I’m not much of a one for festivals, as I tend to find, as in life, that being presented with simultaneous multiple options induces anxiety rather than relaxation, but I made an exception for day one of All Tomorrow’s Parties: I’ll Be Your Mirror as at least it was being held in a well-defined and relatively accessible venue (the venerable Alexandra Palace) and it wasn’t going to involve any camping. True to form, on arrival I found the sheer mass of humanity attending a little alarming, and the confusing one-way system didn’t help allay my gut instinct that I’d signed up for some kind of alternative bootcamp, but after some food and a screening of the agreeable Submarine (featuring an appropriately shambolic and self-effacing Q & A with its director Richard Ayoade) I was starting to feel acclimatised.
As I’ve said before, at the minute I love PJ Harvey, and it was great to see her even in the vast Great Hall of the palace, a massive space that may well have been used in a past life for auctioning blue whales. She appeared dressed entirely in black, clutching her autoharp, with her extensive black hair sculpted into a fantastic back-projecting structure that reminded me of nothing so much as the alien blue opera singer from The Fifth Element. Her set consisted mainly of a tight runthrough of nearly all of the songs from the remarkable Let England Shake, with the band made up of the same seasoned players that appear on the album, and as on the recorded version they played with grace and no showboating, allowing you not to be distracted from the PJ’s astonishing and highly accomplished vocals. As befits an artist wary of resting on her laurels there was nothing much in the way of golden oldies (C’mon Billy and Angelene were I think the only pre-2007 selections), and there were a couple of songs I didn’t recognise that may well have been new. All fine stuff anyway, presented with the minimum of fuss and over a more than decent public address system, and it was nice of PJ to introduce her band and let them take a bow with her at the end.
Portishead were awesome and majestic and magisterial and any other adjective you can find towards the top end of the scale of quality that starts with “alright, I suppose”. Their melancholy blend of processed beats, murky aural textures and heart-tugging melody can’t be straightforward to reproduce even in laboratory conditions, but the mix in this most cavernous of venues was well-nigh faultless, with Beth Gibbons’ aching vocals cutting through the industrial percussion and treated guitars immaculately. The five musicians on stage were varying the approach admirably too, changing instruments to fit every song’s requirements with the minimum of delays, and I was surprised to hear something as traditional as a delicately picked acoustic guitar at one point. My only issue is really the same that I have with the albums, in that the raw material gets a little, well, samey after a while – the songs and arrangements always seem to be descending, and would it kill them to use a major chord every now and then? – but there’s absolutely no denying the quality of this performance. Sour Times sounded as clear as a CD being listened to on top quality headphones, with every element in perfect balance, while the harsh electronic drill-like motif of the frankly terrifying Machine Gun (surely one of the least compromising pop singles ever) seemed to cause my heart to start racing. They went to town with the visuals too: multiple screens showing a mix of animations, abstract sequences and distorted live footage of the band as they played. This was one of the most impressive live presentations on a technical level I can remember, even if I didn’t always connect emotionally with the repertoire.