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Beth Gibbons of Portishead. (photo by Daryl P. Brothers)
Public Enemy (photo by Daryl P. Brothers)

Notes from the 2011 edition of All Tomorrow's Parties in Asbury Park

The British-born All Tomorrow’s Parties festival is a complete departure from the normal concert-going experience. It’s a musical weekend getaway that has consistently offered a roster of artists with a little mystery and oblique nuance. Here, obscurity and a left-of-center career is something that is celebrated. In its third year stateside, the organizers of All Tomorrows Parties (the festival’s moniker is taken from a Velvet Underground title) broke from the previous host site, Kutsher’s, an ancient and dilapidated kosher resort near Monticello, New York, for a breezy oceanside boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

While the venues used for this year’s ATP were hardly pristine and likely older than Kutsher’s, the beach community felt like a polar opposite to the fetid, crumbling Catskills hideaway and offered refreshing sense of rebirth, freshness, and communal fun for this edition of the festival.

Jeff Mangum arguably generated the weekend’s biggest buzz. The air of mystery that surrounds Mangum, the story of his defunct outfit Neutral Milk Hotel, and the record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a curious one, perfectly fitting the ATP mold.

Neutral Milk Hotel was a psych-pop quartet fully centered on singer/songwriter/guitarist Mangum’s musical vision, which reached a creative apex and subsequently ended after the release of and tour behind In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a masterful, abstract epic of surreal beauty, merging with equal elegance mini-orchestral grandeur, baroque arrangements, fuzzed-out punk, and folk.

Then Mangum just stopped. He essentially disappeared. Part Garbo, part Syd Barrett, he dropped out, drifted, and completely stopped making music.

While Mangum personally tried to forget about and largely bury his music life, quite the opposite happened in the world outside of his. Year by year, Mangum’s legend grew. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was championed by online indie cognoscenti and sites like Pitchfork. More than 10 years after he checked out of life in the spotlight, it was officially announced that Mangum would return to music with his ATP appearances.

Little has changed with Mangum. He wouldn’t allow any pictures or interviews. His shyness was still apparent in his reticence and awkwardness on stage. Most of all, his voice and songs have lost none of their power.

Through both his Friday evening and Sunday afternoon shows (largely the same set lists in shuffled order), crowds sat enrapt and quietly enthralled as Mangum strummed his acoustic guitar and sang in his unmistakable, wavering, warbling tenor, songs like “The King of Carrot Flowers” in all of its three parts, “Holland 1945,” and “Two Headed Boy.” These were moments that many who had been waiting a decade never thought they’d actually experience. Mangum, from behind his timid veneer, even seemed to enjoy the adulation as a theater full of fanatics sang along at seemingly every turn, always quietly enough not to outshine the singer himself.

While certainly not so career-suicidal as Mangum, it’s fair to say that Portishead’s skint and sporadic recorded output has made them anything but a careerist, record-out-every-two-years sort of band. That output has only been bested by the group’s miniscule history of live performances and touring. Like Mangum, that kind of mercurial path would surely kill lesser bands, but it has only made Portishead stronger in terms of their art and influence. And it has whetted fans appetites and made them perfect ATP headline candidates.

One insider said the band’s Saturday set was plagued with technical difficulties—banks of electronic gear breaking down or going haywire—but one wouldn’t have known from the powerhouse performance by Geoff Barrow, Beth Gibbons, and Adrian Utley, along with their accompanying musicians. That the past 20 years has only seen Portishead yield a handful of songs over three albums made little difference as they ran through a set of their landmark trip-hop and cold-groove-laden sonic experimentations, including “Numb” and “All Mine.” It was easy to recall from whom Radiohead has been borrowing so heavily since they “gave up guitar rock.”

On their second night, Portishead were joined by Chuck D., who burst on stage during “Machine Gun” to add verses from Public Enemy’s epic prison uprising jam, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” As ATP artist/curators, the members of Portishead handpicked Public Enemy to perform, and it was a good choice. In their 25-year career, Public Enemy have proven one of popular music’s most significant influences and hip-hop’s most enduring crew.

I’ll confess a lifelong, undying personal allegiance to Public Enemy and having seen them 10 times through the years. And ven I don’t expect them to pack the power they did in their early prime—but they do. While it seems completely counterintuitive that a rap group could get better over so many years, Chuck and the irrepressible Flavor Flav—with help from Professor Griff, the SW1s, long-standing turntable replacement DJ Lord, and a rocking crew of backup musicians they call the Banned—put on a show that surpasses anything they did in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. And you can believe that hype.

ATP has a firm rooting in and respect for the past but rightfully prides itself for championing emerging acts, as well. Currently touring behind their masterful 2011 release Skying, England’s the Horrors have brought back the majesty to trance-inducing, heavy-guitar psychedelia that fans of the Chameleons, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Spiritualized will adore. New York City’s Cults perfectly cross that perfectly crafted girl-group sound with noisy, infectious, indie-pop edges.

Still it is the acquired tastes that rule ATP—and with the many rare and far-flung musical delicacies, who would complain about that?

Dylan Carlson’s drone merchants Earth played a set of heavy but beautiful instrumental rock soundscapes. Improvised atmospheric compositions came to life when krautrock legend Roedelius (Kluster/Harmonia) teamed with early electronic rock vanguard Simeon (Silver Apples) as Silver Qluster. British postpunk noiseniks the Pop Group ripped it up, and even Kool Keith (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon, a.k.a. Dr. Dooom, a.k.a. Black Elvis) reconvened his criminally unsung crew of hip-hop pioneers, the Ultramagnetic MCs.

Add to all this heady mix screenings of arthouse, foreign, and cult films courtesy of Criterion, massive Shepard Fairey murals, underground comedians, and a game of bingo hosted by a guy pretending to be Nick Cave, and you’re beginning to get at the magic of the experience over three days and nights out on the beach in New Jersey.

Despite Asbury Park being Bruce Springsteen’s turf, the cast of All Tomorrow’s Parties proved that on this weekend, in this neighborhood, you had to be a little more obscure and off the beaten path to be the boss.

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