XX Merge: The Definitive List of 20 Things to Know
Wish you could have made it down to North Carolina to celebrate 20 years of Merge Records? Did you make it down there but had so much to drink that you can't really remember too much? Well, the latter applies to me, but I'm going to give you the rundown anyway. Here's everything you need to know about this past week's indie rock fantasy camp. Because what's a vacation without a 3,500 word recap? All photos (full sets here) courtesy of Brad Searles of the fantastic Boston-based blog Bradley's Almanac.
1. Lambchop. If you told me at the beginning of the week there would be one band that I would not stop raving about and it would be Lambchop I would have said, "I don't believe you. You're a liar." But the results are in and it's unanimous -- Lambchop stole the show at XX Merge. Check the Twitter and the blogs. They don't lie. And I say this as someone who has never really been a huge fan of the unclassifiable Nashville collective (OK, I'll bite -- some sort of alt-country/soul/chamber-rock/gospel hybrid). But Kurt Wagner led this 11-piece version of the band -- complete with a three-piece horn section -- through a perfectly-paced hour-long set that featured a bunch of total pros completely in sync and firing on every cylinder. To borrow a line from a band that they upstaged, Lambchop put on a clinic.
It peaked with the closing one-two punch of the rousing "Up With People" and a simply scorching version Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime." During the finale the always-seated Wagner got up from his stage-center chair and worked himself into a frenzy, realizing that if ever there was a moment to get wild, this was it. When the band finished up everyone in the club knew something special had just happened. Instead of the usual post-set exodus to the bar or the smoking patio audience members stayed in place, buzzing. The words "amazing" and "awesome" were heard numerous times. I'm still saying them.
2. The 3Ds won the Best Reunion Performance award. A handful of bands played together for the first time in more than a decade, but this New Zealand quartet's pair of shows (we were lucky enough to get a bonus set during Saturday's outdoor matinee) were the only reunion performances that felt like great sets and not great reunion sets. As in, for a band that hadn't played together in 12 years, not only did they sound -- I'm not going to say tight because part of the beauty of their songs is that just-slightly-off-kilter quality, so I'll just go with -- on, but the songs themselves sounded incredibly vital. The other reunion acts (more on them later), predictably, sounded of their era. The 3Ds were good enough to go up against today's best. Let's hope this week inspires them to do just that.
3. Imperial Teen came through big time under the most difficult circumstances. Sunday night's She & Him headlined show at UNC's Memorial Hall was the official end of the festival, but Saturday's Cat's Cradle showcase served as the unofficial end. If any big surprise was going to happen, it was going to happen then. Somehow, Imperial Teen -- a San Francisco indie-pop band that has released four albums (only the last two on Merge) in 13 years -- ended up as the final night headliner. But that couldn't be, right? A majority of the crowd had to be expecting the band's set to simply be a warmup for some special unannounced set.
So right after M. Ward's hour of roadhouse rock and Destroyer's brand rare genius, it was left for Imperial Teen to bring it home for a crowd that was hoping there would be something after them. And, bless 'em, they did it. The band's 1996 debut, "Seasick," is one of those unheralded classics, an album that came out during the '90s alterna-boom, didn't produce an instant hit and was just as soon forgotten. But it's become something of a cult classic and songs such as "You're One," "Waterboy" and "Butch" all hit the perfect power pop sweet spot. Some of the most frenzied pogoing of the week came during Imperial Teen's set, which by the end was an all-out dance party.
4. Superchunk will never not be awesome. Twenty years is a long enough sample size to declare this to be true, right? Merge's flagship band could have -- and maybe should have -- closed out the entire festival but was probably too modest to do so. Instead they headlined the second of four nights at the Cat's Cradle and it was like watching Albert Pujols take batting practice -- just knocking one after another out of the park, with ease. They could have played for two-and-a-half hours to a crowd this adoring but kept it to just over an hour of constant hits -- "Cool," "Detroit Has a Skyline, Too," "Driveway to Driveway, "Precision Auto," etc. And any worries that the band might be worn down due to de facto hosting duties were quickly dispelled. It was exactly the kind of fiery and fun performance everyone was counting on, which made it all the more impressive that Superchunk easily delivered.
5. Despite all the rumors, there were no surprise appearances. Two of the labels biggest names -- Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel -- were conspicuously absent from the list of confirmed bands. So of course rumors were running rampant that one or both would be playing. Didn't happen. By Saturday night, when it became apparent that Imperial Teen was the last band scheduled to play, the rumor mill really started churning. Jeff Mangum was in town! (Even though there wasn't even a TwitPic of evidence.) The Arcade Fire have to play? (They do?) Unfortunately, the rumor I tried to start -- that Zooey Deschanel would perform Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" in its entirety, backed by Arcade Fire -- never took off. Alas.
(Much more after the jump.)
6. Destroyer's Dan Bejar was the most singular character. It was a pretty unassuming bunch of performers at XX Merge. There was one A/B-list actress in the house, but she wasn't around too much and there were no real rock stars. And to be sure, Bejar is no rock star in the classic sense. But he's certainly got a bit of an aura. Maybe it's that Sideshow Bob head of hair or his perpetual drunken smirk. But he was one of the only people in the Cradle who a normal person would look at and say, "Oh, he must in a band." On Saturday he was his entire band, playing a rare solo acoustic set that was close to perfect. At least for hardcore fans. Of which I am unabashedly one. Remember that 8,000-some word Destroyer debate I took part in a couple years ago? Yeah. (My partner in blather in that exercise was there to get all fanboy with me for this set.)
Without the bombast of the full band Bejar had nowhere to hide, bringing his personality and quirks -- both during and before/after songs -- to the forefront. He ended most songs with an elaborate bow, playfully shot down requests and told a funny story about trying to bribe a cab driver to speed to get him to the club in time to see Polvo. Bejar's usually a hard guy to get a handle on and it was a treat to see him let his guard down and hear his long, winding, often-impenetrable songs stripped down to their core. I deemed it the ideal Destroyer show; these are just estimates, but I'd say 50% of the crowd was a bit confounded, 40% was enjoying it, and 10% of us were drooling like babies. I can't wait to do it again tonight at the Black Cat.
7. If your band has a lead singer who doesn't play an instrument, look for another label. When reunited punkers Pipe were on the stage I realized something -- singer Ron Liberti was the only traditional lead singer of the entire festival. There were a few sort-of exceptions -- Shirley Simms only sang for Magnetic Fields, but wasn't a frontwoman; Mark Eitzel was vocals-only Sunday night but that's not always the case with him; and Zooey Deschanel at least sat at a piano a few times -- but almost always, the singing came from someone who was playing guitar. Or bass. Or keyboard. Or, in the case of Michael Lerner of Telekinesis, drums. Just an interesting quirk.
8. Some of the scheduling was a bit questionable. One unique aspect of XX Merge was that we knew who was playing, just not on which day or in which slot. Of course, as each band played, it became easier to figure out who was playing when. Plus, everyone seemed to have some sort of inside info. But there were some head-scratchers. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band closed out the first night, but played for probably the smallest crowd of the evening. I explained that one on Friday. Superchunk closed out the second night, when it seemed like they'd make the wise choice to finish things out at the Cradle, especially if there was no special guest. Imperial Teen as closing Cradle band was bizarre, as previously discussed. And concluding with She & Him just left a bad taste. Some of these were logistic issues -- Oberst's set-up pretty much assured he had to play last, Magnetic Fields were apparently not into the idea of headlining, same with M. Ward on Saturday. Minor complaint.
9. My run of consecutive outstanding Spoon shows is over. Middling execution of failed strategy. They simply read the situation wrong. Spoon was headlining, but this wasn't a Spoon show. The last band for Cradle shows regularly hit the stage after 1 a.m. That means people had already started filing out (the festival wasn't exactly a youth outing) and many of those who remained were simply tired. Plus, this wasn't a Spoon crowd. This was a Merge history crowd. Pipe, the most punk rock band of the festival, just played a spunky reunion show filled with fist pumps and sing-alongs and self-deprecating humor. That was what the crowd wanted from them. Spoon needed to come out and build on that, from the start.
Instead Britt Daniel chose to open with two new songs -- "Mystery Zone" and I forget the other one -- that fell flat. Then there were serious technical difficulties during "Lines in the Suit" and as they tried to sort those out, the band chose to play the instrumentally-limited "The Ghost of You Lingers" -- never a particular fan favorite. And by that point it was too late. Spoon lost the crowd and never got 'em back. The band simply has too many great tunes to ever play a complete clunker -- even mediocre versions of "Black Like Me," "Utilitarian" and "My Mathematical Mind" are better than what most bands serve up -- but this just wasn't their night. The cover of Wire's "Mannequin" with Superchunk's McCaughan on vocals was pretty fun, but that highlighted the problem. We needed fun and Spoon was even more detached than usual.
10. Short sets are always welcome. I'm on record as being very in favor of short sets, so a festival like this is right in my wheelhouse. Most nights began with some peppy pop. The Broken West, Telekinesis and the Essex Green were all well-chosen openers that got things off to a toe-tapping start without wearing out their welcome. The Rosebuds, Oakley Hall, the Clientele and Richard Buckner left us wanting more, which is always the way to leave it. As a general rule, Merge's quality control is enough that every band on the label can play for 30-40 minutes without having to rely on filler, and that was the case throughout the week.
11. Most of the reunions were fun, but not exactly revelatory. In my preview post I said that Guv'ner was the band I was most excited to see. And their first show in a decade was certainly a ramshackle delight that represented everything that was great about '90s indie rock. But that was the extent of it. Spent's dreamy indie rock sounded mighty fine, Erectus Monotone did the haphazard early-'90s thing well, Pipe brought the attitude and riffs. They were simply nice pieces to a bigger puzzle.
12. The ending was absolutely anticlimactic. So how does the definitive indie rock label of the last two decades end its 20th anniversary celebration? With a set of run-of-the-mill Americana led by a giggly actress who stars in this summer's hip romantic comedy. Aw man, Merge. How you gonna do me like that? At least before the fizzle of a finale we got a soaring set from Baltimore's Wye Oak, who seemed as comfortable in a fancy music hall as they did in the relatively dingy Ottobar less than a week earlier. And we also got the comedy, storytelling stylings of American Music Club's Mark Eitzel. It was more bizarro Vegas lounge act than anything else, but it sure was entertaining and the man can belt out a song.
13. Not to get too sappy, but there was good people all up in the joint. You couldn't help but make new friends over the course of the week. After all, we spent six or seven hours a night in the same small club, mostly with the same few hundred people four nights in a row. Even in a group of indie rock social outcasts, there's bound to be some bonding. But whatever, you don't care about that.
14. The more popular the band, the more disappointing the set. I already covered Spoon and She & Him. You can check back to Friday's post to read about Conor Oberst's underwhelming performance. That left M. Ward as the other "popular" act (two shows at the 9:30 club this week would seem to back that) and it just didn't do much for me. It's not that Ward isn't charismatic or talented, it just felt like his roadhouse rock shtick felt a bit forced and out of place. Sure, that was a pretty rockin' version of "Roll Over Beethoven," and it's not like it all needs to sound like Polvo, but still.
15. Matt Suggs deserves your attention, better late than never. Saturday's afternoon matinee was particularly enjoyable, and only partially because of those potent sno-cone mint juleps and mojitos. Good lord. Summer heat + liquor - food = I'm sorry to anyone I may have had rambling, incoherent conversation with that afternoon. Behind the Orange County Social Club there was a makeshift tent that provided shade, if not relief from the seasonal Carolina heat. The free show featured a string of solid, low-key sets from Portastatic (Superchunk's McCaughan's acoustic side project; he was joined by a violinist), Tenement Halls (former Rock*a*Teen Chris Lopez), Radar Bros., and that bonus batch of 3Ds awesomeness. (I missed the Music Tapes, my only miss of the entire weekend.)
But the brief set from Matt Suggs really stood out, showcasing his immediately catchy songs and inviting voice. He even broke out "Alexander Bends" and "She's Got the Akshun," a couple of gems from his overlooked '90s band Butterglory. It really hit the spot. Or maybe it was those mojitos. Most likely a combination.
16. It was a true endurance test. It's not quite the marathon that is SXSW, simply because it was centrally located at one club and there was only a single day of afternoon music. Still, spending seven hours in the same club for four consecutive nights can take its toll. Especially on your wallet and liver. But it was nice to be in a land where a Budweiser cost just $3. Ah, southern living.
17. Bands are fans, too. As Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak said during her band's stellar set Sunday night (I'm paraphrasing here), "You may recognize me as the person dancing at the front of the stage during Lambchop the other night." And she wasn't alone. Hardly any of the performers played too-cool-for-school. OK, Conor Oberst wasn't seen anywhere but on stage during his set, what did you expect? Otherwise, most of the performers could be seen hanging out and watching the bands just like anyone else. The "backstage" was just a casually roped off area in front of the club that offered very little privacy. But it was barely necessary. Egos weren't a problem.
18. Your choice of celebratory birthday cover says a lot about your band. Cover songs are always a favorite way to psychoanalyze a band. XX Merge offered a nice, unique test case because most covers doubled as a tribute to Merge on its birthday. Oakley Hall, a band that draws on everything '70s, did Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label." Clever, appropriate. Superchunk's Mac McCaughan lamented the non-presence of New Zealand greats the Clean (he wasn't alone in that) so the band ripped through the band's classic "Point That Thing Somewhere Else" with assistance from Kiwis the 3Ds. A fitting tribute. (The Broken West went a similar route, playing Teenage Fanclub's "It's All In My Mind.") M. Ward did "Birthday" by the Beatles. Predictable, standard. Just something to ponder.
19. Old-school Bullets gear is en-die rock vogue. On Friday night I wore my bright orange, faux-vintage Baltimore Bullets t-shirt to the Cat's Cradle, ensuring that I'd be wearing the coolest shirt in the joint. Like some dude's Husker Du tee could touch that. Please. Thing was, Steve Treichel, drummer for the Radar Bros., was wearing a blue Washington Bullets throwback t-shirt that same night. Wha???? OK, so then the next day there's Dave Brylawski of Polvo wearing a bright orange Bullets t-shirt. Weirdness. There must be some way to capitalize on this indie rock + old-school Bullets nostalgia trend. I'm gonna think on that one for a hot minute.
20. Flipz will melt and congeal if left in a hot car for multiple hours. It turns out the first time wasn't just bad luck. Oops. (Not music related, I know, but I still thought I'd pass this info along. You're probably smart enough to already know this, though.)
Oh, and here's a bonus one to leave you with: it was really, really fun.
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