Day Two: Sensitivity Training
The lineup on Day Two at Matador’s 21 Birthday seem loosely to fit into the label ‘sensitive.’ ‘Sensitive musicians’ might not be what you think of first when someone mentions Matador, but they include a couple of bands synonymous with sensitivity. Bob Nastanovich from Pavement is MC for Day Two, and he goes over much better than the first night’s.
All In A Name
Every band should have at least one song with the name of the band not just the name of the song, but IN the song. Jon Spencer name-checks himself in every song! Plus at like, fifty years old he can still wear tight leather pants! You might not think of Jon Spencer as someone who exhibits sensitivity, but the blues are a sensitive subject, one of pain and anguish at the human condition. The Theremin is able to express varieties of pain that are above the capabilities of any other instrument and also almost the human auditory register. Besides guitar and vocals, Spencer is a master of sorts at this instrument, able to make you feel like dogs when a fire engine drives by with its siren on. You don’t listen to the blues from Jon Spencer; you live it.
Oh to be young and on Matador. Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas just released his debut album “Learning” on the label this year. With just piano backing, it’s a collection of haunting minimalism, songs like “Gay Angel” communicating an angst that’s rare in the ersatz world of much of today’s songwriting. At times he looks like he’s about to break down and cry. It’s difficult to get this kind of thing across live, but he wins over the crowd at the Pearl Theater.
For a moment it looks like Chan Marshall, the elusive songstress known as “Cat Power,” might not appear after they announce her name. But she does, and she’s incredibly beautiful, and not just in the ‘crazy chick’ way. She croons a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” like it was the saddest song in the world. She also does a few verses of Nico’s “These Days” (you know the song in “The Royal Tenenbaums” when Margot gets off the bus) like she wrote it. Who was this ‘Nico’ person? Her incredibly soulful set is one of the absolute highlights of the entire weekend, especially if you’ve never seen her live before.
Chapel Hill, NC’s Superchunk were one of the architects of the original patented ‘indie rock sound’ in the early 90’s, and released a lineup of artists on their own Merge Records label (founded the same year as Matador) that’s not too shabby either. Their brisk, ‘chunky’ sound still works; they don’t change much from album to album but their quality is uniformly high. Jay Reatard, a musician on Matador died earlier this year, and the only mention I’ve heard of it is Superchunk played a cover of one of his songs. It’s a fitting tribute, but I’m surprised it wasn’t touched upon elsewhere by announcers or somebody.
The stage is lit all smokey and reddish hues during their set, reminiscent of a Civil War battlefield. If Matador was the North and Merge the South, I’m afraid Matador would still win, but Merge would give them a run for their money.
Austin singer/songwriter Britt Daniels is an arch pop craftsman, punctuating his lyrics dripping with irony with scorching guitar and vocal effects, yet delivered with such precise sensitivity that his music still sometimes feels minimalist. Matador took a chance in 1996 with his opener “Telephono,” and it served as a springboard to an ill-fated yet critically-lauded album for major label Elektra in 1998, “Series of Sneaks,” an indie rock classic and one of my favorite albums. It’s a musical sneak, barbed and daring and much darker than anything he’s done since, his newer work verging on synth-pop.
Performing “Car Radio” from that album shows how explosive he could be back then, and hasn’t quite approached since. But his newer work, sunnier and easier to approach, is so precise that it’s brilliant. The sonic barbs have to be as perfectly placed as the verbal forays into the battlefield of love for this to work. Britt Daniels makes something very difficult look easy, almost conversational.
Belle & Sebastian IS the sensitive person’s band, and their listeners have long put up with jokes about being cardigan-wearing nerds. But then they are the ones to get members of the audience up on stage with them to dance. Who can be depressed when you’re having this much fun? It’s the paradox of Belle & Sebastion: what if the nerds really ARE having more fun? (I do consider myself a nerd, but the 'cool nerds?' Never mind) Their history with Matador goes all the way back to 1996’ “Tigermilk,” and they do a song from the period, “The Boy With the Arab Strap,” one of their best-known. With horns as well as a violin quartet onstage with them, they might be taken as pompous, but in their understated British way, they seem to take everything in stride. Singer Stuart Murdoch even tosses out nerf footballs to the audience, saying “isn’t it the simple things in live?” That doesn’t sound like the exclamation of a nerd to me!
Belle & Sebastian are one of my favorite acts on the label, and it’s a treat to witness this large ensemble in the British songwriting tradition perform, since they don’t often drag all their gear ‘across the pond.' With their new album titled “Belle & Sebastian Write About Love,“ is there any doubt that they are kings and queens of the sensitive nerd universe? When you end the second night of Matador @21 festivities with people partying up on stage with a band, how do you top that the night after? (Hint: it’s a three letter acronym - - -)