Sunday, October 2, 2011

What costume shall the poor girl wear...

I've wistfully read about the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals for many year as it's never been especially convenient to attend; this series was inaugurated in the UK and recently introduced an U.S. based edition, but put on in the Catskills. So I was excited by the announcement of the US version moving to Asbury Park, NJ. And at the same time apprehensive. Memories of attending Lollapaloozas at various sites around the country, Woodstock II, Smokin' Grooves, etc. still sting. Parking a township away, slogging thru mud, bad food abounding etc...oy! And mind you, I've usually attended in an official capacity so had backstage access, VIP parking and all those amenities -- and I still dread the basic experience. My ideal of a great concert venue crystallized at the OLD 9:30 Club in Washington DC - good sound, nicely designed and relatively intimate space, dance/standing room in the main room, a long hallway with plenty of seating opening off to one side where you could rest your legs as necessary, and a back bar where you could escape all together IF YOU FELT LIKE IT.

I figured poor, little Asbury Park would be utterly swamped by the influx of music freak hepsters: nowhere to park, nowhere to grab a quick bite. Long lines everywhere. But in fact it was as idyllic as can be. We parked a block and half from the main drag - metered street parking (which was electronic so we could just put in for 6 hours then and there and not have to feed the meter). Ticket pick-up was calm and orderly. Once we had tickets we met a friend at the Convention Center which housed two of the venues, walked outside and had drinks on the veranda overlooking the beach and ocean and despite somewhat hiked prices -- still kinda lovely. Between acts we grabbed a bite at the venue at Aqua, an indoor restaurant and the chicken salad wrap was quite nice if -- again, somewhat overpriced ($14 for a wrap? but, hell, this is a resort town, this is what they do! Yr paying for proximity to the ocean and whatnot.)

I realize all the above gives my age away, that I'm focussed on the creature comforts. Well, ya know, I seed a couple shows in my time. Lotta great music. And at a certain point the contexts become a significant factor in rating a night out!

We saw two acts - The Pop Group and Swans - both recently reformed.

The Pop Group put on a good show. They played all the key tunes in their back catalogue, opening with "We Are All Prostitutes", including "She Is Beyond Good & Evil" in the set list and hitting all the key points in between. They threw in a Subway Sect cover (which unfortunately I couldn't identify). And put on a good show. Mark Stewart was in good voice, fierce, feral and sounding slightly unhinged singing his fiery songs of Marxist anguish -- all as relevant now as in Thatcherite England (if only the world had made any progress since then in terms of socio-economic justice and this had seemed quaint, instead of spot on). And the band was biting, spikey, playing their terse, twisted funked riffs.

But, I sensed that the wife and my journalist friend were less than impressed coz they sounded -- well, kinda normal. Coz the fact is that they wound up being mightily influential being one of the first acts to create reckless, high energy, punk-edged funk. And influence a buncha punky art funkers like the minutemen who in turn inspired folks like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime and...The Rapture...etc.

I fear lotsa folks saw The Pop Group as a buncha overwrought middle aged guys playing pro forma rock-funk...not realizing they created the forma!

While I was as eager as the next to hear their classic repertoire it would have been nice to see them produce a body of new work based on their original stylistic innovations with 30 years of added innovation, wisdom and skill added.

And that's what we did get from Swans. Now, I work with these guys so my opinions SHOULD be suspect. But I'll state this -- their nearly two hours long show (normally 2 1/2 hours when they're headlining in their own right instead of being part of a festival program) was either unrecorded new songs, tunes from last year's new album release + one old song - a radically retooled "I Crawled." It saw bandleader M. Gira pushing his musicians and listeners into new territory once again. Very loud (tho I didn't need earplugs and was quite comfy) in order to create particular acoustic phenomena you get with particular levels of volume and sonic density ala LaMonte Young, Glenn Branca. Sometimes very slow with bone crushing salvos by the massed ensemble being separated by a good 15 seconds silence(slap yr desk - count 15 seconds on a watch and slap it again to get a sense of what that feels like); tho those spaces are far from silent, being filled by the mass chords resounding, the different instruments resonating with each other, the overall sound slowly disintegrating -- and thru lengthy repetition the listener is effectively re-educated to actually hear every bit of it where normally, done for a few seconds at the end of a Metallica song it'd just register as "grandiose ending."

And other songs quicker, shapelier with wonderful layering of askew, cantileverd riffs building these monstrous, forbidding sonic edifices. Really a fascinating concert experience that is - perhaps - aimed at deprogramming listeners from their normal listening habits, getting them to just suspend all expectations and fully immerse themselves in the sound as music eddies back and forth from these deep static pools of sound-as-dark-matter to waves of concussive force. It starts out sounding monstrous and forceful, then seems to grow boring from the repetition and then suddenly transforms into being fully mesmerizing and delivering you into a delicious trance state.

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