This weekend the All Tomorrow’s Party organizers brought the famed music festival’s U.S. cousin, I’ll Be Your Mirror to Asbury Park, NJ. The fest is unlike any other in that it is programmed to eliminate any crazed hustling across town from one venue to the next and puts all happenings in close proximity to one another, with hardly any overlap. Basically, you can see everything you want to see, which is unique for this sort of music-filled weekend.
The acts were as diverse as any successful music festival should be, but they definitely skewed towards the “I find it hard to believe you don’t know the beauty you are” variety. If you don’t get that reference, it’s a lyric from the Velvet Underground song which gives the weekend its name. Interestingly enough, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” was the flip-side of the single for “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” But let us not get bogged down with the Velvet Underground trivia, they played no part in this weekend, aside from the name of the fest.
Let’s first talk about another musician who didn’t play a literal part in the fest, Bruce Springsteen. Asbury Park is the seaside town of Boss lore, where he got his start in the 1970s and where he imported many of his lyrical anecdotes in his first few albums. The boardwalk! A pinball machine museum where you can play games from the ’60s through the present ... For FREE! These may have been the actual “pleasure machines” that Springsteen sings about in “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”! Anyway, the locale was the perfect backdrop for IBYM. The transient population had largely left the area, so it transformed into a perfect early autumn playground for aging indie rockers.
I say “aging” because, as I said earlier with that whole “don’t know the beauty you are” thing, the two main headliners, Portishead and Jeff Mangum have not toured regularly for several years. Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Chavez, Shellac and Public Enemy also have not released much new material since the turn of the century. Many of the spectators came out to see the reawakening of these long dormant talents. And lest it seem like I am saying negative things about the gray matter in the audience or on the stages, everybody sounded absolutely amazing.
The whole weekend was amazing, really.
One of the biggest draws were Mangum’s three performances at the Paramount Theatre. So much so that to attend one of the shows, you had to buy a separate ticket. There’s too much to say about Mangum’s long absence from music in this review of a festival that included so many other great things worth noting, but as I’ve said about him before, the Neutral Milk Hotel nucleus inspired many a spiritual awakening with the 1998 masterpiece “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea,” and then he got freaked out by all the people yapping to him about said spiritual awakenings. At least that’s my interpretation of it. What’s indisputable is that the guy hasn’t toured since 1999 and I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how high my heart levitates when I hear his voice. Shoot. Hope he doesn’t read this.
Anyway, his performance was every bit as enchanting as when I was fortunate enough to take in his show last month at Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square, but the crowd skewed slightly more verbal, given the later start time and the permission to bring giant beer cans into the auditorium. Also, having waited more than a decade to see Mangum live for the Harvard show, and then getting to see him so soon after, it’s obviously not going to be as life-changing.
That said, his voice is truly something to behold. The low notes so effortless and right on and the high drawn out notes so impressive that you could feel the whole crowd wanting to applaud them, but wisely staying silent so as not to miss anything. What the crowd did miss though, were Mangum’s between-song invitations to sing along, because they were clapping too loud to hear his earnest and spare bits of banter.
Another of the weekend’s most magical moments took place in the same venue as solo saxophone player Colin Stetson gave flight to beautiful and innovative instrumentals. He would not only play notes on the sax in the traditional way, but he would click on the keys for percussive augmentation while howling into the mouthpiece, which produces a haunting sound that at times sounds like a gaggle of sad geese, but mostly just sounds gorgeous and mournful.
Speaking of mournful, if you’re familiar with Will Oldham, you know that whether his moniker du jour is Bonnie “Prince” Billy or any derivation of the word Palace, he has a propensity for darkness. Heck, one of his best albums is even called, “I See a Darkness.” But with his set up at the Convention Center, he seemed anything but bummed out. Performing with as many as seven instrumentalists (Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney joined him on a few songs), Oldham swayed and bobbed about like an English teacher who had just gotten to the part of the curriculum that he had been dying to teach all semester. Even the title track from “I See a Darkness” was hardly recognizable, with sweet country harmonies, courtesy of backup singer Angel Olsen and the quiet and patient instrumentation behind him. It was a joy to see such a happy transformation, if not a surprise.
Other surprises included Swans, who brought the noise to the same quiet Paramount Theatre that had held the delicate solo performances already mentioned. The group had one song that felt like a neverending ending, using the approach that most rockers use to signify that the song is over, the eye contact and the jump with one final chord, and did it over and over. While it may sound tedious, it was actually amazing, and reconstructed a tired format to a lively new convention.
Portishead, the headliner for Friday and Saturday nights were as intriguing and creepy as ever at the Convention Center. Their multimedia show, which included an enormous projection behind the band and their beats, which were ahead of their time in the ’90s sounded as sonically intricate as ever. And singer Beth Gibbons always had an elderly eeriness to her voice that came fully formed with their first album 17 years ago. This has not changed either, and their return was a welcome one.