The steady expansion of the All Tomorrows Parties brand suggests that good business and marketing and a passion for high quality, artistic music need not be mutually exclusive. This event was the first in what ATP hope will be a series of sister events to their main weekend festivals. For those without the time or money to hire a chalet, it provided a near-perfect demonstration of the companys raison detre. If this continues, Barry Hogan will soon deserve an honour for services to live music in the UK.
Alexandra Palace has a reputation for being a somewhat difficult venue. Some criticism of the place is clearly unfair – just a short train journey from Kings Cross and within walking distance of Wood Green, the place is hardly that remote. There are sound issues due to the nature of the building, but the sound across these two days was probably the best weve ever heard at the venue. Queuing problems have often been the palaces achilles heel, but ATP seem to have managed audience entry exceedingly well. When LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip played a double header there, the queue to get in was snaking around the building as Hot Chip began their set. It was a little tough to get food though – if ATP are to return to the palace again next year, it would be great if they were able to use a little more of the outside space and have some more food suppliers. There is every suggestion that the company are already working on what were ultimately very minor teething issues.
As might be expected, Portishead put together a varied and ceaselessly engaging line-up of acts from across the musical spectrum. A big selling point for this event must have been the extraordinary number of rare performances from acts who either rarely appear in the UK, or have recently reformed. This included a special two hour opening headline set on the Sunday from the apocalyptic, mesmerising Godspeed You! Black Emperor and a nearly as long a set of extraordinary intensity from Michael Giras recently revamped Swans. The latter was a brutal, noisy and intense highlight, with densely layered sheets of guitar (including screeching lap steel) and augmented by auxiliary percussion. Gira made for a tremendous ringleader, orchestrating much of the improvisation with commanding authority. Legendary US hip hop act Company Flow performed their first UK show in over 10 years, and sounded as if they had never been away. They performed with great vigour and passion, the wordplay of El-P and Bigg Jus as imaginative, rapid-fire and dazzling as ever. Another influential cult hip-hop act, masked rapper Doom got the Great Hall audience moving with an inspired, confident set drawing on his collaboration with Madlib as well as his solo work, even as news of Amy Winehouse‘s death began to percolate through the crowd. Doom dedicated a track to the Back To Black singer.
Another of Geoff Barrows preoccupations in creating this line-up appeared to be acts with multimedia approaches. On Saturday, The Books played to a substantial audience that must have reached well beyond their niche, brilliantly combining electronic and acoustic instrumentation, found sound and inspired visuals. Theirs was one of the weekends most original and compelling sets. On Sunday, legendary graphic novel writer Alan Moore combined with improvised music maverick Steven O Malley to deliver an extraordinary collage of sound and free flowing poetry. With O Malley coaxing out all manner of sounds and textures from his guitar, it was sometimes hard to follow the overall narrative, if it even made any sense at all. It did, however, contain some striking and memorable lines, Moore referring to a lubricant hermetic discipline and with his central characters quest to unite with the female working better if he forgets everything from the waist down. The performance was superbly executed and carefully paced.
Both days saw Portishead preceded by major acts who probably could have headlined the venue in their own right. PJ Harvey performed a concentrated, focused set drawing almost exclusively on Let England Shake. Her performance was both elegant and stark, a near-perfect recreation of the albums singular, powerful mood. Near motionless and cradling an autoharp, she impressed with her musical authority and superb delivery. Her longstanding band provided sterling, brilliantly arranged support. By way of contrast, Grinderman didnt care too much for nuance or precision. Their set was an unhinged assault of sheer force and maniacal, righteous glee. It was tremendous fun, with Nick Cave having seemingly discovered a new lease of life as something of a stadium showman.
Live shows from Portishead are nearly as rare as their albums, so this festival provided a welcome opportunity to see them twice in as many days. The Saturday night performance, marginally the better of the two, was taut and expertly stage managed, benefiting from the work of some excellent musicians in a six-piece band and with some brilliant use of visuals (particularly the slow tracking shots of dark, sinister corridors during Machine Gun).
Yet it was also extremely musical and, largely due to the overwhelming presence of Beth Gibbons, powerfully emotional. Gibbons inhabits the songs so brilliantly, encapsulating a whole world of grief, lost love and confusion. She is a masterful vocalist, alive to the effects of stylistic choices and blessed with great timbre and phrasing. So completely absorbed is she in the bands dark, claustrophobic spaces that when she rushes offstage to greet the front row of the audience as the band jams out the encore of We Carry On, a spell seems to have been broken and she appears as if a completely different person. Mixing material from Third with much-loved classics, Portisheads set serves as a reminder of how far they travelled with the inventive, brave Third but also of just how brilliant their early songs still sound. The only thing approaching a new song is Chase The Tear, their Amnesty International single from last year, sadly aborted during Sundays show after a bizarre succession of mistakes. There is no hint as yet as to where they are going next.
What Ill Be Your Mirror did demonstrate with superb clarity, however, was the range and scope of Portisheads influences, both classic and contemporary and across more than just music. This, together with the appearance of a number of the band members side projects, including the Neu-inspired grooves and peculiar abrupt endings of Geoff Barrows Beak>, provided a brilliant, widescreen view of one dinstinctive, singular band and their personal passions.