The 2012 version of I’ll Be Your Mirror USA—All Tomorrow’s Parties’ grand urban festival experiment on the Lower East Side of New York City—continued on Saturday, September 22. The roster promised the weekend’s largest selection of performers and activities, including curator Greg Dulli and his partners in The Afghan Whigs. If ever there was a time for this particular incarnation of IBYM to step up and maintain ATP’s rep as a harbinger of good taste, to rock the party and bring the party to rock, this was probably it.
The day kicked off with the first true tests of the festival’s second stage, under the edge of an overpass of the FDR Drive. Friday’s comedians seemed weirded out by the setting, yet their voice-only performances never really challenged the soundboard crew. Music from electronic duo Emeralds kicked off Saturday more or less OK. The drones in their vintage grooves sometimes got a little muddied and tuneless in the mix, but their underlying synth loops carried the day. Emeralds played for 45 minutes without a break, leading the crowd through what seemed like just three distinct head-nodders suggesting both Kraftwerk’s early motorik music and modern dance-punks !!!.
Proto-riot grrrl group Scrawl followed Emeralds under the sun and highway. The Ohio trio are the kind of festival signing that helped establish ATP as the mad scientists of booking: an influential, long-lamented artist to make the oldheads go crazy and the young kids go, “Oh, they did that?” It’s even better if such an act can still bring the hammer down on a crowd, and despite looking the part of Midwestern soccer moms the guitar-bass core of Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe did just that. Their 45-minute slot, reaching all the way back to first album Plus, Also, Too from 1987, sounded a lot like a favorite history lesson of bands like Sleater-Kinney and The Breeders.
High-end literature and culture imprint Lapham’s Quarterly returned to ATP with more of their signature roundtables and events. Greg Dulli actually put together a book list for festival attendees as part of his curation, and LQ helped promote some of the selections with speakers on topics related to particular plots and characters. Notable among these guests were Evan Michelson and Mike Zohn, proprietors of the Lower East Side curiosity shop Obscura Antiques & Oddities featured on Discovery Channel’s Oddities. They used Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love to riff on weirdness from sideshow memorabilia to purposeful amputations. Crowds for these diversions may have been small, but never let it be said that ATP and their supporters aren’t an intellectually curious bunch.
Back under the FDR, Brooklynite Charles Bradley cemented his case as the best understudy James Brown never requested. Supported by The Extraordinaires, yet another killer Daptone Records all-star band, Bradley was the Poor Man’s Hardest Working Man in Show Business (which makes sense, considering his past nomadic life). He was all funk screeches and mic stand tricks, shifty dancing and costume changes. He even covered “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time,” for heaven’s sake. His shit didn’t fit, and his moves didn’t always groove, but damned if his efforts and his own music (“This Love Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us”) didn’t push the crowd toward rapture.
Now, a confession: Your author never really latched onto the catalog of Dirty Three, Warren Ellis’ self-pleasuring violin vehicle when he’s not a Bad Seed alongside Nick Cave. It must not translate very well—maybe it’s the constraints of studio equipment and space, finite songs to place in a finite album length—because watching them is a different beast altogether. Ellis seems to position his violin as a madman’s guitar and Mick Turner’s guitar more as the bass, a rhythmic foundation alongside Jim White’s rolling drums. He screams through instrumentals, roaming the stage and karate-kicking like David Lee Roth, giving long-winded and philosophical intros to (possibly fake?) song titles. And yet, Dirty Three manage not just manic jams but dramatic, even sad power. They’re crowd favorites wherever ATP touches down, and you have to see them to understand why.
Then you have this quintet with two drummers, The Dirtbombs, Detroit rockers with a fetish for their city’s musical history. A lot of who and what The Dirtbombs are will no doubt surprise new listeners. It took a few songs for them to shake off the garage grunge and let some hard soul shine through. They shifted from songs about trying love (“Chains of Love”) to failed bravado (“Candy Ass”) with help from pogoing blues instrumentals and even one of their Party Store covers of old-school techno, Inner City’s “Good Life.” Thanks to the end of Dirty Three’s set and dinnertime among the boutique food trucks, the biggest crowd of the day saw Mick Collins powering through squealing Hendrix-isms as Pat Pentano and Ben Blackwell tried to break through their skins. The fans ate it up, as it were.
Sadly, what may have been the first real dud set of the weekend followed soon thereafter. Blues Funeral is the latest album from The Mark Lanegan Band. It’s a really nice slice of gothic soul, and it puts the band on the wrong end of the expectations with which Dirty Three deal. Lanegan’s crew put forth dour artistry that’s a rather fine headphone trip but came across lifeless and monochromatic on the main Pier 36 stage. One has to wonder if their mix suffered the most in the converted, cavernous and column-filled super-gym (the pier building is normally home to New York’s installation of Basketball City). Plus, there was no Gutter Twins reunion with Dulli outside of set closer “Methamphetamine Blues,” so do we boo that as well?
Lanegan’s lack of crowd connection helped make Jose Gonzalez’ set stand out in relief that much more. Despite commitments to other performances, activities or food trucks, you simply couldn’t pull yourself away from the most pleasant, downright nicest performance up to this point in the weekend. With his hypnotic finger-picking and lilting, cooing vocals, Gonzalez transmits a serious Richie Havens or early Cat Stevens vibe—maybe even Jack Johnson or Bob Marley, minus the ganja. Backed by cool night air, smoke machines, and blinding stage lights, Gonzalez conjured a little bit of magic under the FDR.
The Afghan Whigs—the first and longest-lasting OMG name on this festival’s bill—brought fans down to earth, and they were more than happy to land not on feathers or a trampoline but the band’s shards of broken relationships. Pros at rock to the Nth power of soul and off the grid as a group for just about ever—no songs in five years, no albums in 14—Greg Dulli and friends had plenty of surprises in store for the crowd, which by now was swollen to headliner capacity. Across a playlist spanning their entire career, The Afghan Whigs reconfigured words spoken to and spoken by women to sad, sometimes sinister ends. There were of course catalog favorites like “66,” “Son of the South,” and “My Curse” (with an appearance by the original vocalist, Scrawl’s Marcy Mays), and then big hits “Gentlemen” and “Debonair.” These eventually gave way to some of their jaw-dropping takes on R&B, including Frank Ocean (“Lovecrimes” and a bit of “Thinking About You”), Gloria Jones (“Tainted Love” attached to “Bulletproof”), and Prince (“Purple Rain”).
So once The Afghan Whigs cleared out, so did a good chunk of the crowd. Their loss, as those who stayed behind caught the antics/majesty of The Roots. The Philadelphia rap crew-turned-house band for Jimmy Fallon went straight apeshit on Pier 36 for a solid 90 minutes. They were pretty much a variety show all their own: generating separate medleys of Beastie Boys cuts and classic rock (Guns ‘n’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, et al.), mashing up Black Thought’s raps with other instrumental tracks, dancing while playing their guitars and sousaphones (!). And talk about endless energy: The Roots in concert have more false finishes than a Chikara wrestling show. You’d think a ?uestlove drum solo or a late “Here I Come”/”The Seed 2.0” sequence would signal show’s end, but you’d hear “Thank you New York” and the band would start right back up. Which reminds us: Thank you New York, and thank you ATP. Sunday afternoon comes quickly.
All photos by Adam Blyweiss