Slowly synching in
Current and former residents of the Hudson Valley would lose their shit upon visiting Athens; this place is full of Hellenic diners! This one, currently under restoration, appears to be modeled after the famous Acropolis Diner in Poughkeepsie, New York, where I worked off many a Vassar bender.
(Those Bucci boys, one of the artists I'd come to check at the fest, are funny guys, by the way. Andrés and I were discussing our sightseeing options early in the trip; I'd mentioned that I'd likely skip the Acropolis, having seen it once before. "Yeah, but it's pretty different now," said Andrés, straight-faced. Beat. "They moved it!")
Speaking of Hellenic diners, my highlight from the trip was undoubtedly a 5 a.m. stop at a crepes joint on the outskirts of Athens, a weird little hut nestled in a "miracle mile" of car dealerships and shiny glass boxes. The crepes were salty. You sat on the ground on Turkish (or Greek?) pillows. The soundtrack was vintage American jazz and recent American R&B. The woman wrapping crepes, lickety-split and with a muscular grace usually reserved for kung-fu moves, was a maestro. (Maestra?) "She's a crepes queen," I exclaimed to my journalist friend. Her eyes narrowed and he translated. "Yes I am," she said, looking me straight in the eyes and nodding her head.
My days were spent more or less aimlessly wandering without around Athens, unable to recognize anything since my previous visit, 12 years ago. I'm told the city has changed, modernized or commercialized or whatever you want to call it, and there was certainly no lack of Zaras and Starbucks dotting the Plaka quarter. But Athens still felt like I remembered it, a city of empty shop-windows and collapsing buildings, be they from the 19th Century or the 1960s. Flat rooves and concrete and mystifying signage. A city resigned to ruin.
The Synch fest--their third, my first—was a rousing success, even if some of those in the audience didn't seem to know that it was. (We'll get to them in a minute.)
For starters, you couldn't beat the lineup: Vegetable Orchestra, Biosphere, Animal Collective, UR Presents Galaxy 2 Galaxy, Argy, Bucci Brothers, Vector Lovers, Alex Kid, Dexter, Amon Tobin, A Guy Called Gerald, Aux 88, John Duncan, Mouse on Mars, the Chap, Mark Stewart & the Maffia, Afrika Bambaataa, Henrik Schwarz, DJ T., Legowelt—among others. Ware's And.ID and Ziggy Kinder repped the local (and apparently miniscule) minimal scene. Brinkmann and Chelonis R. Jones were both no-shows, which was a bummer, but whatever—kudos to Synch for the tight curation, broad and deep but focused.
I found myself surprisingly enthused at thee rock—Animal Collective and the Chap in particular. (Those Chappies do rock, by the way, even in 7/8 time.) Bambaataa played a fairly run-of-the-mill oldies/hits set (on Final Scratch, which seemed odd) that left me wanting, but the crowd seemed psyched. I was also underwhelmed by Galaxy 2 Galaxy; the playing seemed sloppy, the band+machines equation didn't work, and the hypeman front and center (I should know who he was, I don't, so sue me) veered dangerously close to schtic for my tastes. "Any Star Trek fans in the audience?" he asked during one of (far too) many pauses in the music. Audience response: slim to none. "The final frontier…" Slight pickup in response. "The final frontier… Quiet as it's kept, it's not space, but the soul that's the final frontier!" Cue Rhodes, you get the picture. Maybe I'm being churlish; Henrik Schwarz loved it. Maybe it's a cultural/racial/regional thing? (Eg, I have no connection to stage traditions where the hypeman is key, which I suspect is an element in many African-American musical cultures; I don't even want my artists to be "entertainers," per se. So what do I know.)
Mouse on Mars were cracking as usual; they'd left the band at home, so it was just the two of them with a bank of machines and effects boxes—my favorite MoM setup. They were loud, rude and banging, and you could tell were making it up as they went along. Would love to see them jam with Jamie Lidell sometime.
The Audio Bullys should retire immediately.
Sadly, missed A Guy Called Gerald and Aux 88 both—especially on the second night, sets were running ridiculously late, and by 4 a.m. I was tired and drunk enough that I grabbed a ride rather than wait for the 6 a.m. bus back to Athens. (I heard later that Gerald didn't play til 6 anyway). Actually, pretty much everything ran late, which a friend had warned me was rather the Greek way. I was slated to speak on a 7:30 p.m. panel, but my bus didn't arrive til 8. At 9 I found the panel organizer backstage; at 10 I was informed that the event had finally been cancelled. For the most part, all you could do was grin and roll with it (no, not like that—Synch was one of the most sober, at least pharmaceutically speaking, fests I've ever been to). But sometimes the delays proved fatal. Mark Stewart and the Maffia were delayed by the late arrival of a bandmember (their bassist, I believe, who was flying in from Living Colour gig he'd played with Guns'n'Roses); a late soundcheck after Bambaataa's set ensured that the thousand-person amphitheatre cleared out almost entirely. I watched the band play to a crowd of 80 people, I'd guess; I thought they were masterful, with Adrian Sherwood on the boards behind dubbing Keith LeBlanc's drums to hell and back, and Skip Williamson proving himself one of the most empathic guitarists I've ever seen, all silence and filigree and a grimacy smile to show that he knows you heard it that way too. As a ranter, Stewart was masterful, but whatever energy the band had that night came from the fingers and the forearms and the amps; Stewart, trashed, ended up quitting the stage, leaving the band to trail off anticlimactically. But whatever: warts and all, they're still a fucking monster.
Vegetable Orchestra: great concept (playing instruments made out of, duh, vegetables), expert visuals. Playing time: at least 30 minuteus too long. Chops: underdeveloped. Bring in some salsa percussionists (no pun intended) and then we'll see some greens fly.
Extra points to Synch for the weekend venue, an industrial complex with a sort-of-not-very-renovated factory at the center of it, located along the water in Lavrio, outside Athens. They used the complex well, with experimental performances and installations in a machine room, and a tent, indoor stage and amphitheatre to break up the experience. (Cooler still was that there was no "rock stage," "techno tent," etc.; you could enjoy a wealth of styles just by remaining rooted in place all night.)
And the public? I get the sense that there's not much scene in Greece yet; the crowd seemed curious but uncommitted, doing more roaming than raving, generally. Then again, Sónar isn't so different sometimes; but here you had the sense that the night out was a lark, a peepshow if not a freakshow, where a quarter bought five minutes of watching, after which it was time to hit the bar. Tents emptied quickly, even during some of the best sets. Amon Tobin totally owned his room, it must be said, playing blistering breaks (including, I could swear, an Anastasia remix); what is it about breaks and people that aren't otherwise down with electronic music?) Still, those that stuck around—including a few clapping, chanting holdouts hoping in vain for a Maffia encore—got what they were hoping for.
All that was missing, in the end, was an afterparty on the water.
Thilo and friend on board the night bus to Lavrio. Dude's wearing a New Kids on Acid shirt that I covet the fuck out of.
Synch's Sofia Ignatidou shoots Herik Schwarz.
Angie Reed ain't afraid to die for art. Or "aht," which is probably how she'd pronounce it. Great show, Angie's, full of bizarre animations, Pee Wee Herman impersonations, references to Situationism, Paul Klee and Lacan—in other words, par for the course for a collaborator of Chicks on Speed and Felix Kubin.
Animal collective were, like, way better than I expected—their skronk is surprisingly (to me) structured and melodic, and they did great things with pipsqueak vocal noises. (Mark Stewart made fun of me backstage, wincing, when I tried to express my enthusiasm for the pipsqueaky bit, so I'm not even going to try here. You'll have to trust me.)
Buccis rocking it. One of the better laptop sets I've seen in a while; it felt improvisatory, whether or not it was. (Mark Stewart (this is he of "–and the Maffia" fame) also made fun of me for using the word "improvisatory." Onstage he came off a bit like an alcoholic Henry Rollins who'd let himself go, but backstage despite the grough exterior and sexual innuendos directed at just about any woman in hearing range, he was kind of a pussycat.)
Edwin van der Heide's total laser immersion experience. This weren't no olde-tyme laser show, planetarium stylee; this was some new-time shit, all hissing midrange and strafing beams. Even better was his Spatial Sounds (100dB at 100km/h), a robotic speaker mounted on a spinning arm; when it senses the presence of people, it slows before them, growling menacingly, before returning to its breakneck spin. One of the most frightening things I have ever experienced.
Seeing shows in a disused machine shop is way cooler than seeing shows on a stage, any day.