Great Moments From Matador At 21 @ The Palms, Las Vegas
So that happened. It’ll take a few days of drying out and shutting eyes to come to terms with all that transpired in Las Vegas this weekend, though in the spirit of Matador’s three-day, boozy, purely winning 21st birthday blitz through its roster history, here’s a barely bound and scattered stream of its highlights in bulletpiont form typed while sat nuzzled betwixt a bank of slot machines while Ted Leo and Sonic Youth songs are still somehow in rotation on the Palms casino house music system. [Editor's Note: I'm back at time of publish, up $70.] It’s less about the performances — everybody was great, of course they were great, these are great bands — than a laundry list of the little moments spawned in this three-day petri dish of perpetually suspended reality the weekend. That’s below, but first a little setup.
The scene of course was the Palms Hotel, off the strip in Vegas. A marquee welcomed the Jersey Shore‘s DJ Paul D before being making space for Matador’s billing for the rest of the weekend, quite literally a sign of the nightly casino floor culture clash. Matador patrons were marked by beards, and spectacles, and the patronizing smiles of feeling their presence in Vegas on this weekend was on account of a superior set of intellectual and aesthetic pursuits than those otherwise dotting the space. Or, at least, an appreciation for Bob Pollard’s 90 second masterpieces. The Palms’ more standard Ghost Bar, Playboy Lounge, and Jersey Shore demographic were marked by faces bearing fake tans, excessive amounts of gel and jewelry and the patronizing smiles of the excessively sexed up. Pretty cool to hear folks try and explain each others lives to each other (“Well indie rock is sort of like…” Cool craps table conversation, for sure.) The natives played nice of course, equally amused to share pool water and floorspace with each other. Besides, concessions were thrown, respect was shown: The Palms made it so you were riding the elevator to the New Pornographers “Crash Years,” shooting craps to Guided By Voices “Bulldog Skin,” pulling slots to “Gold Soundz” while Steve West was two feet to your left.
As a festival experience, the parallels to ATP existed, certainly: A weekend at a compound, a self-sustained universe with its own set of amenities and priorities where you’re equally likely to be having the time of your life at 4AM or PM. Get from your bed to your meal to the stage all within a three minute walk and never step outdoors, making disco naps and avoiding oppressive bathroom lines a game-changing reality. There were the surreal They’re Just Like Us scenes of deified ’90s rock gods deigning to be like normal people, which of course they always are until a nostalgia fest like this hits when fast-food order becomes ripe material for a #matador21 tagged tweet. So Matt Sweeney’s wardrobe being the same for three days as he bound around the Palms lobby was duly and repeatedly, poor dude. Malkmus is in line in front of you in coffee, LIz Phair is on your elevator, you pull slots with Pavement, shoot basketball with Girls and Fucked Up and Bob Nastanovich, Cat Power is in line behind you for the indie karaoke afterparty in the lobby bar and hears every word you say about “her set being great I don’t care what anybody says” (apparently she appreciates it when this happens, or so says a woman standing in front of you because you can’t bring yourself to turn around in this entirely hypothetical situation).
But the difference of course was motive. At ATP you’re buying into an egalitarian party, one where the artists don’t necessarily or structurally feel a deeper kinship with each other over any other attendee. It’s a democratic classless experience built to champion the concept of art. On the other hand this, this was a college reunion, or a family reunion, as it was alternatingly referred to onstage. A run down Matador’s roster is a plow through the iconic bulls in the heather of indie culture, and the bands that shaped whatever the concept and illustration and definition of indie is that’s been challenged and refined by its cross into the mainstream in the new millennium. From Liz Phair and Cat Power to Sonic Youth and Guided By Voices to Pavement, to Spoon and the new guard of Girls and Perfume Genius and Cold Cave. It’s all in there.
The main music performances were in the Pearl Ballroom, which had a floor and a few tiers of seating. It’s a comfortable size and comfortable room, with nice naturally resonant sound, but a great many technical sound gaffes through the weekend, leading to some awkwardly memorable moments. But then there were the afterparties and the like: some in the Pearl Ballroom, where Fucked Up and Ted Leo made life memories with a (roughly) song-for-song band battle and the next night Cold Cave performed their dark synth-pop in the dark. There was the Lounge bar in the Palms lobby, which Saturday night hosted an indie rock karaoke night where Ted Leo covered Beat Happening and crowd surfed to a sing-along of “Summer Babe.” If you sprang for the VIP package you spent your late nights in a suite complete with an indoor basketball court and the weird scenes that played out at 4AM were endless.
As for the performances: I’ve never attended a festival where not a single act disappointed, until Matador 21. Many were outstanding, some were The Best. Those honors go to Sonic Youth, and Superchunk, and of course, Guided By Voices.
Here are some bullets:
GUIDED BY VOICES
Ruled. A colossal weight of expectations to bear after a tremendous weekend where no single act could be singled out for disappointed, and somehow Guided By Voices were witty, boozy, rock perfection. A THE CLUB IS OPEN neon sign lit up and descended, GBV were off. Bob Pollard brought high kicks, fantastic pitch, endless slurry salutes and beery banter about Miller Lite satisfying one’s daily H20 requirements, found ways to make talks of tequila segue into his patented commentary-on-other-bands bits. He talked about people not on his label (“People try to give me Cabo Wabo, tell me that’s Sammy Hagar’s shit. Fuck Sammy Hagar. He ruined Van Halen! Not that they needed any help.”), he talked about people on his label (“Liz Phair was great, wasn’t she … ladies?”), and most awesomely, he talked about his label itself (“We did two runs with Matador, we did three albums and left because we thought we were hot shit and needed ‘someone bigger’ to pedal our stuff, and we came crawling back and they kindly let us do another three albums with them.”) Mitch Mitchell was posed in two fisted rock salutes before the set even started, interrupting Yo La to do so, and went crowd surfing after the stage was emptied — that’s after the band’s second encore. They sounded mighty, by every account from every person that had seen them before, better than ever. Matt Sweeney came out and danced and sang. Hamish from the Clean came out and stage dived. And man, what a titanic “classic lineup” focused setlist: “A Salty Salute,” Smothered In Hugs,” “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” “Pimple Zoo,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Cut-Out Witch,” “Motor Away,” “I Am A Scientist” … they played your favorite GBV song. And then some. As @superchunk band put it, Guided By Voices are going to have to break up and reunite to top that.”
THE BEEF BETWEEN GUIDED BY VOICES AND YO LA TENGO (AKA “NEW JERSEY VS. OHIO RIVALRY”) REMAINS SALTY
At one point during Yo La Tengo’s set, Mitch Mitchell paraded across the front of the stage, beer in hand, rock face firmly set. It was a distraction, and he paid for it by being body checked by a security hand and nearly meeting the front end of that dude’s cocked fist. It was an uncomfortable moment for those that recognized Mitchell as Guided By Voices’ guitarist and not a random stage tosser, but even more uncomfortable moment for those that knew their GBV vs. YLT history. Stereogum friend and GBV bootleg enthusiast Conrad Doucette told me later of a boot he has from 2000, on which Bob Pollard spends time asking the crowd for impressions on the then-current crop of indie bands. By the time he got to Yo La Tengo, he was lubed up and spitfire, calling them “terrible” and sneering , amongst perhaps other less superficial observations, “They have a girl drummer, a fat bassist, and a rock critic critic for a guitarist.” So obviously having these two in direct succession on night last was asking for some Matador sibling rivalry. There’s your context for just how charged Mitch’s parade across stage was, and also provides some added dimension to the moment during GBV’s set that Hamish from the Clean jumped out and stage dived; in Conrad’s mind, this was helping make the peace and bridge the gap. Maybe. As Matador founder Gerard Cosloy put it before announcing GBV, “let’s put an end to the New Jersey vs. Ohio rivalry.” We’ll see how the next 21 years shake out.
YOUR MVP: MR. TED LEO
Somewhat ironic given that Ted’s one of those latter day Matador saints, calling the label home only recently, an annual fraction of Matador’s well documented 21. But then, nobody better embodies the spirit of this label, between a ferocious and longstanding commitment to fringe cultural spirit and commitment to being funny and sarcastic and self-aware and generally an adaptable man with an ability to straddle the divide between the music and comedic communities. And this weekend he was ubiquitous. Let us count the ways: A “battle of the bands” with Fucked Up (more on that below) during which he filed a solo acoustic cover of “Fuck And Run,” only two nights later to help WFMU’s Tom Scharpling and Superchunk drummer/Best Show regular Jon Wurster introduce her frankly excellent 20-minute set and PLAY TAMBOURINE AND SING on the song with Liz herself; memorable crowd surfing aplenty both during that Fucked Up band battle (while playing guitar no less) and at indie karaoke the night before during a group “Summer Babe” (also singing Beat Happening’s “Cast A Shadow” there); and the proper consideration for his paycheck, the proper Sunday night set during which he delivered a speech about what it meant to grow up a Matador kid, going with high school classmate and eventual Chavez man Matt Sweeney to check out a life-changing HP Zinkel set at Maxwell’s and the pride with which he now calls this label home. That led to one of the night’s most wonderful onstage musical tributes, a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label” with New Pornographer Carl Newman. If you think Ted would still be sleeping it off, you don’t know Ted. Dude’s touring and tweeting it up in the aftermath, like a boss. Here’s his speech, and his “I Love My Label.”
And here he is doing Beat Happening’s “Cast A Shadow,” karaoke style:
MUSICAL TRIBUTES TO MATADOR
There was Ted Leo doing “I Love My Label” by Nick Lowe and joined by Carl Newman, whose New Pornographers were next. (Ted pledging he meant those words very sincerely, acknowledging and conceding that Nick may have been sarcastic in writing that song, despite that meaning he may have been shitting on himself as the founder of Stift, but he and we digress). During the New Pornographers’ wonderful set, armed with both Neko and Destroyer Dan, Carl said that amongst the many things Matador had done for him, top on the list was introducing him to his wife who had worked for the label for eight years. (“I put an end to that of course. I rescued her from that place. On our wedding day I told Gerard and Chris, ‘No wife of mine will work for Matador Records.'”) And then after saying “lots of people thing my lyrics are bullshit,” he revealed that “Challengers” was about meeting his wife. And then the band played it. It was nice. Yo La Tengo changed to words to “Nuclear War” to be a Matador Records staff roll call, working the names of most every employee into song. And if people weren’t working their thanks to Matador’s Gerard and Chris in song, they were doing so in words. The label was thanked a lot this weekend, and deservedly so.
SCHARPLING AND JON WURSTER MADE ME FEEL GUILTY FOR TWEETING
While these two Best Show champs were all over the place this weekend, it was their time MCing the last night that was most memorable. Scharpling playing the part of “Tom” while Jon played the part of Philly Boy Roy (with some Tastycake baseball), Gene Simmons pedaling a new joke book (“Why did Peter Criss cross the road? Because I told him to, I’m Gene Simmons.”), and most excellently, a Williamsburg hipster who traveled across country only to spend his entire weekend on his phone tweeting. I didn’t tweet about that bit. But you can watch it below.
NASTANOVICH’S MCING, INCLUDING INVITING EVERYONE TO HIS ROOM/APARTMENT IN IOWA AND COMPARING CAT POWER TO A RACE HORSE
There really couldn’t have been a better role for Pavement’s onstage chaos center/primary cheerleader, who was adequately boozed to bring on many of the bands on Saturday. His best segue: Making some unhinged chatter in testament to the horse race Zenyatta, undefeated in 19 races, apply to our next act, Cat Power. That says more about Bob’s mind than any other story from the weekend possibly could, though ask someone who went and they definitely have at least two tales to share personal to them. He was everywhere, and loving it, and why not. He also definitely invited everyone in the show to his Iowa apartment and hotel room, with specificity as to location, and beer.
No Mark Ibold — he’s busy with that other band — meant a Sonic Youth lost in the throes of Thurston’s squall and feedback, incredibly nimble, focusing on older material (nothing from their Matador release The Eternal, not as ironic as it would appear on paper), offering a set of art rock at its apex. An unfair state in which to leave the stage for Pavement, though on this night Pavement wouldn’t need any additional help in seeming strained.
PAVEMENT’S SOUND ISSUES EXPOSE PAVEMENT’S ISSUES
Memorable for mostly the wrong reasons. At times it seemed there were people in the room excited that this was the last show scheduled on Pavement’s reunion tour. Unfortunately, most of them were onstage. Stephen spent some of the set with his back to the band, he and Spiral were terse in exchange, Scott later getting fed up (ostensibly with the sound issues) and spiraling off stage. It wouldn’t be the only time someone would leave stage this weekend over stage sound, but it would be the most analyzed. But that’s always been Pavement, isn’t it. On the edge of being great and lousy, often falling a bit too hard to one end. The fourth show I’ve seen of this reunion tour, one where the band seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, until this one, because you can never quarantine the past. Memorable in its own way. Thanks for coming back and for coming out, Pavement. It’s been fun.
Tore it up.
LIZ PHAIR, FEATURING TED LEO ON TAMBOURINE
Five songs — “Supernova,” “Divorce Song,” “Stratford-On-Guy,” “Nashville,” “Fuck And Run” — and you could kind of forget the last too many years of Liz’s career. She was joined by another guitarist, recalled her first Matador showcase (“at Rose…something,” which a fact checking cuz at Matador later clarified was Irving), and then joined by Ted.
CHOICE MOMENTS OF STAGE BANTER
There was Carl Newman talking about his love for Matador and how it led him to meet his wife. There was Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch talking about his love for Matador and how “existential” it was to share a stage with the likes of Sonic Youth, and how he had once interviewed Thurston in ’89, and Thurston “yawned in my face … I can’t blame him … I was a shit interviewer.” There was Ted Leo’s story of what Matador meant to him. There was Jon Spencer saying Blues Explosion 456 times. There was everything Bob Pollard said.
CHOICE ONSTAGE COLLABORATIONS
The Matador family’s always looked kindly on incest. Ibold stayed on the Pavement side of his Sonic Youth straddle, Matt Sweeney didn’t recreatE his past moments with Chan Marshall, but otherwise the list was robust: the Clean bringing out Georgia and Ira from Yo La Tengo, later Hamish would return the favor and play drums during YLT’s set; Matt Sweeney sang and danced with Guided By Voices; Ted Leo played tambourine with Liz Phair, the night after covering her at the battle of the bands with Fucked Up (technically also sharing the stage); speaking of the battle of the bands, Jon Wurster did the Misfits’ “We Bite” with Ed Leo and Scharpling did Superchunk’s “Precision Auto” with Fucked Up, respectively. Carl Newman did “I Love My Label” with Ted Leo. And I’m forgetting a ton.
SHOOTING HOOPS WITH…
Spring for the VIP package and you were granted access to the Hardwood Suite, on the third floor of the Palms’ Fantasy Tower, a room with a hot tub (used proudly by Pink Eyes) and a staircase/second floor/balacony, and an indoor basketball court, which was the site of nightly shoot outs, people tossing bricks and fielding rebounds, rubbing and maybe even a little throwing elbows with Pavement and Fucked Up and Girls and you name it. A mad scene where more than one person slipped on the beer on the court, and I cracked more than one terrible “Watch Me Jumpshot” joke paraphrase. Also I was like 70% from the field. There are witnesses to this effect.
STORMING OFF STAGE DUE TO THE THE PEARL’S SOUND ISSUES, OR MAYBE USING A KICK DRUM MIC INSTEAD
Spiral now somewhat famously stormed off. JR from Girls lost his bass and he left before a set-closing “Lust For Life” (rare as a set closer, by the way). And then there was Jon Spencer, who seemed to forget the name of his band throughout his set just kidding he said it 456 times, who lost his vocal mic and then used a kick drum instead. Sometimes sound issues can be fun.
COME’S THALIA ZEDEK AND HER PETER BAGGE HATE STICKER
Not only did Come rule along with Chavez in holding down the more (relatively) “obscure” wing of Matador’s gritty ’90s underpinnings, but the HATE sticker on her guitar was sort of suffocating in its combination of some of the world’s finer things in one moment. A little visual symbolic manifestation of the weekend, in that sense.
TED LEO VS. FUCKED UP BATTLE OF THE BANDS
In a weekend full of life-long memories, a list-topper. So much cover love. A poker chip was tossed, Fucked Up won and was meant to start, and immediately contravened the song-for-song format with two tunes out front. Fair enough, this was an anything goes type event, with some posturing as if there was some aggression but obviously it was a good natured and often highly hilarious punk affair where the covers came quickly and furiously: Fucked Up doing “Precision Auto” (“one of the best punk songs of the last decade”) with Tom Scharpling, Ted Leo doing “Fuck And Run” solo acoustic and later the Misfits’ “We Bite” with Superchunk/Best Show best man Jon Wurster, a combined cover of Black Flag’s “Rise Above,” Fucked Up doing Nirvana’s “Breed and Jay Reatard’s “An Ugly Death” and Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.” This was an afterparty, so I don’t know what the video camera situation was for posterity. The best 3AM set of music imaginable.
MATADOR ICONS REMAIN STARTLINGLY SEXY
Stephen Malkmus, Thurston Moore, Cat Power, Liz Phair Mac McCaughan, Robert Pollard, and on and on. I say this as a straight man, you are all ageless and I’d make out with all of you. Well, some of you.
Thanks Matador. Congratulations on being excellent for 21 years, and whitewashing my previous Vegas memories. Too much fun. Photos by Andrew Youssef.
More video highlights as I find ‘em:
Yo La Tengo’s choreography to “You Can Have It All”: