Last night, the booking agency Ground Control Touring and the music site Noisey partnered to bring something like a five hour mini-festival to Manhattan’s Webster Hall. The occasion was the former’s 15th anniversary, and the stacked lineup was built from Ground Control’s roster. Eighteen acts took over three different rooms in Webster: the tiny basement Studio, the slightly larger Marlin Room, and the Grand Ballroom, the place where you’re most likely to actually see a show at Webster on a regular basis. Of those 18 bands, six were featured on Stereogum’s list of the best albums of 2015 — Kurt Vile, Speedy Ortiz, Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, Titus Andronicus, and Hop Along. That gave the night some element of end-of-year celebration, a place to see the artists behind some of 2015’s best music, all together. But these bands were also joined by veteran indie figures like Lee Ranaldo and Superchunk, and by perennial contemporary favorites like Perfect Pussy and Parquet Courts. With some artists only playing a handful of songs, it was the kind of event that had you running between Webster’s three floors out of fear of missing something.
That FOMO was mostly rooted in the fact that the Ground Control event quickly revealed itself to be a place where artists were going to be doing unique things with their sets. This wasn’t a place where everyone was just going to play their newest material, or their most well-known. While the lineup reads as a pretty rock-oriented night (and it still generally was), a lot of those artists actually opted to take the stage in a solo and/or stripped-down manner. Steve Gunn, who’s recently fleshed out his brand of contemporary folk with full band treatments, was up there alone with an acoustic guitar, singing highlights from last year’s Way Out Weather. Periodically, he started to filter his acoustic through a bunch of effects, drenching it in distortion and who knows what else. Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus also flew solo, taking the stage for a three-song set that began with a slowed-down, dramatic interpretation of The Most Lamentable Tragedy highlight and total burner “Dimed Out,” and ended with a surprise cover of Parquet Courts’ “Black And White.” Kurt Vile, too, eschewed the obvious. There was no “Pretty Pimpin” (a minor shame, considering it’s one of the best songs of the year); instead he opened his set with long, drone-y songs — just him and his guitarist with some background loops.
And then, at the end, Steve Gunn and Kim Gordon joined Vile for a 15-minute rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.” The announcement for the Ground Control event had promised unique collaborations and surprises, and while there was unavoidable joy in seeing Superchunk take the stage and do their thing loudly, the stuff that dominated the night were these weird things you likely wouldn’t have a chance to see elsewhere. At the end of Woods’ set, Andrew Savage of Parquet Courts joined them for an awesomely muscular cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.” Then Vile showed up and lead them through “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” a song very well-suited to Vile’s whole aesthetic. It would’ve been a beautiful, elegiac final moment for the night, but there was a bit more to see. Perfect Pussy took the stage downstairs in the studio, while Parquet Courts followed Woods upstairs. Thing is, it wasn’t really a Parquet Courts set. Lee Ranaldo came out with them, and while it at first seemed like he’d just be adding some guitar to their set, it quickly became evident that this was a weird fusion of things, with Ranaldo fronting Parquet Courts for a somewhat short, abrasive set that ended the night with a noisy wake-up call.
Ground Control Touring bill themselves as a company that has a careful, selective approach to who they work with. As far as last night’s birthday party goes, that curatorial impulse was on full display: The bands on the bill felt like they were all part of some large extended family and/or scene, despite them being, at times, far removed generationally or geographically. But when they were all under Webster’s roof, it came off like a giant house party, with artists flitting between each other’s sets, sometimes thwarting audience expectations, but mostly offering up a weirder and more gratifying show than you’d usually reasonably expect on a Wednesday night.