NPR logo All Tomorrow's Parties 2011 In Photos: Breathing Life Into The Boardwalk

All Tomorrow's Parties

All Tomorrow's Parties 2011 In Photos: Breathing Life Into The Boardwalk

You can listen to many sets from the 2011 All Tomorrow's Parties festival right here, with more to come.

When the setting matters as much as the music, it creates a temporary community. For the organizers of the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival, the place is paramount. When they announced that they were moving from last year's quirky Kutcher's Country Club in the Catskills to three venues off the Asbury Park, N.J., boardwalk, some expressed concern that some of that community would be lost. And it was, if only a little.

The festival's focus wasn't at the Berkeley Hotel, where most of the artists and attendees stayed, but at the beautifully restored Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall. In its heyday, the Paramount was more prestigious than any Atlantic City casino, as well as home to events like the Miss America pageant. As one who remembers most of the Bradley Beach boardwalk shuttered and boarded up — I lived in the Asbury Park area briefly at age 7 and have many relatives there — it did my heart good to see bands like Portishead and Swans breathe life into these once-flourishing and now quite active venues. Asbury Park is finally making its way back, little by little.

ATP revels in times both new and renewed. Just around the corner at a functioning bowling alley, a rowdy crowd smashed up against the stage at Asbury Lanes for Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and gave the weekend the kickstart it needed. The '80s arty-but-not-smarty rock band looked absolutely bowled over (sorry) by the response, especially given that it hasn't released anything in 10 years. It was at a vintage bowling alley where a small community actually seemed to form, mostly around cheep beer, bowling and late-night DJs. And, perhaps more to ATP's spirit, Asbury Lanes hosted more experimental sounds like the pedal-worshipping Thought Forms and Oneida's performance of The Ocropolis III — which, over its eight-hour (!) improvisation, included guest musicians from Portishead, Boredoms, Yo La Tengo and Guardian Alien.

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But, of course, the main attractions were right on the boardwalk. While I don't generally care to see a band two nights in a row, Portishead varied its attitude (if not its set list) from night to night at Convention Hall. Saturday was just a solid performance, culling mostly from Third, but also giving subtle new arrangements to fan favorites ("Wandering Star" was downright Godspeed You! Black Emperor-esque in its simplicity). But on Sunday night, Portishead gave a more aggressive, even off-the-cuff performance. Having played a killer set just hours earlier, Chuck D of Public Enemy spit a verse from "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" over "Machine Gun" as a surprise guest (though he apparently did the same at the 2008 Primavera Sound festival). And then Simeon from Silver Apples added some theremin-like noise to the encore, "We Carry On."

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At the Paramount Theatre, Swans and Earth rattled and ruled the historic venue. Well, actually, Earth could have used a bit more volume on Sunday evening, especially with such a stellar sound system and acoustics, but, as always, the band's attention to slow, exploratory American music was rich and seeking. Swans, on the other hand, held court for two hours, claiming the stage in the name of M. Gira. Never have I seen such a Wagner-ian rock performance: absolutely masculine and relentless, yet alluring in every respect.

There was much to see and do over the course of the weekend, including films from the Criterion Collection, the Laphams Quarterly Literary Stage and a Friday-night comedy line-up, which brings me to Jeff Mangum and Reggie Watts. There were two opportunities to see the out-of-hiding Neutral Milk Hotel visionary over the weekend, and when I was given the opportunity to see him on Friday night, I opted for comedian Reggie Watts. And, to be honest, Watts was the better choice. In between absurdist stream-of-consciousness ramblings, he'd improvise these incredible musical impressions (soul and French music being two of them) using only wordless sounds and a looping pedal. It was hilarious, exciting to watch and, well, new. And that's where my issue with Jeff Mangum comes in.

I did end up seeing Mangum on Sunday afternoon with a sleepy but still devoted crowd. And I would never want to take away anyone's warm memories or high expectations for this event, but I kept filling in the blank spaces where the overblown horns and shambling drums should have been in "Holland, 1945"; kept thinking about 12 years of silence and speculation; kept thinking about how nostalgia colors opinion, and not always in an honest way. It's really great to see Mangum back — it truly is. He seemed pretty happy, if still a bit cautious. The guy even drew pictures in notebooks for fans who asked for autographs. But I'm really looking forward to what he does next.

With that in mind, I wonder what would happen if All Tomorrow's Parties let a younger band curate a weekend festival; not some overhyped artist of yesterweek, but an artist of definition and foreseeable impact. Portishead's picks were largely contemporaries and older, and much of the festival felt the same age, too. A majority of the festival's curators have been long-established musicians, directors and other creative personas, often with more than 15 years experience minimum. And these folks are certainly not without fine taste, but it's a sensibility refined from years of inspiration. It's given a platform to forgotten and cult-like musicians in The Clean, The Raincoats and this year with The Pop Group. And perhaps that's what a younger artist would offer, too. (What better way to learn about undiscovered gems than through your favorite bands?) But what an opportunity to create a new guard in a three-day festival that celebrates outer sound. The rumblings would be endless.