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A visit to Tomorrow

Times Staff Writer

It’s not unlikely that one or more of the hundreds of bands that have played the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival over the years have performed the event’s title song, but on Saturday it finally came from the highest authority: Lou Reed, who wrote the ballad when he was in the Velvet Underground in the mid-'60s.

The New Yorker’s witty, feisty performance on the outdoor stage at the Queen Mary closed the first day of All Tomorrow’s Parties Pacific 2004, the official name of the third Southland staging of the franchise, which was launched in England four years ago.

A deliberately eclectic and esoteric foray into alternative rock’s far corners, the weekend was curated by Modest Mouse, the Seattle band that’s made a big move into mainstream awareness over the past year, and Saturday’s portion of the roster that it selected emphasized songwriting craft and textured sound.

Artists ranged from close-to-mainstream new arrivals the Walkmen to revered veterans such as J Mascis and included some eccentric cult figures: English rock-obsessive Billy Childish, with his band the Buff Medways, and the Baltimore band Lungfish, fronted by the bearded, balding, wild-eyed rock preacher Daniel Higgs.

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The action took place on a large stage in the park adjacent to the Queen Mary and in a small, club-like room inside the ship. The indoor room fell behind schedule Saturday, forcing fans to make quick choices. If you had planned to split the 5:30 time slot between Michigan singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens indoors and guitar hero Mascis on the big stage, you were out of luck if you were inside waiting for Stevens to begin.

On the other hand, getting stuck with Stevens might have been the best thing to do all day. This ATP didn’t have a “special event” like earlier editions’ reunions of Television and the Magic Band, but in Stevens’ performance it offered a memorable showcase for a ready-for-prime-time player.

Stevens (the first name is pronounced suf-ian) writes songs that are both introspective and narrative, and sings in an intimate, husky whisper that draws you in.

With a band featuring horns, bells and other bright details, he delivered fully crafted, intricate and delicate arrangements in which a musician’s finger-snap could be as crucial as the main hook.

Many of his songs surveyed the emotional and economic anomie he sees in his home state, and the high point was his recasting of the national anthem as an indie-rock dirge that flared into an enraged lament for the country’s direction.

All Tomorrow’s Parties walks the line between intimate, connoisseur’s gathering and large-scale event, with a capacity of 6,000 for each of its two days at the Queen Mary. Saturday’s sales were about 4,000. “It’s not as much as people were expecting,” ATP founder Barry Hogan said Saturday night as he walked through the crowd listening to Modest Mouse’s set. “But it looks good. It’s enough to make it worthwhile.”


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