…And so the ATP Circus limps into town, having been shot from both sides in a month in which rumours of the demise of both their April weekenders had been dangerously rife, inflicting a further huge dent in ATP’s already battered reputation.
So are we out of the woods yet, then?
Are we fuck…
News is that John Cale, only recently added to the bill in what was clearly a bona fide scoop for the organisers, has pulled out of both this and next week’s Drive Like Jehu weekend. The rumour mill will grind on a while longer concerning other defections, and it says much for the stoicism nay optimism of so many punters that each conjecture is met with “Yes, but there’s so much that’s good here this weekend”.
They are right, of course: Curator Stewart Lee and ATP has assembled a cracking line-up encompassing heavy psych and several more melodic variants of said genre, grizzled post-punkers, various points of the folk spectrum and oodles of free-range jazz noodles plus comedy and performance art. So it is, against the odds, that the show really does go on.
Make use of the legs and ears while they are still willing is my motto. Stephen Beresford and co’s interpretation of John Cage’s Indeterminacy, Aussie drone-jazzers The Necks, the mesmeric Ex-Easter Island Head and the energetic Slits/Raincoats inspired Trash Kit (music that calls for high knee lifts, but hey, I’m pacing myself) are all negotiated early doors.
It is Shonen Knife who open the Main Stage, wooing the crowd with their two minute pop-rock and exuberant perma-smiles, packing 20 or so numbers into their hour-long set before going off to staff their merch stand and leaving many of us grinning like fools. Mein host Stewart Lee gives us an anti-stand-up routine in which he gently lampoons his sponsors. No mention of the Cale withdrawal, though, or the strong rumour that tonight’s headliner Roky Erickson is also refusing to play. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one headliner is unfortunate, to lose two would be commercial and reputational curtains. Something of a festival veteran, that Wilde.
Alas, Sleaford Mods decide to dog it out. On record, their brand of potty-mouthed, cooking speed rap is OK. Live, it’s just two guys standing on stage with a backing track. They don’t do anything. Actually no, one of them waves his arms a bit and swears a lot. Next…
The following hour is spent with one ear on the remarkable Richard Dawson and the rest is me comparing old war wounds and past campaigns with those with fellow gnarled old hands (some with a lot more medals than I, sonny). Experimental and impressionistic, discordant, alternately funny and disturbing, Dawson’s is a unique and contorted take on the folk tradition, aided and abetted by a highly distinctive vocal, often delivered acapella. Best sampled stroking one’s beard while slipping a couple of tabs of acid into your tankard of foaming ale. Actually you won’t need the acid.
And so it is as much in hope as expectation that we start towards the Main Stage for Roky Erickson. Some people are asking “Is Roky playing?”. Then the lights are dimmed, the band comes on, Roky shuffles stage-centre and an announcement is made to the effect that they have been in dispute with “a certain organisation” but that wasn’t going to stop them from playing even though said matter remains unresolved. Star troopers one and all, and boy, are we to be grateful?
We all know the Roky story by now. No, not how he beat Apollo Creed, that guy out of the A Team and Dolph Lundgren, but how he has overcome debilitating mental health and financial problems to function at a much higher level than any of us has a right to expect. Hell, the fact that he is even able to get on stage and face the right way is nothing short of miraculous.
Sure, Roky’s mostly in sit-down mode these days and his guitar, if not unplugged, is so far back in the mix to appear so, but he sings beautifully, with clear diction and conviction (Mark E Smith, you reading this?). We get an hour’s blissful and energetic run-through of The Elevators’ back-catalogue (including the best version of ‘Slip Inside This House’ I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing), the sound authenticated by a jug player replicating the Tommy Hall role. After the main set closes with ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’, the band returns to the stage, Roky eschewing the use of chair for a rousing rendition of ‘Two Headed Dog (Temple Prayer)’. Had we woken up to find that the rest of the festival had imploded, some of us at least would have taken consolation in having witnessed something truly remarkable tonight.
Wolf People have been quiet of late. Actually, they’ve been writing and recording new material, although the bulk of their set will have been familiar to anyone who hasn’t changed his or her calendar since 2013. Their muscular folk-rock on Stage 2 is a good way to spend an early Saturday afternoon nursing the vestiges of a mild-to-moderate hangover (bottles of Dog followed by red wine in retrospect not a great idea).
It was the Main Stage that would take precedent for the next few hours though. Bevis Frond have been in fine form of late, with the release of Example 22 in 2015 and a spate of tour, one-off and festival dates which suggests and urgent need to make up for some lost time. Given a fair wind (in their case an expansive stage and a decent PA/mix) there are few better examples of the more melodic and mature strain of psych-rock than Nick Saloman’s wonderfully crafted and acutely observed compositions expertly interpreted by a top-notch band. There’s a reassuringly familiar feel to the set (‘Hole Song 2’; ‘Superseeder’, ‘High in a Flat’, for example), the one slight curve ball being ‘Undertaker’ in memory of former drummer Mick Crowley who passed away last year and of whom stories are legion.
“That last band went on and on,” intones David R Edwards, one half of Datblygu with Patricia Morgan, in reference to The Frond. “We’re not that sort of band,” he adds, suggesting that the only reason they were billed to play for an hour was because it was in the contract. Edwards’ irritability has been prompted by the lack of a soundcheck and a set beset with minor technical niggles for which he seemed to hold the organisers responsible.
Edwards’ battles with personal demons may not have proved quite as newsworthy or full-on as those of Erickson but it is just as heart-warming, indeed life-affirming, to see him and Patricia here, on stage, at a Welsh ATP. True, there are a few shaky moments, but what initially seemed like perfunctory vignettes – punctuated by Slint-like downtimes in an attempt to banish the on-stage gremlins – gradually coalesce into more coherent pieces such as ‘Gwennu Dan Bysiau’ and ‘Casserole Yr Efeilliaid’ (respectively ‘Smiling Under Buses’, ‘The Twins’ Casserole’, further translations together with full lyrical transcripts available on request and for a reasonable fee). Suddenly it all makes perfect sense, no matter what your language of choice.
They cut short the set. Who’d begrudge them that? I mean it’s probably not as if they’ll even end up getting paid.
It’s been many moons since The Heads released any new material and there are probably leopards who change their spots more often than our boys from Bristol change their set-list. None of that seems to matter one jot to the faithful, who turn up in droves and in enthusiastic homage. It’s the one set of the weekend where the ear plugs go in and stayed there, leastways while I’m still at the front.
It’s certainly exhilarating, it always is with them, but you wonder whether there isn’t perhaps an over-reliance on the volume dial. Not as exciting these days as Anthroprophh (guitarist Paul Allen’s band), who showed the way at PZYK fest a couple of years back. There, that should be enough to get me kicked off the Psych Lovers Facebook page.
Maybe this is the last chance for most people to catch Giant Sand, as Howe Gelb is reputed to be laying to rest the band he’s led since 1980. With a voice almost as parched as the desert from whence he came and fronting a US/Danish combo, Gelb turns in a patchy set which when it’s good it was very, very good but when it’s not, it’s pretty darned ordinary. Up on 3, Evan Parker, John Russell and the prolific John Edwards sound like Third Ear Band soundtracking the latest Clangers film (oh yeah, they were showing them each morning). Yes, they are almost that good.
There’s an old adage in this house when it comes to Mark E Smith that goes something like, “The later it is, the worse it gets”. Putting The Fall on at 11pm in the John Cale headline slot is playing chicken with the stage gods. Smith looks and sounds a shell of the sharp-wit on which the legend was carved, largely incomprehensible and resembling more a man remonstrating with litter bins in the park.
Three times I wander off to check out other acts, twice I return, once to find that Smith has taken the band off stage and the other time they seem to be playing the same tight repetitive rhythm they kicked off with 40 minutes or so previously. Depression is only held at bay by taking in half of The Bellrays’ set, which would have gone down great at a wedding party, their brand of soulful rock elevated above the ordinary by the striking vocal and physical presence of singer Lisa Kekaula. Much as I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Charlotte Church and her band (who apparently turned out covers of Joy Division, Super Furry Animals, Nine Inch Nails and disco hits among others, to the evident delight of many) it was time to cut and crawl.
Report for duty at 1pm sharp for an eagerly anticipated set by Trembling Bells only to find out it has been put back an hour. It’s worth the wait. I must say, I never got the ‘saviours of folk-rock’ tag bestowed upon them at the time of their (overrated) Carbeth debut, since when they have matured beyond measure.
In fact, the Bells claim to be uncomfortable with the folk-rock tag, yet while they resemble not the likes of Fairport or Pentangle, say, there is an undeniably traditional and rustic quality to their repertoire, mixed in with four fingers of classic rock, with Lavinia Blackwall’s operatic pipes contrasting super-effectively with Alex Neilson’s gnarly Glaswegian grafting of Mike Heron and Paolo Nutini. It’s a triumph from beginning to end, and one of a small handful of genuine highlights of the weekend that leaves me and many others wanting so much more.
It would be rude not to again support the free-range jazzers (this time augmented by Thurston Moore), but I am n the mood for something much, much gentler. Damon & Naomi certainly fit the bill, the ex-Galaxie 500 pair pitching a delicate set on Stage 3 as accompaniment to Naomi Yang’s short film Fortune, that reminds one of Low at their more laidback and reflective. A beautiful horizontal moment. Folkie Alasdair Roberts too is a joy – one man, a guitar, and voice, and an audience in the palm of his hand.
What a day of extreme contrast this is proving to be, though. Bardo Pond are vying with The Heads for the heavy psych crown, and to these ears they smash it, no contest. Isobel Sollenberger’s plaintive voice and flute floats through a deluge of dense psychedelic riffing and a battalion of effects as the band, orchestrated by the mighty Michael Gibbons, kicks up a howling storm.
Truthfully, there isn’t a huge amount to choose between any of their songs, and lovers of songcraft and melody would be hard pressed to show them much love. Hard cheese, they are fucking awesome and that, friends, is the long and the short of it.
The Flamin’ Groovies then take us back to a simpler age. Their occasionally ragged but enjoyable mix of throwback covers and originals play out to a disappointingly sparse main stage crowd. They deserve better, really they do, but it’s at the end of their set that I decide to cut out due to other commitments the following day. Sorry to be missing the rest of what, despite the good times, I hope would be the last ever ATP holiday weekender.
The brand now resembles a boxer who goes on for too many fights before retiring and then decides to make an ill-advised comeback. You want it to work, there are glimpses of what used to be, but overall, it’s a sad echo of former glories that can only go one way. The following day brings news that the other ATP planned for the following weekend, already relocated and stripped of its residential status, has been cancelled. Sad, sad situation and an abject lesson in reputational management.
Kill it. Kill it now.