Day 1 review here
Photography by Valerio Berdini
Day two of ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror (continuing the Velvet Underground naming, IBYM being the b-side to the All Tomorrow's Parties single) saw (again) beautiful sunshine and a bright and early jaunt up the curving Alexandra Palace hill for what promised to be an intense, beautiful way to begin the day. Scheduled for a lunchtime start, Godspeed You! Black Emperor would play the longest set of the weekend at a full 2 hours, and it really would set the tone for the day. Whereas Saturday's bill had been characterised (at least for this reviewer) by melody, today would bring an aural assault, and from the moment Godspeed took to the stage, this much was evident.
Like many, I'd half-presumed that my opportunities for seeing a Godspeed live show were well and truly done for, the band on 'indefinite hiatus' since 2003- but the sprawling ensemble, having spawned a generation of imitators, reformed last year and were given curator duties of ATP's annual Christmas festival. A host of Constellation bands, including the 'also presumed split-up' Hangedup performed. For Godspeed, a UK tour followed and they were playing some unrecorded material, some Canadian performances and now this; one could be forgiven for enjoying an embarrassment of riches. What was perhaps unforgivable was the ATP booklet completely mistaking the band for someone else, and printing a biography which began “GYBE are a Canadian power trio” and went on “The group, originally from Arkansas, formed in 1965” before referencing debut album “Can't Stop The Rock” - at which point I had to giggle, and wonder if this was a deliberately fake biography: bonus prizes for guessing which real band the bio had been sourced for.
As Godspeed meandered onstage, taking their instruments in hand over the now-traditional drone that begins their first release, it was clear that the West Hall couldn't have been more packed- the early billing putting noone off, and an endless queue for entry stretched to the Great Hall. And perhaps the larger venue would have been sensible, but for the five Super 8 projectors of the group's 9th member, documentary filmmaker Jem Cohen.
A half-hour of building noise began, though calling it such does a disservice. This was meticulous cacophany, built from silence at first to a drawn out full band crescendo. From here, the as-yet unrecorded track Albanian and into the beautiful, sweeping melodies of Moya- here performed with it's namesake Mike Moya joining the ensemble at the climax with the piece's majestic lulling riff, clean on guitar. Their second LP was represented well across the set,Storm, Monheim and World Police given impressive airings. I was personally hoping for some material from Yanqui UXO, their final LP, but it wasn't to be.East Hastings and Dead Metheny, both from their debut- oft described as containing less complex material than in the band's latter years, were admittedly performed with a vigour that demonstrates the band enjoying their back catalogue. This was good to see, and the group at times very much seemed to be enjoying this strange time of day. The band were tight too, on form and well mixed for such a large array of instruments. Strings were clear, guitars held clarity between members and each drummer held individual power whilst underpinning the collective. So too were the films apt throughout, here Cohen broadcasting his five projectors onto a single screen behind and above the group, overlapping at times, creating multiple effects. Sourced from a collection of homemade footage, the visuals have long been essential to the Godspeed live experience- the group tend to sit down and become immersed in their own instruments and little else. Cohen's collection of train journeys and wilderness, religious text and technical blueprints, protest footage- I do it no justice here- was compelling throughout and at times, profoundly moving. Moreover, some of the effects and transitions between reels were utterly in sync- and here I acknowledge the technical skill in doing so, operating five individual film projectors from the back of the room. During this gig, everything seemed to come together for the band and after their 2 hour slot had ended and the audience shuffled to the Great Hall to watch Liars, you could see the gratitude on faces. I found the gig to be very enjoyable, and the two hours stood up in a warm room had passed seemingly quickly and without fatigue setting in; Godspeed had taken the room with them. Leaving the stage one by one to continued applause and looped guitar feedback, Godspeed smiled back at us.
Next door then, to the Great Hall, a ten minute gap and without much fanfare, Liars took to the stage. Or at least, their three original members did- opening with one of their more difficult (to some Liars fans including this reviewer, that reads: enjoyable) pieces, We Fenced Other Gardens With The Bones Of Our Own, from their second album. From here and the songs that followed, it was clear that Liars were indulging their more rhythmic, percussive, spaced out side. I'd always regretted not seeing the band on their Drum's Not Dead tour, where bootlegs have affirmed to me how songs were loose and free form in performance, the band content with the sonic booms of drumming, sound pads used as texture, and frequent screaming. For the first half of the set, Liars were like this, all manic wails and 3-piece rhythm/noise generators. Then a full band, and Sailing To Byzantium heralded a shift to their newer material. Scarecrows On A Killer Slant followed, Angus dancing possessed, toying with a vocal effects box for kicks. The performance was engrossing and skilled, even if at times the mixing was a little boomey- the Great Hall is after all a huge space. Ending on the uplifting cosmic wail of Proud Evolution, the band's set was short, sharp and to the point.
A short break then and a visit once more to the Food Court, and further details of the coffee I mentioned. Lovely people from the Giddy Up coffee company, genial and conversing, and gosh darn it was the loveliest cappuccino I've tasted in a long while. Strong, smooth and creamy- sufficiently delicious and just made it back inside in time for Swans.
The influential post-punk and noise band Swans, active from '84 to '97 and reactive since 2010, now touring newest album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky. Led by focal point Michael Gira, and flanked by a band of new and old musicians (Swnas has had an ever present changing line up, though guitarist Norman Westberg has been an everpresent. The band have built a reputation for sheer noise, famously at one point playing shows at such a loud volume that audience members would vomit and the police would turn up. But this isn't noise for it's own sake, this is meticulously crafted, drawn out, melodic and rhythmic. Beautiful in places, in fact- but driving constantly, and unrelenting. Swans played a long set that saw the crowd eating from their palms, and could be found afterwards enjoying cigarettes and beers with fans outside. So far, the day had been pounding, incessant and utterly wonderful.
It was clear as Grinderman's equipment had begun being set up that there were a fair few Nick Cave fans in the audience, and the anticipation for this hour-long set was palpable. Against a red backdrop, the Grinderman band came out to an abrasive intro, and as soon as Nick Cave hit the stage- there was no looking back. Dashing across the stage and thrashing at his guitar vigorously, Cave was every bit the showman, though his impressive band were hardly shrinking violets here- the entire set was formed of energy and sex, raw and rapturous. But if there was an impression of animalistic punk being set free here, unfettered and out of control- the reality of it is that this was an exercise in performance. As Cave jumped into the crowd during the beginning ofNo Pussy Blues, it became absolutely clear that Grinderman exist for these moments, for playing live from a stage. Cave gazed menacingly into audience eyes “My face is finished, my body is gone, and I can't help but think- standing up here in all this applause and gazing down at all the young and beautiful with their questioning eyes, that I must above all things love myself”. It was dark, nihilistic, and Cave was a man possessed with this character. Ostensibly comprised of Bad Seeds musicians, but formed in 2006 of a desire to play some of Cave's starker material, Grinderman are pure id. Cave rejoicing in familiar themes: sex, death, loss, America- always with the wry smile and knowing laugh that defines his work. The gig did not relent, and slow burning album tracks like Kitchenette were given a drunken stupor, a splendid raucous energy- everything turned up to 11, Cave beseeching the audience 'I just want to relax!' maddeningly. Comparatively, the album recording seems now tamed. Cave is an impossibly good frontman, flirting with instruments and rapt body stutters. The gig ended on an hour, a huge response from the audience and a committed audience demand for an encore that never came- festival scheduling is such a rigid thing, and my God, Grinderman were good for three or four encores.
Intermission, and the inevitably huge crowd descending on the Great Hall for Portishead's second headline show in as many days- those with day tickets choosing to see them just once, and those who had been the weekend, guessing what changes the setlist would hold. And so it was, not many but for a few swaps from their eponymous second record. I'd taken up a different position in the crowd, closer- and whilst you might presume from my review of the previous evening that I wasn't about to enjoy this gig, you'd be wrong. It is perhaps unfair to criticise Portishead for being Portishead, lyrical as much as musically. Sunday evening saw them come harder and faster, a real edge to the sounds and performances. Again the sound was immaculate, crystal clear and precisely mixed. Again the band opened with Silence and soon after The Rip (a track I usually despise, its endless synth riff attempting to fade out inconspicuously) – even here I found the band in good form, and the acoustic bleakness of Wandering Star seemed a calm moment in the eye of the otherwise storm. Stage left, Adrian Utley was a master of his guitar, eliciting an enormous chainsaw effect at the close of Threads, which ended the first half of Portishead's Sunday set. One moment of humour, the attempts to play Chase The Tear- which had resulted in one false start a night before, this evening took five attempts before the band collapsed in humour and moved on. 'This is Portishead doing comedy” offered Beth Gibbons, half apologetically, tongue in cheek. For a singer whose lyrics so often tell of despair and detachment, this was a genuinely human moment, a peek behind the veneer Portishead hold up. Seemingly a beat issue, with the drummer unable to find a steady beat under an arpeggiated synth intro, the band indeed moved on and without delay into Cowboys, it's thrashing arrythmic guitar stabs set against Geoff Barrow's virtuoso scratch-work. If weekenders were hoping for a vastly different set, it was not to be- and despite having a solid three album's worth of material, songs like Strangers from the debut album and Western Eyes from the second were omitted in favour of the crowd pleasures, Sour Times, Roads, Machine Gun- the latter's anime synth outro illuminated by a stunning rising sun on the video screens behind the stage. Leaving with a speech of thanks to ATP and all the bands who had played, describing picking the line up as a “dream come true”- Portishead left to a huge applause.
And that would have been that, but for Caribou's midnight booking in the West Hall- a gig which felt like an afterparty. Plenty folk had stayed behind past the hour at which tubes would work, braving their early Monday mornings for this late night, rather special gig. Coming out to much applause, Caribou's four live band members were huddled closely together, drumkits and synths at the fore, guitar and bass closely encircling from the back. The stage was hazy and thick with smoke, bright coloured lights peering out from the midst and illuminating songwriter Dan Snaith as he bent awkwardly at his keyboard, hunched out or stretched up to reach a high microphone. Their set was frenetic and pacey, music to move to- the live drums and drumpad tracing staccato rhythms, offbeat and intricate in places, arguing against the bouncing synths. A muddiness pervaded the first half of the gig, too often the bass notes were lost in a hum and whatever the guitarist at the back of the circle was playing wasn't distinguishable from the whole- but this seemed to have been fixed to an extent by the time the band played Jamelia, which closed their most recent album Swim- but was here used as aperatif to the group's surprise hit Odessa. Jamelia was euphoric but restrained, the album version's explosion of colour and melody being lost somewhat in this context due to some over-eager drum work- played in this fashion perhaps to define this moment as such, to break up the pacing of an otherwise relentless drum barrage. Here, the beats argued against themselves, off pattern and tensile. Odessa did what it was meant to and the crowd responded with a predictable glee that suggested they'd been waiting for it. Returning for an encore of Sun, Caribou seemed often engrossed in their kit but a little dissatisfied with the sound throughout- fighting always for clarity here, especially with the intricate material from earlier albums. After the gig, as crowds hustled for cabs and special nightbuses in the grassy area outside- it seemed evident that plenty of people had just been there for the dancing, and in that regard Caribou certainly lived up to expectations, fulfilling the role of a live dance band with ease. Perhaps I had been hoping for something a little more intimate though.
And that was it for I'll Be Your Mirror. For now, the festival banner heads to New York, where Portishead will again curate. Some general points about the festival, then:
The venue was beautiful, and ATP should reuse it. This sounds likely, as the programme noted the organisers strong ties and affection with the building. Seeing the sun gaze into the Great Hall, illuminating the ceiling with the stunning stained glass refraction was a thing of great beauty. As were the gardens outside, though not part of the site and required you going in through the front door once out there- these too were beautiful.
The sound levels and mixing quality was very high throughout the weekend- only Caribou really suffering in this regard.
On a slightly critical note; Alexandra Palace is by design a series of large halls with small doors to let people in/out. What exacerbated this already difficult situation were the burly security guards directing people through a maddening one way system that seemed to change orientation every ten minutes. At times it simply made no sense, being asked to walk through an entire crowd just to reach the exit- when there were perfectly good doors there. It's worth noting that whilst some security took their jobs a little too seriously (crowd control tactics and people directing in particular), others (especially the ones outside trying to find us a taxi home) were friendly and good humoured. We were grateful for them, so thank you.
Lastly, free massages. ATP clearly understand that standing on your feet for 12 hours a day watching bands can often do your back no favours, so a troupe of expert masseurs were on hand to ease the pain. Thank you ATP!
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc