Recently back from the ATP festival curated by Dirty Three. Wow, what a fantastic weekend! The ATP organisers & curating bands (Mogwai, Shellac, Tortoise, Slint and Dirty Three) have been responsible for some of the best weekends of my life, and high praise & thanks must go to Barry Hogan, Helen Cottage & their ATP colleagues for the concept & pretty-much-flawless execution of such an amazing festival.

The Dirty Three-curated event was held over the weekend of 27-29 April, and was my first ATP experience at its new home at Butlins, Minehead. The previous site – Pontins, Camber Sands – had a certain rundown charm, but the new site is bigger, better, brasher and ups the levels in terms of on-site facilities (more bars/pubs! a mini-funfair! Splash Waterworld! beach across the road! three indoor stages! umm… Burger King!). Minehead itself is in a picturesque part of the country, on the edge of the Exmoor and not far from the spectacular cliffs of the North Devon coast, so even the journey itself is a pleasure, taking in a Stonehenge drive-by, and overnight stay in North Devon, and the serene forests around Lynmouth (an area known as “Little Switzerland” to the Victorians).

The weekend gets off to a relatively low-key start with Conway Savage (on keyboards & vocals, with accompanying band) performing on the Centre Stage (the second biggest venue of the three in use). The first couple of songs are pleasant enough in a sub-Nick-Cave-ballad-kinda-way, but interest wanes as the set continues. We’re glad to be there though because it’s where we meet our new Dutch friends Ronald & Annemieke, who appear next to us in anticipation of the next act Magnolia Electric Co.

I’m much more of a fan of the stripped-down American Gothic of Songs: Ohia as opposed to the ‘classic rock’-stylings of Magnolia Electric Co, but Jason Molina is undoubtedly an amazing songwriter regardless of how he chooses to present his songs, and MEC are a kick-ass live band. Molina is so prolific (I’ve read of how he’s been known to write songs in the morning when on tour and perform them that night) and seems to be constantly moving forward, so it’s seldom that he airs older songs and anybody in the audience hoping for a Songs: Ohia ‘hit’ is disappointed. None-the-less, “Hard To Love A Man” certainly qualifies as a ‘hit’, and the MEC set goes down a storm.

Magnolia Electric Co - ATP 27-04-2007

For an excellent archive of live Magnolia Electric Co and Songs: Ohia shows, go here

We then dash downstairs to the main Pavilion Stage to catch the last couple of songs of curators Dirty Three’s set (they’re playing again on Sunday, which is when we plan to catch them in full). The backdrop to the Pavilion Stage looks like a star-filled night sky, which provides a perfect framing to their ‘authentic celestial music’. They end with a blistering version of “Sue’s Last Ride”. This is the Dirty Three song which really made me sit up and take notice when I first heard it, so it is always a treat to witness them perform it as it takes on even more of a savage beauty in a live setting. (On the subject of Dirty Three live, this is something to look forward to…)

Back upstairs for Psarantonis and his band (largely consisting of his kids). Psarantonis is a legendary Cretan lyra player, and although all the band remain seated, it is an impressively energetic set of Cretan folk music, that has some of the crowd engaging in what seems to me to be a pretty good approximation of Cretan folk dancing! Psarantonis is the first ‘previously unknown’ of the festival that has me wanting to dabble in his back catalogue (that sounds ruder than was meant to!). Check here for a brief bio.

Psarantonis - ATP 27-04-2007

Its then over to Reds (the smallest venue of the three, and a pretty bizarre one where the stage area is surrounded by arcade games and pinball machines) for Brokeback. I find Brokeback’s bass noodlings can be a bit too… well, ‘noodley’ on record, but tonight their sound seems more muscular, perhaps as a result of Doug McCombs playing guitar (I think that was a guitar as opposed to a six-stringed bass, but I may well be wrong – let me know if you were more observant…), and they are able to get quite a head-nodding groove on (which soon means the sweet smell of weed is wafting through the audience). It’s great stuff but our feet are now killing us so we don’t catch the whole performance.

Our room is just a 2 minute walk from the performance area, so it’s back for a pitstop & refuelling before I return to Centre Stage for Josh T Pearson. This is another ‘previously unknown’ for me. I’m aware that he used to lead Lift To Experience and that Lift To Experience is highly rated by people whose opinions I value, but I’d never myself heard their first and only, but much-acclaimed, album “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads” (it is only after ATP that I remember having seen Lift To Experience back in 2001, supporting Cat Power, but they for some reason made no impression on me at the time). This proves to be my best discovery of the weekend. It’s just him and his guitar (and beard & Stetson), with various pedals used to subtle effect, but his sound manages to completely fill the sizeable room. He is by all accounts a man tortured by his demons (for a great piece on him originally published in Loose Lips Sink Ships check Josh T Pearson at MySpace) and he sings his songs of Angels & Devils, Heaven & Hell like someone who has been there and back (he asks that the lights be turned to red to make it “more like hell”). He’s joined by a bassist and drummer for the last couple of songs, and then the sound really careens through the space (its one of the few times I feel the need to install my earplugs…). Can’t wait for the solo album!

Josh T Pearson - ATP 27-04-2007

For a selection of photos from ATP D3, go here

Here are the curators Dirty Three performing “Authentic Celestial Music” live in the ABC TV studio for the “Recovery” program, 1 May 1998 (taken from the “Live on ABC TV 1998” DVD released with the limited edition 2005 re-issue of “Ocean Songs”).

Dirty Three – Authentic Celestial Music (live on ABC TV)

* an aside for Jason Molina / Magnolia Electric Co fans: I speak to him briefly after the show and ask whether its worth me picking up a copy of “Fading Trails”  now or holding off as I’d heard that the different sessions that make up “Fading Trails” might be released in full in the future. He tells me to wait as there will be a ‘big surprise’ in August…