Terrastock (4.12.06)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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And you thought Providence was a freakshow before

The last time Terrastock happened—in Boston, 2002—Sonic Youth played their set at 2:30pm. Middle of the afternoon. In a sense, that day, they were actually the opening act for a dozen unknown bands—bands from Boston, bands from Sweden, Poland and Japan. Bands who only have CD/Rs for sale. But to say that anyone involved was warming the crowd up for anyone else would be missing the point of the whole thing.

Terrastock, the official festival of the long-running British fanzine Ptolemic Terrascope, eschews the typical festival protocol, where the best is ostensibly saved for last—rather, it’s more like a long day in middle school with substitute teachers in every class and polka-dotted mushrooms being served all day in the cafeteria. It’s three days long, about 35 bands big, and will take place on alternating stages at AS220 and the Pell Chafee Performance Center next door, The bands will perform in a completely random order by design of the guy in charge this year, AS220’s Jeffrey Alexander.

“The perception of music in the US is really skewed, because people don’t go to see bands unless they’ve already seen a band in Magnet or AP or even stupid Pitchfork,” Alexander says. “And writers won’t write about them, either. Ideally, like, in Italy, you have writers who hear or see some random band they’ve never heard of but just suddenly love, and the next day, they’ll give the band a bigger headline than Morrissey or the Rolling Stones.”

Not that being well-known is an issue either way—the festival is certainly not out to trash bands who’ve accrued a little fame. In addition to Sonic Youth, Terrastock has previously seen sets by Elf Power, Mudhoney, Neutral Milk Hotel and even ex-Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker. The festival on a whole seems to be about ignoring the distinction not only between “big band” and “little band,” but also between bands and record store owners, collectors and people just out to hear something new—sorry, make that to have their minds completely fucking buh-lown.

The beauty of Terrastock—and a quick look at this year’s roster will confirm this—is that very, very few bands on the list are bands that you’ve actually heard of before. Acid Mothers Temple will surely put on a huge opening night freakout, and it’s hard to imagine a Lightning Bolt performance without a gajillion screaming art students in the room.

Your familiarity with the rest of the bands, however, really depends on what circles you roll with and how much time you spend scouring the internet for Scandanavian psych-folk bands. Did you miss out on seeing Fursaxa and her crazy Finnish barefooted melodica players at last year’s sold-out P.A.’s Lounge show? Looks like you get another chance!

As per Terrastock tradition, no one’s making a dime off this show. In true musical potluck fashion, the money from the tickets—which can purchased by the day or as a three-day pass ($110)—covers traveling expenses for the bands (some of whom are being flown overseas exclusively for the fest) and that’s it. None of the shows overlap, so you’ll never have to choose between sets, ensuring that the sidewalk between the Pell Chafee and AS220 will be teeming with a steady stream of blissed-out concertgoers with fun accents. On top of the random schedule of bands, Terrastock shows have been known to suddenly morph into audience-inclusive improv sessions—it becomes very easy very quickly to lose track of who’s in the band.

And that’s just how the scene goes. Supported by the magazine’s tiny but rabid readership, all five previous incarnations of Terrastock have sold out.

“The first ticket we sold this year was to someone in Portugal,” Alexander says. “People meet through the magazine. Phil McMullen, who runs the magazine, the readers, the bands—we’ll trade records, have email friendships and just never see each other until the next festival. It wasn’t intended to be this way, but it’s become a big party.”

Alexander himself has been a part of the process since the beginning. His band at the time, Science Kit, played the first-ever Terrastock in 1997 in a warehouse in Providence—since then, the festival has been held in different cities all over the world, including Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and London. Despite his long involvement, this is Alexander’s first time taking on the role of Terrastock head honcho (though the only job requirements, he says, are the “willingness to devote an entire year of your life to something you won’t get paid for” and “stressing out and upsetting all your friends”).

His approach to booking the bands is apparently more methodical than one would initially assume: “I’d have to disagree with the statement that the acts are stylistically all over the place or whatever,” he says. “I mean, they’re all in my record collection, so that’s a common thread right there.”

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 4.12.06]

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