The last day of the Matador fest started out with a triple bill that would qualify as one of the year’s best on its own. The “matinee” held in the upstairs ballroom started with Kurt Vile and the Violators bringing their bass-less attack, hunched over and blasting out via a bank of guitar effects. If you haven’t heard Vile’s 12-string guitar treatments, fix that soon. He gets an amazing tone out of it, and has a very interesting finger-picking technique. This was the third Vile set I’ve seen in three months, and it was their strongest yet.
Ohio’s Times New Viking brought their fuzzed-out pop songs, which are just barely visible on recordings through several layers of scuzz and distortion. Live, they tend to be a better sell, with the songs a bit more out in the open. And if you don’t like whatever current song they are doing, all you have to do is wait a couple of minutes before the next one comes along.
The term “living legends” always seems like a backhanded compliment, suggesting that the subjects may be running on fumes, their expiry date in the rearview mirror. Nothing could be further from the truth for New Zealand’s The Clean, with last year’s smart Mister Pop showing that the two Kilgour brothers (David on guitar, Hamish on drums) and Robert Scott can still summon the flame they brought forth in the nascent Flying Nun Records era two-plus decades on. Slashing guitars, mutated into some sort of surf/psych hybrid, ruled the set list, with emphasis on their earliest recordings. The harrowing instrumentals of “Fish” and opener “At The Bottom” gave way to the gorgeous pop melody of “Draw(in)g To A Whole,” with Robert Pollard taking it in side-stage, likely mentally comparing notes against the Guided By Voices’ cover from the God Save The Clean tribute record. The band invited long-time friends Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley (two-thirds of Yo La Tengo) for some accompaniment on “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” and they closed out their set with a nod to their roots via “I Can’t Stand It” from The Velvet Underground. The Clean’s presence was a technicality (Matador released 2001’s Getaway in Europe), but there will be no quibbles with this selection.
Between checking out a bit of Shearwater’s brooding intensity (which worked better without vocals) and Ted Leo’s heart-on-sleeve anthems, a turn of good luck at the blackjack table recouped some of the previous day’s losses. Leo was ubiquitous the whole weekend, and really seemed to connect with his new label home, where he landed after Touch and Go’s dissolution last year. To underscore this point, he invited AC Newman out for a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label,” with none of the bitter irony of the original. Newman would return to the stage with the rest of the New Pornographers, but a faulty line check led to a fairly sizable delay, one that would be unintended consequences later. The full-on power pop/vocal-heavy numbers were fun, even though Newman and Neko Case (sporting what looked to be very fresh tattoos on each of her forearms, referring to a Canadian painting
) couldn’t convince more than a small minority to clap their hands and dance along; who else could write a snappy song about alcoholism? In due time, the scraggly Dan Bejar came out from the stage wings, the band’s version of Neil Young joining the rest of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and sang “Myriad Harbour” and “Silver Dollar Jenny.”
A short but sweet set from Liz Phair showed genuine gratitude for her invitation to play and ended her five-song set by duetting with Ted Leo for his second run-through of “Fuck and Run” of the weekend. Yo La Tengo can stymie an audience with a pure wankery set, or play it straight and head to the heart of their more straightforward songs, and they straddled both sides. Alongside a genuinely nice gesture of reworking Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War'” into a name-by-name call out of appreciation for the staff of Matador Records (including the late Spencer Gates), they did the lengthy “The Story of Yo La Tengo,” a bubbly “Mr. Tough,” a choreographed “You Can Have It All,” and a haunting “Shaker,” complete with lyrics cribbed from Big Black’s “Kerosene.” They brought the crowd alive with the sticky-sweet popness of “Sugarcube,” but then lost it again by an interminable build up of “Blue Line Swinger.”
At that point, though, Yo La Tengo hadn’t gone over their alloted set time duration, the earlier delays meant close to an hour of slippage and prompted a Drive-by Mitchell. What’s that? That’s when Mitch Mitchell of Guided By Voices decided to bumrush the stage, coming from stage edge with beer in hand, hands over heads to pump up the crowd. It wasn’t clear if Kaplan or McNew noticed anything, but Hubley likely did (her drumming seemed to pick up in intensity and her jaw was set) and the band’s stage hand certainly did, grabbing Mitchell on his return voyage and first attempting to throw him into the crowd, then later cocking a haymaker back that went unthrown as others intervened.
The MCs for the evening (Tom Scharpling of WFMU radio fame and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster) were by far the best of the weekend, with excellent bits about blogging hipsters who play kickball, a disastrous interview with Ted Leo, and Wurster as Gene Simmons. Another great touch throughout the weekend was the record store that was set up for people to browse between sets, and the legions of Matador band videos played between bands.
The main event had finally come when “The Club Is Open” neon sign was lowered down and flickered to life. Superchunk’s audience response was the high-water mark of the weekend, but the hordes of die-hard GBV fans up front washed that away easily. When Greg Demos launched into the familiar bass line that opens “A Salty Salute,” arms flew into the air and hundreds of voices joined in with “Proud brothers/ Do not fret/ The bus will get you there yet/ To carry us to the lake/ The club is open.” Some people have waited a long time to see the so-called “classic” lineup of Mitchell, Demos, Tobin Sprout and Kevin Fennell play the compositions of Robert Pollard, and it was a glorious thing.
The band was known for its blam-blam-blam approach to both knocking out incredibly tight pop songs and draining beers just as fast, but it was clear that Pollard et al brought their game face and had been working into top shape for the show, with a generous sprinkling of high kicks tossed in along the way. And what a set list: of course the finely burnished chestnuts like “Game Of Pricks” or “Tractor Rape Chain,” but I was not expecting songs like the proto-prog “Weed King,” the life that the full band gave to Sprout’s “A Good Flying Bird” or the emphatic positive rock crunch of “My Son Cool,” with its “decide now!” rally straight off the bat.
Before the set started, Cosloy mentioned a defusing of any potential New Jersey/Ohio bad blood, and Hamish Kilgour played ambassador by gently returning the stage crash and giving Mitchell a hug and Pollard a high-five. Another guest made their appearance via crowd surfing, as Chavez’s Matt Sweeney glided his way up to the stage to join in as unannounced backing vocalist for the closing “Some Drilling Implied.” Even with the somewhat abbreviated 90-minute set (that did include two encores, the only band to do so), GBV showed why their live shows are the stuff of legend. If you don’t have a ticket to any of the remaining shows, do whatever is in your power to change that status. A more fitting band to close out the incredible weekend couldn’t have been picked, and the whole event was a great success. I’m looking forward to 44 years passing and the Matador retirement party to be held in Florida.