The All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, colloquially known as ATP, set up shop at the newly renovated Pier 36 entertainment complex on the East River in Manhattan this weekend, bringing together a wide variety of sounds for a compact crowd. Each day of concerts played more like an extended showcase than a proper music festival; due to the minimal overlap of performance times, concertgoers were able to enjoy most, if not all, of every set.
With a limited number of tickets available (undersold, at that), there was none of the jockeying for position inherent in the enormity of your average Lollapalooza or Coachella. Plus, the organizers know their breed: The indoor space provided plenty of couches for those weary of foot, while the outdoor area offered dozens of picnic tables for dining and, yes, viewing.
While Sunday’s lineup was centered on cerebral, experimental tones–and is not covered here due to space limitations–Saturday’s aim was visceral. That day’s lineup was curated by Greg Dulli, frontman for Cincinnati band the Afghan Whigs, who brought their R&B-drenched guitar rock to the evening’s penultimate slot. Recently reunited after a 10-year hiatus, the six-piece band was a powerful soul machine, delivering bracing renditions of songs from their major-label heyday as well as selections from their early, independent-label releases.
Dulli’s voice sounded stronger than ever, whether belting the throat-shredding choruses of “What Jail is Like” and “Going to Town” or handling the more nuanced passages of “Lovecrimes,” a Frank Ocean cover. One of the highlights of the set–and the entire festival–was a sultry, boozy version of the band’s 1994 song “My Curse,” featuring guest lead vocals by Marcy Mays of Scrawl. (Scrawl, an Ohio indie-rock trio that reunited after a long hiatus for the festival, drew a sizable crowd for their terrific early afternoon set.)
As the evening’s headliners, the Roots delivered a masterful, high-energy performance, beginning with a tribute to late go-go godfather Chuck Brown and fallen Beastie Boys leader Adam “MCA” Yauch. They basically put their entire record collection on display, as drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson directed the band through a shape-shifting mix of rock, jazz, neo-soul and funk that played like a 75-minute medley. The Roots are too restless, and simply too good, to just be considered a hip-hop band–to wit, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter only did about 15 minutes of actual rapping.
They interpolated snatches of other performers’ work (Prince, Bo Diddley, Donna Summer, Led Zeppelin, even Guns N’ Roses) into their own songs (“Mellow My Man,” “The Seed,” “Here I Come”), while “I Got You” was spun into an extended spotlight section for the band’s not-so-secret weapon, guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas.
If there were to be an award for Most Gracious Performer, it would without question go to 63-year-old Charles Bradley. Backed by his band the Extraordinaires, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul,” as he’s sometimes known, delivered a mid-afternoon set that was an exchange of pure joy between performer and audience. The once-homeless soul shouter and James Brown devotee–you should see his dance moves!–sang songs of love and trouble, capping his set with the pleading “Why is it So Hard (to Make it in America),” before stepping off the stage and offering hugs to about 50 fans, one by one.
Other notable moments: Renaissance man Joseph Arthur singing “Where is My Van,” his ode to getting towed by the NYPD, backed by Dulli and a group of rambunctious children, then painting a canvas while speak-singing the brilliant pre-sobriety memoriam “I Miss the Zoo”; the unmistakable, sometimes menacing baritone voice of Mark Lanegan and his excellent “Blues Funeral” songs; Brooklyn band the Antlers channeling emotional pain into clouds of beautiful noise; the Dirtbombs bringing their bottom-heavy mix of soul and garage rock to life on the outdoor stage; the rocket-fueled Black Sabbath sound of Nashville’s Jeff the Brotherhood; and the fragile, glowing beauty of Sweden’s Jose Gonzalez, who offered a welcome break from the parade of bands as night fell.