All Tomorrow’s Parties founder Barry Hogan grew up locally, so the choice of Alexandra Palace - that grand Victorian structure high up on the North London skyline - was a natural one for ATP’s first sister event in the capital. I’ll Be Your Mirror’s curators, Portishead, put together a bill which combined wish-list artists with new curiosities, alongside a few of their own side projects. We were at the first of two one dayers this weekend. Saturday’s highlights included PJ Harvey playing her English war songs to a home crowd, Factory Floor making us rave, and of course the glorious Portishead themselves. We also found time to take pedalos out on the lake, catch a few of the curator’s cinematic favourites and take in some jazz in the rose garden. A proper summer staycation.
The first band of the day for me and my group was Beak>, one of several side projects featuring members of Portishead. As Beak>, Geoff Barrow - along with Billy Fuller and Matt Williams - explores more experimental territory around his interests in vintage equipment, soul and dub. The songs are a product of the band placing extreme limitations on their rehearsal and recording habits. And what’s grown out of those limitations are groove driven, conversational songs, more guitar based though they still have a thoroughly Bristolian sound. The new album is being recorded at the moment; we look forward to hearing it.
Speculating with my companions about whether this was really him – what started a joke about the mask evolved when we saw the rather sizeable beer belly the man was carrying – we were prepared to get our dancing (or at least bobbing) moves out early for Doom. This didn’t really happen though, and the initial enthusiasm of the crowd waned when we couldn’t find anything concrete to get into. Our man and his sidekick did pull it together but it didn’t help that the vocals weren’t always clear. Though his productions and collaborations are stellar, this solo show didn’t do it for me, as much as I was looking forward to it.
One of the high points of the event for me was New York’s The Books, Paul de Jong and Nick Zammuto, who I hadn’t had the opportunity of seeing live before -despite being a fan since 2005’s Lost and Safe album. Their obsessive collector ethic on record was reflected in their visuals, taken from found VHS tapes from the eighties and nineties, which were matched up with the music to form a crucial element of the show. “Take Time” might have something about it which has been exploited in the soundtracks of T-Mobile style TV ads over the last few years, but it has an embracing and euphoric emotional resonance that sets this apart from imitations. These are sonic innovators in a long line of sound artists, cheekily wrapping what they do up as pop. It was so good I almost missed the beginning of PJ Harvey, staying put with the devotees until the final round of clapping.
Like her gig at Primavera Sound in May, for all her attributes Polly - at a festival -can leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed, which is no reflection on her performance. She’s on brilliant form and is clearly having a good time touring her new album, backed by her long-running collaborator John Parish alongside Mick Harvey. It’s just that the context doesn’t seem to fit somehow. The new material in particular (which her current set is predominantly filled with, plus a few oldies like “C’mon Billy”) requires close listening and a festival setting (even this one) can be a little heavy handed for the delicacy of the songs, particularly considering Polly’s restrained delivery. Thoroughly enjoyable, if the odd one out. But that’s PJ all over.
Everyone knew not to expect any new songs from our headliners Portishead tonight, so that was never a question hanging in the air. Playing much the same set they’ve toured for the past three years - since 2008’s Third album - favourites like “Mysterons”, “Sour Times” and “Wandering Star” all made an appearance. Beth Gibbons sounded and looked fantastic, her face projected onto the big screens, mingled with grainy yet futuristic visuals - evoking the decaying romanticism the band does so well. The gig had one of the best atmosphere’s of anything I’ve been to for a long time, and the audience were with them every step of the way. A great performance, which tapped into avenues of the past and current streams.
What could keep us there after the experience of Portishead? Well, Factory Floor did. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go down, but it did the trick beautifully. Maintaining our excitement but never trying to upstage the main attraction, Factory Floor gave us a set filled with more actual songs than I’ve seen them play out recently. They’re really making a name for themselves as a clan who aren’t cut from the same cloth as any other, and it’s thrilling to see and hear them developing their textual approach to post-industrial sounds for your body and your mind. As you might expect from a late night set, what we got was on the heavier end of what they do; they released their techno and light show on us with force.
All Tomorrow’s Parties have a new venture: I’ll Be Your Mirror. Named from the b-side of The Velvet Underground single that gave the festival its name, it took over Alexandra Palace in North London this week. Factory Floor, PJ Harvey, The Books and Doom were among the bill selected by the IBYM’s curators, the mighty Portishead.