Pontins’ Holiday Park in Camber, East Sussex isn't the first place you'd expect some of Brooklyn's – nay, the world’s – most esoteric musicians to converge.
But converge they do, at the behest of the most-recent All Tomorrow’s Parties curators TV On the Radio, themselves headliners on the weekender’s Saturday night.
Friday finds Unknown Mortal Orchestra following North America's trippy instrumentals with their own fuzzy trunk of funk in tow. Frontman Ruban Nielson sends his guitar’s flange effect into overdrive, in between twinkle-toe shimmying.
The US/Kiwi three-piece is a distinctly meaty prospect live, in contrast to the bleary-eyed, lo-fi ditties of their records, particularly on ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’, which comes supplanted by Bonham-style drum solos and scuzzy guitar interplay.
Death Grips subsequently proceed to tear up a stage more used to hosting Sooty and Sweep shows than eardrum-shattering feedback. It’s this sort of racket that welcomes MC Ride, aka Stefan Burnett, who breathlessly delivers his brand of paranoid apocalypse rap in a set seemingly over in a flash.
He won't be winning any awards for enunciation anytime soon but Burnett’s infectious energy makes waves through the crowd 'I've Seen Footage' and 'Get Got' ramp up the intensity. TVOTR's lead singer Tunde Adebimpe is spotted near one of the speakers, but is soon forced to seek refuge.
"We came to blow your system," blurts the half-naked showman. Job done – and this despite the absence of drummer Zach Hill, apparently away writing, directing and soundtracking a movie.
Occupying the polar opposite spot on the hip-hop spectrum, De La Soul then buoy a jubilant crowd with a barrage of old-school favourites such as 'Me Myself & I' and 'Ring Ring Ring', alongside newer additions like 'Feel Good Inc', backed by a live band.
With more years of experience providing party entertainment behind them than your most seasoned Pontins Bluecoat, De La work the crowd like the consummate pros they are, inspiring competition between the right and left sides of the audience.
The evergreen three-piece gives the band a breather halfway through to recall nights gone by in the ‘90s when they would bounce together with only three mics and a backing track. Tonight proves they’ve still got it.
Delivering some after-hours debauchery on the first night are prolific San Franciscan psych-rockers Thee Oh Sees, who are fast and deservedly gaining a reputation for providing the best rock'n'roll shows around.
The frenzied madness of 'Contraption/Soul Desert' leaves sweaty bodies needing to be picked up from the floor, while Cramps-style freak-outs follow one after the other, with the low ceiling and elevated stage ensuring each face-melting solo reaches its target.
Day two and on come Antibalas, the Brooklyn-based afrobeat band who once shared apartment space with our hosts TVOTR, we are told. Their Fela Kuti-inspired material is an aural cavalcade of joyous brass and positive energy, healing sore heads that may have overdone it on the booze/slot machines the night before.
'Dirty Money' gives rise to a solo from each member of the brass section, including trumpet, sax and trombone, while British-born lead singer Amayo, face daubed in paint, alternates between fertile percussion and hollering vocals.
Celebration provide a not-wholly-satisfying impression of what Yeah Yeah Yeahs would sound like if they decided to embrace country rather than electro, while the neurotic hip-hop of Why? is either tolerably bad or intolerably good, depending on your propensity for nasal vocals and the occasional bit of beat boxing.
Spank Rock takes us away from New York’s hip-hop scene, south-westwards to Baltimore and the city’s reputation for bowel-quaking basslines. With a second LP titled ‘Everything Is Boring And Everyone Is A F*cking Liar’ to his name, the rapper born Naeem Juwan isn’t pro-subtle; and so his set proves, stinking the room up with the fug of cheap motel sex, hands wandering where they shouldn’t.
This is a good thing – and when Juwan’s joined on stage by a raspingly brilliant Amanda Blank, the effect is captivatingly sordid. It’s neither big nor clever, this smut-rap; but it sure is refreshingly direct compared to much of the more cerebral MC-ing on the bill.
El-P certainly trades in more thinking-man circles, but the New Yorker, a legend of sorts in underground circles, is professional enough to differentiate between an audience made up of catalogue addicts and a festival crowd here to party.
So, a few microphone malfunctions aside, that’s what he serves up: an exhilarating set focusing on his more immediate cuts. The performance is crowned by a triumphant ‘Deep Space 9mm’, and he offers his respects to the ATP organisers – this is an event he’s played before, calling at the Autechre-curated festival of 2003.
TV On the Radio bound on stage to their legions of fans, who applaud as much in appreciation for the expertly chosen line-up as in anticipation of the set. "I'm happy. It only happens once every eight years," confides Adebimpe, who spends much of the weekend taking photos of the acts on stage like a true fanboy.
Most intriguing are the two new songs aired: one slow, and one not so. They showcase, between them, two distinct sides of TVOTR: the first, their frantic energy, with a chorus of "Run over me, run over me"; and the second, their fragile emotional core, made only the more tender following the tragic death of bassist Gerard Smith in 2011.
'Wolf Like Me' is as stirring as ever, sparking members of Dragons Of Zynth and Light Asylum to cascade from the stage to the crowd, as the song swells to its almighty climax.
It falls to !!! to supply the late-night dance-punk thrills. The band’s short-shorted and gloriously extroverted frontman Nic Offer generously thrusts at the audience, members of which seem only too happy to receive them, propelled as they are by fevered drum fills and barbed, post-punk guitars. Even his sweaty towel is embraced by the crowd.
The next day, LA four-piece Bouquet prove to be something of a find for those who can never wait for new records from Camera Obscura or Belle & Sebastian, but find She & Him's gooey-Zooey charm too saccharine.
Performing in near darkness, except for the occasional glow of red and green, gives an air of intimacy to proceedings, abetted by the hushed but immediate pop hooks on tracks like 'Your House' and 'Still the River'.
Before Bouquet comes something rather less expected at a music festival, and what can only be described as a moment where the mind turns to thoughts of Britain’s Got Talent. Lone Wolf And Cub is Ryan Sawyer on drums and vocals, and Suzanne Rogaleski, who sings… and swings from the ceiling on a trapeze throughout.
It’s half-improvisation, half-inspiration. Or: it’s purely bonkers and just doesn’t work. It’s hard to be sure, as a questionably delivered cover of ‘Love Shack’ begins proceedings. Come the climax – Rogaleski’s dismount, a little faster than perhaps anticipated (she duly asks if any audience member wants to rub her bottom better; oddly a queue doesn’t form) – though, it’s tough to dislike the duo, whose unique selling point is, rarely for modern music, actually pretty damn singular.
They’re certainly a gentler way to start the day than Shabazz Palaces would be, if the Seattle duo of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire have found themselves on stage earlier in the day. As it is they close the smaller of ATP’s two live rooms, with the sort of brain-bruising bass that has a man wonder whether tinnitus will come sooner than later. Expectedly, much of their set, and wonderful it is, is drawn from 2011’s exceptional debut LP, the genre-mashing ‘Black Up’.
Ahead of Shabazz is Saul Williams. Initially disappointed that his set is more reading than rocking, Clash is nevertheless transfixed, ultimately, by the amazing power the New York native puts into his poetry. There’s a subtle accompaniment, but the toots and tickles of brass are elementary dressing for words of triumphant substance. He makes you think, smile, laugh, ponder… cry a little inside… celebrate what you have and what might yet be… all within minutes. The man is enigmatic in all the right ways.
Tinariwen make the unlikely journey from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali to the sandy dunes of Camber, kitted out in full Tuareg garb and playing an extended headline set, due to DOOM pulling out because of illness.
With a history that spans three decades, and who began as a group of rebel fighters that, as the legend goes, traded their guns for guitars, Tinariwen's blend of traditional, call-and-response chanting and infectious rhythms from the sundried deserts of North Africa, embellished with shots of electrified Western folk rock, exemplifies the absolute transportative power of music.
"Ça va?" asks the rhythm guitarist, with a concerned look on his face, perhaps having walked through Pontins' arcade earlier and thinking the tour bus had taken a wrong turn. The gleeful response from the audience, swaying and clapping together throughout, confirms that he and the rest are indeed in the right place at the right time.
Towards the end of the set, Kyp Malone and Adebimpe join the band of weather-beaten musicians on stage, with gratitude covering every inch of the New Yorkers’ faces.
They perform two tracks together, including 'Tenere Taqhim Tossam,' the recorded version of which was a collaboration between the TVOTR members and Tinariwen for the latter's 2011 album, ‘Tassili’.
The sight of all the musicians, from very different worlds, on stage together serves as a template of the kind of moments ATP strives to produce.
These ATP holiday camp events, however, won't be around much longer, following the organiser's decision to make the Loop-curtated December festival the last. The increasingly stagnating UK festival scene will be the poorer for their absence.
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Words: Nico Franks and Mike Diver
Photos: Olivia Ford
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