All Tomorrow's Parties, Day 1: Burned-out Uncle Rock, Thurston's Moore's Baby Talk, and Some Other Bands That I Didn't Actually See

Arriving at Kutshers Country Club in Monticello, NY, I felt like I was living through an early 90's equivalent of Bergman's Wild Strawberries, minus the awards ceremony: a pastoral dream-romp through one's past, where the sights and sounds of one's formative years were brought back and forced to clash with aging sensibilities.  If ATP-NY was "about" anything, it was about the canonization in the collective music underground's memory of the alleged importance of early 90's "alternative" music; a throwback to a simpler time when Bush Mark I led to Clinton Mark I, and a long-burgeoning underground seemed to overthrow the mainstream and allow "cool" stuff to invade America's malls and major radio station playlists.

The first evening of programmed performances at ATP-NY was, appropriately enough, an ATP-programmed "Don't Look Back" series, where canonized performers play, in order, a "seminal" album; we got there too late to catch Bardo Pond's performance of their
Lapsed album-- while they were playing, we were busy checking in at the front desk, and being blown away by the bizarre pile-up of culture clashes going on all around us: you have a Borscht Belt Jewish country club about three decades or more past its heyday being over-run by Pitchfork-tenth-of-a-point-rating music fans, who are in turn interfacing with a large contingent of Euro-eternal-partiers; all of these people are being assisted in their check-in and parking lot navigation by a large temporary staff who have clearly been shipped up from New York City, meaning that during the festival one can walk out of a Yo La Tengo set and come across a group of staff members jamming out to Mariah Carey on a boombox (I'll delve a bit more on the racial/socio-economic weirdness of this festival in my Day 3 write-up, when I discuss EPMD's Sunday afternoon set).  And remember, all of this is amidst Hicktown upstate New York-- the closest retail node to Kutshers is... (drumroll).. a Wal-Mart.  And on top of all of that, we are a mere 10 miles from Bethel, NY, the festival site of Woodstock (1969 version).

Oh, but right, besides people-watching and societal analyzing, there is also music happening.  We check in in time to run down to the main stage to catch The Meat Puppets, who are preparing to perform, in its entirety, their 1984 album
Meat Puppets II.  Curt Kirkwood walks out in a loose t-shirt and wearing fucking sweatpants, as if to announce to the audience that this festival is not about stage presence or any sort of intentional presentation.  The current "reunited" Meat Puppets lacks original drummer Derek Bostrom, but does include original bassist Chris Kirkwood, who lost a few years to serious drug addiction and incarceration but seems to have emerged somewhat, uh, jacked; his craggly face sits on his otherwise pretty fit body like, say, Willem Dafoe circa Life Aquatic wearing an ill-advised puffy blonde wig.  The Kirkwood brothers make strange contorted faces when they play that seem to be visual indications that these two have had a lifetime of experiences with hallucinations and altered states, but their musical abandon is frequently interrupted as they have to remind themselves, you know, which song is next, which key it's in, etc.  MP II was a transitional album for the Puppets: their eponymous debut was a pretty amateur affair, screaming cowpunk that sort-of made sense on punk-tastic SST Records.  MP II began hinting at a more countrified and countri-fried direction that would prevail over their discography for the next decade-- but it wasn't until 3rd LP Up On The Sun that they would full-on jack-knife into arpeggiated home-on-the-range Garcia-isms.  Meaning that MP II is full of strange little squiggles of songs that they probably never imagined that they'd be playing again, live, in a ballroom to thousands of people in the year 2008.  "Thoughts turn into waterfalls/with water made of thoughts that call", from "We're Here", is the kind of lyrical navel-gazing that made the Puppets make sense to a Cobain'd-out early 90's slacker aesthetic-- and amidst that era's oversized sweaters and ski hats in summer, a group of frazzled ugly dudes playing fried psychedelic guitar rock fit right in there.  When the Puppets go psych, it isn't with the mastery of, say, J Mascis or Kevin Shields or Ira Kaplan; it's with the seemingly-accidental naivety of, say, Daniel Johnston, if he dropped the Brian Wilson bullshit and just started hitting effects pedals.  Which, really, was a certain important lesson of early 90's rock: that drugs, pedals and giddy enthusiasm can make up for quite a lot.  By the time they got to "Lake of Fire", the Kirkwoods were blazing: the song morphed into a spastic dance of hair-flying aggression, as if one was listening to Zeppelin and Kiss when the shrooms kick in, the posters on the walls start to melt, the record starts skipping on the same groove, and your doofus grin makes you unconsciously drool all over your bong.  After the album proper, they closed with a cover of The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" that really showed where their heads were: ground zero psychedelia.

Truth be told, though, The Meat Puppets weren't really cool enough for the alternative rock days, and they didn't seem cool enough for ATP either: lots of people walked in for one song and bailed; inept covers of Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Stud" probably isn't quite what Fuck Button fans took a Friday off of work to stand around watching, right?  Tortoise packed the ballroom significantly tighter for their set; and I dunno, I gave it a few tunes, but it was pretty rough.  I mean, I like lots of wanky 70's prog, and own more than three Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, and yet even I was put off by the jazz-rock wankery on display.  I have been told that Tortoise are "an awesome band to listen to whilst doing something else"-- this is a motto that popped in my head over and over during this festival.  Being curated by My Bloody Valentine, after all, you couldn't help but notice that, a few stragglers aside, most of the bands performing are much better known for their
sound than for their songs, which is to say that the appeal of so much of what we were to witness was primarily of a "sonic" nature.

Except, oddly enough, for Thurston Moore's set.  If the Brothers Kirkwood developed an indie archetype of the grizzled far-out pair of uncles rocking out to flashback rock, Moore has tended to go the other way-- into the womb, or at least some sort of mutant
dada-informed "mucky wucky" baby-talk thing.  Moore's set this evening is a re-creation of his 1995 solo LP Psychic Hearts, which, he informs us from the stage, he and drummer Steve Shelley wrote and recorded in one day-- take that, major label dude that released the album!  Moore stuck it to the man, i.e. the ATP "Don't Look Back" gestapo, as well by daring to not play the album in order, but I can't imagine that too many people noticed or cared; he began with "Elegy For All The Dead Rock Stars", which is one of those 20-minute end-of-cd instrumental things that 90's bands tended to do when cd's first came out (see: Nirvana's "Endless Nameless" at the end of Nevermind, or perhaps the hidden track on Mudhoney's My Brother The Cow, which consisted of the entire album played backwards).

I remember at the time thinking the album was pretty awesome, if a tad heavy on the overt Patti Smith worship.  As it so happens, Ms. Smith was at ATP; I didn't see her during the set, but the next day I saw her strolling around the grounds with Kevin Shields-- no doubt their conversation had to do with the shamanistic properties of feedback and what that meant in terms of rock's liberating power on the consciousness.  Wow, if there was ever a sight to tie in the festival's straddling of 60's Woodstock bullshit with 90's alt-rock slacker ennui, it was seeing those two walking around together.  But anyway, back to Moore: the man would be an imposing figure if everything about him (the way he comports himself, his hairstyle and the way it flops around, his predilection for big loose hoodies, the stickers on his guitar, etc.) weren't so relentlessly goofball-ish.  The whole set I kept picturing what he would look like in a well-tailored suit and a really spiffy haircut, and it was freaky.  It's what's awesome about Thurston, it's what's loathesome about Thurston.  The next day, the theater on grounds would show a rare screening of still-not-on-DVD 1991: The Year That Punk Broke, with director Dave Markey answering questions.  My question was if Thurston's consistent cut-up persona was at all manufactured in the film, or whether he was just a funny motherfucker all the time; Markey gave a pretty half-assed answer, but it was clear that Moore is, at heart, a pretty goofy dude-- but it's all so well-intentioned, and he always knows the right time to be serious, that you can't help but love the little rapscallion.  Imagine how awesome it would be if he was your dad; come to think of it, I wonder how many kids in the audience that night were thinking that very thought?  In any case, as the set came to a close I was aghast at the thought that Moore was going to exclude the title track on the album; but he actually came out for an encore and rocked it out-- the song is a shockingly serious and dare I say anthemic tune from a man more at peace with proto-Malkmus pithy mirthful wordplay: "Sadness is and sadness was/And sadness will always be because/Comfort comes around from the strangest of men" is not the sort of thing he normally comes up with, which was why I was impressed with the album at the time, and still kind of am.  The really odd thing about the set was the presence of second guitarist Chris Brokaw-- mostly because he was playing songs that were so relentlessly simple; you got the impression that Brokaw just kind of showed up an hour before the set and said "Uh, which album are we doing again" and then just blazed through it perfectly, because he's Chris Brokaw.

The headliner of the evening was Built To Spill performing their album Perfect From Now On, but I skipped it entirely to watch the end of Louis Malle's 1957 masterpiece Elevator To The Gallows, and I stand by my choice.  I heard that they were really great.  Also apparently Steve Albini was manning a poker table all night (more on that in my review of Day 2), and I'll assume that your average indie doof who checked that out hoping to play ironic card games with a rock celebrity was probably somewhat surprised to find that the man is fucking serious about games of chance.
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