On paper the lineup for the third West Coast edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties (now referred to as “ATP Pacific”) looked a little weak. This year’s curators, Modest Mouse, avoided the sprawl and reach of Sonic Youth’s musical version of the Whitney biennial in 2002 and the punky eclecticism brought to last year’s fest by “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. Instead, Isaac Brock’s choices were deep but narrow, offering up many shades of indie-rock. While there were no wild cards or totally unexpected choices Saturday, a consistently satisfying day of music could be had with careful choosing.
Headlining the main outdoor stage, Lou Reed played a charged, intensely performed set of music. If last year’s show at the Wiltern was an intimate reflection on his songbook, at ATP the focus was squarely on musicianship. He opened, as might be expected, with “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” (which sounded under-rehearsed, with drummer Tony Smith never really finding his way), but the rest of the set was heavy with lesser-known songs such as “Magic and Loss” and “The Modern Dance.”
The setlist seemed almost besides the point, however; even on better-known material such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed pretty much walked through the lyrics. It’s as if the verses were meant to be rushed through in order to get to the band’s instrumental interplay, the real meat of the song.
“Ecstasy” is included as a guitar showcase, “Venus in Furs” puts the spotlight on cellist Jane Scarpantoni, and “Vanishing Act” starts out as a restrained Tin Pan Alley ballad and ends up with a gorgeously romantic coda.
Reed finds joy in the songs’ details, looking almost beatific singing harmony with bassist Fernando Saunders on “Jesus” or hearing the way the band coalesces at the end of “Satellite of Love.”
“The Blue Mask” ended the night on an ecstatically clangorous note, the band falling into a punishing, grinding groove and Reed adding one of his mind-splitting guitar solos.
It was an impressive performance, but there were many equally surprising sets earlier in the day. Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, an unclassifiable performer in the same league with Tim Buckley and Elliott Smith, probably made the best impression.
Stevens’ finely wrought songs are a constant surprise. The minute it seems obvious where a tune is heading, a trumpet, vibes or Stevens’ own jazzy keyboards pull it in unexpected directions. He aspires to an epic quality that allows the audience to overlook his more overweening gestures (the Cub Scout uniforms have to go!). His rearrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” was a highlight, turning the anthem into a surging rock ballad.
Largely unknown Baltimore band Lungfish also won over a skeptical crowd. For Lungfish, no gesture is too large, no riff too dramatic. With his wild eyes, penumbra of white hair and beard and severe black suit, Daniel Higgs, the band’s frontman, comes off like one of those mad preachers who populate the novels of Hawthorne. He paces the stage, singing apocalyptic lyrics about “oars of fire” in a caustic, John Lydon wail while the band slams through a series of ominously crunchy prog rock riffs. It’s all perfectly mad but riveting.
J. Mascis and the Fog offered no surprises, slogging through the same material they’ve been playing for years. It’s fine, and in this context it was interesting to hear how much Mascis’ guitar sound influenced Modest Mouse, but it seemed besides the point given the newer and more exciting sounds elsewhere.
Among those were New York bands White Magic and White Hassle. White Hassle offers a charming pop-rockabilly mix and guitar and drum lineup — the “white” in the name is obviously a nod toward the White Stripes. White Magic plays art rock with a capital A; Mira Billotte’s simple piano and wailed scales, Miggy Littleton’s roiling drums and Andy Macleod’s guitar squawks sounded like they belong in three different bands but manage to cohere in intriguing fashion.
Ironically, the least interesting set of the evening was played by Modest Mouse. The cribbed and spindly guitars sounded feckless. “Satin in a Coffin” married the bass line from “Psycho Killer” with a banjo’s plink, resulting in the ungodly spawn of Talking Heads and the Grateful Dead.