As far as cool lineups of bands go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a trio more unassailably cool than the three bands that played the Williamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn on August 12. Critical darling Kurt Vile, with his band the Violators, opened the show under the early evening sun and played a short set comprised mostly of songs from the recent, great Smoke Ring For My Halo. The newly formed super group Wild Flag— comprised of indie-rock heavweights Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders—followed with a set from their upcoming debut record. Wild Flag sounded great, but raw, at their Brooklyn show in the spring, and it’s clear that they’re a much more cohesive unit five months later. Timony in particular is clearly more energized, and seems to have adopted some of Brownsteins guitar-hero theatrics.
After two pretty impressive openers, headliners Sonic Youth played a predictably great, multiple encore set as the setting sun gave way to a full moon. Playing again as a five-piece (with ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold back in the fold), Sonic Youth sounded as vital as ever. It’s almost impossible to believe that Kim Gordon is pushing 60. Thurston Moore’s no spring chicken either, but likewise shows no signs of slowing down. Given how young the crowd seemed to be, Sonic Youth are definitely proving they’ve still got it.
Venerable indie record label Matador Records turned 21 this year, and what better place to hold a 21st birthday celebration than Las Vegas? So over three days at the Palms, a cavalcade of Matador stars, past and present, celebrated the label that helped to usher in “indie rock” into the musical vernacular.
The mood all weekend was, naturally, nostalgic and celebratory. Liz Phair called it a “college reunion,” and many of the bands cited how excited they were to see the old gang again. These days, record labels are less and less relevant, but waaaaaay back in the 90′s, you could tell a lot about a band simply based on what label they were on. And in the 90′s, Matador was the big dog of the indie labels, home to some of the most influential bands of the decade, like Pavement, Guided By Voices, Liz Phair, and Belle and Sebastian.
Besides the actual music of the weekend, which was generally great all around, the best thing about the shows was that all the bands stayed in the Palms, along with most of the fans. So just walking around, you’d see bands all over, hanging out, gambling, etc. I checked in to the hotel as Pavement was arriving, had breakfast flanked by various New Pornographers, and stepped into the elevator with Superchunk. So there was a very communal feeling all weekend. Plus, it was kind of amazing how great almost every person performing looked. It’s like there was a fountain of youth clause in the standard Matador contract. Everyone looks almost exactly the same, if not better, as they did in the 90′s. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is pushing 60, and looks the same. Same with Thurston Moore. Steve Malkmus and Bob Nostanovich look almost better, Mac McCaughan from Superchunk still looks like he’s 14, and Robert Pollard of GBV is obviously immortal.
Best performance awards go to Superchunk and Sonic Youth, two been-around-forever acts that still brought the A-game. Superchunk in particular had the best energy of any act all weekend. Yo La Tengo reminded me why I like their records but hate their live show- endelss guitar wankery surrounding what would otherwise be beautiful songs. And the Pavement performance was the most intriguing, as the happy feelings around the reunion seemed to come crashing down in front of our eyes. It was like watching a train wreck set to indie rock. Whether it was due to sound problems or intra-band strife or a mixture of both, the band seemed all out of sorts. Scott Kannberg in particular spent most of the hour-long set visibly pissed off, stepping off stage several times to berate the sound guy.
Current Matador artists like New Pornographers, Belle and Sebastian, Kurt Vile, and Fucked Up were no slouches, and showed that the label is still in pretty good hands, while artists from Matador past like Spoon, Superchunk, and Chavez gave off a local-boy-does good vibe.
It was also great to see Liz Phair and Cat Power, two notoriously stage-fright-y singers, received so warmly by the crowd and give great performances. Chan Marshall was nearly upstaged by her great backing band, and Phair played a sparse, but great, 20 minute set, accompanied by a single guitarist, and joined by Ted Leo for set closer “Fuck and Run.” In a weekend full of nostalgia, Phair’s performance seemed the most nostalgic, given her less-than-amicable split from the label over 15 years ago, as well as the less-than stellar reception of her recent albums.
And of course, they highlight of the weekend was a tour-de-force by the “classic 1993-96″ lineup of the recently reunited Guided By Voices, who tore through 30+ songs over a two-hour, multiple-encore set.