Image Credit: David Becker/WireImage.comWhen you think of live music in Las Vegas, you think of names like Manilow, Dion, and Newton, not Superchunk, Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth. But all that changed this past weekend when legendary indie-rock label Matador Records threw a huge three-night party at the Palms casino in celebration of its 21st anniversary. Since 1989, the label has had a hand in launching and nurturing along some of the leading lights of indie rock–including Pavement, Liz Phair, Guided by Voices, Belle & Sebastian, and The New Pornographers, all of whom were on hand to celebrate. The hipsters-meet-elderly-slot-jockeys setting certainly felt odd, but when you think about it, when you hit 21, where better to celebrate than Las Vegas, where 21 wins at Blackjack and you’re officially able to drink? Plus, around midnight on the last night, between sets by Yo La Tengo and Guided By Voices, I found myself seated at a Blackjack table next to Spoon lead singer Britt Daniel, and where else is that going to happen? Some other highlights after the jump.
Friday night’s opening festivities culminated with back-to-back sets by Sonic Youth and Pavement. Sonic Youth delivered a blistering performance, bringing ferocious walls of noise and hypnotic drones to songs like “Stereo Sanctity,” “Cross the Breeze,” and “Schizophrenia” before ending their set with a moment of pure indie-rock porn, as guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon literally wielded their instruments like swords, rubbing the necks together to unleash ungodly squeals of feedback and distortion. The reunited Pavement, never the most consistent live act, had a tough act to follow, and they seemed tentative and shaky at first, beset by technical difficulties that made it difficult for them to get a head of steam. But once things clicked on songs like “Kennel District,” “Stereo,” and “Gold Soundz,” Stephen Malkmus and company’s shambling, fragile, ugly-beautiful anthems gave nostalgic X-ers in attendance just what they were craving.
After fine sets by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Cat Power, and Superchunk, Saturday’s big-dog headliners were Spoon and Belle & Sebastian. Spoon (who were actually only on Matador very early in their career before going onto bigger creative and commercial success on Merge Records) turned in an interestingly varied, horn-section-punctuated set, mixing snarling, tightly coiled new-wave-inflected fan favorites like “Everything Hits at Once,” “Don’t Make Me a Target,” and “Jonathan Fisk” with more unexpected songs, like a poignant cover of the late Jay Reatard’s ballad “No Time.” After that set, as 1 a.m. approached, the audience’s energy was flagging (more than a few people could be seen nodding off in their seats). But when the 12-piece Scottish band Belle & Sebastian took the stage, the mood instantly brightened. Indie rockers are not always known for their magnetic stage presence and audience banter, to say the least, but they quickly brought the crowd back to life with brilliantly crafted pop songs like “The State I Am In,” “Step Into My Office,” and “The Boy With the Arab Strap.”
Sunday’s climactic lineup was overstuffed with indie-rock stalwarts. Ted Leo kicked off the evening with fierce energy, bringing a postpunk edge to his hooky melodies, getting the audience pogo-ing to songs like “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” and delivering a sweetly irony-free tribute to Matador with a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label.” Downshifting from that set, New Pornographers at first seemed slightly staid, but by the end, their beloved power pop songs like “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism,” “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” and the majestic set-closer, “The Bleeding Heart Show,” easily carried the day. Next, Liz Phair took the stage, accompanied only by another guitarist, and delivered a short and stripped-down but spellbinding set of five songs from her seminal Matador albums, Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart. At one point, Ted Leo stepped out of the wings for a duet on “F— and Run,” which marked one of the festival’s highlights. Though Phair has wandered in odd directions and down some blind alleys since her early heyday, the audience greeted her with warm enthusiasm, like an old friend they hadn’t seen in many years. After a wildly eclectic set by Yo La Tengo that veered between pop songs like “Sugarcube” and “Autumn Sweater” and epic, squalling guitar freakouts, the much-anticipated closing act took the stage well past midnight: the reunited mid-1990s lineup of Guided by Voices. Lead singer/songwriter Bob Pollard, who was already middle-aged in the era of now-classic albums like Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand, managed to bring a crowd that had been fairly low-key all weekend back to its sweaty mosh-pit glory days, as fans jumped up and down to old favorites like “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Echos Myron,” “Motor Away,” and “Gold Star for Robot Boy.”
Before the Matador 21 weekend, a younger colleague of mine had said, half-kidding, that this three-day nostalgia-fest, set in a city where unhealthy desires are indulged to excess, would essentially boil down to “a bunch of 40-year-olds hurting themselves.” And while I can’t deny there wasn’t a bit of truth to that description, it hurt so good. At one point during Belle & Sebastian’s set, frontman Stuart Murdoch took out a bag of small toy footballs to toss into the crowd. He wanted to throw some to some kids in the audience, but as he joked, “I don’t think there’s anyone under 45 here.” Still, toss away he did, saying, “It’s all about the simple pleasures.” And for those three nights of music, from great bands (and a great label) that have helped keep rock music not just alive but thrillingly vital through some often dismal years, it certainly was.
Did any of you make it to Vegas? If so, what was the highlight for you? If not, who would you have most wanted to see?