Indie-rock Invasion

What happened when New York’s Matador Records partied in Las Vegas

I took to calling The Palms “Little Brooklyn” during Matador At 21, the record label’s three-day musical birthday binge. I don’t think I was off since locals were indeed scarce, and since Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) remarked during her set that it was good to see familiar faces from her New York audiences. The locals who somehow scored a ticket enjoyed a packed weekend with a family feel. As for everybody else, here’s your water-cooler recap.

Friday, Oct. 1: The first night was guitar-centric. Math-rockers Chavez were airtight, lethal. Toronto’s Fucked Up played joyously. Testing the length of his mike cable, singer Pink Eyes stormed the crowd, pushing his way into perimeter seating. Sonic Youth played the best I’ve seen in 20 years of festival shows, with mind-slaying renditions of “Catholic Block” and “Shadow of a Doubt.” Pavement was intentionally loose, sloppy; the 30-year-old “kids” loved it. Me, I prefer bands that don’t fake nonchalance.

Saturday, Oct. 2: Despite an explosive performance by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Saturday was fey, with Perfumed Genius’ Mike Hadreas offering note-perfect facsimiles of songs from this year’s startling debut, Learning. There were lots of yawns in the balcony, but I was transfixed by his narratives of adolescent melancholy. Cat Power’s haunting voice was evocative, especially during a recalibrated version of her Kurt Cobain elegy, “I Don’t Blame You.” Superchunk attempted to rouse the audience with their borderline power-pop; they mostly succeeded. Spoon was fiercely compelling, nailing it, and they should’ve capped off the evening. But then Glasgow twee-popsters Belle & Sebastian arrived, with singer Stuart Murdoch prancing through a delicious best-of set. He annoys me, but his band is superb.

Sunday, Oct. 3: On the final day, I longed for profundity. Instead I got well-crafted, rehearsed indie rock from Ted Leo & the Pharmacists and the New Pornographers. Liz Phair failed to appear with a full band, instead joined on electric guitar by what looked like her personal trainer. (Joke!) Yo La Tengo was stunning. Their song about Matador At 21, their choreographed dance moves and their wide range of songs were all a blast. Hopefully Matador will release a DVD of Guided By Voices’ two hours, because the band’s blue-collar, straight-out-of-Ohio “hits” were bountiful. Not bad for a bunch of drunk 50-year-olds.

Unfortunately, the Matadorians never got control of the sound, especially the kick drum, which stupidly pounded its way into my organs no matter where I stood, most gallingly during Shearwater’s chamber-pop orchestrations. Can’t blame The Pearl; The Cult (of all acts!) show two weeks earlier was pristine.

All in all, my favorite moments were “in-betweens”: Giving and getting thumbs up from Pink Eyes while eating dinner in the café, chatting with GBV”s Robert Pollard in front of Little Buddha about truckin’ music and seeing various band members blend into (and out of) the crowd. In sum, Matador’s frosting almost overshadowed the birthday cake. But it was still one hell of a cake.

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By Jarret Keene