Tomorrows Parties, Todayby Todd Simmons
As a fan of rock’s weirder, wilder elements, I’d been eager to experience an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival since ATP’s inception 12 years ago in England. Eclectic rosters of avant-rock, post-punk, alt-R&B, proto-grunge, obscure reunions, and name-your-genre bands have been on the British festival’s docket for more than a decade in remote locations around the world. UK “holiday camps,” decrepit Catskills resorts, and sites in Australia, Tokyo, and Barcelona have hosted these far-flung, noisy getaway weekends, which had till recently existed beyond my grasp, geographically. So when my friends and I discovered that our long-scheduled, Greg Dulli–curated “I’ll Be Your Mirror” weekend in Asbury Park, NJ, was detouring suddenly to a mystery pier on the East River near Chinatown, anguish and disapproval weren’t exactly my primary responses, no. Having already geared myself up for a three-day immersive experience at the world’s foremost offbeat rock festival, I quickly adjusted to the notion of a short F-train ride to the new ATP compound between the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges.
The content of this year’s sprawling three-day ATP lineup was difficult to predict, which is one of the festival’s enduring charms. With 35 music acts, plus standup comics, a Criterion screening room in the hull of a riverboat, and a fleet of food trucks to work through, I could have put a fourth day to good use. But the mixture of established and lesser-known acts throughout the weekend assured us of daily revelations. There was plenty of space to move around in despite the fluctuating presence of a couple thousand people, and couches to recline on. Moving between the stages was stress-free, and it was easy to flow inside and outside throughout the festival. If I didn’t feel like hearing a particular band I could easily go out by the river for a beer and watch the sun drop behind the Manhattan Bridge. The city and river views from the site were spectacular, and despite some skepticism about the physical location, the sound system was excellent.
And this festival was loaded with great music. I was blown away by the performance of “the Screaming Eagle of Soul,” the once-homeless singer Charles Bradley, rescued from obscurity by Daptone Records and clearly grateful for every moment on stage. He waded into the crowd, and humbly embraced everyone in his path when his show concluded. Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and his solo band (who covered Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues”) tore through a set of noise-driven guitar pop that seemed to link the downtown of old with the festival of the moment. And there were compelling sets from Hot Snakes, the Magic Band, Thee Oh Sees, Joseph Arthur, the Dirtbombs, Mark Lanegan, the Afghan Whigs, and the Roots, who opened with a Beastie Boys tribute that was revelatory.
As adventurous and novel as the summer-camp weekend vibe of previous incarnations of the festival have been, it would scarcely matter if the dogged curatorial ethics of founder Barry Hogan didn’t remain the primary force and reason for its existence. Sure, hauling your sleeping bag to a concert can be enticing, I suppose, but let us not lose sight of what’s vital about ATP. Hogan has seemingly dedicated his life to organizing a singular concert experience (and record label) for both musicians and audiences alike, with little expectation of earning a profit. And despite needing to restructure the business model recently in order to ensure ATP’s ongoing survival in hostile economic times, he has somehow endeavored to live out my own concert fantasy of picking a dream lineup of bands and staging a festival in one kooky location after the next, where the legendary mingles with the obscure.
It was a surreal treat to see the noise duo Lightning Bolt and composer Phillip Glass ostensibly opening for soul sensation Frank Ocean. At one point a woman yelled at Glass, “You’re Phillip Glass!” and he just grinned and kept playing the piano. ATP is that kind of festival, and it’s the constant variety and intimacy that make it irresistible. But the highlight of my weekend was finally catching the legendary Quebec band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who brought the festival to its knees with a massive sound-and-film show that must have launched shockwaves all the way to Brooklyn with the menacing yet cathartic electric storm it created before a hushed room. There is no word yet regarding ATP’s plans for next year, but I for one will be paying close attention.
TODD SIMMONS is a writer, actor, photographer, and Improv Everywhere "Senior Agent." He lives in Brooklyn Heights. Twitter feed: @Todd_SimmonsNYC.