Date of event: 2nd June 2019
After hitting a rocky patch on Weekend 1, All Points East's Sunday service the following weekend really folked up. Big time.
The urban music utopia remained much the same as we'd left it the Saturday prior. Fixed as points on a compass, the East and North stages were still the lodestars in the constellation; shining bright but now filtered through different wavelengths to close out this year's chapter of the city-based festival.
Splitting my experience across both weekends was intentional, but it was not what I'd initially hoped for going in. It far exceeded it.
To be honest, I had just wanted to see Bon Iver live; based one day off of a triple Facebook-Songkick-BandsInTown alert stating that he was to play in London in the summer. That it were part of a wider festival was a happy bonus that just kept giving as the line-up linked up across some of my favourite music artists, of all hues and saturations.
Justin Vernon - the electro-folk geneticist behind Bon Iver - would be sharing stages with similar-minded souls for a whole day and night of All Points East; this Goldenvoice-promoted (e.g. Coachella) event that managed to be as diverse as it was demarcated. By grafting genres and hence moods specifically to each day, the festival showed it was willing to give fans the power to pick out what they really wanted, even over multiple days; their purchases perhaps showing which drawcard is more likely to be responsible for the success of each day.
Snail Mail was content to chug along at slow, steady speeds on the North stage, with crisp indie-rock leads from Lindsey Jordan delivering the sleepy solo project to fans of 90's jangle-grunge goddesses such as Kim Gordon or Liz Phair. Although the sound is more 'Pristine' than most outputs from those ladies, Jordan's dreamy lo-fi textures evoke an era where albums like her debut Lush ruled the charts and airwaves with angsty yet earnest guitar poems.
Her achy, fragile vocals (especially live) were just another part of Snail Mail's singular band-bolstered service; if you're on 'Speaking Terms' with your 'Golden Dream', you'll probably be so too in 'Deep Sea' or other waters where a light rhythm backing helps pull things along. Snail Mail speaks more to her reliability than her mid-tempo murmurings would suggest.
Happy To Be Here
For others, it's almost a one-man/woman show through and through, with sadcore songstress Julien Baker squeezing out every drop of emotion from her guitar and voice for the energy needed to get through her cathartic confessions and cries from the heart.
The sheer cinematic swell of her signature song 'Turn Out The Lights' built high the reserves; high as that shattering voice can go, as low as it takes until there's no one left between myself and me; her and you in the crowd.
It wasn't all dreary or overdramatic though. In fact, Baker could be all pep-and-smiles (as she was between much of her songs) on cuts like 'Everybody Does', where lines such as "You're gonna run when you find out who I am/I know I'm a pile of filthy wreckage/You will wish you'd never touched" were presented with a cheery urgency that belied the troubled emotions being spoken of.
To command a stage single-handed (albeit with an occasional violinist) and single-guitared with live ammunition is an all-or-nothing endeavour, and Julien Baker makes it work because she puts in the work, "screaming my fears into speakers/'Til I collapse or I burst/Whichever comes first".
Dance To Another Tune
Bands and artists pull out of festivals all the time, whether well in advance or - in the case of Swedish folk family duo First Aid Kit - a mere 2 weeks before the main event (due to "unforeseen medical circumstances").
Usually this hits hardcore fans the deepest, casuals shrug their shoulders, and festival organisers just reshuffle or replace the fallen. In a strange twist of irony, I had only become (or was prompted to become) a fan of sisters Johanna & Klara Söderberg because they were on the bill for All Points East; their name long on the periphery of my playlisting perception, but never forcing its way to the front until I saw it alongside Bon Iver and Co.
This meant loading up as recently as February their four fantastic folk-pop albums for just the first time, falling for the sweet, hazy harmonies of 'Blue' and 'Cedar Lane', and then......nothing. All dressed up and just 'Ruins' to show.
C'est La Vie
Although the Söderbergs had gained a new fan, there would be no welcoming performance for now, and the festival left their high-billed slot on the lineup open for interpretation. Thinking it would mean a lengthy break between fellow Swede Kristian Matsson (a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth) and Canadian goofball Mac DeMarco, the start of Phosphorescent's set on the East Stage was much like the title of his latest album: C'est La Vie ("that's just life").
Since I didn't know whether The Tallest Man On Earth would bound onto the stage alone or with a backing band, I turned to a woman next to me to ask if the group setting up was Mattson's men & ladies. I was mistaken.
"But isn't The Tallest Man On Earth meant to be on now?"
"It's the same stage; it doesn't matter"
"It does if he's played already".
For the next 45 bewildering minutes or so, I bore witness to some sun-soaked, country-tinged rock from the stage name of American singer-songwriter Mathew Houck; safe in the knowledge that the next act would be my sought-after Swede of larger-than-life scale.
The dream passed by with rootsy jams and pastoral psychedelic pop, where pedal steel guitar accented vocoder vignettes ('Christmas Down Under') and stately strings found shelter in pulses of electronic beats ('Song For Zula'). The fractured lineup of the day would be healed with this shimmering set, subtly smoothing over the gap in the schedule and exposing Houck's mellowdies to new ears unexpected.
All I Can Keep Is Now
Ta-dah! Ladies and gents, I present to you: The Tallest Man On Earth!
Springing onto stage with swashbuckling glee was the man, the myth, the legionnaire. Roundly cheered and steered to microphone stand alone, Kristian Matsson unspooled his quickstep acoustic folk symphonies with rapid-fire takes off of his haziest album, 2013's There's No Leaving Now ('To Just Grow Away', 'Revelation Blues') to fresh servings from his latest, 2019's mouthful I Love You. It's A Fever Dream ('Hotel Bar', 'I'm A Stranger Now').
His enigmatic energy surged through each densely-woven songburst, all carefully chosen to skirt around 2015's full-banded effort Dark Bird Is Home and to maximise his long-time one-man-one-stage presence. Whether it was Dylanesque diatribes ('Love Is All') or drifting into drowsier territory of The National ('The Running Styles Of New York'), compressing Matsson to just him and the audience amplified his restless performance and minimalistic manipulations.
Although Matsson eagerly proclaimed 'I Won't Be Found', the 'King Of Spain' was last seen closing out his super-sized solo set; the ode to reinvention of names crowning a slippery salvo of Swedish indie-folk on the East Stage.
The Stars Keep Calling My Name
Jolted awake, Mac DeMarco ensured us it's all chilled guys - just kick back and enjoy the jams, groove how you wanna, weird out if you gonna. The warped 'jizz-jazz' trafficker was an utter hoot from start to finish, beginning with a simple index finger in the air by himself during soundcheck (i.e. to turn it up) which led to the whole band doing it at once as what seemed to be a silly inside joke.
Despite his unpredictable dorkish onstage antics, Mac's musical output is still relatively uniform in tone, quite far removed from the class-clown con-artistry. It's mostly glassy-eyed laments and melancholic musings, with some of his earlier material such as 'Cooking Up Something Good' doing exactly that to bring some flavour to the dreamy concoction of soft rock and glam he likes to purvey.
After seeing him live, frankly it still fascinates me how he can stretch such downbeat vibes to fit a band of fun-lovin' dudes, like how much of John Mayer's recorded output doesn't seem to match the guy-on-stage's expressive, quirky persona. Mac keeps it simple, keeps it sensual. He keeps it social - for those who enjoy artist-led clap-alongs and good times in the rain (albeit a brief downpour). Pull in, we can all be 'Freaking Out The Neighbourhood' together.
We had reached the glittering, jittering core of the event, where 'homespun' could mean up in the guitar-governed woods, to down on my mind(field) of electro-organic folk experimentations. Bon Iver brought a surreal air of the otherworldly to the festival's main East stage with his cyborg-gospel spasms of genius; combining all the many strands of folk and washing them into an amorphous audio artwork.
The music manages to subtly trap haunting isolation within a fence of jarring distortion, where Vernon's robo-vocoder vocals are the aching abstract thoughts trying to break free, sounding disrupted and bruised within a digital (c)age. Some songs - like the voco-pella '715 - CR∑∑KS' - forgo any other instrument in pursuit of pure expression through this filter.
This woodsmansy sonic wizard took us all the way back to the beginning of his tale, For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007. Back to that infamous cabin in the woods which birthed a debut so disarming that his vocal productions soon made their way into Kanye West bangers, such as 'Lost In The World'. Vernon constantly evolved and adapted his aesthetic after that, not content to be the flavour-of-the-moment indie-folk guru that he helped popularise in the late 2000's.
Bon Iver's headlining set brought a high standard of light and sound production; proggy and spectral but surprisingly fist-thumpin' in attitude, basking in the simmering summer night. Vernon's band behind him had chops, particularly drummer Matt McCaughan, whose artful athleticism gave the necessary push and pull during suspenseful cuts like '666 ʇ', or 'Towers' from a major transitionary zone in his catalogue, 2011's self-titled blooming.
The futuristic folk flow continued on classics like 'Skinny Love' from the cabin days, and led into fan-favourite 'Holocene' before the live part of the performance suddenly ceased. Vernon thanked the crowd for coming out and did as any savvy artistpreneur would do armed with new fuel: promise that they'd play two tracks from their "new record" (!) to close out the show.
The finale was a rather surprising anti-climax, as it was revealed that the two songs - 'Hey, Ma' and 'U (Man Like)' - would be played over the festival's PA system instead of live by the band, as hordes of confused fans muddled about, not sure if the show was over or if the band were coming back. The strange strategy did not diminish how transcendental Bon Iver's prior performance had been, but personally I would rather they had played them live or not at all in such circumstances.
The cosmic swirl of sound from the day's events coalesced into one memory that drifted away with me as we exited the festival's orbit. When it All Points East, the light lasts the full day, rain or shine, and it's somehow divine. Coordinates set for next year please.