As 2004’s All Tomorrow’s Parties erupted into a spectacle of confetti, balloons, smoke, flames, and your friends and peers dancing in large animal suits, the only response that seemed appropriate, was to walk quietly up to the Flaming Lips and say “Thank you. Thank you.” Each year, Long Beach’s kinder, gentler festival for the young at heart who may still have aversions to the bathroom-less, heat-stroke of Coachella, is currated by an individual or band who is responsible for picking the lineup. This year, Modest Mouse provided the bands, and hipsters from far and wide came running to act comfortable and confident in ridiculous clothing, smoke clove cigarettes, and pay $7 dollars for ridiculously small amounts of alcohol. The festival spanned two days and two stages, one in the belly of the Queen Mary ocean liner, the other in the park adjacent. Laden with clean and functional restrooms, water fountains (!), and the nearby metropolis from which to acquire some reasonably priced food, the exceptional music seemed too good to be true, and I think most everyone was waiting for the non-existent “other shoe.”
After carefully mapping out my movements between the stages, down to the minute, I set off bravely for the Queen Mary stage to hear one of this year’s more promising acts, White Magic. Fronted by Mira Billotte’s formidable vocals, White Magic plays a dank, crackling folk with authentic (and un-annoying) ‘60s vibe of humming vacuum tubes and color-it-yourself felt unicorn posters. Billotte’s vocals evoke most strongly Dorothy Moskowitz from The United States of America, filtered (unfortunately) through a little “indiegirl” timidity. However, their huge, technical drumming and consistent counter-intuitive, but well-crafted melodies, made this one of the better performances of the day, and their music was strangely evocative in the belly of a 1930s ocean liner, with its inexplicable prom lighting and checkerboard dance floor.
Wunderkind Sufjan Stevens took the stage second, with his large band, and somewhere between his blatant Christianity, boy scout uniforms, and horn section, he charmed me out of his sometimes rather underwhelming songs into a truly enjoyable 40 minutes. His set was followed by a break of about an hour, in which I headed over to the main stage to catch a minute or two of the Lungfish, a group I knew nothing about. After about 10 minutes of mind-melting Sabbath-riffing while the singer shrieked: "I beseech your long locust leg/Lust against a cloak of organs!” I tore myself away and headed back to hear the Buff Medways, a new project of The Headcoats’ alum Billy Childish. The crowds poured in over a distracted young woman who was singularly occupying the dance floor, bumping and grinding vivaciously to nothing in particular, and the Buff Medways (in Sgt. Pepper-worthy band uniforms and handlebar mustaches) tore through a satisfying set, playing entirely on what seemed to be borrowed equipment from the days previous acts.
As the sun went down, and the temperature dropped, crowds began to pour in for the night’s big acts, The Walkmen and Modest Mouse. Both ripped through their sets unexceptionally. Modest Mouse’s was plagued with technical problems and rather unsteady and unfocused performances. The crowds of 16 year olds surged out as quickly as they had come in as Lou Reed took the stage. [Insert clueless LA droid “who is this old guy?” line here] Reed’s set followed the familiar arc of the aging rock star, being a little bit sad and laced with horrible new material, but thoroughly winning everyone over by being freaking Lou Reed. A “Sweet Jane”-style rendition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” as well as faithful versions of “Jesus” and “Satellite of Love” were the highlights, but after close to 8 hours of standing in unbearable heat followed immediately by unbearable cold, it all began to run together. Everyone smiled politely at their shoes during a spoken-word piece from The Raven, but cheered enormously when he ended his set by segueing into an abbreviated version of “White Light/White Heat.”
Day two promised a much longer streak of solid acts, and due to that was crowded with people who had bought only a second-day pass. However, the day started with the unquestionable best act of the entire festival, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Pulling out of a small post-Pavement dip, Malkmus released Pig Lib in 2003 to the distinction of being one of the few living rock icons still making great music. The band played flawlessly through “Do Not Feed the Oyster” and “Animal Midnight,” but filled the rest of their set with new material so wonderful, that everyone was singing along by the second chorus. Malkmus’s newfound love for guitar chops, filtered through his trademark six-string slouch augmented all his songs with charmingly half-hearted psuedo-solos. His vocals were as catchy as ever, and drenched in absurdist lyrics. As the band roared to a close with a Chuck Berry sock hop, complete with rotating solos, the crowd collectively decried the 40 minute limitation and screamed for more. Unfortunately, noise curfews kept the management on a strict schedule, and it was on to The Shins. Of course, after seeing a living legend, everything seemed to pale in comparison, but The Shins were absurdly tight, and played a set weighted heavily on their first record Oh, Inverted World.
As the sun set on day two and Built to Spill took the stage, that wonderfully consistent presence of the rock festival stumbled next to me: that guy who, for reasons unfathomable to anyone, has paid $90+ dollars to come, and then had enough $7 dixie cups of beer to get himself completely wasted. As he stumbled around, breathing heavily on anyone who didn’t politely but firmly send him teetering in a new direction, Doug Martsch and crew disappointed most of the crowd by almost exclusively playing exceedingly mediocre new material. A quick peek back into the Queen Mary assured anyone who had doubts, that Peaches’ wild stage antics doesn’t make up for the fact that her music blows.
There was a collective rush back to the main stage to catch the festivals final act, The Flaming Lips, which promised to be quite a spectacle (one of the benefits of their recent monetary gains), a spectacle worth fighting my way to the front of the stage for. I can’t remember too much of the music, but I do remember being able to get glimpses of Wayne Coyne through explosions of confetti, literally hundreds of balloons about four feet in diameter, and large numbers of people in animal costumes throwing glitter and flashing utility lights. The production values were shocking, including wonderfully choreographed videos, and wireless spy cams hidden in the band’s day-glo equipment. To make the night even more magical, they appeased Transmissions of a Satellite Heart fans with an exceptionally destructive rendition of “She Don’t Use Jelly”. But as Wayne began to walk over the crowd in a giant, inflatable hamster-ball, it was clear that the evening wasn’t about the setlist.
So ended 2004’s ATP, and here’s to hoping its every bit as hydrated, excrementally accommodating, and emotionally fulfilling next year.
Source: Cameron J. Stallones