Magic touch revives ATP

Times Staff Writer

Maybe they should have stuck with that original lineup that nobody bought tickets to.

The second L.A.-area edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties rock festival -- postponed and beefed up after disappointing initial sales -- drew a near-capacity audience to the Queen Mary in Long Beach on Saturday, the first of its two days. That's the good news and the bad news.

It's an encouraging sign for musical diversity that almost 5,000 people turned up to sample a menu notable more for eclecticism than must-see acts. The fact that many of them had to stand in excessively long lines to get into the two stage areas or to access food and drink was the downside.

But once positioned in the bayside park that held the large main stage or in the smaller, rock-club-like room aboard the ship, listeners had it pretty good.

All Tomorrow's Parties' reputation as pop's most adventurous musical safari stems from its policy of turning over the programming to a designated "curator." Since its founding in England five years ago, ATP has enlisted such underground bands as Tortoise, Mogwai and, in its U.S. debut last year at UCLA, Sonic Youth (which headlined Saturday's bill). This year's L.A. version is the first molded by a nonmusician -- "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.

By reflecting one person's taste, All Tomorrow's Parties aims to draw curious, open-minded fans willing to put themselves in the hands of this weekend guru. Rosters tend to be even less concerned with what's new and what's now than a quality-oriented festival such as Coachella.

Groening, a lifelong music geek of extremely diverse tastes, didn't range too far beyond the indie-rock universe in assembling his party, and some of Saturday's acts, such as Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, roll through town on a regular basis. Despite the advantage of getting them all on the same day for a low price, there was a certain lack of urgency to stretches of the bill. But Groening also provided a strong endorsement of marching to a different drummer by showcasing the likes of Christian oddball-pop band Danielson Famile and damaged troubadour Daniel Johnston.

There were some special attractions too, and Groening himself introduced the one that initially inspired him to take on the job: the reunion of the Magic Band, the group that backed the visionary Captain Beefheart on his blazing forays to rock's wild frontiers in the '60s and '70s.

The reunion actually gathers players from different eras, with the heavier mystique borne by drummer John French and bassist Mark Boston, known respectively as Drumbo and Rockette Morton when they anchored Beefheart's legendary 1969 album "Trout Mask Replica." Guitarists Gary Lucas (Mantis) and Denny Walley (Feelers Reebo) were later, short-term members.

Gray and roly-poly as some of them may be, they attacked Beefheart's disorienting, off-kilter classics with spirit, power and precision.

The strangely structured set opened with a long stretch of the band's more difficult instrumentals, but when French came to the front of the stage (Michael Trailer taking over the drums) to fill in for the retired Beefheart on vocals, the show took off.

Strange, though, was the complete absence of any mention of Beefheart, the man who conceived and designed this music. It's understandable that these players might want to shed their reputation as Beefheart puppets who simply followed his orders. Maybe it was an oversight. In any case, it cast a slightly unpleasant light on an otherwise wondrous hour.

Another band playing with its leader absent went about it very differently. Bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley got together on the indoor stage to play songs by their revered punk-era band the Minutemen. Watt sang the parts that had been handled by D. Boon, who died in a 1985 car accident, and their skittering, explosive playing and Watt's spoken reverence for Boon made this a gratifying moment. In the more mainstream sector, the New Mexico indie-rock band the Shins showed why they're wearing the can't-miss badge this season, turning in a set full of engaging, smart and touching power-pop.

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