What happens when 2,000 hipsters take over a Las Vegas casino hotel and hold a birthday party?
A lot of strange juxtapositions, to start with. Like the 4 a.m. McDonald’s lineup filled with both plaid-wearing Pavement fans and a crew of Jersey Shore fans who watched Pauly D spin tunes down the hall. Or hearing songs by Cold Cave and Interpol over the casino PA system alongside the latest hits from Katy Perry and Taio Cruz while well-dressed people spun the wheels of fate and hope for the best.
Going to Nevada to celebrate a 21st birthday isn’t that unusual—except when you’re one of the most successful independent music labels in the world. So, yes, maybe Las Vegas wasn’t the most logical place for Matador Records to bring together nearly every awesome band in their history for three nights of shows. But in hindsight, it was kind of brilliant.
For one, the Pearl Theatre, located in the Palms Casino Resort just off the strip, is a pretty great venue. There wasn’t a bad seat in the entire 2000-capacity room, even if you were a slacker and didn’t want to camp out for a good spot on the floor. But the setting also gave the event a weird sense of cultural solidarity. This mix of bands, journalists, label reps and fans had travelled from across North America and around to the world to celebrate a record label full of genuine, authentic artists in America’s most unauthentic city. As days blurred into nights, and after-parties transitioned to after-after-parties, it was like everyone was united together in this bizarre environment, surrounding three incredible, bucket-list-completing days of music.
Here’s how the weekend went down:
Pavement’s second-to-last show on their reunion tour was the big draw on night one, which is why it was all the more sad that it was rather terrible. Maybe fatigue on both ends is to blame. Most anyone who really wanted to see the band had probably already seen them this year at least once (I caught them in Montreal at Osheaga, myself). More importantly, the band weren’t feeling it either. The performances were sloppy and half-assed, and guitarist Scott Kannber raised the tension to uncomfortable heights when monitor issues led him to engage in frequent angry outbursts at the rest of the band and the sound crew. Even though things reconciled for a great closer (“AT & T”), it felt like the band is just anxious to get this reunion tour crap over with.
Thank goodness, then, for Sonic Youth, delivering a mammoth set that played to all of the band’s strengths: a mix of their punk, prog and experimental soundscapes, with something from nearly all corners of their almost 30-year career. (“Crossing the Waves” was a beast.) Also stepping up with a killer set: Chavez, who played with an energy and passion disguising the fact that they really haven’t performed much in the past decade and a half. Guitar Wolf was late arriving to Vegas, so their show-opening set was cut short (they got another at the after-aftershow). Toronto’s Fucked Up did a fine job ramping up the energy in the middle of the card, with frontman Damian Abraham diving through the crowd, smashing water cups on his head, and even bringing his adorable two-year-old son out on stage for part of the set.
And yet, Damian and the gang still had energy to deliver my favourite part of Friday’s night’s schedule: a “two bands, one stage” afterparty showdown against Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Playing two songs at a time, the bands battled back and forth through the history of punk music for well over an hour, jovially jostling in between (Leo even wore a Quebec t-shirt to try and get Damian going). The crowd ate up every cover: Superchunk’s “Precision Audio,” Nirvana’s “Breed,” Sex Pistols’ “Bodies,” Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” The Misfits’ “We Bite” (with Jon Worster on vocals!) and Ted Leo taking to his acoustic for Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run.” It was like going to an indie rock festival and having a punk show break out. Leo conceded that Fucked Up won the battle. But Leo would win the weekend. More on him to come.
Here’s the thing about Saturday: at a certain point of the night, a few drinks led to a few more and things started blurring together a bit. It wouldn’t be Vegas without at least one night of modest excess, but it meant that I was a miserable failure at getting decent photographs of the night’s later acts.
In short, though: Belle and Sebastian were impressively professional, making up for what they lacked in musical spontaneity with a great stage presence and some of the festival’s most impressive-sounding performances. Spoon, in contrast, were a slight disappointment. They were the band perhaps most undone by the challenges of throwing together so many bands into one night; they played alright, but the sound and the vibe just felt off. It didn’t help matters much that they were following Superchunk, who just made everything seem so easy. It was another impressive notch in their 2010 comeback belt, hopefully inching them closer to the heightened reputation they deserve.
Earlier, Cat Power delivered a nice, swoon-inducing set of ballads, one of the weekend’s more quieter performances and a welcome change of pace. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was a highlight—their set was almost as tight as Spencer’s ridiculous leather pants. Girls played to a small-but-entertained crowd to start the day off. But the most surprisingly great performance of the night was from Come, who were apparently playing only their third show since 1995. You’d never have noticed: slow but heavy, it was a tour-de-force of noise and melody with Thalia Zedeknt’s gigantic vocals at the centre.
But even though the end of the night was a bit of a blur, my compatriots and I rebounded for one of the night’s two afterparties: Karaoke Underground, a homemade outfit from Austin, Texas that specializes in indie and punk rock. There's something amazing about having a room that, earlier in the evening, played host to Playboy Comedy with Kevin Pollak, fill of jovial scenesters singing along to songs by Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk and Ted Leo. Things got even more surreal when Leo arrived and sang Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow.” The event ended with one of the weekend’s best moments: Matador staffers jamming the stage to belt out Pavement’s “Summer Babe” (inexplicably NOT played by the band themselves the night before) and watching everyone else join in, including (yep) Ted Leo, who then crowd surfed. So awesome.
Maybe it was the karaoke singalong the night before. Maybe it was that Ted Leo had encountered enough attendees at this point for his infectious enthusiasm to rub off. Or maybe it was just that the people who needed to get soberer got sober, and the people who needed to get drunker drank more.
Whatever it was, the entire vibe at the Palms seemed to shift on Sunday towards the hyper-positive. It started with the killer afternoon matinee show with the thunderous Kurt Vile, the alt-pop of Times New Viking and the Kiwi-Velvet-Underground sounds of The Clean (who were joined by Ira and Georgia of Yo La Tengo for their final songs of the set, including a Lou Reed cover). And it ended with the loudest, most boisterous crowd of the entire weekend belting along to Guided by Voices songs they probably thought they’d never hear again live.
Yes, the “classic lineup” GBV reunion was the weekend’s main attraction for most. From the opening fuzz of “A Salty Salute,” you could barely hear Robert Pollard over the crowd eager for one last chance to let loose. Those hoping for a complete retrospective of the GBV catalogue may have been slightly disappointed that the band stuck to their mid-90s creative peak, but dear lord what a peak. “My Valuable Hunting Knife.” “Game of Pricks.” “I Am A Scientist.” “Exit Flagger.” “Cut-Out Witch.” “Motor Away.” I basically geeked out for two hours straight.
That the crowd had been through the best pound-for-pound day of the festival probably made it all the more intense. Right before GBV, Yo La Tengo had delivered a spectacular set that oscillated between sweet melody and bone-crunching rock with ease. And, for “You Can Have it All,” they even had dance routines! Plus, they brought the second most fun tribute to Matador itself: changing the words of “Nuclear War” to a roll-call of shout-outs to the label’s staff over the years.
The most fun tribute to Matador, though? Once again, weekend MVP Ted Leo, who closed his set with The Pharmacists by bringing out Carl Newman of the New Ponographers to play Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label.” Stripping away the irony of the original song, Leo also delivered heartfelt speech where he talked about being high school friends with Matt Sweeney, falling for HP Zinker’s live show and being so incredibly proud of the fact that he’s now on the label. Not only that, but he joined Liz Phair on-stage during her short-but-so-sweet set (ie. all classics, no new crap) to sing harmony on, yep, "Fuck and Run."
It says something for how great the night was that Newman’s band, the New Pornographers, had the least-memorable performance, despite being all sorts of awesome. The energy dipped somewhat since they were about 20 minutes late starting—there’s a lot of gear to set up!— but by the end, the crowd had been ramped up again thanks to a slew of modern power-pop classics. Favourite moment: during the quiet part of “Testament to Youth in Verse,” drummer Kurt Dahle struggled to open a new beer before the drums were to kick back in, enlisting the help of bassist John Collins and his drumsticks to pop the cap just in time.
Of course, no one outdrank Guided By Voices, who basically just brought a Rubbermaid bin of beer on stage with them. The weekend started surreal, but by the end the entire casino felt just like a gang of old friends hanging out together, drinking a beer, singing the same old songs again.