London got its first I’ll Be Your Mirror experience this past weekend as ATP’s sister festival, named after the B-side of the Velvet Underground single from which the main event takes its name, rolled into Alexandra Palace in North London for a two-day extravaganza curated by the much revered Portishead. Adrian, Geoff and Beth put together an astonishingly diverse bill featuring some of their favourite artists, as well as their own side projects, the entertainment ranging from ’90s hip hop icons Company Flow to Swans’ “this is not a reunion” No Wavers via a live soundtrack to a 1928 silent movie.
While rapper Doom turned in a neat performance and Grinderman got the crowd hot beneath their collars, Wears The Trousers was there to check out the ladies…
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Words by Charlotte Richardson Andrews. Photos by Steve Asenjo, except top PJ Harvey picture by Martyn Leung.
First up was LA-based cellist Alison Chesley Helen Love, aka Helen Money, who struck a riveting solo figure in the Panorama Room. The one-way system through the Palace meant lots of foot traffic and accompanying chatter, and the sound from the adjoining West Hall bled through, but Money’s sawing strings cut through the noise with piercing artistry. Her impressive repertoire takes the poise and drama of the cello’s classical sound to a grittier, low-end space, drawing very much on metal tropes – a singular sound that’s seen her guest on albums by bands such as Anthrax and open shows for the likes of Earth, Shellac and Nina Nastasia. The flat, very public feeling space wasn’t necessarily the best setting for her performance, but the power of Money’s intense, looped compositions left a big impression.
Despite their name, LA’s Foot Village is a flailing monster made of many arms, staged as a quartet of mad drummers facing each other in a square of shuddering skins and crashing cymbals. Together they shoot out pulverising beats and vocals that cartwheeled from hardcore-style yells to primal death growls, abetted in places with fierce, double-time bass kicks that took on the frenetic chaos that doom metallers relish so much. Grace Lee (originally of Gang Wizard) leapt off her stool throughout the set for bouts of wild, shaman-style dancing – all whipped hair, wild, arching arms and thrashing legs – screeching primal, sometimes hoarse streams of noise into a megaphone and looking every inch the punk berserker.
Very little introduction is needed by now regarding PJ Harvey’s innovative, game-changing discography, but what should be pointed out is her eye for the art of costume. For To Bring You My Love’s dark, passionate affair it was a vampy, red silk dress; for White Chalk’s Victorian piano period it was high collars and thick, white petticoats; and for her latest opus, Let England Shake, she strikes an almost widow-like figure standing stage-left in funeral black. Her band, the ever-reliable trio of Mick Harvey, John Parish and Jean-Marc Butty, were decked out in wide, white sleeves, waistcoasts and riding boots, while Harvey herself was a white-faced presence beneath a winged headdress of twisted feathers in the folds of a stiff black dress which fell to the floor. Perhaps more than the other shows we’ve seen on this tour, there was a visceral energy behind the songs as the ghostly, ambivalent patriotism of the Let England Shake songs – seething, wistful, tender and sharp – came alive to the high, tinny strums of her faded autoharp.
By the time the curators took to the stage in the darkened Great Hall, there was a crackle of electric anticipation to the air. Part of Portishead’s initial impact back in the ’90s was Beth Gibbons’ startlingly old-soul vocals, and, unlike some who find their voices fade with age, time has only deepened her chillingly emotive power. Their fifteen-song set favoured tracks from their most recent album, Third, which they originally debuted at ATP Minehead in 2007. A few classics from Dummy (‘Mysterons’, ‘Glory Box’, ‘Roads’ and ‘Wandering Star’ especially magnificent) and two Portishead numbers (‘Over’, ‘Cowboys’) made up the rest, along with ‘Chase The Tear’, their 2009 song for Amnesty International and Human Rights Day. Where Harvey’s performance spoke of England’s broken branches and ghostly summers, Portishead owned England’s night with midnight-dark sounds and the smoky, atmospheric numbers that have made them one of the UK’s most legendary bands.
Nik Void’s North London trio Factory Floor closed the Saturday on the West Hall stage, bathed in the flashing lights of a huge projection screen filled with oscillating, acid-bright patterns – an enthralling visual for their slow-building, mind-altering electronica. Void coaxed some interesting noises out of her electric guitar by shimmying a drumstick across the strings, sending crackling shoals of fizz into the industrial synths which frothed and vibrated, coaxing the crowd into a swaying, euphoric dance.
Words by Alan Pedder. Photos by Steve Asenjo.
More than just a screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic 1928 silent film about Joan Of Arc’s final days, the West Hall stage was crammed with musicians performing a 2010 original score composed by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, including three harpists and members of the Monteverdi Choir. Riveting and harrowing in equal measure, it’s a real artistic tour de force that it’s tough to do justice to in one short paragraph. Read more about it here.
Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally took to the stage in the Great Hall in broad daylight, the finally seasonable weather beaming brightly in through the Palace’s glass roof, so much of the impact of their impressive light show was lost. The pair seemed a little subdued but thankful to have been invited (“I can’t quite believe it still,” admits Victoria from behind her keyboard), and the Teen Dream-heavy set feels a little lacking without the soaring likes of ‘Gila’ and ‘Heart Of Chambers’, both long-time live show staples. Still, Legrand’s voice and the strong pop melodies can’t fail to stir, providing sweet relief from the two-hour noise endurance test of Godspeed You! Black Emperor earlier in the day. Two of the four new songs the band have been playing out in recent months received an airing, and both sound very promising, if perhaps sticking a little too closely to the Teen Dream blueprint.
That this Pete Wareham-led outfit are neither acoustic nor the province of ladies probably has little bearing on their decision to to reinvent themselves with a new name and a new sound after ten years of trailblazing jazz-punk, but the self-imposed Year Zero is nigh. When a band of this calibre bows out, you can be sure that they won’t hold anything back from their final performance. Energetic, sweaty and very, very loud, the band tore the Panorama Room apart with a demolition derby of ear-splitting force, blasting away any remnants of Beach House’s calm, collected performance.
Vocally, Anika very much follows in the tradition of flat-voiced Germanic heroine Nico, but it’s an association, and indeed affectation, that she pushes too far in her live show. While her backing band accurately reconstruct the songs of her Geoff Barrow-produced eponymous album, Anika herself puts no effort at all into her performance. Projections would have made all the difference; instead, we’re forced to count the number of times she licks her lips – her sole, unwitting stage move aside from occasionally, pointlessly shuffling her mic stand from one side of the stage to the other – to give us something to look at. There’s no arguing with the quality and intrigue of songs like ‘Officer Officer’ and ‘Yang Yang’, and even her cover of ‘Masters Of War’, but while the music is interesting it’s not so riveting that a little more on-stage presence wouldn’t go amiss. That she slunk off without so much as a “Thank you” was the icing on a stale cake.
The curators’ Sunday setlist was much the same as day before’s, only with an additional early-set performance of Third track, ‘Hunter’, but in karmic retribution for Saturday-only ticket holders they were forced to abort tonight’s take on ‘Chase The Tear’ after a series of false starts in getting the rhythm down. “This is Portishead making a joke,” quipped Geoff Barrow as Beth Gibbons doubled up laughing, before they packed it in and moved on to ‘Cowboys’. Again, on finale ‘Thread’, Beth ran off stage into the photographer pit to shake hands and high-five fans, grinning from ear to ear. And while she didn’t get a free smoke out of it tonight, her so-uncool-it’s-way-cool dancing when back on stage proved she didn’t need a nicotine fix just yet, bringing an emotional weekend to an endearingly clowning conclusion.
Wish you were there? x
Tagged acoustic ladyland, anika, ATP, beach house, beth gibbons, factory floor, foot village, helen money, i'll be your mirror, pj harvey, portishead, teen dream, the passion of joan of arc, victoria legrand