13-15 May, 2011
We live in hard times, friends. Not hard like it was back in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s obviously, or even the early 80s of course but you know, bread is pricey these days, so pretty damn hard. The enforced economic cutbacks are far reaching and have inevitably spread to everyone’s favourite indie-cred festival, ATP. Now down to just one May festival from the previous years’ 2, one will become none in 2012 due to a big dip in ticket sales caused by all manner of possible reasons; a perceived lack of quality in the curators and invitees of recent years, too much choice in the festival peak season, general overkill and that phrase much used of late: ‘tightening of the belt’.
After our first ever traffic issues getting to Butlins and then sorting out an apartment mix up (we’re given non catering accommodation when we ordered otherwise), I am verging on desperate for my first ale of the weekend and this is accompanied by the lo-fi solo ditties of Highlife. It’s a gentle musical introduction, pleasant enough but fairly forgettable. Dent May was a bit of a let down when he was behind his promising ‘magnificent ukulele’, now strumming a standard acoustic, he is even less interesting than before.
At this point, it’s clear to see that numbers are well down on previous festivals (rumours suggest that only 55% of the ticket allocation was sold) and this leads to some pros; MUCH shorter queues at the bar, less packed stages, and some cons too; no Pavilion stage, less atmosphere. Lee Scratch Perry tries his very best to get the smaller crowd whipped up and he’s pretty successful at it. It’s not often you’re in the presence of a supposed legend and while the 70 year old’s archetypal reggae gets my toe-a-tapping and my head-a-bobbing it doesn’t quite get my pulse-a-racing. Extra marks to the stylish pensioner though for wearing the most ostentatious outfit of the weekend; a kind of mashup of a German World War 1 uniform, adorned with Prince style robotic chrome.
Grouper‘s slight soundscapes are just too minimal to make any kind of connection. Perhaps this is a timing thing following on from Mr Perry but I’ve seen plenty of similar acts who have made a far greater impression from equally slight levels of output. Big Boi, on the other hand, is far from minimal. As the name would suggest, he is big and boisterous and though hip-hop is far from my favourite genre of music, Mr Boi is surprisingly engaging.
Saturday starts with the footy and the successes of Manchester – this puts a smile on this United fan’s face and on the face of my City following festival accomplice. The Meat Puppets only add to the joy, playing their classic album Up on the Sun in its entirety. Although the album is 26 years old and some of these songs may never have even been played live, the set is a clear front runner for act of the weekend. The brothers Kirkwood clearly still revel in playing live music and they thank Animal Collective for setting up the obstacle course of having to re-familiarise themselves with an album over a quarter of a century old.
Ariel Pink looks like a trouble maker. Awkwardly hunched over, with arms loosely swinging, there’s an air of petulance surrounding him as if he’s always only 30 seconds away from a tantrum. An unlikely front man embodying the stage apprehension of Kurt Cobain with the apparent temperament of Axl Rose; the music however is miles from either. Pink’s Haunted Graffiti are a total anachronism playing music from 2010 which sounds like it’s from 1979 in that era of slight cheese before the big fromage of the new romantics came along. It takes a while to click but when it does, our group all agree that the show is surprisingly enjoyable.
Beach House are an absolute joy. The set list is wisely heavy on Teen Dream and Victoria Legrand’s voice fills the room magnificently, never better than on my favourite song of last year, ‘Zebra’. Kurt Vile and The Violators, in contrast, prove to be disappointingly bland, lacking all the spark that made them a fairly enticing prospect on record.
At this stage, I am probably less excited about seeing Animal Collective than any of the past ATP curators. I really like Merriweather Post Pavillion but having seen them before and knowing how they work live, ie, they don’t tend to actually play their songs, choosing instead to ‘jam’, improvise and rework, the pull of bed seems equally if not more enticing. But when in Rome…
And to be fair to Panda Bear and co, they work so much better here then when I last saw them. Yes, if you’re waiting to hear ‘the hits’, you are going to be sorely disappointed but the disco party vibe they create is actually pretty good. I don’t manage anywhere near the 90 mins of the set but I’m happy while it lasts.
The cut backs strike again Sunday lunch time as we head into Minehead for our traditional Sunday roast in the slightly ramshackle yet charming pub, The Hobby Horse. As we near the door though, our hearts sink with disappointment as we see a pile of unopened post behind it. The Hobby Horse is no more. We find an alternative but it’s just not the same without the drunken locals and scabby carpet. At least my wife is able to continue her somewhat icky tradition of grabbing a deep fried Mars Bar from the local chippy (well, I say icky but they’re actually much better than they look, or smell for that matter).
Later, Group Doueh gives ATP a new unlikely hero. As Doueh and his band belt out their Hendrix flavoured traditional African/Arabian music (yep, really), one of the band’s 3 backing singers OWNS the stage. Possibly the second oldest artist at the festival after Lee Scratch Perry, she shakes her shawled booty across the stage, milking the cheers with a near constant double thumbs-up gesture. Only at ATP! The Entrance Band then bring us back down to earth with a boom of a bass. Paz Lenchantin, previously of Perfect Circle and Zwan is the true lead of this band though she doesn’t sing. Her prominent bass grooves are the anchor for the fairly straight forward psychedelic rock trio. They’re a welcome slice of normality.
The brief taste of normality, however, is skewed again as Prince Rama begin their set. They are a female duo, comprised of simple percussion and keyboard/samples, backed with Far Eastern-tinged vocals. Joining them on stage is a quite beautiful bharatanatyam (classical Indian) dancer who aptly represents the duo’s output. The immersion is only slightly broken when we find that the traditional Indian dancer is called Melissa!
We want to like Tickley Feather more. Annie Sachs is very excited to be here, infectiously interacting with the crowd in between songs. But it’s the songs that let her down today in a set which is far, far too quiet. The potentially pretty music ends up sounding wet and insipid. Sorry to say, but TF are the let down of the weekend.
As the weekend draws to a close we catch 2 more, polar opposite acts. Atlas Sound is gentle and swirly and simple, Bradford Cox once again at ATP, comes over like a shy, bumbling geek. It’s nice and that adjective is all that’s required. Gang Gang Dance throw everything and the kitchen sink into their music, some of it sticks but in general it sounds like a chaotic and often annoying mess.
I have mixed feelings as we drive home. The dominant one is back ache but that’s to be expected. I am a bit sad that there will be no more May ATPs for the foreseeable future. Minehead has its charms in the spots of pleasant weather that May occasionally brings. But as you may have gathered from the above ramblings, this has not been the strongest ATP in terms of music, in fact, this is easily the weakest lineup of the 7 festivals I’ve been to. It wouldn’t have swayed me from booking next May’s however because regardless of who curates and who is invited, ATP is the only festival of the year which I absolutely cannot miss. I’ll be back in December.