XX Merge Halftime Report

XX Merge isn't your typical festival. It's not a big outdoor event with multiple stages. It's not a city-wide thing with simultaneous shows all over town. It's based at one club (the Cat's Cradle), with a bunch of bands that by no means all sound the same, but are similar enough to have all recorded for the same label at one point. There isn't even a schedule. A list of bands was announced, but you don't know who's playing next until you see who's setting up on stage. It's a week of fun for indie-rock lifers, the kind of people who might get a bit excited to wait in a beer line behind Matt Suggs (of Butterglory) or see Claudia Gonson (Magnetic Fields) having a conversation with Ash Bowie (Polvo). Dorks like myself. It's not all about the music -- plenty of people seem to be happy to reconnect with old friends over some (compared to D.C.) cheap beers -- but here we'll keep the focus on the music.

Night two (Thursday) was pretty much non-stop highlights. The revelation of the evening was easily New Zealand's the 3Ds. I've said before that New Zealand bands don't age and this was another data point for that argument. The quartet's jangle pop jangled like they hadn't taken a dozen years off from jangling. Everything was just so slightly off-kilter, in that Kiwi sort of way, but there was plenty of punch to the choruses of songs such as "Outer Space" and "Hey Seuss." Early on it seemed nerves may get the best of them. When a fan shouted for "Hey Seuss," he was quickly told, "We don't play that one any more," in an almost defensive manner. Turns out it was a total front. About 25 minutes later the 3Ds brought the song roaring to life. After the band finished there was unquestionably a buzz in the crowd and I wasn't the only one saying, "Wow, do you believe how good that was?!"

Of course, that doesn't mean it was the best performance of the evening. That was easily -- and wholly unsurprisingly -- headliners Superchunk. The label's flagship band came out firing with early single "Cool" and stayed on the accelerator for an hour or so before ending, appropriately enough, with a frenzied, pogo-inducing version of whiplash-rocker "Precision Auto." Other highlights? Pretty much every song, whether relative ballads such as "Driveway to Driveway" or "Like a Fool," new cuts "Learned to Surf" or "Crossed Wires" or fist-pumping fan favorites "Slack [Expletive]" or "Detroit Has a Skyline Too." Frontman Mac McCaughan actually bested any audience member when it came to pogoing, bouncing around the stage like a superball and throwing in some windmill guitar moves for good measure. Oh, and then there was the first song of the encore, a cover of the Clean's "Point that Thing Somewhere Else," complete with the 3Ds sitting in. Needless to say, I was enjoying myself for that one.

(More after the jump.)

The first four bands showed that while Merge is most certainly an indie rock label, there's an impressive diversity to its roster. The Broken West kicked things off with a set of crisp, polished power pop before giving way to hulking singer-songwriter Richard Buckner. Whereas the Broken West is a quintet that plays songs with easy hooks -- maybe sometimes a bit too easy -- and comes off as a band you'd love to be best friends with, Buckner is an imposing, solitary figure on stage, playing haunting acoustic ballads that are given a claustrophobic feel thanks to his use of self-triggered loops. Buckner's set was especially effective, just the right amount of unsettling and entrancing.

After Buckner's stoic set came Guv'ner, the band I was most excited to see. They didn't disappoint, which meant they were exactly as disorganized and shambolic as I could have hoped for. After Buckner's no-frills setup and performance, Guv'ner spent an inordinate amount of time getting its gear ready to play a bunch of songs that still sounded like they were falling apart on themselves. Brilliant! The band was at its best on riffy songs such as "Break a Promise," "Motorcycle Man" and "Coozwax," which managed to have plenty of swagger as the band lovingly stumbled through them and Charles Gansa and Pumpkin Wentzel strained for notes they had no chance of hitting.

In retrospect, especially after the repeated peaks of the Thursday, opening night seemed more like an easing in, a getting-the-feet-wet situation. This is a long festival -- five full nights of music -- so it makes sense. Everyone was encouraged to get to the Cat's Cradle by 7 p.m. so we wouldn't miss the first act. This had people buzzing that it would be something very special; it ended up being early-era label post-punk band Pure. Not exactly unannounced Arcade Fire.

Lou Barlow followed with a solo acoustic set of self-pitying laments before things picked up a bit with Oakley Hall. They are one of my favorite unsung bands on the label, cherry-picking all the best bits of '70s rock -- some Grateful Dead '72 jamming, some Dylan '75 Rolling Thunder, some more general AM-radio pop -- and fusing it into an appealing package, complete with a pair of female singers often sharing lead vocal duties, almost always a winning move.

The Clientele -- the only British band making an appearance -- delivered a sumptuous set of blissful, English-garden-in-the drizzle indie pop. Few bands own their sound like the Clientele, all softly-picked, reverb-drenched guitar with intermittent blasts of fuzz, intricately melodic bass lines and gently cooed vocals.

The Magnetic Fields were next and provided most of the evening's comedy, from Stephin Merritt's inimitable deadpan delivery to the moment when pianist/vocalist Claudia Gonson was attacked by a flying waterbug and literally leaped from her stool to avoid it. I was hoping the band might break out some oldies from deep in the Merge catalogue, but it was a standard set that focused mostly on "69 Love Songs" material -- "Papa Was a Rodeo," "The Book of Love," "No One Will Ever Love You," etc. But even a by-the-numbers Magnetic Fields performance is a winner.

Five years ago the Rosebuds were the young whippersnappers of the label, an upstart pop band with one album under its belt. Now the band -- led by Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp -- is a fan favorite and it's well-deserved; they craft memorable songs, all catchy and dancey and with a spark.

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band seemed an odd choice for headliner. Oberst is brash and young, which doesn't really fit in with the blue-collar reputation of Merge. Plus, he's a fairly new addition to Merge and is most associated with a different label, Saddle Creek. No band playing this week, except for perhaps Spoon and Magnetic Fields, would sell out the 9:30 club quicker than Oberst, yet by the time he and the MVB started around 1 a.m., the crowd had thinned out considerably. Oberst came on stage sporting an absurdly huge black hat that the Wicked Witch of the West would deem just a bit too tacky to wear in public and proceeded to lead his band through most of their recent album. It's pretty basic Americana, but he and his "boys" seemed to be having a good time and weren't phased by the dwindling crowd, stomping their way through 70 minutes worth of tunes. What seemed to bother Oberst the most was when he found out that there was no tequila in the club. Bummer, dude.

By David Malitz |  July 24, 2009; 8:12 AM ET Favorites , Festivals , Live Last Night , XX Merge
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