ASBURY PARK, NJ—I’ll Be Your Mirror, presented by All Tomorrow’s Parties, played out like the sophisticated mix tape for the hipster elite and countercultural aficionado it was advertised to be, presenting a bill of legends unearthed, bands with buzz, groups of a reunited front, and revitalized artisans plucked from the darkest depths of the English underground and the grittiest and most secretive of North American backdrops, all nestled within a one block selection of Earth in our musical hub by the sea.
The non-corporately funded festival touched down on Asbury Park’s storied boardwalk like a bolt of heat lightning, grounded by a quartet of antennae-like venues in the Asbury Park Convention Hall, Paramount Theatre, Berkley Hotel and Asbury Lanes, a beautiful exhibition of the arts to those lucky enough to witness it, leaving others to question whether anything really happened at all.
The headliner, curator, and Bristol, England-based band Portishead performed a pair of sets on Saturday and Sunday evenings to a Convention Hall assemblage composed of patrons from such far off walks of life as Mexico, Australia, The Netherlands and Beijing, among other worldly locations, which filled the 3,600-seat venue, as well as the roller derby rink/section of floor seating, in excited jubilance and anticipation of the trip-hop collective’s first performances on the East Coast of the United States since its lauded appearance in 1998 on Saturday Night Live, hosted by Sarah Michelle Gellar.
It’s rare to see a musical act have total control over an audience of that magnitude, to commandeer a congregation’s attention that firmly, and transform an arena-type atmosphere into a scene resembling an intimate gathering of respectfully silent friends at an acoustic club gig, an incredible feat indeed.
There were no grand-scale sing-alongs, well, maybe on “Glorybox,” but for the most part Beth Gibbons’ voice flowed forth over two full sets unhindered, as lush, seductive and mind altering as the wine it’s aged like. On Saturday, seemingly impressed with her own siren-like ability to captivate, Gibbons dove over the rail into the sea of humanity after the group’s closing number, “We Carry On,” surfing the waves and smooching handsome sailors at various crests.
The latter of Portishead’s performances drew Public Enemy’s renown freedom fighting frontman Chuck D from the dressing room to spit a verse upon the outfit’s “Machine Gun,” a song the pair performed only once before at the 2008 Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona.
Chuck was only an hour removed from a double shot performance with his celebrated hip-hop collective, which had its set time extended to 120-minutes after the Scottish soundscape construction crew, Mogwai, was forced out of its Sunday night show, and the rest of its miniature Northeastern United States tour due to illness.
Public Enemy’s fleet, which included Chuck D’s faithful clock-sporting sidekick, reality television star and hype man, Flava Flav, delivered a showcase of revolutionary angst in which the group performed its culturally acclaimed Fear Of A Black Planet in its entirety, before reviewing a series of its greatest hits, including “Don’t Believe The Hype” and a rendition of “Bring The Noise” that had fist tossing hooligans and hip-hop heads alike moshing as though Anthrax was actually in the building, before ending with a riotous presentation of “Fight The Power.”
The soulful and reclusive indie-folk maestro Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) also came up for air making his fifth and sixth musical appearances since 1998, including a somewhat uneasy headlining set on Friday evening and a much more relaxed Sunday afternoon performance.
Mangum played nothing but the hits to capacity Paramount Theatre congregations, which sat in quiet and respectful silence, snapping mental photographs of the Salinger-like maestro, not wanting to, or allowed to, make any sudden movements for fear of suspicious flashlight toting sentinels removing individuals from the room due to a zero tolerance policy for photography.
Despite Mangum’s pleads, many chose not to sing along for fear of scaring the mysterious silhouette caked in amber fluorescence into hiding for another 13 years. And, yet, it was a magical moment in music history as Mangum transported audiences back to the mid ‘90s with tear inducing renditions of such works as “Oh Comely,” “Song Against Sex” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone,” growing upset with the Paramount’s patrons for not joining in on “Aeroplane Over The Sea,” but eventually untying their tongues by offering “King Of Carrot Flowers (Part 1)” and its sibling installments “King Of Carrot Flowers (Part 2 & 3).”
Mangum’s Sunday afternoon gig came only two hours after the Steve Albini fronted noise-punk three-piece Shellac, who performed a surprise set at the boardwalk’s premier 10-pin penthouse and music locale Asbury Lanes to an audience that shoehorned itself into every available nook and crevice, with a large number of hopefuls still turned away at the door.
It would have been a shame if Shellac had come all the way to Asbury and departed without playing the Lanes, opting to only deliver a raucous 14-song performance at the Convention Hall on opening night, which commenced with Todd Trainer dealing a stick wielding solo of epic proportions while Albini, and side-man Bob Weston, broke down the drummer’s kit, eventually leaving him only a snare drum to bang upon, until it too was removed, signaling the end of the show.
I’ll Be Your Mirror saw its share of reunions (Company Flow, Ultramagnetic MC’s), revitalizations (The Pop Group, Chavez, Swans), buzz bands (Cults, Deerhoof, Battles), break ups (Oneida, DD/MM/YYYY) and underground artistry (Shepard Fairey, Anika, Colin Stetson), and it did so while barely making a peep.
There were no traffic jams or standstills, overpopulation nor congestion, and no site of any price gouging conmen. I’ll Be Your Mirror was more of an artistic fantasy camp or end of the summer retreat than a festival. Where else can you play Texas Hold’em in a hotel room with a set of rounders that included the aforementioned Albini and Mangum, take in a Yankee game with Bob Weston or talk Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, one of the many films shown in the Berkley’s cinema hall, with Jim Jarmusch?
And I think that’s what draws fans and musicians alike to these musical celebrations, hosted by All Tomorrow’s Parties and its founders Barry Hogan and Deborah Kee Higgins.
These conventions of multimedia artistry are not about the money, the sponsorships or insane contractual obligations needed to be met in hopes of landing the next big pop music headliner. I’ll Be Your Mirror is about communal growth, and like the previously referenced streak of lightning, and those blind to the fact that it struck, there is no denying that something happened, especially when evidence is left its wake. In some instances there’s a flaming piece of timber, and in this case, an imprint left by a large step taken in the restoration process of our musical hub by the sea.