Day Three: An Epic Journey
By day three, the video monitors all over the Pearl Theater showing music videos of Matador bands have burned themselves into everyone’s brains, with fond moments like Yo La Tengo’s video for “Sugarcube” in which they are forced to go to “Rock School” under the tutelage of big hair-wigged Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of Mr. Show. They all run together like a Ken Burns documentary, and it just shows how monumental Matador has been in the indie music world, and the affection felt for these moments in the life of a label.
A big part of Matador’s success and livelihood has been built on taking a chance on upstart talents, and they haven’t stopped. Kurt Vile’s Matador debut “Childish Prodigy” was one of the most highly-rated releases of last year. Compared to people like that other Kurt, Cobain and Bob Dylan, those compliments might just mean he’s derivative, doesn’t have his own voice. His sophomore slump might last the rest of his life, or instead he might come up with his own “Nevermind.” But he performs like he’s playing for keeps. It's an early matinee in the Palms Ballroom.
Times New Viking, along with Harlem, who played late Friday night, represent a new garage rock sound in indie rock, not that it’s never been there before. Harlem is the rough-hewn sound you might expect to hear on a Nuggets compilation, and TNV is a little more playful, but they are both highly listenable and have great songs.
New Zealand trio The Clean wrap up the Ballroom events, and they resemble Guided By Voices if that band had actually been born some British variant rather than pretending to be, with a wry sense of humor to match. The Clean’s art rock sound, like the group Wire, was a big influence on Robert Pollard. The Velvet Underground influenced them, as they show on a cover of “I Can’t Stand It Any More,” and later another VU-influenced band, Yo La Tengo, offers Ira and Georgia to play along with the Clean. Velvet Underground in their sound was the first indie band.
Then on to the Pearl theater for the final day on the main stage. Matador is a label that doesn’t do anything small time, and the ultimate evening of the event seems reserved for bands that are all somehow larger than life. Shearwater, started by Jonathan Meiburg, ex-Okkerville River, with his environmental lyrics is the one band on the label providing social commentary. He jokes about being ‘mistaken for Coldplay’ when once opening for them, and that makes you wonder if he’s on the right label. But his haunting lyrical style creates a cinematic musical mosaic on songs from his latest release “The Golden Archipelago that evokes an ocean of imagery.
No Love Lost
Ted Leo is the label’s purveyor of pop punk in the old style, but it never sounded fresher, like he invented it yesterday. He sings Nick Lowe's “I Love My Label” without any irony but genuine affection for the hosts. His energy is so contagious they need to start giving out shots.
The New Pornographers is the second Canadian act in the fest, after hardcore band Fucked Up, and couldn’t sound more different. Their pop folk ensemble in the classic 60’s manner is something wondrous to behold, but their set felt a little tight, pinched in due to the on-and-off nature of festival scheduling. It wasn’t as good as their show here as part of the Twilight Series, but it was nothing to sneeze at either.
About a Guy
Liz Phair (still smokin’ hot!) was only allotted twenty minutes to play a handful of songs from her classic album “Exile On Guyville,” but she made the most of it, transporting us back when those songs were new. The vicissitudes of personal relationships never gets old as a subject for songs, and Ted Leo’s accompaniment of her on “Fuck and Run” was one of the most delightful moments of the weekend.
Who knew? Yo La Tengo usually tosses in guitar feedback fiestas as segues in between songs, or small segments, but their set was a full-on acid trip of noise, in addition to playing old chestnut “Autumn Sweater” and riffing over an R&B groove on the topic of “twenty one years/it’s a real motherfucker,” name checking a seemingly endless list of Matador employees. Towards the end of their set, an oddly familiar fellow ran back and forth across stage with a beer, nearly wrestled down by security crew.
It’s none other than Mitch Mitchell, original guitarist for Guided By Voices, apparently protesting YLT going overtime on their set. The preset schedule times had been the subject of much discussion among “Postal Blowfish,” the GBV fan club, since the band is known to play up to three hours at times, and there’s no such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’ in their eyes. It’s rock’n’roll in the spirit in which it was created, as a celebration of freedom, adventure and excess, and they revel in it. The fans sing along with every number, and are as sticky with sweat as the band when it’s over.
Guided By Voices may have the most maniacal, if not the most numerous, fan club in the world, but the band also has the best roadie, lighting a cigarette and running out to place it in guitarist Mitch Mitchell’s lips when the need arose. And yes, they still have all the rock moves, and the riffs, and Pollard’s voice, though a bit more worn with age than when the classic albums “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes” were recorded, has gained character. This is the ‘classic 1994 lineup’ of GBV playing songs of the era, and it brings back the energy of their early days that they’ve never really lost, even post-2004 breakup in their various solo projects. The GBV fans get their two encores they have come to expect at the band’s gigs, even clamor for a third. But then you might get a little greedy too if your favorite band was known to hand out beers to some people on the front row.
“We go to the MAT for music you’ll ADORe,” as a cheesy ad for fake bands once proclaimed. This weekend was just one more proof of the way the label has endeared itself to its listeners. Pollard jokes at one point during GBV‘s set, “tomorrow you can go back to your miserable lives,” but he doesn’t mention that we’ll all likely have half these songs still ringing in our heads, and visions of the music come to life in these live performances. Pollard pleads on “Cut Out Witch,“ “do you think she can change your life?“ as if querying the muse. We can relive moments from this weekend in which rock music, after seeming to let us down so much in recent years, for once doesn’t fail to keep it’s promise to be transformative.