All Growed Up: Matador at 21
If you are a complete geek for the indie rock genre like I am (and what does ‘indie’ mean anymore?) there’s a good chance that Matador Records is a large part of your musical experience. You don’t have to remind Matador to celebrate the fact of their longevity. The self-admitted “most self-congratulatory label” is celebrating twenty-one years since their humble origins in the apartment of Chris Lombardi, later joined by Gerard Cosloy, who had founded Homestead Records in the 80s.
In the indie world, Matador has become over the years pretty much the standard-bearer (as their logo is a flag), the gold standard for indie record labels to aspire to, both in terms of roster and the way they promote their acts and themselves. Being able to attend this festival is a dream weekend for me, a dream lineup, a way to get ‘lost’ as it’s titled “The Lost Weekend” alluding to 21 year old’s coming of age and loss of innocence. The Palms Hotel in Las Vegas is a setting designed for the party of lifetime. I plan on getting lost in the music I love.
Day One: Noisefest
Apparently, someone at Matador thought it’d be entertaining to get the worst comedian ever to MC the first day’s proceedings. By the end of the night people were throwing popcorn at him and wished he’d just go away. That’s not the kind of thing that made Matador great.
But then Guitar Wolf started the festival in earnest. The first night seemed to have a theme of noise, whether intentional or not. All the bands have ‘noise’ or dissonance in various ways a large component of their sound. Guitar Wolf is perhaps the purest rock’n’roll sound of the bunch, and it was an elemental, essential kind of act, where rock is sheer gutteral utterance and gesture, and they are masters at it. Besides, in their biker gear, they just look so fucking cool.
Chavez is a unit that gets lost in the pure volume of the Matador roll call. If you write great songs, what more do you need? Bassist Matt Sweeney has played with Guided By Voices, so he sat for a time at the right hand of Robert Pollard, who as the saying goes, shits out four songs before breakfast. And sometimes four musicians can have as much interplay as larger ensembles that just clutter the table.
Can’t Matador afford to spring for a back waxing for hirsute Fucked Up singer Damian “Concentration Camp” Abraham? Seriously, the Canadian band brought a kind of hardcore you don’t often associate with Matador. Typically, though, if Matador is going to sign a hardcore band, they pick one of the best in the world. They had the riffs, the cute nerd girl on bass, and Camp delivering the intensity, roaming out into the crowd and encouraging a crowd surfer. He swung the microphone around like a yoyo, and is the person potentially more intimate with a beer can than Robert Pollard--in this case a beer cup (only vessel allowed in the theater)--smashed against his head for the remainder.
Why does Fucked Up need three guitars? I can’t figure out, unless it’s for sheer noise! It’s a euphoric, cathartic noise. It’s so pure in a way that it didn’t seem ‘fucked up’ for Camp to trot out his infant son (with noise cancelling headphones on) to sing a song to. It was endearing, and sweet, and not really cloyingly sentimental at all.
Sonic. Fucking. Youth. The newest addition to the Matador label was chanted for, by that time people were so sick of the ‘comic’ they were yelling for him to leave the stage. They reached way back into their catalog, with “Cross the Breeze” from the epochal “Daydream Nation” (which they celebrated the 20th anniversary re-release tour two years ago) and even further, “Death Valley 69.” Although they have mellowed over the years, their way of connecting rock’n’roll and sex and death, in this case referring to the Manson cult, has always reminded that music can be the most dangerous art form. They are the ones I really wanted to see the first night, and they were radiating intensity, Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo at times writhing on the floor with their guitars to wrestle the feedback out of the instruments. Their set was utterly transcendent.
And Pavement to close out the first night; in some ways the most ‘successful’ band on the label. After Sonic Youth, the energy level lowered when they took the stage. There was a palpable tension between Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, both demanding their guitars’ volume turned up at different points by the soundman, at times seemed to be in competition with each other, and Malkmus played his usual diva. Sometimes I have a hard time really getting into Pavement because you have to sidestep the irony (sounds like one of their album titles), although some of their songs like “Stereo” and “Shady Lane" provide some thrills. There is something of the impetuous preppy about Malkmus.
The band never lets the energy of the set build to anything momentous, although there some volatile moments, Bob Nastanovich running around screaming like a crazy person, a balance to Malkmus who can be at times reserved, cool. I sometimes feel like Pavement is fucking with the audience, but sometimes not in a very satisfying way, like they are more interested in their internal conflicts than relating to the audience, or not really wanting to ‘rock out’ or sometimes even be there. They stepped back from the reflecting pool of noise to look at themselves, Malkmus especially, and the Narcissism in turn reflects that of Matador itself. What other label would celebrate itself in this way? But this self-aggrandizement is part of what makes them what they are, has given us this great assemblage of musical artists, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.