Every year, I attend at least one big-shebang music festival. And at least one time per festival, I hit a mental wall and wonder why I ever submitted myself to such rock 'n' roll torture in the first place. Whether I've been wellie-deep in Glastonbury mud or melting into a Wicked Witch-style sweat puddle in Coachella's 105-degrees-in-the-shade desert heat, I've suffered all sorts of indignities and inconveniences in my quest for festival fun, and sometimes I've pondered if it was all worth it.
But of course, I still wanted to hit up a rockfest this summer. But which one? Chicago's Lollapalooza and Pitchfork would be too muggy. San Francisco's Outside Lands, too windy. New York's All Points West and Seattle's Bumbershoot, too rainy. It was a rock 'n' roll conundrum of Goldilocks-like proportions...
But then I found the festival that was juuuusssst riiiiight: All Tomorrow's Parties in upstate New York's crumbling-yet-charming Catskills area. I mean, just check out this press release describing the atypical ATP scene:
"There will be only a few thousand people, as opposed to 100,000.
You will see no branding or on-site sponsorships.
All shows are inside, so weather is not a factor.
You can keep beer in your room.
You are free to range inside and outside all day and night.
The best way to describe ATP is like sleepaway camp for adults."
Sign me up, I thought. So what if the ancient Catskills lodge where ATP took place, Kutsher's, was more The Shining in vibe than Dirty Dancing? (The Catskills area has definitely seen better days; these half-abandoned resorts have sadly yet to be restored to the luster of their glamorous, Rob-&-Laura-from-The Dick Van Dyke Show vacationing heyday.) So what if there were "no VIP areas" (the one part of the press release that bummed me out) and I had to "live in tandem for three days with a smallish group of people" (who turned out to be nice, as it were)? The ATP folks still had me at "weather is not a factor." (Actually, they really had me at "beer in your room," but anyhoo...)
And as if those selling points weren't enough, this three-day sleepaway weekend was curated/headlined by the almighty Flaming Lips, a band I've stalked (um, I mean followed) all over the globe, from the Astoria in London to a multi-level "parking lot experiment" in Austin to a Mexican jam-band cruise to a Halloween parade in Oklahoma City's streets. This was a band I once bravely risked Coachella heatstroke to see perform, so surely I could deal with a couple unknown bunkmates and a borderline-condemned hotel to see them once more. Especially if I could have beer in my room.
And so I went, and eventually I ended up in a golf cart with the Lips' own Wayne Coyne, discussing the whole bizarre ATP scene next to a neglected miniature golf course:
That, of course, was the personal highlight of my ATP weekend, one well worth the trek to the Catskills. But the entire festival was a blast, unlike any other fest I've ever experienced. (Since Coachella and Lollapalooza don't exactly have ATP's untouched-by-time Shriners convention/cruise ship vibe, complete with antiquated pinball and hot-drink machines and an abfab seventysomething Merle Norman/Mary Kay-esque saleswoman named Justine in Vegas-showgirl false eyelashes lacquering unsuspecting indie-rockers with inch-thick makeup called "Putty.")
But aside from my Wayne and Justine close encounters, here are my other top 10 ATP highlights, in ascending order of awesomeness:
10) Iron & Wine Is Just One Of The Dudes
Iron & Wine, aka beardy troubadour Sam Beam, has a pindrop-quiet acoustic sound that's earned him comparisons to softy songwriters like Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, and Simon & Garfunkel. So imagine my surprise when his between-song banter and overall stage demeanor was amusingly McConaughey-like, like when he tuned his six-string and whooped, "Yeah! Tune that bitch!" Or when he forced an audience singalong of his slowed-to-a-crawl cover of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights," saying, "Damn, you're some timid singers. I know you've been drinking since 2pm!" He was more Jim Beam than Sam Beam, and his dude-ish demeanor made his Friday afternoon set a lot more fun than I expected from a supposed sad-sack.
9) David Cross Gets Crass
Only skewed stand-up genius David Cross (of Mr. Show/Arrested Development fame) could crack jokes about Coors and Whole Foods marketing, unnecessary Skymall catalog products, Hassidic Jews, date rape, and pornographic horror movies--and be pants-pissingly funny discussing all of the above subjects. And, it should be noted, his comedy set was more crowded than most the bands' gigs were all weekend long.
8) Crystal Castles' Alice Creates An ATP Wonderland
There's a reason that Alice Glass, lead singer for the face-meltingly freaky Canadian electro band Crystal Castles, came in at #1 on NME's "Cool List" last year. Alice's Toronto techno terrorists completely tear the entire electronic music genre a new one, thanks to fearsome frontwoman Alice's ferocious, totally unhinged performances like the one she delivered Sunday at ATP. Alice became my new heroine (sorry, Karen O, you've been replaced) after I witnessed her crawling around on the stage floor in her riding-up Courtney Love frock, mental-patient eyes bugging out like Marty Feldman's and mic cord coiled noose-like around her pale porcelain neck. She was just THE coolest, period. It seemed like every awestruck girl in the crowd wanted to be Alice--myself included. It's a good thing that Crystal Castles played right before the Flaming Lips' headlining set, because few other bands could have followed Alice's spectacle.
7) Jim Jarmusch Waxes & Waynes
What could be more awesome than a Q&A in the ATP screening room with cinematic legend Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, Dead Man?) Oh, I dunno...how about a Jim Jarmusch Q&A in which WAYNE COYNE sits in the audience and asks Jim a question about the Dead Man improv scene with Billy Bob Thornton? If only I'd been able to interview Jim and Wayne together...
6) The Boredoms Are Anything But Boring
Normally I'm not much of a fan of Japanese experimentalists the Boredoms' patience-testing, atonal noisemongering. And I am certainly not into the whole Venice Beach hippie drum-circle shtick. So I didn't expect to enjoy the Boredoms' all-percussion set (eight drummers banging away, with a ninth band member alternating between sweetly tinkling on guitar necks and chimes and not-so-sweetly SCREAMING HIS HEAD OFF). And yet, I did enjoy all this banging madness. It was pure performance art, and it left me in a McConaughey-like dazed-and-confused state, feeling as if I'd mainlined all the beer in my room (Sapporo, of course) in one go.
5) Nick Cave Turns The Dirty Three Into The Dirty Four
Another legend, Nick Cave, surprise-guested on a Lennon-ish white piano with Aussie instrumentalists the Dirty Three, sitting solemnly in his signature undertaker suit and effortlessly looking cooler than every Lego-haired college kid in the joint. While rumors of a later Nick Cave solo set proved unfounded, this Dirty Four set--the first gig I saw all weekend long--still perfectly set the tone for an amazing ATP experience. Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Coyne, and Nick Cave, all milling about in one tiny Catskills hotel...my mind seriously boggled.
4) Jon Spencer Gets Chatty
Jon Spencer is yet another legend, one that often doesn't get his due (his bands Pussy Galore, the Blues Explosion, and Boss Hog had a massive influence on the NYC garage bands of the early 2000's, and I'm somewhat certain that Jon paved the way for bravely bass-less bands like the White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Black Keys). So I was very pleased when he got the Inside-The-Musician's-Studio-style treatment in a fireside chat filmed for the Soft Focus program. Although the afternoon interview, conducted by Ian Svenvonius of the Make-Up/Nation Of Ulysses fame, was like something out of the Chris Farley School Of Journalism (sample question: "So, you were in Pussy Galore. How was that?"--followed by silence...), Ian exhibited an awkwardly endearing Dick Cavett-like charm that somehow made this a better interview than the usual talking-head snoozefests one might see on MTV or VH1. And I must admit, I didn't at all mind getting to sit on a rug so close to a fireplace-musing, wine-sipping Jon Spencer, no matter WHAT questions were being asked. The man, it should be noted, has not aged a bit, and still looks dashing in a three-piece suit.
3) Cristina Martinez Shows She's Still The Boss
The triumphant return of Boss Hog, Jon Spencer's band with his wife Cristina Martinez (aka the Luckiest Woman In The World), was reason alone to make the trip to the Catskills. WHY have Boss Hog only released three full albums, and WHY has it been NINE years since the last one? Like her Dorian Grayish husband, Cristina's still got it, as evidenced by her leather-pants'd ATP performance. Still an amazing frontwoman with an appealingly earthy Rhoda Morgenstern/Jamie Gertz vibe, she was obviously happy as hell to be back onstage singing her band's classic material, much of it from Boss Hog's landmark 1995 self-titled opus ("Ski Bunny, "Strawberry," the hawt Jon/Cristina duet "I Dig You"). The 14-year-old (!!!!) songs still sounded incredibly fresh and current, making me hope Boss Hog will actually put out a new album sometime this decade. The rock world so sorely needs a woman like Cristina right now.
2) The Flaming Lips Party Like There's No Tomorrow
A gig by the Flaming Lips is, basically, Mardi Gras, Christmas, New Year's Eve, the Love Parade, Halloween, Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade, and the 4th of July all combined into one never-ending celebration. There was Wayne's grand entrance in a giant Prisoner-style cellophane bubble, dancing yetis and bunnies, showers of confetti and silly string, and free laser pointers for all audience members...and that was just during the first song, "Race For The Prize"! And having it all take place in a cramped Catskills hotel banquet room just made it seem like THE coolest Bar Mitzvah reception ever. L'chaim, Lips! After the show (which warmly and fuzzily concluded with an almost-a cappella cover of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"), Wayne Coyne announced that he would stay and sign autographs/take photos with fans all night long, no matter how many hours it took. And so All Tomorrow's Parties truly lived up to its name, with Sunday's set spilling over into Monday.
1) Dirty Dancing, Indie-Rock Style
When a gaggle of skinny-jeaned indie kids all started dancing like maniacs to a Casio-ticking lounge singer warbling the Dirty Dancing theme "Time Of My Life" in the lobby, that was a magic moment actually more enjoyable than many of the "real" bands I saw all weekend. It was as close to a Dirty Dancing experience as I was going to get during my first surreal Catskills visit--and Patrick Swyaze's tragic death, only two days later, makes the memory even more poignant now...