Photography by Valerio Berdini

Last weekend saw ATP put on the first in a series of global, annual events under the I'll Be Your Mirror banner. A week of turgid weather finally relented and north London was basked in a glorious haze, casting a cool light on the 19th Century architecture of Alexandra Palace. Curated by seminal 90s band Portishead, whose six year hiatus ended in 2005- eventually culminating in the release of a Third lp- the billing promised riches diverse, legends of their genres sharing the stages over the festival's two days.

Comprising the Great Hall and West Hall predominantly, with a cabaret-esq stage housed amidst a Rough Trade vinyl sell-off in a smaller side room, a food court and outside areas- the festival space was perfect for the event, a small labyrinth of wide, high ceiling corridors and one-way systems leading door to stage to door. Taking the grand, regal entrance to the Palace itself, (and forgive this reviewer for not having visited Ally Pally before) I was struck by the ornaments inside, small fountains and miniature gardens in the foyer- and truly, the Great Hall is precisely that. This is an awe-inspiring building, utterly worthy of it's Grade II listed protection status.

DD/MM/YYYY - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival

DD/MM/YYYY

And so, the bands. Deciding upon coffee foremostly (and more on the coffee later), we happened across the last half of DD/MM/YYYY- the Toronto shoegaze arithmatics. A frenetic pace of bouncing vocals and shirking guitars, their music was confidently performed and aroused a great enthusiasm from the crowd. Onstage humour abounded, faux-awkward intersong banter, or what passes for it these days (meta-deconstructions of onstage banter here, perhaps) and somewhat pleasingly, band members interchanging instruments between song, sharing vocal duties, taking turns hitting drums. I don't know why that's pleasing, but it is. Digital Haircut was performed with aplomb, it's staccato ending dragging enjoyably on and on. Crucially, the band were a joy to watch- schitzing in corners and cast against a nostagia-inducing video screen that particularly caught my interest: footage of old NES games yes- but who remembers when the cartridges got dusty or you had pushed them in at a slight angle? Onscreen graphics retained a cohesion underneath, but become contorted in blocks, 8 bit and glimmering. Robotic pixel movement, and an ode to some 80s fuck ups, what happens when NES cartridges don't quite work the way they should. I wondered if something could be extrapolated from this line of thought.

Beak> - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival

Beak>

Next up and opening the Great Hall's 4pm billing was Beak>, a nice touch given that the band includes Portishead's own Geoff Barrows (here both opening and headlining the Great Hall). I've seen Beak> a few times now and listened to their album plenty- it's always struck me that the band operate best in a live context, and this was reaffirmed in the knowledge that their debut record was composed through extended jamming, written and recorded within the same two-week period. Sat down and husked in their own equipment, Beak>'s three members spread across the stage and played a lulling set from their debut. No electric light cast on the stage, the gig was very much at ease with itself, just guys in a room you happen to be in. Beak> were playing music as much for themselves as for any notion of 'performance', at moments with eyes shut or facing amplifiers, lost in the moments- at others remarking "thanks for listening to us, there'll be some better bands playing later”- with an appropriate level of self-depreciation, tongue in cheek but gazing out. Beak> play slow-grooves, unimposing jams that are perfectly enjoyable (if a little 'doom' and drawn-out in places) and the opening slot in this sun-basked setting was perfect for them. A partisan crowd had a lot of affection for the band, and they were received warmly. From here, the day began to feel real, like I was there and it was happening before me.

Doom - I'll Be Your Mirror

Doom

Beer o'clock, then- and Doom to take the stage. A crowd of devotees had gathered, and I spotted one replica Metal Face mask close to my position front and centre. Coming out to a little rehearsed fanfare, Doom took the stage with his second rapper backup, and tore through an opening salvo of early releases before focusing attentions on material from newest album Born Like This. Donned in trademark mask and unremarkable shorts and t-shirt, Doom cast a playful figure as he bounced over verses. A common problem with live hip-hop in that Doom's meticulous lyricism was sometimes lost in a blur of production, the clarity of his vocals not quite finding its way to the crowd. This gladly improved as the gig went on, and tracks like Gazillion Ear sounded fresh and focused amidst older material such as the ever-impressive Hoe Cakes- which incidentally provided plenty of air for audience shout-backs, our 'super!' punctuating each rapid-flow line. A difficult and not entirely inclusive air pervaded the gig's start, but it ended with high fives and party rhythms, Doom throwing some awkward glam-grinds as his second rapper backed off, little awestruck. 'See, he sounds exactly like he does on the record!' he offered, Doom at this point in an unstoppable mood and his back-up giving him dues. And second rapper dude did a fine job (I only mention in detail following my recent Big Boi review, where second rapper Black Owned C-Bone did a fine job of upstaging Big Boi with his total lack of class)- here, Doom's support was limited to crowd-baiting and verse accentuation, the way it perhaps should be. One small gripe mid set, a quiet moment and second rapper guy starts texting someone on his phone- and I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, unprofessional. On the other, how gangsta is that? You're playing ATP with Doom on the main stage, you've got a crowd in the palm of your hand and you're texting, mid-set. Hell, he was probably tweeting exactly that. Whatever. For me, the gig could have been a bit longer- it seemed when it ended that Doom had really found his groove, and 45 minutes just left me wanting that bit more.

PJ Harvey - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival

PJ Harvey

A short main-stage turnaround and what would be my highlight of the day, an effusive and affecting set from PJ Harvey, for whom I have long been a fan. Her musicians set closely together with Polly cast to the side, the band had a homely togetherness about them that was carried through the pastoral folk songs of her newest album 'Let England Shake'. And though the gig held a few fan-favourite treasures from albums old, it was this material that arguably commanded the greatest power. The album itself stands out amidst Polly's catalogue for the simple reason that it looks outward rather than in, retelling a grand narrative rather than the personal afflictions and concerns that are so often found in her work. PJ Harvey has a habit of expressing things as if they were universal, and her last album with it's trench-mired war imagery and series of videos documenting the very best and bleakest of British life (in a photographic style not dissimilar to Martin Parr), all our confused eccentricities, our naïve innocence and misplaced honour, the very character of this land. As she sung of strewn bodies, the horrors of war, of soldiers missing their families and their lives forgotten- a feeling of some awkwardness took hold. This was pop music that went far beyond mere entertainment, though as the album title would suggest- it was perhaps PJ Harvey's knowing intention to shake an audience in this manner. A group of student girls would yelp inappropriately at the beginning of their favourite songs, but while Polly gave herself fully to the performances of Battleship Hill, a quiet discomfort was brewing in me. The concert itself was faultless, a masterful performance at once serious and playful, quite professional and accomplished throughout. Polly danced in meandering fashion, giving herself completely to a role which saw her cast in magnificent black dress, all ruffles and feathers, full of mourning. Rather, the discomfort that I felt was borne of this audience reaction, the notion of gigs as pure entertainment and no lasting effect. In a live context, the power of her recent material almost becomes unmistakable. Older numbers like C'mon Billy and Pocket Knife were performed with the instrumentation of her new material, a large autoharp and newer arrangements- the latter in particular being reborn as a gothy, inquisitive moment of frankness. Closing on the sombre round of The Colour of the Earth, PJ Harvey introduced and thanked her band to huge applause, noting that it had been a pleasure to play for us. Sincere and composed throughout her gig, it marked the very height of professionalism and what it means to be a performing artist, rather than a musician.

Portishead - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival

Portishead

Last to play Saturday's line up, and cleverly scheduled so as to draw the biggest crowd, Portishead here playing their first gig over a year. Seeming to arouse a lot of love from this captive audience- Portishead were every bit the headline act, an expansive stage of musicians and an awe-inducing video screen that must have been the better end of 40 feet across. Portishead occupy a strange and perhaps timeless place in people's affections- or a career of two parts. Having put out two seminal albums in the mid to late 90s, the band went on hiatus and returned in 2008 with Third, a record which represented both the traditional comeback and indeed a very different sound. Gone were the trip-hop beats and sampled 50's noir, instead welcoming synths and arpeggiators, treated drumpads and scuzzy guitar where once a jazz sound had presided. And they opened with tracks from this album, Silence barraging its way in very un-silent fashion, it's juggernaut synth rhythm assaulted by minor key guitar chords. And to huge applause, quiet please, Beth Gibbons.The enigmatic singer was as we've always seen her, jeans and t shirt, beer to one side. Moreover, it's been her unmistakable voice that has provided the link between Portishead's earlier material and their subsequent rebirth. Not only in style, as was demonstrated on the beautiful and oft-forgotten LP she recorded with Rustin Man (2003's Out Of Season), but also in content. Whilst the change of sound between decades threw listeners, Beth Gibbons was on hand to demonstrate a familiar level of weariness and despair- lyrical trademarks by now for Portishead, but ones that amidst the relativistic uptempo of early material like Strangers, Roads, even Glory Box can be masked. It is frankly undeniable just how bleak some of Gibbons lyrics are though, “I'd like to laugh at what you said but I just can't find a smile” she sings in one tune, lamenting “A taste of life, I can't decide” on another. There was, and is, an awkwardness in this total honesty- that on the one hand we as an audience give love, affection and warmth to one of our favourite bands- whilst the singer seems depressed beyond words, and quite resigned to it. Do not mistake this for criticism per se, for Portishead were tight and professional all night (barring the false start at the beginning of Chase The Tear). They played the crowd favourites among newer work, and while Geoff Barrow recently admitted to Pitchfork that he doesn't enjoy playing the first two album's material- it didn't come across. The songs were played lovingly, with respect, and excellently so. As the gig went on, my fatigue set in and my head was rushing with questions. Gibbons pained expression as she sang belted the chorus to Threads, “I'm always so unsure” - and it became hard at this point not to feel concern. Is this reviewer expressing irrelevant concerns, or can it be that Gibbons genuinely does feel this sense of detachment and loneliness, of living without actually living, so many years after recording these songs. On the one hand, Portishead have a branded sound, much in the same way that any successful artist does. On the other, there is little metaphor or image to be found in her lyrics, just open reflections and honest confessions of an unremitting sadness. As the band played encore, Beth Gibbons would just into the front rows of the crowd, high fiving and shaking hands (at one point, ruffling my friend's hair)- and she was all smiles, laughing before taking the stage to sing the final chorus. The band left to huge applause and that was the first day, done.

Bonus Gallery:

Helen Money - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival Helen Money

Foot Village - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival Foot Village - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival Foot Village

Black Roots - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival Black Roots

Doom - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival Doom

The Books - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival The Books

PJ Harvey - I'll Be Your Mirror PJ Harvey

Company Flow - I'll Be Your Mirror Company Flow

Factory Floor - I'll Be Your Mirror - ATP Festival Factory Floor