My editor warned me that All Tomorrow’s Parties - I’ll Be Your Mirror, the revered itinerant indie festival taking place in New York this weekend, would be a little unusual.
“There will be some women there,” she said, “but not many.”
And glancing over the lineup, she had a point. Curated in this edition by Greg Dulli of ’90s garage-rock heroes the Afghan Whigs – past curators include Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, My Bloody Valentine, Modest Mouse, and even Simpsons creator Matt Groening – the festival looked heavy on, well, obscure mid-‘90s garage rock.
Scrawl, Lightning Bolt, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – not surprisingly, I expected an audience of bearded men drinking microbrews. I was not disappointed.
It had the makings of a memorable (or insufferable) weekend: a young, eager music writer (I’m 23) watching many bands he’d never heard of, surrounded by old dudes who knew way, way more than me.
Held at Pier 36, a new entertainment complex on the Lower East Side right on the East River, the setup featured two stages: one inside the mammoth, carpeted auditorium, and the other in the parking lot, directly beneath the FDR highway. Friday’s comedians were quick to take note of the location.
“Welcome to All Tomorrow’s Parking Lot!” joked Kurt Braunholer, the cherubic comic who opened the festival. Hannibal Buress, who followed, came out looking confused and said dryly, “They didn’t tell me I’d be performing under traffic.” His idiosyncratic storytelling and inflected delivery had the small crowd – it was still early in the evening – enthralled for the entirety of his time on stage. Janeane Garofalo closed out the comedy set with a monologue drenched in pop culture – a result, she said, of her sobriety: “I don’t drink anymore, so I watch TV.” Though peppered with a few gems, her performance was erratic; Buress took the night handily.
Rhode Island duo Lightning Bolt, the first musical act of the weekend, played inside the complex and set up their instruments in front of the stage, smack in the middle of the crowd. A convex mirror stood above the duo for those who weren’t close enough to see. I won’t bore you with the set list because frankly I could barely distinguish one song from another; instead, I’ll list a few of the notes I jotted down in my attempt to describe their sound:
-raw, scuzzy freak-rock
-enveloping epileptic nightmare
-Pink Floyd dystopia
-pulsing industrial hellscape
-what goes through Gary Busey’s mind on a bender
-turn on a lawnmower and beat your face against a wall
My descriptions became less verbal and increasingly visceral as the show went on and I realized that Lightning Bolt’s music is not to be intellectualized. It is a wholly physical experience, only enjoyed when thrashing around and inflicting self-injury. I’d seen a similar act in college, Monotonix, who also played from the floor and even climbed the scaffolding during their set, and my reaction was the same then: don’t overthink it, it’s purposefully abrasive, just pretend you’re Lester Bangs and WRITE ABOUT IT IN ALL CAPS. It’s loud and fast and athletic and it’s really, really fun if you allow it to be.
Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer cancelled their Suspended Guitar Performance (whatever that means) at the last minute, so festivalgoers had an hour and a half break before things took a turn for the erudite with Philip Glass and Tyondai Braxton. The eminent minimalist composer needed no introduction – someone shouted “You’re Philip Glass!” as the two walked on stage, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
He and the Battles alum performed three of Glass’s works, études No. 1, 2, and 3, in a succinct 30 minutes. Glass noodled at the piano without any regard for discernible time signatures – not that he’s ever been beholden to form – while Braxton laid swelling electronic foundations beneath him. Let me stress that I am not well-versed in this sort of “new classical” – this music is better touted by students of critical theory and better described by what it signifies than what it sounds like. To me it sounded like Danny Elfman.
Closing out the night was R&B phenom Frank Ocean. His headlining performance explained the otherwise scant presence of attractive young women in the crowd. They greeted his entrance with deafening screams and riotous applause; you’d think the Beatles had just landed in the States. “I’m gonna make this super personal this evening,” Ocean said, drawing more cheers. He opened with “Summer Remains,” and when he got to “Thinking About You,” people were freaking out – like, freaking out. He seems to embody a strange amalgam of critical darling and teen idol, garnering praise from both Pitchfork and girls in high school. His behavior on stage flits between slouched, contorted introspection and pop-star bravado. What a rare creature he is.
The show itself was a modest success. Ocean’s emotive voice held up well, especially in those signature falsetto breaks, and the band was as crisp and impeccable as their tailored suits. You couldn’t have asked for more by way of production; you could have asked for more, though, by way of performance. Ocean arrived 30 minutes late, cutting his set to a meager 45 minutes. And as good as the group sounded, they stuck to the studio versions note-for-note.
I could have had the same experience listening to Channel Orange loudly at home. When he finally strayed from the formula and traded solos with his lead guitarist on closer “Pyramids,” it felt woefully insufficient.
Readers, were you there? Do you have a different take?