It is impossible not to mentally conjure Bruce Springsteen when in Asbury Park. Like Straford-upon-Avon exists only to hold the legend of Shakespeare, and East Egg as a town has myth just because of The Great Gatsby. But it’s different when you have your boots on the ground (and you need them—it rains a lot in Asbury Park). Springsteen apparently still has a place in town, but to visitors his presence is tenable at best, permanent mostly in paraphernalia. Whether or not it ever was, Asbury Park is not currently a classic American city, with yellow ribbons tied around old oak trees. It does have a beautiful beach, a lot of immigrants and some cheesy new buildings, the mixture of overgrown and newly propped up feeling like the strange mix that attracted British journalists and French philosophers to our shores.
All Tomorrow’s Parties, the UK festival come stateside, moved from upstate New York to the Jersey Shore this year, taking over a corner of Asbury Park’s boardwalk, specifically three buildings, the adjacent old Paramount Theater, the cavernous Convention Hall and Asbury Lanes, a very retro bowling alley. All three hosted performances for three days, an amalgam of bands curated both by the festival organizers and the gloomy group Portishead. For a wet weekend, Portishead’s love of melancholy was possibly appropriate, though there was little room for revival with groups like Swans and Earth as big draws. Portishead performed two nights, as did Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, alone on a big stage to an audience geeking just at the sight of him. To be frank, the lineup was not the hugest draw—the match up between Asbury and an influx of people who like emotionally heavy music was. And a lot of people just came to see Jeff Mangum. The FADER staff attended en masse—our highlights from the long weekend are below.
Jeff Mangum’s name was spelled incorrectly on the tickets Ticketmaster printed for his two ATP performances. We saw the second of those. Mangum wore corduroys, a floppy grayed flannel and a floppy grayed hat. When the house lights came up after the performance, you could see that uniform mimicked throughout the crowd. During the performance, the theater was exceedingly dark—lit almost exclusively by a shower of Christmas lights—perhaps to protect the anonymity of crowd members eager to sing along. “Oh Comely” and a “King of Carrot Flowers” medley were best received by the most vocal among them, but the cresting spot where “Gardenhead” touches “Leave Me Alone” felt best. Mangum’s voice remains clear and flexible. He played without backing (though he made mention of horns to come in the future), but in spite of this, his renditions of song’s from NMH’s two albums were eerily whole mirrors of their orchestral originals. Delivered with immaculate timing, note for note as you’d remember them, the songs verged on ghostly, their spirit trapped in time. The memory of Elephant 6′s success looms heavy over Athens, GA, my hometown. Before I left for college, a couple boys made me mixtapes featuring the song “Naomi.” More than I realized, I think I’d still fall for that. —Naomi Zeichner
From the balcony, Dylan Carlson looked like he’d lost a lot of weight. His longtime drone project Earth has been through fits and starts since it began 20 years ago. The first Earth records were heavy and dark. They still play those songs and they still sound heavy and dark, but age and experience has added a welcome tenderness to the group. Live, they’ve a bit of flair where the records can just sound like crushing feats of strength. Drummer Adrienne Davis seemingly never moves her wrists, playing so slowly and always with the long movements of a conductor. They’ve added a cellist, Lori Goldston, who threads her bow back and forth dutifully. Carlston, on guitar, has thinned Earth’s prior chunkiness to find a sound that is still formless but has a purer ring. It would not be a wrong question of much of their songs to ask, Is this music? The answer is yes as much as it is no, though now they seem less interested in subverting a common understanding of melody and rhythm and more interested in achieving something rooted in goodness. Feeling benevolent towards extreme tones is a blessing as far as I am concerned. —Matthew Schnipper
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Maybe it was the rain, or maybe it was just the usual straggle of on-the-fence concert goers, but Will Oldham played sportingly to an under capacity venue Friday night. Flanked on either side by two ladies in waiting (one of which also held court on lead guitar), his ever-distinctive voice crackled and bristled brightly against theirs. He sped up some slow jams from The Letting Go and even dipped back into much-loved I See Darkness territory, all the while bouncing up and down on one leg like a rooster and doing funny lordly gestures with his hands. It was good to see Oldham a bit more Princely than folksie, playing with a full band and even getting hard in places. But sitting in stadium seats watching him play, unfazed, to a pretty small crowd from afar, made it clear he’s got enough material and shows under his (ever-widening) belt to have that feckless sense entitlement reserved for only the very rare or for royalty. —Amber Bravo
Swans’ is actually very pretty music even though superficially it’s loud and grotesque. They began as probably the most frightening band in the ’80s New York no wave scene, led by guitarist and vocalist Michael Gira who was the movement’s poet and patron saint, like Edgar Allan Poe for the weird East Village. They regrouped in the ’90s, Gira earling middle-age but never sounding nostalgic or decorative since they’re just so raw. With such a clash of sounds, the din floors you. Each member of the five-piece is its own limb, doing different things at different times, but maintaining a beautiful theme, like a fugue. While three guitarists, including Gira, go nuts playing the fastest doom imaginable, a shirtless percussionist named Thor Harrison, with a long mane of hair, bangs a gong. Other drummer Phil Puleo alternates between pounding drums and spending long moments flicking two cymbals like a bird shaking its wings. Gira himself sweats and wipes hair from his forehead. He doesn’t sing so much as bark, and he slaps himself in the face at certain moments, wandering around the stage until it’s time to do vocals, and then walks up to the mike raising his hands like Dracula. It’s nightmarish but never threatening, always gorgeous but certainly never precious. —Alex Frank
It’s not surprising at all that Portishead asked Company Flow to play this year’s ATP. Production-wise, the groups share a lot of similarities. Both work with dense blocks of sound that are condensed into harsh but amazing moments, and both sound cold and alien at all times. The difference is that there’s a lot more lyrics (literally, El-P and Bigg Jus are two of the most verbose rappers ever) in Company Flow’s music. It’s a skill that they refined over the years and it sounds great on record. Live, it’s got to be exactly right, and, unfortunately, the room they played in was too cavernous. From the crowd, I couldn’t hear a single word anyone was saying. That’s not Company Flow’s fault though, and it actually had a weird effect on me where I ended up following along from memory rather than what was right in front of me. It was like looking at a scrapbook of my teenage years, which sit somewhere between kind of awesome and wildly uncomfortable. I think Company Flow would be stoked they at least brought those feelings back. —Sam Hockley-Smith