The review article that follows was originally written in September 2010, immediately following the third staging of the All Tomorrow’s Parties USA music festival in the Catskills region of New York, this time curated by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and ATP. Publication of Matthew Siblo’s article was postponed at the time due to technical issues with the Skyscraper site, resulting in it getting shelved until now. However, with the summer festival season on the horizon and following the recent announcement of ATP’s I’ll Be Your Mirror event this fall (September 30-October 2 in Asbury Park, NJ), we figured it was about time to dust off this excellent article and share it with the world.
An elusive charm surrounds New York’s All Tomorrow’s Parties – an American incarnation of the long-standing British boutique music festival – that’s difficult to articulate. When describing how it distinguishes itself amongst the crowded summer festival season, ‘indie rock sleep away camp’ is popular shorthand and for good reason. Its location, Kutsher’s Country Club resort nestled in the Catskill Mountains, projects a musty, seen-better-days ambiance. With its creaky boats, menacing hallways and bygone Borscht Belt glory, Kutshers has been lampooned by every comedian whose roamed the premises, its dilapidation conjuring a Craven/Kubrick hybrid of unsettling tranquility.
Yet even with the mysteriously stained comforters, drafty windows and pick up baseball games, ATP New York, now in its third year, does not share the same woodsy, devil-may-care attitude of Bonnaroo or Burning Man. The fiercest condition attendees face is a lack of wi-fi and spotty cell phone service. Rather, ATP NY feels like a three-day (land-locked) indie rock cruise ship, an idea that may have unconsciously resonated with an industrious promoter since one now exists: The Bruise Cruise’s maiden voyage was February 2011 featuring The Black Lips and The Vivian Girls, who, coincidentally, also played a set here Sunday night.
For a substantial sum (a weekend pass with on-site lodging runs around $500), the ATP NY crowd is treated to an abundance of passive pleasures strikingly familiar to anyone who has ever stepped aboard, or even just seen a commercial, for a luxury vessel: comedians, dance parties, game room, bingo, trivia, karaoke, and a small cinema. A new addition for 2010 was a midnight breakfast buffet, supposedly running until 7am. Shuffleboard, though, was notably absent.
Depending upon one’s tolerance for diversions, the itinerary is exhausting or enticing, perhaps both (note that the majority of the crowd is made up of New Yorkers, a demographic already well versed in option fatigue).This being my third time at ATP NY, I sat out trivia, finding last year’s insufferably lengthy. I repeatedly circled back to the cinema, its programming again presented by The Criterion Collection and featured Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild as well as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Like any traditional all-inclusive getaway, one is free to choose their own adventure, be it late night card games with Steve Albini [pictured below] or skipping the auxiliary frills for a 12-hour day of non-stop music.
Cynics can grouse that this type of tailor-made fun is pandering or discomforting, a circuitous line of thinking similar to avoiding a restaurant whose food is deemed too delicious. For better or worse, and I’d argue the better, ATP knows its audience and continues to thoughtfully construct an all-encompassing atmosphere conducive to a pleasant weekend. And pleasant is the operative word even if it’s unfamiliar within the festival lexicon. Twenty years ago the idea of an indie rock [insert leisure activity here] would, for some, conjure up images of drunken revelry and wanton destruction, whereas this weekend’s program requested ticket holders to behave and close the curtains if indiscretions arose. Be it the gradual taming of a subculture or the hefty ticket price, the ATP NY crowd is a well-behaved lot and the surroundings make it a far cry from the rock and roll bedlam of yore. Events, for the most part, start on time. The staff is pleasant and eager to help. Outside of a delayed performance by GZA, who missed his scheduled slot by 5 + hours in order to carpool with Raekwon (plausible conjecture on the writer’s part), things ran on schedule and did so for the advertised duration.
Now properly acquainted with its clientele after two drama-free years, security was noticeably lighter, perfunctorily guarding the entrance with dutiful looks, but unwilling to hassle or rifle through one’s cooler. Attendees are encouraged to bring in their own food and water, though mediocre-to-good food is available on site. Here, ATP NY flips the natural order of the marathon concert: instead of punishing and restricting concertgoers, it does its best to cater to them. This is why reports coming out of ATP NY focus on the festivities and performances, not first person accounts of the frustrating distances between stages or long lines for the bathroom.
For its troubles, ATP NY has developed a distinct strain of brand loyalty bordering on fanaticism. The ATP designation guarantees a cache among a certain strain of music fan unrivaled in the United States and its established reputation in the UK inspires quite a few late summer transatlantic treks to the otherwise barren Monitcello, New York. This genuine appreciation of the experience ATP provides is another factor preventing the development of a Lord of the Flies-type scenario; wreck the hotel room and fans would only be spiting themselves. Or maybe it’s because most of the people here are pretty old. A cursory glance at the grounds reveals a crowd that skews adult-ish, male, and bearded. Babies trot alongside other distinct minorities: crust punks, aging rockers, and for the first time, a sizable feminine presence. Unlike other festivals, staged on massive campgrounds with far larger crowds, the relative intimacy of Kutsher makes it easy to become acquainted with those milling about, an observation comedian Hannibal Buress relayed as a discouraging reminder of his inability to hook up.
Some of the familiar faces in the crowd happen to be musicians. ATP NY’s egalitarian nature, it boasts of an unused VIP area, can’t help but illustrate the celebrity culture that’s firmly enmeshed within most indie music festivals. Look, Thurston and Kim are getting coffee! Jim Jaramusch is shaking hands in the lobby! If it’s not supposed to be remarkable that Mark Arm from Mudhoney is standing beside you watching The Stooges, there he is. And it is striking and a bit unusual. T-Model Ford [pictured above], the weekend’s resident blues nonagenarian, acted as unofficial master of ceremonies, playing impromptu sets on a battery-powered amp and shaking more hands than a small town mayor. All of this is to say nothing about the music, which, outside of being the weekend’s main attraction, occasionally feels beside the point. On Saturday and Sunday, bands don’t start until after 1pm, providing plenty of time to eat some breakfast, take a dip in the chlorine heavy pool or even indulge in a luxury shower, a curious amenity I regretfully failed to investigate.
Though this year’s line-up provided fewer must-see events or high-wattage headliners, it made for a remarkably full three days of music with very few overlaps. The sound on the larger stage, the appropriately titled Starlight Ballroom, is widely praised for its clarity and above average sight-lines. Rightfully so. Even the semi-curious can saunter in 20 minutes late and settle right in. On Saturday, the perennially undervalued Fuck Buttons took advantage of the room’s capacity to withstand teeth-shattering beats, outdone only by SunnO))) and Boris dispensing Altar’s squalor the following evening [pictured above]. The second stage, while not nearly as dynamic a venue as the Starlight, never suffered for the room’s lack of ambiance or muffled acoustics during the sets I did see there (The Books, Kurt Vile and Wooden Shjips’ psychedelic power point spectacular).
Whether it is the goodwill in the air, the performer’s enthusiasm or ATP’s impeccable curatorial taste, truly unwatchable sets are hard to come by. Even the handful of disappointments, Tortoise and Hope Sandoval both fell flat in my estimation, were serviceable if not entirely memorable. On the contrary, heavyweights like The Stooges [top photo] and Sonic Youth [pictured above], who both garner above average marks for simply showing up, were unexpectedly ferocious while ATP perennials Shellac came out of hibernation to flaunt its lean precision. A typically raucous performance by Toronto’s Fucked Up helped ensure the rarified air of professionalism never became stifling.
Comparing ATP NY to the gluttonous field of American music festivals might be a tad unfair. Its size and scope is radically smaller than its competitors, providing it with an autonomy to disavow corporate sponsorship (notice the absence of a Playstation-sponsored game room) while allowing it to exalt obscurities like the Sleep reunion and that collaboration between SunnO))) and Boris to headliner status. Its ability to overtake a fully functioning resort like Kutsher’s is an unusual boon in the United States and according to many articles, a costly gamble that does not recoup on its expenditures. Rumors of its imminent demise swirl every year, some already murmuring ATP founder Barry Hogan has not yet provided explicit assurance regarding the festival’s 2011 return. This constant speculation, found in comment threads and message boards, might ultimately be the best case for its summer camp likeness; when considering the impermanence of a good thing, next year never feels close enough.
Photos: Abbey BradenVisit: All Tomorrow's Parties