Some record labels just mean more to people than others, and that's down to those at the top, who sculpt the roster by leaning heavily on their vision of what music they like. This sort of situation simply cannot happen at the majors, where shareholder accountability takes art and force-fits it into a commodity. At the more manageable end of things, people like Greg Ginn (SST), Roger Shepard (Flying Nun), Alan McGee (Creation) and Tony Wilson (Factory) demonstrated a way (at least for an extended period of time) to straddle both ends of establishing an outlet for creative music and the hard realities of meeting payroll week after week.
At Matador, Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi have taken that ethos and sharpened it to a fine edge, crafting arguably the most important independent music label of the last two decades. Regardless of your particular taste, it's hard to argue about the impact that records from Pavement, Guided By Voices, Liz Phair, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Superchunk, et al made on the landscape of the American indie landscape. Unlike the initially narrow focus of grunge merchants Sub Pop, Matador was all over the map, directly reflecting the eclectic tastes of the men who ran it.
Twenty-one years later, the label is still going strong despite the shifting sands of the music industry, and what better way to celebrate the coming-of-age birthday milestone than by gathering 30 or so bands that span the lifespan of the label and have a good old fashioned blowout in the artificial oasis of Las Vegas. Along with certain obvious choices, some cherished bands from the past were unexpectedly announced, both popular (Guided By Voices, Liz Phair, Pavement) and obscure (Come, Chavez). The dichotomy between the controlled glamour of Las Vegas and the typical indie-rock connoisseur was pretty striking at the off-strip location of the Palms, where the two worlds guardedly intermingled: one side of the site's marquee heralded the Matador event, while the other announced a visit from Jersey Shore's Pauly D in a DJ capacity.
Guitar Wolf blasted in with their black leather cladding and dark sunglasses to kick off the festivities, all biker scuzz and raw-nerved garage punk. Their abbreviated set (due to delays in arrival, augmented by an impromptu late-night performance, at 3 a.m. in the ballroom) gave way to a rare appearance of Chavez, with Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver's guitars slashing through the air, a bracing and gritty set. No Chipppendale dancers made their way on the stage during "Break Up Your Band," a la their video. Stage breaks were filled by MC Jeffery Joe Jensen, whose bits flipped between pretty funny (a phone call to HP Zinker, the band whose record was Matador's first release) to fairly painful (a stiltled impersonation of an old lady).
In an interview with Las Vegas Weekly, Thurston Moore hinted about having bassist Mark Ibold available, since Pavement was also playing that night (Ibold has shared duties with both bands since Jim O'Rourke's departure about five years ago), but the reunion tour of Pavement has kept him solely occupied over the last year, leaving Sonic Youth to their original four-person format) and adding in some material from their Matador record of last year, The Eternal. The promise didn't materialize, and like the other two shows I've seen this year, the set list was focused heavily on their mid- to late-'80s records, with "Mote" and "Bull In The Heather" the only two songs played from 1990 onwards. Giving attention to ground-breakers like Sister or Daydream Nation is never a bad thing, and the band's performance was jaw-dropping, ripping throbugh "Schizophrenia," and "Candle" and "Tom Violence" like they were written and recorded days ago. Moore in particular was playing like his guitar was feeding 120V straight to his pulmonary system. He's always had a physical approach to his guitar, banging and mangling it to coax sounds both brutal and beautiful, and tonight ended with him on the floor, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon devilishly attacking his prone body with their instruments. It was the show of the night, hands down, and set a high bar for the weekend.
Pavement, on the other hand, showed some cracks. The seemingly mended fences between Stephen Malkmus and Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg showed splintered posts and gaping holes, and it didn't take long. After the opening "Grounded," Steve West's high-hat cymbal needed some work, so to fill the looming dead space, Malkmus and percussionist Bob Nastanovich started a seemingly innocuous impromptu "Perfect Depth"; it had Kannberg fuming, apparently as he was left out of it. Hands in the air belied his frustration, and he finally decided to join in by grabbing a drumstick and a sleigh-bell contraption, hitting it for percussion effect. And hitting it and hitting it, harder and harder until the thing exploded into a shower of newly-released bells, scattering to the corners of the stage.
Malkmus didn't help matters by playing at the far side of the stage with his back to the rest of the band (two weeks ago in Boston, he was turned toward them) and during Kannberg's "Kennel District," Malkmus spent most of the song lying on his back, playing the guitar in a scene reminiscent of This Is Spinal Tap. The infamous handcuffs weren't latched to Malkmus' mic stand, but there was no denying that the band's highly successful victory lap was coming to a limping halt. Despite the clouded emotions and Kannberg's apologies, the band actually sounded pretty great most of the time. The closeout, "AT&T," perfectly encapsulated the off-kilter careening of their sound.
Vegas never sleeps, and Matador follows tradition. An after-show composed of Ted Leo "battling" Fucked Up on the same stage took place in a nearby ballroom, and even the bands weren't really sure what that format was going to bring about. Basically it was a good-natured turn of call and response, and both bands dug into their formative years with inspired covers, Leo doing "Suspect Device" from Stiff Little Fingers, and Fucked Up bearing homage to a Matador band who couldn't be here with Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach For My Revolver." Tom Scharpling joined Fucked Up for Superchunk's "Precision Auto." I finally called it quits, at 2:30 a.m., to Ted Leo's version of "Fuck and Run" from Liz Phair.