Saturday, January 24, 2009

All Tomorrow's Parties - Today

You know it's a pretty eclectic day when a drunken yob, who probably recently sported a fauxhawk until he realised how "gay" it looked, flops down next to you during a transcendental set by Spiritualized (spilling his double-sized cup of Jaggermeister all down your shirt), grabs you by the arm and demands to know who's on next. You confirm it's The Saints, which makes him groan with delight, before he asks you "and then?". "Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds", you reply. Another orgasmic groan of delight escapes him, as he asks you the same questions again. And again. And then utters perhaps the most profound encapsulation of what the music festival All Tomorrow's Parties is all about: "It's not often you say The Saints are on next, followed by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, is it?". No, it's not. And so that was the sort of day this festival was all about as it aimed to throw up the amazing with the weird, the sublime with the trippy and the yob with the thinky muso type (that's me, by the way. Modest).

All Tomorrow's Parties is a UK-based festival which is distinctive in that it is curated by an invited artist. For Australia's first shot at it, the seminal Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds were given the top hosting duties - and boy did they pull out all the stops. The festival itself was actually a 3 event affair, with a weekend bill at Cockatoo Island for the Sydney Festival, followed the next weekend by a 2-day affair at the Mt Buller Ski Resort in Victoria and culminating in a one-day bill at Brisbane's Riverstage (as well as a smattering of 'side shows' at the Powerhouse).

Brisbane January heat bathed all early-comers in a lather of sweat, which $7.50 beers in small cheap plastic cups was in no way close to combating. The only respite, it turned out for the better, was down in front of the stage. And so, with bottled water, crappy beer and camera in hand, I set up camp on the barrier just in time to welcome American free jazz exponent James Blood Ulmer on to the stage.
A student of the limited "harmolodic" free jazz movement, Ulmer's set - a paired back stage with just himself, his gorgeous full-bodied electric guitar and a music stand - was a mix of muddy blues and deft, almost imperceptible finger picking. Combined with the nearly-70-year-old's gravel voiced missives about love, loss and hurricanes had the small audience begging for more.

The Necks, on the other hand, had the crowd (around me at least) scratching their heads at either the sheer lunacy or sheer brilliance they were witnessing. A Sydney jazz trio, The Necks are renowned for one thing only - improvisation. No two sets are the same with this band of consummate musicians and eclectic personalities - the term "set" is even a little misleading, with absolutely no breaks between movements. The band is improv personified and, depending on which side of the musical fence you sat on, it was either setting the tone for the following transcendental nature of the day, or was the "... worst thing I have ever seen in my life". The partial quote in the previous sentence can be attributed to the two 40-somethings next to me on the barrier who clearly came from side of the musical fence which did not tolerate this "noise" - and they were prepared to be vocal about it. And while I'm sure they had a point (heck, even I was hankering to hear a 4/4 or even the crack of a drumstick on snare about half-way through), the point of musicianship was clearly wasted on such a crowd. Oh well, better luck - and better venue - next time?

Next on stage was pretty much 1/3 of the reason for me taking the day off and paying for this ticket - Robert Forster. Better known in previous incarnations as one half of hugely influential (both on a world stage and for myself) Brisbane pop band The Go-Betweens, Robert had just released his first solo work since the untimely death of song-writing partner Grant MacLennan.
With songs both referencing and from Grant (who was close to an idol for me), I was keen to see how he would go without his mate. Setting up, it was clear Grant was to be present, but not obvious. Using almost the same back band as the most recent GBs line up (with the addition of a new drummer, and old drummer Glenn Thompson moving to keys/guitar), the gig started off well, despite the sun just peaking below the stage awning and on to the side of my face. With the first couple of numbers drawing from new album The Evangelist, I was hoping to get an emotion free ride, but as the first few chords of Surfing Magazines rang out, I knew it was not to be. Robert was at his best, with an almost vaudevillian stage persona, lauding and interacting with crowd members in his self-effacing, almost arrogant bouffant style. Tears streamed throughout the gig, especially through 16 Lover's Lane's historic "stolen song" Quiet Heart, which Robert took back in a beautiful way (it was written by Robert, but then Grant stole the lead vocals during the recording of this seminal album, which was not done in the GBs before then).

With Robert devoured by the hot afternoon sun, I bid farewell to the barrier and retreated up the now shady and person-speckled hillside of the Riverstage's steep amphitheatre. Settling on a patch of turf to take in some food and drink and get a full appreciation for the wall of sound which signalled the beginning of an hour of transcendental music which was Spiritualized. The hugely influential minimalist soundscape artist (Jason Pierce, who in various incarnations has called his bands Spaceman, Spaceman 3, J Spaceman and now Spiritualized) is the full extended version of what bands like Radiohead and Mercury Rev have been trying to achieve. At once intricate and hollow, it can change to a cacophonous racket in a heart-beat. On stage, Jason positioned himself perpendicular to the crowd, facing the other guitarist. Backed by two amazing African American soul/gospel singers, the songs took on an almost rapturous feel and by the end, it certainly felt like floating in space as the 2 guitars duelled in a Mogwai-esque reverberated finale. Highlights included the ethereal Come Together and the anthemic Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space. With the entire crowd enthralled (and most of the other artist on the bill, who had gathered at any vantage point they could to witness the event), Jason uttered his only address to the crowd - a "thank you" - and left the stage.

Next up was The Saints - a band I was cautiously anticipating. I was cautious for a number of reasons: mainly relating to being only 'familiar' with their music (ie - not a huge fan) and also a consciousness of the danger of believing the hype and mythology of bands such as these. And if there's one thing which Brisbane does very well is mythologise and exaggerate The Saints (anyone read Pig City? Anyone go to the Pig City gig?). Sadly, tonight my caution was well heeded. In an effort to further distance itself from other festivals, ATP also usually incorporates an element into each of its gigs whereby a seminal artist/band plays its seminal recording from start to finish, live. For the first Australian leg, it was being billed as The Saints playing its 1978 opus (I'm) Stranded to its former hometown audience. What actualised, however, was nothing short of a farcical caricature of The Saints and nothing like the playing of their seminal album. Sloppy and muddy bass and drums were drowned in Ed Kuepper's double Marshall stack axe-work, while court jester Chris Bailey went about severing all ties with normality as he pranced and shimmied around the stage like a deranged monkey. Kuepper, studiously hunched over his guitar, tried hard to work through the bullshit, but it was clear from the beginning that The Saints were no more. Again. And this was just one last insult and raised middle finger to the audience which probably held it on a higher pedestal than most. While I personally didn't feel all that strongly about, the looks on the faces of those around showed it all - a betrayal of the highest order.

And so with the sour taste still ringing in my ears, it was a massive 2-drum kit stage set and phenomenal lighting rig which pulled me back into "rock" mode, as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds took to the stage. The immaculate suited Cave immediately set about prowling the stage through opener Lotus Eater and never stopped throughout the gig. The imposing figure cuts through the din and flash to present himself as pure artistic rock in all its glory. His forceful stanzas are accentuated by trade-marked high kicks as his prancing takes him to all sides of the stage. Highlights included newies Dig, Lazuras, Dig and More News From Nowhere, a drawling and dripping bass line reflecting the humidity of the night. It was reworkings of old classics, such as Tupelo, The Weeping Song and Red Right Hand which truly stuck out - not just for their inclusion in what was quickly becoming a "greatest hits" setlist, but also for the band's boldness in the sometimes dramatic re-arrangements. Bad Seed and Dirty Three frontman Warren Ellis proved an expected focal point, as he gyrated and pulsed through most numbers. His enigmatic performance was noticeable at all times, whether it be as he wielded his trusty violin or one of many quirky miniature guitars (called Mandocasters, apparently). As quickly as it began, however, with the encore of a sloppy Lyre of Orpheas and a tiring Stagger Lee rounding it out. All in all, a truly wonderful and eclectic day of music. And, as my new drunken friend pointed out, I can now say that I have seen The Saints opening for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. And the proteges showed them how it was meant to be done.


Birmo said...

Oh dear. The Saints. Oh dear me.

Dr Yobbo said...

Sad to hear they were so car-crash awful (as someone with a soft spot for the garage punk of the '70s, not that I was around to hear it.) I guess the Saints aren't AC/DC, not that happy doing the same stuff they'd been doing 30 years ago - Bailey and Kuepper have gone off doing very different stuff since I'm Stranded, so could have thrown a little collective paddy at being required to return to first principles. Birdman at least did an OK show when they came back for Homebake a couple of years ago - confused the hell out of the kids, but at least meant there was plenty of space down the front.

Jamin (but also known as Albion Love Den and Blue Box on jspace) said...

Indeed, JB. Indeed.

And Dr - I hear ya. And that was precisely where my thinking was prior to the gig (having not seen the Pig City reunion, but hearing multitudes of hype surrounding it).

Oh well - at least it gives Kuepper some more time to concentrate on The Laughing Clowns... which were great by all accounts.

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