The weather has increasingly perked up over the weekend and Sunday qualifies as glorious, so its a shame to be indoors all day with the beach so close by, but hey its ATP with a day’s lineup of Papa M, Dirty Three, A Silver Mt. Zion, Cat Power, Bill Callahan (Smog), Joanna Newsom and Tren Brothers, so sorry sun, sorry beach: no contest.

It’s unusual that David Pajo is performing under his Papa M moniker – given that his previous two albums have been credited to Pajo, does this mean that he’ll be bringing a band with him, playing older material? As it turns out, it is just Pajo with his guitar, harmonica and what can only be described as “foot-bells”, and he draws mostly from those aforementioned two albums. Although the sun is blazing outside, its near dark inside the venue, with Pajo himself clad in black, creating a suitably gloomy atmosphere for Papa M’s dark fingerpicked folk. I really enjoy seeing songs performed in an ‘acoustic’ setting – shorn of all other instrumentation it allows one a glimpse into the song itself, rather than the performance of the song, and can be key to appreciating just how good a particular songwriter is. The recorded versions of many of the songs that Pajo performs today were apparently created using the bundled software on his laptop – resulting in a digital-low-fi production, with cheesy drum sounds and ‘clipart’-standard samples detracting from the quality of the underlying songs. In this setting however, songs like “High Lonesome Moan” and “Manson Twins” have a dark, gleaming folk beauty to them, and the crowd really laps it up – Pajo brushing off the applause with “are you guys still drunk from last night?” The eerie, gothic feel to proceedings is sustained with Pajo’s version of the traditional “Mary Of The Wild Moor”, which he introduces by saying its one of his favourites because it’s one of the few where every character in the song dies…
Papa M’s performance is understated and low-key, but it turns out to be one of my favourite of the festival – and has successfully caused me to positively reappraise both the “Pajo” and “1968” albums which I’d previously thought didn’t stack up against his earlier output.

Papa M - ATP 29-04-2007

“This is a song about dividing up the goods that you’ve collected over the period of a relationship and you realise that you actually don’t care for a whole lot of it, and the problem is that at the end of it nobody wants the indie rock collection, so you’re just like kind of working out what to do with, and they don’t really melt down into ashtrays or anythin’ like they used to, and you realise you’re probably better off sitting in a room and getting cancer by burning ‘em…”
Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis is an inspired performer, from the comic genius of his song introductions to the spittin’, hollerin’, high-kickin’ physicality of his violin-playing. Eyes clenched shut, back often turned to the audience, he’s lost in the music, while the laconic Mick Turner and Jim White (introduced by Ellis as “The Boy Wonder!”) keep everything relatively grounded. Today Ellis is on particularly good form, clearly loving being here, having a good time amongst close friends (and devoted fans), and this relaxed bonhomie is evident in the Dirty Three’s playing as they really pull it out of the bag for what is the most exhilarating performance of the weekend. They open with “Hope” and storm through a set that includes crowd favourites “Sea Above, Sky Below”, “Everything’s Fucked” (“you think you’re Buddy Holly and she’s Mary Tyler Moore… then you kind of look in the window of the shop… and you realize that you are actually Burt Reynolds and she’s Sally Fields… and you have a toupee… and she’s not The Flying Nun anymore”), and “Alice Wading” (for which they’re joined on bass by Joel Silbersher). For the closing “Indian Love Song” they are joined by Giorgos Xylouris (Psarantonis) on lute, and it’s an incendiary performance of a song that builds and builds towards a volcanic eruption, a fitting end to this explosive show.

Dirty Three - ATP 29-04-2007

We miss A Silver Mt Zion with the lure of a couple of beers in the sunshine too strong to resist, but then head back to the Pavilion Stage for Cat Power & Dirty Delta Blues. The three previous Cat Power performances I’ve seen have been a shambles – paralysed by stage fright and/or intoxicated, Chan Marshall has bumbled her way through the set, hiding behind her fringe, stopping & starting songs but rarely finishing them, her wonderful voice only once or twice given free rein. On the back of the relative mainstream success of “The Greatest” and the live safety net her Memphis Rhythm Band provided, she had reportedly all but overcome the debilitating stage fright that had blighted her earlier performances, so it was with much anticipation that I greeted this performance – I was finally going to see Cat Power get through whole songs, and hear that voice soar free of the constraints of her shyness! Backed by her Dirty Delta Blues band (featuring Dirty Three drummer Jim White alongside members of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Delta 72, and Lizard Music), she was indeed transformed from the last time I’d seen her – with hair tied back (no fringe to hide behind) she strutted around the stage, her nervousness only given away by repeated attempts to stick her hand into the pocket of her pocketless jeans. So far so good… only there was no ‘oomph’, no emotion, no passion, just… dull. Dirty Delta Blues sounded no better than a hastily-thrown-together pub blues band and Marshall’s voice stayed decidedly earthbound – she just sort of ‘crooned’ and, as has been remarked on the “how bad was Cat Power @ ATP?!” forum threads out there, it may as well have been Joss Stone on stage.

With one-time-lover Chan Marshall having just played downstairs, and finding himself sandwiched between sets by his current squeeze Joanna Newsom, we can’t help but be reminded that Bill Callahan (the Artist Formerly Known As Smog) is something of an alt.cassanova. So his decidedly Christian-at-a-BBQ look of tight white jeans and tucked-in blue button-up shirt is a bit of a surprise. But that of course is beside the point – I’m here for the music, not for tips on dressing to impress shrill-voiced harp-pixies. Callahan, ably supported by a full band, draws most of his material from new album “Woke On A Whaleheart”, but there is also room for the old-skool “Cold Blooded Old Times” and “Say Valley Maker” & “Rock Bottom Riser” from recent “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”. “Rock Bottom Riser” is the highlight for me, melancholic yet uplifting, Callahan’s baritone like a smooth, mellow bourbon. Unfortunately the schedule has been slipping throughout the day, and Bill suffers the ignominy of having his set cut short in order to let his paramour Joanna Newsom start on time. His devoted audience are not happy but he takes it all in his stride.

Bill Callahan - ATP 29-04-2007

This is the second Joanna Newsom performance of the day – her first caused the only queue I saw the whole weekend. Together the converts and those just interested in seeing what all the fuss was about numbered too many for the 2,000-capacity Centre Stage, but so keen were people to see her that they queued up for the entire length of her performance in some vain hope that they’d make it into the venue. Fortunately Centre Stage is not quite full for this performance, it clashing with Nick Cave & Grinderman’s second of the festival. Joanna is accompanied by Ys Street Band members Ryan Francesconi (tambura, guitar) & Neal Morgan (drum, vocals) and a violinist friend, and this band ably fleshes out the sparser “Milk-Eyed Mender” material (“Book Of Right On”, “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie”, “This Side Of The Blue”) whilst suitably distilling the (to my mind overblown) orchestration of the “Ys” album. This is the first time I hear new song “Colleen” and it’s captivating – An Appalachian Hillbilly in King Arthur’s Court. There unfortunately seems to be a problem with the miking of the harp (insufficient gain before it starts feeding back), meaning that the set is played at comparatively low volume and is therefore adversely affected by a chattering crowd and the thud of Mum Smokes coming from the nearby Reds Stage, but Joanna comes away having won a few more converts (even one of the security guys I spoke to afterwards was pretty entranced, and not only because she is “pervable”…)

Joanna Newsom - ATP 29-04-2007

So to the last performance of the weekend – you know the end is coming but you wish it would stay away forever… so I’m thankful to the Tren Brothers for managing to temporarily stop time with their hypnotic soundscapes. Jim White’s languid, shuffling percussion provides the perfect canvas for Mick Turner’s painterly guitar washes, and without Warren Ellis’s violin to provide rhythm and focus, the Dirty Two’s compositions are more expansive, like broad outback landscapes, Turner’s swirls of guitar loops, melodica and harmonica akin to the heat shimmer distorting the horizon. Although there are definitely songs, they ebb and fall as a cohesive whole, so its pretty amusing when Jim “The Boy Wonder” White starts another song only for Turner to stop him with a “we’ve played that one already” – the audience wouldn’t have known any different (but I don’t mean that in a derogatory way).

Tren Brothers - ATP 29-04-2007

So thanks again to ATP and Dirty Three for what I can categorically describe as one of the best weekends of my life!
Only let-down: Cat Power (and this is churlish, but I feel slightly disappointed that there weren’t any superstar onstage hook-ups: Dirty Three didn’t join Low for an In The Fishtank-style rendition of “Lordy”, Cat Power didn’t come on to sing “Great Waves” during the Dirty Three’s set, Blixa Bargeld didn’t haul out a guitar to accompany Nick Cave’s ‘solo’ performance, Bill Callahan didn’t provide backing to Joanna Newsom or vice versa… greedy fuck that I am).

For a selection of photos from ATP D3, go here

This version of Joanna Newsom “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” performed on “Later… with Jools Holland” (BBC2, Fri 11 May 2007) nicely captures how this song sounded at ATP. Joanna is accompanied by Ys Street Band members Ryan Francesconi on guitar and Neal Morgan on backing vocals.

Joanna Newsom – Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie (live on Later)