Saturday’s lineup for day three of All Tomorrow’s Parties — 23 acts in three venues — was daunting and wide-ranging, encompassing the pummeling attack of Japan’s the Boredoms and Papa M’s whispered rinky-dink ballads that could afflict a listener with aesthetic whiplash. After eight hours of checking out various acts, it became clear that “curators” Sonic Youth had done their job well: Each of the acts shared something, either musically or attitudinally, with the New Yorkers. For all their elder-statesman gravitas and their wide range of influence and eclectic group of friends, collaborators and fellow travelers, as a working band Sonic Youth has been in artistic eclipse for the last few years. But on Sunday, a revitalized Sonic Youth capped off the first American edition of ATP in triumphant fashion.
Previewing songs from “Murray Street” (due in June from Interscope Records), the band has rediscovered the balance between song-craft, emotional conviction and experimental restlessness that animated classic albums such as “EVOL,” “Sister” and “Daydream Nation.”
The new material appears to be Sonic Youth’s attempt at dealing with the 9/11 catastrophe, and the band has risen to the occasion. “Disconnection Notice” and “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” address the event directly, with lyrics such as “Who knew that freedom was so unprotected” and “Angels pull down heaven’s lights.” The music finds its way from chaotic dissonance, mechanically grinding guitars and corrosive screams (at one point, bassist Kim Gordon repeatedly screams, “I hate you”) to eerily calm billows of sound. But even the most extended, blissed-out moments seemed to be going somewhere; filled with challenging ideas and sounds. And “Empty Pages” is pretty enough to be a radio hit, its loping melody and ragged harmonies recalling the “Workingman’s Dead” era Grateful Dead.
Nothing else on the final lineup matched the headliner, although Peaches’ bawdy, pugilistic songs — think Courtney Love rapping over an ’80s synth-pop band — had a winning verve and energy. She was helped immensely by Shary Boyle’s projected artwork. Drawn on transparencies and using a old-fashioned overhead projector, they are proudly handmade and gleefully low tech.
The highlight of Friday’s All Tomorrow’s Parties lineup was the reunion of punk pioneers Television, but the New York quartet’s guitar thunder was nearly stolen by the low-wattage appeal of solo acoustic sets by Cat Power and Pearl Jam leader Eddie Vedder.
Television’s set reminded audiences that they were influenced as much by expansive San Francisco psychedelia as by gritty garage rock. Like the Dead, Television is centered on a distinctive guitar player, and both bands featured drummers who sometimes get a little too busy with the cymbals.
Sauntering onstage, they slid into what could have been a surprise cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Space.” (Actually, they were tuning up, but also flitting at the opening notes of just about every song in their repertoire.) Television always was a band that felt momentum was for other people, and their hour onstage included approximately 40 minutes of music, with the remaining 20 devoted to retuning the guitars and various other noodling.
The real gems were the set’s sprawling set pieces. “Little Johnny Jewel” managed to sound as fresh as it did 25 years ago, with Tom Verlaine’s whiney solos contrasting with Richard Lloyd’s more elegant angular constructions. The band’s signature song, “Marquee Moon,” is still eerily effective, from the interlocking guitars on the verses to the swooning bridge and the extended coda, conjuring crescendo after crescendo, finally climaxing in a supernova of gently descending guitar lines.
Pearl Jam’s Vedder, in a rare solo appearance, was a charming performer. Almost unrecognizable with a mohawk, Vedder was a musical chameleon as well, performing a set of love songs (“my political statement,” he joked), accompanied only by a guitar or ukulele. The latter’s staccato toy pluck made a pleasing contrast to Vedder’s burnished voice. He ended his set by bringing out a young man (he couldn’t have been older than 16) to accompany him on violin for a rustic rocker.
Chan Marshall, who performs under the name Cat Power, was consigned to the unenviable slot between Vedder and Television but more than held her own. Her unguarded appearance made it impossible not to root for her. Swathed in dim blue lights, and stopping songs in the middle to show off new chords she’d learned (she’s up to four now!) or the most rudimentary technique, her set felt like a campfire at a summer camp for the socially challenged. But when her soft, melted-caramel voice began Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” the effect was as honest and emotionally unvarnished as any bluesman’s.
At the other end of the spectrum was the rollicking Stooges cover band that closed the night at the Ackerman Ballroom. Bassist Mike Watt and Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J Mascis, joined by original Stooges Scott and Ron Asheton, bashed their way through the punk rock version of a hootenanny. Odds are there wasn’t a musician in the room who hadn’t tried his hand at “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” at least once; with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore joining them for “Real Cool Time” and Vedder clambering onstage to shout out “No Fun,” they closed the night with an ear-splitting sense of community.
Saturday’s headliners were less affecting. Sleater-Kinney took angular, chanted polemics and added a touch of the Gang of Four’s agitpop to the mix, with Carrie Brownstein’s 1,000 watt smile balancing out Corin Tucker’s dour presence.
Big Star, playing at Royce, started with “On the Street” — the theme song for “That ’70’s Show,” covered by Cheap Trick. Alex Chilton is an ornery performer, and he seems more than willing to play sideman at his own revival. Although the band played with more verve and power than in the past, Chilton was happy to allow former Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer to take the lion’s share of the vocals. And with such a rich songbook to draw from, why pad the set with covers? His choices might show impeccable taste (who can argue with the Kinks’ “‘Til the End of the Day” or Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”?) but it felt like a cheat.
Wilco, whose new album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch) was produced by Sonic Youth adjunct Jim O’Rouke, ended up being a perfect fit with their fractured country rock.
Mike Watt’s Secondmen and Stereolab — both Sunday performers — exposed the weakness in the All Tomorrow’s Parties format. Neither was bad in itself, but Watt’s new-wave covers (Television’s “Venus,” John Cale’s “Guts”) and Stereolab’s kitschy, thrift-store pop felt out of place in this context (save for the fact that they are produced by O’Rourke). While Sonic Youth did an admirable job helping to put together the lineup, if the organizers are going to call the band “curators,” they should be made to curate. Just calling up friends and putting them on the bill made for some fine music but created an unfocused, unwieldy weekend. Better to give the festival some kind of theme, or treat ATP like the Whiney Biennial, turning it into a snapshot of new and interesting music.
Although there were some logistical glitches, and Friday night’s lineup was weighted too heavily toward Royce Hall (the line of fans waiting to hear Eddie Vedder and Television made the Royce lobby look like rush hour on the 405), this was the event’s first year at UCLA, and growing pains are to be expected. It whets the appetite for the next edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties, scheduled for summer.