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A not-so-brief recap of Matador at 21 in Las Vegas

gbvGuided By Voices left a little to be desired, but the rest of Matador at 21 didn't. (Photo by Steve Rogovin)

By David Malitz

At this point I’d say I’m completely recovered from last weekend’s Matador at 21 shindig at the Palms in Las Vegas. It was a sort of religious journey for indie rockers of a certain age, traveling to celebrate one of the very best labels in the world in Sin City with bands such as Pavement, Sonic Youth, Guided By Voices, Belle & Sebastian, the New Pornographers, Spoon and many, many more. I’ve written far too many words about what went down, so let’s just get to that. This was actually my vacation, so apologies if my notes aren't perfect. And also, Chavez really ruled.

The two most-anticipated performances of the weekend turned out to be the two most disappointing.

It was a completely stacked lineup from top to bottom but there were two clear highlights going in -- the final U.S. show of Pavement’s one-time-only reunion tour on Friday and one of the first Guided By Voices “classic lineup” reunion shows on Sunday. Neither show went so well but were still sort of fitting.

Pavement nearly imploded on Friday during a set that was doomed from the start by serious sound issues. (This was a very unfortunate recurring theme for the weekend.) Steve West’s drums malfunctioned on the first song, immediately forcing the band off its setlist. It means we got a stripped-down version of deep cut “Perfect Depth” but frontman Stephen Malkmus was already clearly annoyed. Mark Ibold’s bass was barely audible for the first six songs. Guitarist Spiral Stairs had endless issues with his guitar setup. He smashed the neck of his guitar into his amp, shouted off stage at the sound crew and at one point simply said to the crowd, “I’m so sorry.”

It sounded worse on stage than in the seats but it was hard to enjoy the show when it was so clear the band wasn’t enjoying it at all. Soon it seemed like the band was annoyed at each other. When Spiral played “Kennel District,” Malkmus sat down on the stage, occasionally doing some sort of backwards somersault, basically acting like a little kid who wasn’t getting the attention he wanted. That wasn’t necessarily the case but the dynamic between the two started to feel like divorced parents who got back together but then you realized why they got divorced in the first place.

The set ended on a high note with “Shoot the Singer” and “AT & T” -- two of the band’s best songs that were rarities during this reunion tour, at least. Then Spiral stalked off stage and the lights immediately went up. There would be no encore. If there was any question this was really the end for Pavement’s reunion, this show was enough of a disaster to ensure that those two concerts in Brazil next month will be it. Forever.

I’m very much in the minority in thinking that the weekend-ending set by Guided By Voices on Sunday night was a bit depressing. Make no mistake -- the majority of the people who traveled to Vegas were there to see Guided By Voices. They were there to get as drunk as their 50something heroes and sing-along to Robert Pollard’s endless supply of 90-second indie anthems. So when the band came out looking haggard and drunk and stumbled for a few songs, that was pretty much what people wanted and expected.

But it felt a little depressing. A little too appropriate for Vegas. Some reunions feel good, some feel a little desperate. On this night, at least, GBV felt desperate. Maybe I would have felt different if I was down on the floor in the middle of everything. (The closer you are, the quicker it hits you, after all.) But from my perch upstairs in the two-level Pearl Ballroom the whole thing looked like an indie rock reimagining of one of those Bill Brasky skits on “Saturday Night Live.”

The two oldest bands were the two best.

It was fair to wonder what kind of set Sonic Youth would play on Friday night. While they were elder statesmen of the bill they are still the new kids on Matador with just last year’s “The Eternal” being released by the label. They also have a reputation for focusing on their most recent album when playing live. Add it up and what you would not expect is an all pre-1995 set consisting of highlights from “EVOL,” “Sister” and “Daydream Nation.”

New bassist Mark Ibold sat out so it was back to the core foursome of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley and they sizzled for an hour. The majesty of the electric guitar was on full display. Just look at this setlist. Even without the technical issues the cards were stacked against Pavement after this performance. It was almost as if Sonic Youth was still hazing them, even on their final reunion show.

New Zealand legends the Clean were the other best band of the weekend. Perhaps there was no real reason for them to be a part of this celebration -- a European release of their mostly-forgettable 2001 album “Getaway” is the band’s only affiliation with Matador -- but it’s the Clean. Members of Yo La Tengo, Superchunk, Pavement and many more looked on as the trio played an especially punky set. There was still plenty of psychedelic sweetness and slicing lead guitar work from David Kilgour (a seriously fantastic and underrated guitarist) but the highlights were charging versions of “Odditty” and a set-closing cover of Velvet Underground’s “Can’t Stand It.” Maybe this set contributed to my being underwhelmed by Sunday night’s main showcase. How can you follow an awesome set by the Clean?

The sound was seriously a major problem.

My running joke throughout the weekend was that Matador was secretly a Christian label because every band pointed skyward during the first song, dedicating it to the Almighty. In reality it was just a plea for more vocals, guitar, everything in the monitors. Almost every single performer asked for adjustments multiple times during abbreviated sets. There were bouts of feedback and questionable mixes as well.

This isn’t shocking when you have a parade of different sound people for each act working in a venue not used to hosting this kind of music but you’d never think it would be this bad. It served as a distraction all weekend. The venue was also weird. A sizable pit in front of the stage was almost always packed but the two levels of seating behind were never more than half full, which gave things an almost too-casual feel at times.

It’s amazing to see the evolution of Chan Marshall and Stuart Murdoch over the past decade.

Cat Power and Belle & Sebastian were two of the featured performers on Saturday night and are also two of the longest tenured acts on Matador, releasing albums back into the ‘90s. It was striking to see how just how much both have changed, especially in a live setting. My early experiences with Cat Power found Chan Marshall as a frightened -- to put it lightly -- young performer hiding behind her bangs while mumbling some words and playing guitar unaccompanied. At Matador’s 10th anniversary show in New York she went on and offstage a number of times in a fit of panic; back then, this happened so often that it wasn't even newsworthy. When Belle & Sebastian first visited the Black Cat in 1998 band-leader Stuart Murdoch was a skittish and passive frontman who sat on a chair on stage and spoke meekly.

Fast forward more than a decade and there’s Marshall sauntering about the stage, singing sultry soul songs backed by an all-star band. She still apologizes mid-song sometimes but is an assured and mostly confident performer. Murdoch has come even farther. His band is somehow more twee than ever but Murdoch has fully embraced rock semi-stardom. He traipses around the stage, comfortably chats with the audience, even throws plush footballs into the crowd. (You could have scored great odds before the festival that Belle & Sebastian’s set would feature more sports references than Pavement’s.)

Ted Leo is irrepressible.

If there were odds going into the weekend as to which of the hundred or so performers would be most ubiquitous, you would have seen Ted Leo’s name at the top of the board about 33/20. (Those are the odds the Miami Heat are currently getting to win the NBA title. I kind of like the Magic at 19/2 as a decent value pick.) On Friday night he performed a late-night “battle set” against [Expletive] Up that included a cover of Liz Phair’s “[Expletive] and Run.” On Saturday night he sang a spot-on version of Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow” during a late-night karaoke party and eventually crowdsurfed during a 4 a.m. rendition of Pavement’s “Summer Babe.”

Sunday he played his scheduled set, then returned to the stage to duet with Phair on “[Expletive] and Run,” as well as take part in a comedy skit by the evening’s hosts, Scharpling and Wurster. When Guided By Voices guitarist Mitch Mitchell ran on stage during Yo La Tengo’s set (and came this close to getting a serious beatdown from venue security), Pitchfork tweeted that it was Leo. Mitchell is older, shorter and chubbier but it was hard to blame them for making that mistake given how much Leo was making himself seen.

The “indie rockers vs. people who usually hang out at the Palms” culture clash was mildly hilarious.

The Palms houses a Playboy Club. It costs $8,000 to reserve a seat at its swanky outdoor pool. The guest DJ at one of their many in-house nightclubs over the weekend was none other than Pauly D. So to say the 2,000 or so 30-something indie rockers didn’t exactly fit in at the Palms is a bit of an understatement. All festival attendees had bracelets on their wrist for the entirety of the weekend but it’s safe to say that even without that identifying feature it would be easy to tell who was there to see the bands and who was just there.

Basically -- dude wearing glasses and a Minutemen t-shirt = Matador. Girl wearing high heels that have more material than her dress = not Matador. Another weird aspect -- the music piped into the casino all weekend toggled back and forth between a Matador playlist and a regular Top 40 playlist. From Harlem’s “Friendly Ghost” to “Hot and Cold.” Very bizarre.

Since all the bands were staying at the hotel, run-ins happened regularly.

This was really one of the selling points of the weekend. It was as much indie rock fantasy camp as three-day concert. OK, so Stephen Malkmus didn’t lead a morning session where he talked about how he used alternate tunings. But he was just right there buying bottled water as I’m eating pizza in the food court. (Did I show him my Gilbert Arenas t-shirt I was wearing as an excuse to have a 10-minute conversation about basketball? Of course I did. He likes Javale McGee a lot this year.) You go to eat breakfast and Spoon’s Britt Daniel sits at the table next to you. You play some roulette and Mitch Mitchell of Guided By Voices is playing, too. You get into the elevator and stand next to members of a band you wrote a very, very negative review of. By the end of the weekend it was well beyond being noteworthy. Yeah yeah, Ira Kaplan, great, out of the way dude I’m trying to get downstairs!

Confirmed: Britt Daniel’s favorite Spoon song is “The Ghost of You Lingers.”

This has been a theory for a while. It rides on the more general theory that a band’s favorite song on an album is often the fans’ least favorite. I always thought this held true for the spare, skeletal song from Spoon’s 2007 masterpiece “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” It’s one of the only songs I’ve seen the band play at every show since that album came out (and I’ve seen plenty), even though it never fails to kill momentum. If there was ever a time for the band to leave this song out it would be during an abbreviated set for the label that released their earliest records.

Spoon did open with “Mountain to Sound” and “I Could See the Dude,” the first two songs off their dynamite 1997 “Soft Effects” EP, and after playing all five of those songs just a couple of days earlier in L.A. it was fair to expect a repeat. That wasn’t the case, though, and right on cue at song number five in the set came “Ghost.”

Superchunk and Yo La Tengo -- always great.

If there’s a Matador at 41: Midlife Crisis and these indie rock stalwarts are on the bill you can be sure that they will deliver two of the best sets. They’ve been doing it noisily and gracefully for 20 years (more in Yo La Tengo’s case) and there’s no reason to expect that to stop any time soon.

Maybe the best part of Sunday night - Scharpling and Wurster comedy bits.

Each evening had an MC. Friday was Jeffrey Joe Jensen. He was annoying, not very funny and his bits were too long. Saturday was Pavement’s Bob Nastonovich. He was a little drunk and very brief. Sunday’s hosts were “Best Show on WFMU” comedy duo Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster (the latter plays drums for Superchunk) and each one of their skits/introductions were legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. Not so-unfunny-it’s-funny. Real laughs. The best line might have been Wurster-as-hipster describing his band as “Das Racist meets that owl movie.”

Liz Phair’s performance was notable for being not-so-notable.

Of all of Matador’s ‘90s success stories, Phair seemed the least likely to come back for this reunion. She slowly but very surely moved away from the sound of her still-amazing debut (and only Matador release) “Exile in Guyville.” That album’s recent re-release was handled by another label entirely and Phair made headlines recently for her self-released new album on which she raps. So what exactly would she do in her allotted 20-minutes? Exactly what you’d expect her to do: play “Divorce Song,” “Stratford-On-Guy,” “[Expletive] and Run,” wear high heels taller than Jon Spencer and walk off stage. It was fine.

I am all for more music festivals at casinos in Las Vegas.

Maybe not ones with lineups as strong as this one, though. It’s hard to focus completely on the music when there’s gambling just outside that venue door. It’s hard to have that much energy for music at 1 a.m. on Sunday night when you were up until 4:30 the previous night playing blackjack and had to get up a little after 9 a.m. to bet on NFL games. (Thanks for that cover, Cleveland Browns.) I almost felt guilty for not seeing more music but sometimes you just have to be logical: Shearwater will be back in D.C. before legalized gambling.

By David Malitz  | October 6, 2010; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Live last night  | Tags:  Belle & Sebastian, Guided By Voices, Liz Phair, Matador Records, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Spoon, Superchunk, Ted Leo, Yo La Tengo  
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Malitz writes of Liz Phair, "She slowly but very surely moved away from the sound of her still-amazing debut (and only Matador release) “Exile in Guyville.”

Phair's first three albums were on Matador (Exile, Whip-Smart, and Whitechocolatespaceegg, the last one a joint release between Matador and Capitol), as was her Juvenilia EP and a handful of singles.

Posted by: BC14 | October 6, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

My bad, BC14. I thought it was on Atlantic; thanks, fact-checking cuz.

Posted by: DavidMalitz | October 6, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Brilliant review, David.

The Vegas setting was perfect; if they had held it in New York, only New Yorkers would have come.

"The Ghost of You Lingers" might be the only Spoon song I like.

I was surrounded by GBV fans all weekend, and I was surprised that they both a) almost to a man hate Spoon, and b) they all really dug Belle and Sebastian's set. I was also the only one among them who was 100% into Yo La Tengo - Blue Line Swinger got me psyched for GBV; everyone else had the Mitch Mitchell vibe.

Posted by: gfriday | October 6, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

You and I have the same Agent Zero tee. Nice.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | October 7, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

There is no such thing as a sh*tty Belle and Sebastian concert. Looking VERY forward to seeing them next week from the fifth row at Constitution Hall.

Posted by: MACCHAMPS04 | October 7, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Yes, you are "very much in the minority" in thinking the GBV show was "depressing." The many people I know who attended and the many more people I know who watched the video feed of the show either live or the next day were tremendously uplifted by the energy of the band. I truly hope you will NOT be attending the 9:30 club GBV show as I wouldn't want you to get any more depressed. Trust me, the rest of the crowd will be feeling great whether or not they are drinking.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | October 7, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I also have to say that you were definitely in the minority on the GBV set. They had the best attended and the best reaction of any of the performers, although Sonic Youth KILLED friday night and came within the ballpark. As Kevin Fennel puts it "You either ARE or you aren't Guided by Voices"
As someone who saw the Vegas, LA and SF shows, each one of these has been awesome and the venues packed and the crowds absolutely NOT 'of a certain age'. it has been so gratifying to see 20 somethings GET it. I am only sad I can't see more shows and have to wait until the 9:30 club on the 21st.
ps; EPIC FAIL on reviewing a GBV set from a balcony.

Posted by: whydidyouland | October 7, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

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