All Tomorrow's Zombies 

Would the festival crowd eventually wake up? Shit no. They're indie rockers. And indie rockers stare.

Foooooooosh!" remarked Nic Offer, singer for the band called !!! (yes, !!!), as I kicked him in the stomach.

"Aaaarrrrrgh!" he continued, as I assailed him with robust noogies and sucker punches.

"Blaaaaaaagh!" he concluded, as I hoisted him by the seat of his pants and dragged him down the length of Bottom of the Hill's bar, which for the purpose of this daydream had morphed into a giant buffet table.

Nic involuntarily waded through a murky sea of mashed potatoes, gravy, applesauce, rigatoni, cottage cheese, chocolate pudding, and various salad bar ephemera. Our interaction concluded, I tossed him through the club's enormous plate-glass front window (another stylistic daydream invention).

The hipsters smoking on the sidewalk gasped in shock as I rammed my head through the wall like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner.

"Indie-rock jam bands," I sneered. "Just say no."

This assault occurred entirely in my own mind. A vision, a fantasy. But occur it did, as !!! -- pronounced chik-chik-chik or pow-pow-pow or whatever, a fact that only contributed to my rage -- concluded fifteen hours' worth of mindless hippie dance-punk nonsense at the SF hotspot back in June.

I wanted to beat someone unconscious. Namely, Mr. Offer, who flailed about the stage like Prince doing a Jack Black impersonation, yelling "Like I give a FUCK" for time eternal.

In retrospect, though, I regret having visited a hypothetical beatdown upon him. For Mr. Offer and I would meet again under far different circumstances, in which his untoward gyrations and general buffoonery would be welcomed, encouraged, absolutely necessary, and direly missed once he left the stage.

That's because !!! opened All Tomorrow's Parties, the two-day indie rock hoedown that infiltrated Long Beach on an overcast mid-November weekend. The band should've closed the festival as well, and played eight sets in between.

Fine fodder for a road trip, this ATP. An offshoot of the famed English festival, the tour (in its second California incarnation) prides itself on the "curator" technique, in which a lauded pop-culture figure selects all the bands, thus casting the fest entirely in his/her own mashed-potato-molded image. This year's model was Matt Groening, Simpsons mastermind and eclectic musical aesthete.

Its hipness thus assured, ATP compelled you to root for it, to succeed where recent disastrous American fests -- including the New York debacle Field Day, nearly destroyed by awful planning, bureaucratic permit nonsense, and the nesting patterns of the rare grasshopper sparrow -- had failed. But unlike big boppers like Coachella, credibility issues prevented Groening from hauling in mainstream party-rockers like, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

No, ATP would live by textbook indie rock, and die by it. And die it nearly did.

Ludicrous logistical problems? We've got 'em. ATP had two stages -- one outdoors, the other about a quarter-mile away inside the Queen Mary, a touristy cruise ship attraction. To prevent the terrorists from already winning, security insisted you be searched and wanded and so forth each time you entered either stage area, a policy that often created huge lines and generally punished anyone who hopped back and forth.

Then, for a crowd of roughly 50,000, there were exactly three food vendors offering their services. A chicken sandwich doesn't taste better if a 45-minute wait is required to purchase it.

But enough whining! There's our old friend Nic onstage shouting "Like I give a FUCK!" again, trying and sadly failing to enjoin the leering indie rockers in the audience to dance, for chrissake. But this time I rooted for him, even in defeat -- he apparently received treatment backstage for a lacerated knee, which I swear I had nothing to do with.

Was the crowd just getting comfortable? Shaking off the cobwebs? Acquainting itself with the lovely seaside environment? Would they eventually wake up, tune in, drop out, get down?

Shit no. They're indie rockers. And indie rockers stare.

Big-time festivals require exuberance; energy; audience interaction. Otherwise you're just standing there for eighteen hours over two days listening to Matt Groening flaunt his record collection. But appearing to enjoy oneself in any way contradicts the indie ethos -- you might as well throw on a clown suit and join a Dave Matthews cover band.

The Black Heart Procession was perfect for this environment -- an actually quite fabulous slo-core film noir outfit that spins melancholy tango numbers which unfold at only one tempo: "dying." But immediately after !!!'s party-hearty assault, Black Heart lulled the outdoor folks into a gawky haze they never fully recovered from.

Out on the Queen Mary -- a tall, narrow three-story maze that allowed you the pleasure of staring straight down at Cat Power's head -- things were a bit cooler, a bit weirder. Afternoon sets by the Danielson Famile (psychotic Mouseketeers for Jesus) and the Bay Area's own Deerhoof (psychotic pop for brain-fried grad students) set the stage for prime time's main event: surviving Minutemen Mike Watt and George Hurley tackling their classic art-punk catalogue as a duet, in honor of departed frontman D. Boon. Those seeking musical precision might've winced at all the missed cues and wobbly beats, but Watt's monolithic bass mastery deserves its own organized religion, and watching the kids bang their fists to the climax of "Little Man with a Gun in His Hand" certainly warmed the hearts and loins, if only for fifteen seconds.

The outdoor stage wrapped up Saturday's proceedings with an acceptably wacky workout from the Captain Beefheartless Magic Band and a whole lotta indie warhorses -- Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Sonic Youth. Meanwhile, Spoon's splendidly angular pop did the same trick for all the boat people. But after that set, as everyone dutifully trudged back outside to watch Thurston Moore and company go aurally apeshit, famed schizophrenic troubadour Daniel Johnston took the Queen Mary stage -- he'd been scheduled for 3:15 but apparently missed his flight.

The crowd mostly filed out anyway, but this seemed like a better way to cap off Day One: a small, intimate audience listening to a famously troubled singer-songwriter inside an allegedly haunted cruise ship. In his high, warbling voice, Johnston scraped his guitar and plunked his piano along to sad songs about love that reminded him of "a thousand pastries going stale." For once it felt appropriate to sit and stare.

Day Two would struggle to recapture that pleasant spookiness.

The lineup was instantly weirder: Electrelane turned Bruce Springsteen's "On Fire" into a loud but dispassionate electro-pop dirge. James Chance and the Contortions played David Lynch-caliber lounge music while their sax-bleating frontman pulled an apparent acquaintance from the photo pit onto the stage, whereupon he first slow-danced with her and then groped her. Back on the Queen Mary, Jackie-O Motherfucker threw an indie rock garage sale, cluttering the stage with turntables, orchestra bowed-guitars, and toy instruments to craft one giant 45-minute tone poem, ill suited for a muddy-sounding cruise ship hootenanny. Fun to look at, though.

Then hilariously awful fake-disco Casanova Har Mar Superstar took the outdoor stage, stripped to his undies, and insulted us for not caring. "Can I just tell you one thing?" he shouted at the sea of gawking, motionless faces before him. "You guys are boring as hell. Let's all get together and have a boring-ass time. Let's just get together and suck."

He sucked too, but he was right.

ATP managed to end on a high note: While American Analog Set flew the emo flag and Cat Power bored everyone senseless on the Queen Mary (despite the fire alarm going off), the outdoor stage enjoyed a splendid little run.

First, the newly reunited Mission of Burma pummeled us with perhaps the most thoroughly rockin' set of the weekend -- the power trio morphed into a 3,000-man army for the climactic "That's When I Reach for My Revolver." Then came the slot initially meant for Elliott Smith. In the wake of the troubled icon's suicide, his space was now reserved for a tribute comprising old bandmates and friends led by Lou Barlow, who sneered his way through a noisy and suddenly disturbingly poignant "Needle in the Hay" before wrapping up with a sing-along chant of "All I need now is happiness for you and me."

This was our golden moment. The whole crowd should've picked up the chant and sung in unison, raising our voices to heaven and uniting us in blissful indie rock transcendence. Instead, true to form, most folks just stared, their chance for redemption slipping away. Which made the whole thing far more appropriate a tribute to Elliott Smith than you could've imagined, or wanted.

And so it also went for the double-shot closer: first the Mars Volta's overcooked dance-punk-emo-metal and endless guitar-solo bombardment, energetically delivered but hesitantly received. And finally, Iggy Pop -- reunited with the Stooges.

Iggy live is a nerve-wracking experience: You're worried he'll be wayward and incoherent and look like he just doused the So-Cal wildfires with his face, but he was bombastic and violently cuddly and highly entertaining. You didn't even mind that the Stooges played "I Wanna Be Your Dog" twice. The crowd appeared on the razor's edge of joining Iggy in spastic delirium, but motionlessness still carried the day. This fest needs more energy, more fun, more interaction, more dogs.

More hot dog vendors, too.

Still, staring while Iggy Pop goes crazy is the next best thing to actually going crazy yourself, although plenty of folks hit the exits to beat the crowd during the encore as he sang a new tune about being a dead rock star. You should thank your favorite god (Jesus, Buddha, Mike Watt) that Iggy ain't dead yet -- otherwise ATP would've been a total bomb, waylaid by a lifeless crowd that nearly blew away in the Long Beach breeze, like a thousand pastries going stale.


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