellac mid-gig Q&A session disintegrates as Weston dodges the barrage of questions about his pants. Shellac have played nine ATP festivals, and there is a palpable sense of the finality and genuine love that band and punter alike share for this event. Weston sums it up best, with a sincerity that would knock a lump into the throat of the most hardened of festival hounds – “I’m trying to savour every moment of this ‘cos I’ll never see it again.”
Located on the grounds of Pontins Holiday Camp in Camber Sands, East Sussex, the organisers have decided to draw a line in the sand almost fifteen years after the first Mogwai-curated ATP in 2000. Since that event, a formidable roster of bands and artists have chosen each year’s line-up, and this year’s swansong is a two-part affair. Entitled ‘End Of An Era’, the previous weekend saw ATP and Primavera Sound curate proceedings, while Part Two is coordinated by ATP and Loop. Such is the nature of the event and its environment that the bands we miss – some missed due to absence, and some attended more in body than in mind – are as noteworthy as those we catch. The roll call of regret reads thusly – Goat, Mike Watt’s latest project Il Sogno Del Marinaio, The Pop Group, Michael Rother…the list, unfortunately, goes on.
Between walks on the beach to blow off the hangover dust, adventuring with new-found friends, chalet-hopping, pub-crawling (between all two of them) and generally getting out of the venue to avoid stir-craziness, there is much to fit into the all-too-brief weekend. The two venues themselves are located in a large auditorium that houses an amusement arcade – say goodbye to your two pence coins – and a pub, and who would have thought that the back corner of the Queen Vic during the karaoke would lead to more meet-ups and entertainment than in the main halls. The halls though, and those who played them, are what brought us and the rest of the seasoned ATP crowd to this hamlet in the first place.
Formed from the ashes of Sleep, Om are first to wow us in the cavernous main room with the drone music that permeates this entire weekend. A high tone emanates from Robert Lowe’s keys, and Al Cisneros picks out a bass riff as Lowe cradles and hammers a tambourine. Cisneros’ bass anchors everything to the spot as the eastern fuzz of guitar and organ wash through their set, all the while punctuated by startling drum flourishes from Emil Amos. Shrill tones counter the deep, cyclical bass lines that dominate the sound, becoming more knotted when Lowe lays his guitar textures on top. Bodies in the crowd suddenly start to pivot back and forth at the hip as the rhythms take hold, the backbeat switching from solid to unleashed as the chant-like vocals intone. Repetitive trance-like swathes shift in phase and pitch before Amos leaves for Bhima’s Theme; when he returns to the kit it’s to drive home a juggernaut groove with Lowe’s high, otherworldly vocal emanating from the most unlikely of sources in this deep, dark tempest of a gig.
Befitting the occasion, Shellac are decked out in tuxedo t-shirts as Steve Albini and Bob Weston flank Todd Trainer’s drumkit at centre stage. Weston’s lead vocal on Compliant sees him scream unamplified, before he and Albini disappear into the wings to let Trainer roll around the kit and the crowdsurfers roll around the crowd. Songs – as on record – are full of extended, pregnant spaces that are duly demolished as all three crash in. The crowd join Prayer To God in force and Albini does his airplane impression in body and guitar pitch on Wingwalker, with Weston repeatedly shouting “Look at me! I’m a plane!” Then, all three have arms outstretched, Trainer in the middle with his head bowed as the song slows, and slows, as Albini detunes to a growl. New track Dude, Incredible gets an outing before Crow, and “everyone wants to see Todd Stanford Trainer play the drums” – he does so, as Albini and Trainer dismantle his kit around him until just the snare is left. Sticks go flying, one after another, until Trainer stands triumphant. They depart, ninth ATP show completed in true Shellac style.
Slint’s headline show on the opening night is marked at first by the audible chatter that can be heard between the notes of For Dinner…, but as Brian McMahon whispers the vocal of Breadcrumb Trail and the song’s heavy sections come in with true force, this set of restrained tension stands in contrast to the way Shellac operate before them. Drummer Britt Walford shares vocal duties on a studied performance of Nosferatu Man, as McMahon ambles with hands in pockets, sipping on a beer when he’s not up. Glenn is a repetitive instrumental, a workout between the sound textures of Dave Pajo and the fretwork of his colleague – nothing flashy, but a show of understated prowess nonetheless. Green light cloaks them like a veil for the ever-beautiful Washer, the song’s final guitar chords coming in hard with a crowd response that equals them. Selections come from both ‘Tweez’ and ‘Spiderland’, the rhythm section leaving for the two guitarists to sit and share a mic for Don, Aman. McMahon stands aside, but makes his presence more overtly known during Ron, stagediving into the crowd and staying awhile as he’s carried back towards the sound desk. He’s delivered back in time for Good Morning, Captain, a heavy and fitting end to a set from one of the seminal bands of the last quarter century.
The KBV define themselves as an audio/visual project – if this means projecting visuals onto a backdrop as they play then who are we to argue? Nicholas Wood and Kat Day play guitar and synth respectively as a heavy drumbeat kicks in and when they start their Saturday afternoon set there is an immediate Jesus & Mary Chain/Black Rebel Motorcycle Club sound in effect, with both musicians providing abrasive textures. Grinding psych sounds abound, noisy swirls coat everything and a squall of feedback is never far from the surface. The intonation of vocals and that unremitting guitar wail are a constant motif, with the body-throwing of Wood standing in contrast to the stoic Day next to him. It’s all very 80’s and shoegaze-y and it all sounds the same…it’s good though, this song they keep playing.
Loop then, co-curators of this year’s event and creators of motorik, droning soundscapes, appear on Saturday night. Immediately challenging the room, guitar delay fucks with the drumbeat to create a completely disorientating effect. Dirty guitars lead in, dowsed in feedback as the band keeps the repetitive riffs going…Straight To Your Heart indeed. Guitar comes in phased waves through the PA, savage in volume and fuzz. “I’ve seen some very messed up people today” says Robert Hampson, and those oscillating guitars that pull at the pit of your stomach can’t do much to alleviate their state. There is much fret-scouring over the pound and repeat of the drums and rhythm guitar as we move towards midnight, the band stopping, slowing and speeding the tempo of Vapour. Tribal patterns herald Mother Sky before the skewed guitar riff wrestles the song from the drummer. Vocals and drums layer to a repetitive peak and then just keep on going, relentlessly and unendingly. After time interminable, the song and set end in a flurry of feedback; Hampson signs off, simply, “it’s good to be back…bye.” Psych via Krautrock with an Anglo-centric hue – this is a savage and annihilating set.
Sunday inevitably brings with it the requisite festival-fatigue, but we’re ushered back into the vibe by Josef Van Wissem, a lone player with a lute who delivers one of the most unique sets we encounter. The man who wrote the soundtrack for ‘Partir To Live’, the film directed by Folkazoid’s Domingo García-Huidobro which also premiered at this year’s festival, angles the many-stringed lute on his lap, neck pointed at ninety degree angles every now and then as he plucks out the notes. He focuses on a motif, picking a melody from around the root of the bass notes, at times pushing the lute as close to the mic as possible, standing up with it and eliciting slow, dark tones. Suddenly, the bright trill of a new melody will spring forth, quieting to a whisper until an unexpected flurry of notes resuscitate it. The Mystery Of Heaven throws a few skewed notes into the mix, a more wavering and insistent tempo than the previous selection. Van Wissen then stands in front of the monitors, his lute unamplified, walking back and forth on the stage all the while playing a simple riff. As he moves around, the natural sound ebbs and recedes before he returns back to the mic hunched over the instrument, a unique piece of performance in a sea of bands and DJ’s.
The Sunday shakes aren’t lost on Tall Firs who follow this set (“I’m not sure which word I’ve heard more of today – shattered or destroyed”) with their own gentle hangover music. Songs about death and suicide, that’s what we need right now, and Tall Firs have them ready and waiting. An anecdote about the magnitude of the Fucked Up bass player’s fucked up-ness on the same stage ten years previous sets the scene before So Messed Up, not a far cry from Thurston Moore’s acoustic material. Vic Chestnutt’s Bakersfield – “a song about suicide followed by a song by a guy who committed suicide” – slots in alongside the band’s own gallows themes, a trait they humorously acknowledge through the set. Crooked Smiles itself is a song about ATP (“Remember that year that miaow miaow was a thing?”), and Arthur Russell’s I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face is coated with soft harmonies. Yet another song about suicide – “in a good way” – follows, but at least they’re not all about suicide…some are just about dying. Despite some encouragement from the crowd to play All Tomorrow’s Parties, they decline on the basis that they got drunk instead of learning it. That’s fair enough.
Captain Beefheart casts a long shadow over modern music, but his legacy and sound can still be experienced through The Magic Band, his musical colleagues and custodians of the man’s unique compositions. These men know how to lay down a groove, and John ‘Drumbo’ French acts as eccentric ringmaster to this circus. He stalks the stage, in and around Craig Bunch’s kit, rolling on the floor during When It Blows It Stacks between pounding the tambourine on Bunch’s hi-hat. He leaves the band to it at one point, psych-blues rolling off the stage in an extended instrumental that moves through complex time signature shifts. French is no slouch on harmonica either, re-appearing in mad conductor mode for Circumstances. “This is a little more out there than maybe you’re used to, but just go with the flow” he instructs, before a free-form jazz workout that slows and speeds in the cacophony of Denny Waller’s guitar and French’s horn on Hair Pie. ATP was the first festival this renewed Magic Band has played, and French talks warmly of Don Van Vliet’s music living on. The band, it has to be said, are amazing, and the musicianship on display is second to none. It’s a pleasure to watch talent of this distinction, and they deliver a tribal, powerful finale. It’s just hard to escape the fact that this is a tribute act with a man doing a Captain Beefheart impression.
Sunday is a noticeably quieter night than the two previous, whether people are either fucked or have simply fucked off home, but you know what…fuck them. They missed Superchunk, and that’s on their head. Superchunk’s is a set of a different variety to most this weekend, a high energy fly-through with Mac McCaughan immediately out buzzing around at the monitors for FOH. Me & You & Jackie Mittoo is the sparkling gem live as much as it is on wax, and from this year’s ‘I Hate Music’ album back to ‘No Pocky For Kitty’ in ’91, the thrash is undiminished as Skip Steps 1 & 3 stands alongside it. Bass player Laura Ballance has stepped back from the band’s live tours to be replaced by Jason Narducy, the new guy in fine fettle standing up by Jon Wurster’s kit or echoing the liveliness of Mac to his left. Water Wings has Jim Wilbur in Townshend guitar mode, arm aloft as Mac takes care of the jumps. This is the band’s first time to play ATP (“We were starting to get a complex”) and the crowd join them in Digging For Something as if in solidarity. Everyone gets in on the act for Slack Motherfucker, and as they end on Hyper it’s like a summing up of the entire set – the most fun of the weekend and one that stands apart from the dark leanings of the rest.
Bringing it all full circle, Mogwai close the main stage of the festival they inaugurated, and there’s little to say save for the fact that it’s a fitting and blistering send off. Folk lounge on the floor space around the main area as well as on the dancefloor in front of the band as the gig simply grows in stature and the band throw their bodies into it. Volume levels are remarkable – that or our ears are feeling the strain after three days and nights of doom chords – and the band comes in again and again with those crashing crescendos until they exit, leaving Stuart Braithwaite alone. He dumps his guitar at his feet, droning away until they come back out to an encore dedicated to bands ‘without whom’. Slint loom large. Remurdered follows, and Hunted By A Freak and Mogwai Fear Satan round off, ending up in a four-guitar assault. The latter quietens, then holds, until one last bout of savage distortion and strobing. And that’s it – no fanfare, no platitudes, just folk filing out of the final set of a festival that will be sorely missed.
There’s a sense of the familial to the weekend, and it’s clear that many of the punters – and for sure the bands – are returning visitors. It’s as laidback an event as we’ve visited, right down to the friendliest event security we’ve had the pleasure of not being annoyed by. It’s certainly a novel setting for anyone whose experience stretches only to campsites and city festivals, and the lack of separation between attendee and player leads to an atmosphere that other festivals can only dream of. This is the last time ATP will hold an event in a holiday camp in the UK…certain questions remain unanswered though. Can this really be the final ATP? Was that really gravy in the Pontins canteen, or just brown and water? One question we did find an answer to, and it blew any and all preconceptions from our minds. Bob Weston’s favourite pasta dish is fucking salmon pesto linguini.