All Tomorrow’s Parties – Butlin’s, Minehead, 16 – 18/5/08.

Although I’m an ATP veteran, this was my first visit to the new site at Butlin’s in Minehead. It’s light years away from the WW2 prefabs and tacky sixties décor of Camber Sands. It’s also a lot bigger, and so there were a hell of a lot more people milling around than I was used to. Friday night is always the busiest since people are fresh and eager and ready to party. Thus the dominant feature of Friday was the queues. Queues for the loos, queues for the bars, queues to get from venue to venue, queues for food. It summoned a sinking feeling that was exacerbated by the sheer size of the venues.

Mono were the first band I saw, and they seemed lost in an auditorium the size of the Centre Stage. They weren’t helped by the lack of volume, nor the fact that they were competing against a hubbub of chatter (understandable, as people met up). They tried gallantly, but it just didn’t spark. Dinosaur Jr fared better. I saw them several times in their heyday and was never that impressed. Sure, they had a handful of great songs, but there was always too much soloing for my taste. Coupled with that, Mascis’s whiny voice is an acquired taste that I failed to acquire. Twenty years on, they were beefy and tight, but didn’t really allay my suspicions that they are just another hard rock band who somehow got lucky.

Curators Explosions in the Sky were the main act on the cavernous Pavilion Stage. They were OK, but it seems they’ve been doing exactly the same thing for nearly ten years now, and it’s all a bit stale. “The Birth and Death of the Day”, the set’s closer, was the only track that stood out. My first visit to the third and smallest venue Reds provided Friday’s musical highlight. The Octopus Project were a new name to me, but their electro-rock was a joy. They tread similar ground to Glasgow’s Errors – deceptively simple, rough edged but tuneful, only with added theremin.

If Friday was a slightly disappointing prologue, Saturday saw my grumbles cast aside. Things were busy, but the queues had more or less melted away as everyone stopped doing everything at exactly the same time. World’s End Girlfriend got things underway at the distinctly un-rock ‘n’ roll time of 2.30. The only previous time I’d seen Katsuhiko Maeda he played alone. This time he was accompanied by a drummer. The result was a harder-edged, rockier, more cinematic set – but if anything, even more eclectic. “Something for everyone – and all in the same song” remarked a voice behind me as one piece finished, having encompassed some bleepy electronica, neo-classical atmospherics, lilting melody and furious riffing over its ten minutes. A terrific start to the day.

There was a clash between Saul Williams and A Hawk and a Hacksaw. I’d intended to dabble, but ended up so entranced by the latter’s, by turns rumbustious and delicate, Balkan folk melodies that I ended up staying for the entire set. A friend came out of Williams’ show brimming with enthusiasm for his political, industrial hip hop, so I’m a bit annoyed that I missed it.

Okkervil River‘s countryish indie did nothing me, so I went and watched Doctor Who instead. The National, on the other hand, were mind blowing. I can’t really fathom why I’m such a fan of this band, when others of a similar ilk leave me cold. But they seem to have everything – great songs, great arrangements, great charisma, and in Matt Berninger, a great lead singer. Many of the songs on Boxer are quite downbeat and gentle, but they have a way of beefing them up on stage that leaves the music’s soul intact. It’s quite a feat – they are probably the only rock group I can think of who can play their music in the primary colours required to come across in a large arena without sacrificing any its magic or subtlety.

Eluvium‘s assortment of guitar drones and piano instrumentals was a perfect comedown before Stars of the Lid rocked the house. Announcing themselves as George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers (a joke lost on most people who had no idea who the hell they were talking about), Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride were joined on stage by a two piece string section. From then on it was an hour of gently unfolding neo-classical drones and atmospherics, accompanied by fractal visuals. Mostly drawn from the most recent album, this was sublime stuff, although it seemed to split the audience judging from the mixture of beatific smiles and puzzled frowns.

Polvo‘s furious, jagged rock got Sunday off to a good start. Back together for the first time in ten years at Explosions’ behest, the intervening years seemed to have no discernible effect on the band who were tight as a flea’s arse. They seemed to be having a great time, too, so hopefully this was more than just a one-off postscript to the Polvo story. David Berman’s Silver Jews have done surprisingly few live shows considering how long they’ve been going. I think he said it was their 59th ever. They’re not a band I’m that familiar with, but their country-tinged post-punk set was excellent, and one of the day’s highlights.

De La Soul came to party. Is it really two decades since 3ft High and Rising? Jeez. They wheeled out all the showtime clichés of arm-waving, lighters aloft, call-and-response vocals, and pitting sections of the audience against each other. It can’t have been a million miles away from what happens at Butlin’s in the summer season when the famous redcoats are entertaining hundreds of kids. But you’d have to be a curmudgeon not to join in. They were accompanied for the most part by a large funkestra, but were at their most effective in the middle section when it was just three MCs and one DJ. In stark contrast, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were all macho posturing, throwing every tired gangsta shape you could think of. The beats were tungsten hard, but the raps were lame and threadbare. Addressing the 98% white audience as “my niggas” just sounded ridiculous – a surefire way to spawn a load more Nathan Barleys. Rock hard beats though (oh, already said that).

Broken Social Scene did their everything-but-the-kitchen sink arena rock thing. Arcade Fire without the pomposity, Flaming Lips without the bunny costumes. They are a great live band, but they’ve only really got a handful of songs that are up to scratch.

The Drift impressed me. They sound a lot like Jaga Jazzist, which is no bad thing. A good balance of experimental indie-rock and jazz. Not as bonkers as Shining, but not as po-faced and snooze-inducing as Tortoise. The last thing I saw was Tony Teardrop – male singer/guitarist, female drummer. Like the White Stripes if they grew up on a diet of Sweet and Slade instead of Son House and the Yardbirds.

Battles, Lichens, Saul Williams, Adam, the Field, Envy – miised them all. Papier Tigre, Paper Chase, Ola Podrida, Jens Lekman, Western Keys, Beach House – saw mere snatches.

Come Monday morning, everything seemed to have flashed by. I was left thinking, hey – I’m just getting into this! It was my first ATP in three years and, despite my initial misgivings in the increase of scale, the magic is still there. It’s still a festival like no other, like a holiday with bands.

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