Our second year at Kutsher’s was rainier than the first, but that didn’t matter so much to us or, seemingly, the other attendees: If anything, this year felt more celebratory (and debauched) than 2008. You wouldn’t be faulted for noting a certain hippie vibe. Visually, there were the tie-dyed shirts and hoodies (purchased at the amazing lost-in-time gift shop along with cat-shaped thermometers) sported by Sufjan and his band, Animal Collective, and soon enough sprinkled throughout the audiences. Or …. the perpetually smiling guy with the white bag who tried to sell us “special brownies” half a dozen times. Or the crusty, barefoot couple dancing like mad (and like hippies) during Animal Collective. Or folks making out on couches, doing weird things in the swimming pool, etc. Or the ad hoc dance floor that broke out in the lobby on Saturday night (while tellingly, downtown NYC icon Alan Vega, no hippie for sure, played pool by himself twenty feet away). Maybe part of the vibe was built-in by this year’s co-curators the Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne, in fact, may very well be the most positive vibing frontman you’ll see all year: When the Lips closed the fest with “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” it felt not only fitting, but you almost sort of believed the sentiments for one non-cynical moment.
It took a weekend to get to that point.
Dirty Three played one of the best sets of the weekend. While we were checking in, someone mentioned that Nick Cave was going to be singing with them, which seemed weird because the Australian trio replaces vocal lines with a violin: Cave was indeed on stage, but behind a white piano, contributing subtle lines to the band’s 1998 album Ocean Songs. The real focus, though, was wiry, hirsute frontman Warren Ellis, who has the Robert Pollard kick down to a tee, and prefaced most songs with funny, winding tales, and un-miked howls into the Starlight Ballroom. On drums was Jim White, who’s hard to stop watching and not just because of his Buzz Osborne hair. During their set Ellis joked that despite what some on-line sources said, they weren’t responsible for emo. (Even though it was hard not getting at least a little verklempt during “Sea Above, Sky Below.”) Instead, we found out, in Ellis’s words, “Jim Morrison took my mojo.”
As a part of nostalgia night, Suicide howled and screamed through their 1977 debut. Later in the night Jesus Lizard’s David Yow joked about how strange it felt being the third oldest man in the room (and immediately proceeded to pick out a comely young woman to waltz with him onstage): If you wanted to know what it felt to be the oldest, look no further than 71-year-old Alan Vega, the same age as the year his band formed. Weird. Fun fact: Martin Rev used old synthesizers and drum machines. Another: “Frankie Teardrop” is just as harrowing now, in this Iraq War/trashed economy-era as it was thirty-odd years ago.
That dark vibe was lifted by Panda Bear, who doesn’t often perform on his own, but should. (When we caught him up with the next day, he mentioned working on more solo material in the near future, so if you haven’t seen him yet, you’ll likely get your chance.) Noah was in standard solo mode, with a mic and a table of electronic devices in front of hypnotically psychedelic projections and old film footage, finding new angles on Animal Collective songs (“Chores,” “Guys Eyes,” “Daily Routine,” “#1″) and his various solo shots. You can relive it sans visuals by downloading the whole set. Iron & Wine was probably the weekend’s sleepiest set. Sam opened with “Such Great Heights” and stopped mid-way to admonish the crowd for not singing along. Blame it on the alcohol.
Before hankering down with Jesus Lizard, we caught Eugene Mirman (highlight: a skit about Daniel Day-Lewis getting deep into his There Will Be Blood role and trying to get his 19th-century head around the idea of a Blu-ray) and the comedy night curator David Cross, who let us know one thing worse than a pedophile is a racist pedophile. His set was digressive and self-deprecating (e.g. a story about crapping himself while walking his dog, a story about how his mother makes yogurt) which is what you expect. He insisted he was drunk the entire time, periodically taking sips from his whiskey and his beer. Which, right, are the ingredients needed to build a boilermaker.
When Jesus Lizard finally tore into “Boilermaker,” the crowd was long under their thrall: David Yow & Co. had — by far — the most active audience of the first night. The look-at-me stagedivers got annoying, but it was fun watching a slightly kinder, gentler Yow try to take in this younger generation while he and his band tore through their back catalog: David Wm. Sims, Duane Denison, and Mac McNeilly remain pin-drop tight. The group is still amazingly compelling, though nowhere near as scary seeming as they were at CBGB’s in 1992. Which, again, is one of the weird things about all these reunion shows: The new context doesn’t always make sense. Still, Yow made sure to wish us “Happy 9/11″ a dozen times and explained that the Dirty Three shouldn’t worry about being responsible for emo because, clearly, it was Slint who started that shit… (Nobody remembers Rites of Spring?)
Sufjan Stevens opened Saturday with an amped performance of Seven Swans. The new arrangements worked, though Stevens is so captivating when it’s just him and his choice of instrument that sometimes it seems the smartest thing he could do is pare things down instead of constantly amping them up. Still, a number of folks we ran into cited this as their favorite set of the weekend and any complaints are more theoretical than anything else.
Grouper’s set stood in start contrast: Instead of tie-dyed t-shirts and loud percussion, Liz Harris performed in dark shadows with an undulating projection of moonlight on water behind her: Fitting with those patterns, she created layers upon layers of her voice, guitars, and field recordings to create a carefully crafted, sonically seamless set that came off like a smeary nighttime sky without light pollution.
Bradford Cox announced his set as a rarity: Instead of standing behind a bed of electronics, he was sitting down with a guitar, which made him nervous that he sounded like Dan Fogelberg, or that his guitar tone sounded like Dave Matthews. No reason to fear. It was one of the more compelling Atlas Sound sets, peppered with interesting anecdotal material (we got the backstory of “Sheila,” how it was written quickly during a set at a party when he realized he was losing the crowd and needed something three-chord punky), and a chance to hear a number of the new Logos songs (“Kid Klimax,” “Attic Lights,” etc.) outside the studio. (Cox ended the set with a joke that if ATP had given him just a few more minutes of set time he “was gonna do ‘Walkabout’ and it would have been awesome.”)
Black Dice were so oppressively loud we expected the ceiling the crumble. Funny to see head and shoulder massages selling in the back of the room during this and other not-particularly-relaxing sets. Ever-present ATP house band Shellac do their thing well, but after so many years, at times it can feel like they’ve gotten too comfortable doing it: poker master Albini and Bob Weston are a fun stand-up duo and Todd Trainer’s a blast to watch on drums, but the “I’m A Plane!” “Wingwalker” thing and other set pieces have started feeling like just that. Shellac always had a sense of humor, but it worked best when it was placed in contrast with more of that Big Black/Rapeman angst, not an angst of playfully ‘grumpy old men.’ Still, fun. Speaking of the old days: Pussy Galore was always more interesting/the Blues Explosion more schlocky, but it was Boss Hog tearing it up on the second stage. The sound was sketchy at first, but by the time they got to their “One. Two. Fuck. You!” anthemics, things were well-oiled.
They didn’t do anything unexpected, but Deerhunter have become such a full sounding band, it hardly matters. It was our second dose of Bradford Cox of the day: He keeps getting better. The Melvins are also so insanely tight (clearly) at this point and their double drumming hearkened toward Sunday — which starting with the Boredoms’ drum circle and moving through to the Flaming Lips — a day of grandiosity.
Throughout the weekend it was a bit strange seeing folks approaching Animal Collective as if they’re rock ‘n’ roll icons, asking Avey Tare to sign their beer gut or almost passing out with excitement when holding the door for them to pass … but when they ended Saturday with an insanely all-consuming set, they felt more than worthy. We were in a good spot toward the front, surrounded by folks dressed like skeletons and animals, dancing up a storm. It was a fitting, exhausting (in all senses) close to the night. (When that bootleg hits, make sure to check into the “Who Could Win A Rabbit” redo.) Deakin was on-site too, just not onstage.
Boadrum 9 was one hell of a way to start the day: Anthemic, noisy, cathartic, the Boredoms went over their time limit, but they and their accompanying percussionists (including Zach Hill of Hella/Marnie Stern/Wavves, Hisham Bharoocha of Soft Circle, Aaron Moore of Volcano The Bear, and Ponytail’s Jeremy Hyman) were clearly in a zone when the stage manager started unplugging things, so it didn’t come off as diva-esque or inconsiderate. In another epic move, Boris tackled the slow-release 45-minute drone-and-swell piece Feedbacker in their starched shirts and disengaged cool.
You get a lot of back and forth on 8-bit plagiarizers/wunderkinds Crystal Castles, but maybe nothing else has to be said after they performed a set, largely with Alice Glass’s vocals not working, and nobody seeming to notice. Still, she is fun to watch. In awesome contrast to Crystal Castles, No Age & Bob Mould were pure punk-rock joy: They split their set, switching off between No Age and Mould tracks, and things blended together beautifully. The players were clearly excited to be making it happen: Mould was all smiles, doing some Townsend-esque guitar windmills; Dean and Randy at times stared at Mould with wide eyes like they couldn’t believe it was happening, while simultaneously tearing through Hüsker Dü classics and No Age rippers. For the encore, Bradford Cox joined the band in a version of the Heartbreaker’s “Chinese Rock” and left the stage so the trio could dig into “New Day Rising,” the song they first performed together at NoisePop a few months ago. One of the smoothest, non-gimmicky collaborations we’ve seen.
At this point people know what the Flaming Lips do, but they don’t always do it in a small room that’s painted to look like the underside of a spaceship, airbrushed walls making out stars and distant planets. Really, once they got in there and had their confetti guns, bouncing balloons, smoking megaphone, and lights in place, it was clear the Lips are the ideal Starlight Ballroom house band. (One new detail — at least to us — was an opening video projection where a nude dancing woman eventually sat down, spread her legs, and showed off a psychedelic vagina that grew in size, ultimately creating a space for the band to emerge through from backstage.) It was good vibes throughout the entire set: Coyne hugging fans, smiling at the stage divers, talking about how honored they were to curate ATP and to see so many bands (he was spotted throughout the weekend at various sets, at one point clearly stoked to be watching Boris), and how he wanted to sit on the stage after the show and sign autographs and take photos until everyone was ready to go home. It was that sort of communal sentiment that suddenly made it easy to imagine “Do You Realize” being performed at Woodstock. An area we’re not that far from up here, really.