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Live Review | All Tomorrow Parties curated by Jeff Mangum, Butlins, Minehead, UK, 09-11.03.12

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Yamatanka//Sonic Titan

Any festival is an interactive adventure game: you make your choices (Turn left? Turn right? This band? That band? Fight troll? Have a lie-down?) at any given point and you plough your own path through its varied offerings, carving out an experience that is unique to you alone. But ATP has always seemed a more collective experience than most. Maybe it’s simply because there are fewer options at any given point in time, fewer bands playing for fewer hours in the day and on only three stages (although that doesn’t take into account the extra-curricular activities available: the swimming, bowling, arcade games, pub grub, pop quizzes, book clubs etc). It’s like when there were only four channels available on TV: you knew that just everyone would’ve watched last night’s episode of Doctor Who and would be talking about it in class the next day. Here everyone’s buzzing with the thrill of Boredoms‘ performance, chuffed by The Fall delivering the goods, and – gallingly for me, who missed it – enthusing about the intensity and ohmigod specialness of festival curator Jeff Mangum’s solo set. However, even given the communal heterogeneity of the ATP experience (and this one at first glance screams “just gimme indie rock!” for all its little white boy lungs are worth), you can still pick and choose a route to make your festival less dewy-eyed, glory years rerun and more an opportunity to chance upon extraordinary music.

If you wanted to trace a Wire-ish path through the weekend, for example, you could follow the breadcrumb trail of ‘contemporary’ music laid by the avant-genii likes of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Roscoe Mitchell, Group Doueh, Matana Roberts/Seb Roachford, Blanck Mass, Earth, Demlike Stare, even a performance of Gavin Bryars’ ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and it would be blindingly clear that my indie-boy slur on Mangum’s sensibility has been skewed by the headliners. You could equally well stick to current women-centred excellence by seeking out the eerie aceness of Canadians Yamatanka//Sonic Titan, all Noh-theatre make-up, fluttering fans and drama; the elemental lyricism of Joanna Newsom; Versus’ proto-Mathy magic; Feathers’ psychedelic dream pop [presumably NOT the psychedelic dream pop of all-female Brisbane band Feathers, though? – Ed]; you could worship at the feet of rock goddesses Mimi from Low, Eleni of The Fall, Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-We and, er … OK, so the womanly side of ATP isn’t that much in evidence after all: let’s have a female curator next time, eh?

In fact, in the end, by failing to catch Sebadoh or either of Mangum’s sets, my ATP doesn’t much resemble the early 90s wallow-fest the line-up first suggests. I manage to miss Mangum’s first set in a combination of just-got-here high spirits, long queues and disorientation that the main stage – which is usually situated in the middle of a gigantic turreted pavilion, surrounded by bars, Burger King and covetable band merchandise – has been moved upstairs. ‘Centre Stage’ is yer typical Butlins glitter-ball and glass venue which has surprisingly excellent sound and tiers of seats and tables above the dancefloor for those as want. Which, at some point in the whirl of bands and alcohol and more bands and more alcohol, most people do. It turns out that there will be no bands on in the pavilion all weekend, a fact that enrages at first because it means that there will be no wandering in and out at will during the most popular acts, and which inevitably leads to increased queues and schedule-anxiety. But by the end of the weekend it’s clear that the decision was a good one: the sound is much better and the atmosphere more intimate in the Centre Stage space; it would’ve been a shame to lose utterly blusterless acts like Magnetic Fields, Joanna Newsom or even, presumably, Jeff Mangum, in the unenclosed vastness of the pavilion.

I say presumably because my weekend is bookended by a similar defeat at the feet of the interminable queue to see him close the festival: a queue created by the decision to boot every last punter out of the venue before he plays and which results in a line of weary festival-goers waiting to get back into the room they’d just vacated, a queue trailing from the barriers of Centre Stage, all across the pavilion, along past slot machines and the bowling alley, out of the doors the other side, past the security line-up, and straggling off into the night. I walk past it and carry on walking back to the chalet and bed.

The other immediate annoyance is that Friday night’s line-up is both full-on and full of teeth-grinding schedule-clashes. The Raincoats overlapping with The Fall?! Young Marble Giants directly up against Joanna Newsom? Thurston Moore versus Half Japanese? Minutemen main men at the same time as Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion? It’s like some kind of aging hipster bad dream, a test of loyalty and taste set up by a maniacal Cowell-a-like demon to poke the X Factor haters in their most tender of fanboy places. In the end we just have to make our choices, set our hearts against regret and go for it.

By the way, spot the odd one out in that list. Yes, Joanna Newsom is young, female and current. Everyone else, even the two outfits which are still producing new music, The Fall and Thurston Moore, are trading to some extent on past glories, are bands who maybe we’d really rather be TARDIS-ed back to watching in 1978 or 1988. There are even bands who’ve washed up here outside of their time and without their frontmen (Sun Ra Arkestra and The Magic Band: neither of whom I saw but SRA at least seemed to bring the razzle and send folk bouncing out happy after their set).

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