The benefit of hindsight is always a good thing where All Tomorrow’s Parties is concerned. It’s probably a side effect of it being held at Butlins, but it induces a curious and intoxicating sense of removal from the outside world that always takes a few days to wear off after the inevitably painful journey home on Monday.
The sight of a Butlins camp – a by-word, as far as the majority of festivalgoers are concerned, for cheap and tacky holidays from a bygone era – during the winter is oddly emotionally charged. There’s a unique sense of bleak beauty that emanates from its rows of identikit one-storey chalets and maze-like sports complex, abandoned save the odd small group playing chilly football on a small five-a-side pitch. During the night it bristles with activity, as warmly wrapped individuals huddle and run from home to central complex and back; in the early morning’s emptiness it glows with a sad serenity and the slightly uncomfortable juxtaposition of the old-fashioned and the new.
Which goes some way towards explaining the appeal of ATP’s winter festivals – quite aside from the year-round draw of some mightily impressive bookings and the living, breathing hangover cure that is the pool’s lazy river. Recently though, I’ve been a little skeptical about the festival’s increasing reliance on indie nostalgia – if still unable to resist its draw. The My Bloody Valentine curated Nightmare Before Christmas is a case in point, as it takes all of an hour onsite to remind me of exactly why I keep returning.
There’s also the small matter of the bands. Friday evening sees Josh T. Pearson take his preacher/demon act to new levels of intensity, wringing squalling treble noise from his guitar on a stage bathed in deep blood red. Whilst his performances always tend towards the anarchic, the presence of a drummer and swelling walls of scorched distortion brings fire and brimstone bubbling through the cracks between Pearson’s baritone yelps.
Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs could almost qualify for lost album of 2009 status, disappearing as their records often do amongst waves of hyperbole for vastly inferior indie bands. In some ways their problem is that they’re simply too consistent. Friday’s show in Centre Stage acts as a reminder of how well pitched their precarious balancing act between pure pop and blistering feedback can be. ‘Periodically Double and Triple’ and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ infuse sixties pop through a filter of keening Americana, ‘Autumn Sweater’ is beautifully understated and mind-bendingly intense fifteen-minute closer ‘Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind’ outdoes My Bloody Valentine’s performance later that evening for sheer acid-fried noise.
On Saturday, Lightning Bolt actually perform onstage, in an act of inclusiveness that turns the entire front half of Reds (myself included) into a seething mass of bodies. Every ATP seems to include at least one classic performance in the intimate confines of Reds – Be Your Own Pet’s scathing turn at Thurston Moore’s festival in 2006, my first exposure to Fuck Buttons in 2007, The Mae Shi’s glorious technicolour antics earlier this year – Lightning Bolt take the prize for the end of 2009. Later that evening, Bob Mould joins No Age onstage for a run through of three Husker Du songs. Yes.
As ever though, the Dirty Three’s performance on Sunday night acts as a reminder that, yes, they remain the finest live act in the world. Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White are probably the three most accomplished musicians onsite this weekend, yet Ellis’ wonderfully surreal and self-depreciating stage banter has the quality of making the huge Pavilion stage seem as tiny as a pub back-room. The sheer feral intensity of opener ‘Indian Love Song’ and serene beauty of ‘Some Things I Just Don’t Want To Know’ lift the sizeable crowd away from Ellis’ neatly observed “Disneyland for rednecks” and into hitherto unexplored regions of inner headspace. I could watch Dirty Three play every night for the rest of my life and find something new to enjoy every evening; such is the personality and dreamlike sense of wonder and loss they inject into their ostensibly simple instrumentals.
Which seems an apt way to describe each ATP really – each time the local bus rolls away from Butlins on a Monday morning an entirely different set of memories is left behind.