We Were Digging for Something: Matador @ 21

’90s indie-rock nostalgia is one of the trendiest music-news stories of 2010. My local daily newspaper, the Kansas City Star, referenced even the Unrest reunion in an article on the subject, when it’s doubtful they ever printed a word about Unrest the first time around. Matador 21, the three-day celebration of Matador Records’ 21st anniversary that brought a couple thousand people to the Palms Resort and Casino in Las Vegas the first weekend in October, could be seen as part of that trend, or even the locus of it. Pavement finished their reunion tour on the first night of the three-night event, while Guided by Voices more or less started theirs as the final act on the final night. Less well-known reunited bands like Chavez, Come (playing their third show with the original lineup since 1995), Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Guitar Wolf played, along with other prominent ’90s figures like Liz Phair, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power, Spoon and Superchunk. The scope of Matador 21 was bigger than just a ’90s nostalgia trip, though. The label is still successful, after all, and was showcasing both popular bands of the ’00s (the New Pornographers) and just about brand-new talent (Perfume Genius, whose debut LP was released in June). It was also focused in intent, a party for a specific record label, albeit one that released albums by so many of the most prominent ’90s bands treading where the post-punk, noise-rock and eccentric pop bands of the ‘80s and earlier left off.

Among fans and musicians at the event, there seemed a constant sense of shared history. Most of the conversations I had with fellow attendees weren’t overly focused on reliving past experiences, definitely not in any kind of “I was there” bragging way. But inevitably the past was always present as a frame of reference. Often heard: ‘I never got to see this band play until now’ or ‘I can’t believe I’m finally getting to see such-and-such band’ or ‘It’s so weird to be seeing so-and-so play again.”

One definition for nostalgia is yearning for something to be a way that it never again will be. For some of the bands, this seemed like a moment to experience the joy of being in a particular band again, to once again be part of something that was personally important to them and felt big. One embodiment of this feeling was Mitch Mitchell, guitarist for Guided by Voices, who until that week hadn’t played with the band since September of 1996. With a constant grin on his face, he was so excited to be onstage again that he worked the crowd constantly – hugging and shaking hands – when he wasn’t mugging for any camera around, no matter who held it. It seemed to be that excitement that made him run across the stage, beer in hand, while Yo La Tengo was jamming through “Blue Line Swinger”, nearly getting beat up by a venue stage-hand in the process (a worker who the previous night had been similarly aggressive with audience members, apparently not basking in the glow of nostalgia). Another omnipresent figure, also clearly excited to be back on stage, was Bob Nastanovich, Pavement’s burst of energy. A genial MC on Saturday night, there was a bittersweet air to his end-of-the-night expression of gratitude, accompanied by an open invitation for anyone in the audience to visit his apartment in Iowa or have a beer with him in his hotel room.

GIRLS / Photo by Fiona Diffley

Purposely or not, almost all of the performances spoke to the act of trying to make sense of the past. Matador’s past and each band’s past was the shadow always hanging overhead. It felt less like a weekend of indulging in nostalgia, more like an extended conversation about, and among, the last 21 years. The youngest bands, like Girls and Perfume Genius, seemed completely humbled by the label’s legacy and by the fact that they were able to participate in Matador 21, that they slipped in at the last minute, as Christopher Owens of Girls put it. The reunited bands either played like it was their last chance to make a big impression (Jon Spencer Blue Explosion’s sweat-soaked, cram-in-as-many-songs-as-possible set, which ran over the allotted time) or conveyed a fun sense of surprise that they were up there playing together again (Chavez). Matt Sweeney and Clay Tarver of Chavez joked that Tarver’s kids didn’t know he was in a band. “We’re in a band?”, Tarver retorted.

Stories of the past, present and future were woven through most of the bands’ sets. Belle & Sebastian’s set touched on most of their albums, while promoting their newest. Along with their recent material, Spoon included a cover of a song by Jay Retard, the Matador artist who died in January of this year. Yo La Tengo jokingly rewrote Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” as “Matador Records”, as if playing at a comedy roast of the label. They also did several of their most well-known songs, giving their set an atypical ‘greatest hits’ feel. Sonic Youth took songs mostly from their past (mostly from their ‘80s albums, with no songs from their lone Matador release) and lit them on fire, attacking their instruments more furiously than any of the other times I’ve seen them play. It seemed both a carefully planned celebration and a channeling of wild forces.

GUIDED BY VOICES / Photo by Fiona Diffley

The sing-along, rock-along response that Guided by Voices drew from the crowd was a sentimental experience for those of us who fell head over heels for them in the ‘90s, road-tripping numerous times to see them play, collecting every rare 7” and trading bootleg cassette tapes of their concerts. Their set at Matador 21 consisted only of songs released in the mid-‘90s. That, combined with the mere presence onstage of musicians who had disappeared from public view, Robert Pollard and maybe Tobin Sprout excepted – not to mention the everyday-guy quality that they always had in the first place – compounded the sentimental reaction. There were bum notes aplenty in their set, but that was always true. Those were expected, as were the high-kicks and other physical rock moves, the kind that help, with the songs, to generate a feeling that you’re experiencing a rock n’ roll high. That it was 14 years since this lineup stopped playing together was not lost on anyone; it only fed the excitement.

SUPERCHUNK / Photo by Fiona Diffley

If the fact that “old guys” are still playing loud rock n’ roll is part of the charm of Guided by Voices in 2010, the fact that Superchunk, who formed the same year as Matador Records started, are still kicking around playing their style of hyper rock-pop, as good as ever, was part of the excitement of their set. The rest came from the fact that the band is energy personified. Their 2010 album Majesty Shredding, their first in nine years, has longevity as its central theme, with songs about evolving to keep ahead of everyone else. Their set at Matador 21 combined those songs with songs off their earliest albums, including classic anthems of rebellion (“Slack Motherfucker”) and persistence (“Precision Auto”).

Pavement, the big indie-rock reunion story of the year (besides Guided by Voices), headlined the first night. Their set, a nice mixture of ‘hits’ and obscurities, had an awkwardness to it from where I was standing, mostly because I was a foot or so away from a band member, guitarist Scott Kannberg, who was raging mad the whole time, seemingly upset at what he was getting through his monitor. He kicked, cursed, ran off the stage, and generally was a tumult of emotions. The rest of the band mostly ignored him and put on an everything’s OK demeanor, to an almost extreme extent. The bittersweet tone of their opening song, “Grounded”, ended up appropriate for their set as a whole, from where I was standing. Elsewhere in the theatre Kannberg’s battles might have gone completely unnoticed. At the same time, this weekend packed with proximity to musicians was also a healthy reminder that musicians are people like you and me. That was woven into the whole experience, the way concertgoers and musicians were sharing elevators and running into each other on the casino floor.

PAVEMENT / Photo by Fiona Diffley

Cat Power’s Chan Marshall has been described as an erratic performer, or worse, but her set struck me as both a reminder of the way getting on stage in front of people is not a natural thing for everyone, and as a beautiful act of overcoming that. I was close enough to hear her talking herself through the set at every step, in between singing wonderfully, sounding at least as great as she does on albums. Her hesitations combined with her stunning singing seemed telling of the way she’s brought nervousness under control. In that way, her awkwardness, and the fact that she was pushing through it, stuck in my brain as strongly as all of the other images of the weekend: Pollard’s high kick, Yo La Tengo’s now-familiar dance routine to “You Can Have It All”, Tom Scharpling straining his vocal chords to sing “Precision Auto” with Fucked Up, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore pressing their guitars against each other in a cloud of feedback (Kim Gordon eventually joining in). All of these and many more took place along the same wavelength of passion for music.

As simple as it sounds, it was enthusiasm for music — music of the past and present, music released by Matador Records and not — that emerged as the dominant theme of the weekend. Between bands covering other bands, bands collaborating with other bands, karaoke parties, and simply the fact that the casino and hotel were playing Matador music on their loudspeakers all weekend, much time was spent basking in our inherent love of particular strains of music. It was Ted Leo who served as the poster child for that enthusiasm. He was “prom king”, as my friend put it. He was everywhere all weekend, and much of the time he was doing something to show the excitement he gets, deep down, not just from playing music, but from listening to music; from music itself. Late on Friday night Ted Leo & the Pharmacists and Canadian punk-rockers Fucked Up stood on the same stage at an afterparty and traded off playing an assortment of songs, mainly covers. At Saturday night’s karaoke afterparty Leo sang a great version of Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow” and crowd-surfed during a group singalong of Pavement’s “Summer Babe”. Sunday he dueted with Liz Phair on her song “Fuck and Run”, a sung he sang solo acoustic on Friday night. During his own band’s actual set on Sunday night, he turned a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label”, sung as a duet with the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, into a sincere tribute not to just to labels, but to music and music fans, period. The labels he’s been on do it because they “f..king love music”, he said, adding that it was the same reason why we were all there for Matador 21.

CAT POWER / Photo by Fiona Diffley

For all the reams of paper that music critics have spent dissecting or decrying the term “indie”, what’s often missed is that with many indie bands and labels, the “superstars” and the business people are all reachable, and to the fans seem not that different from them. It’s a small business, like your local neighborhood shop, with the difference being it’s in an industry built around notions of fame and stardom. Matador Records has cultivated that everyday people impression, not just through the bands they release, or through actually being reachable (as demonstrated by the amount of time label head Gerard Cosloy spent answering people’s concerns about Matador 21 on the label’s blog), but also through their sense of humor. This event, for all its praise of Matador’s legacy, also built in enough poking fun of itself, through the MCs mainly, to keep that impression intact. (Sunday night’s MCs, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, even poked fun at the whiteness of Matador’s roster.)

Matador 21 did sometimes feel like, as Liz Phair put it from the stage, a “college reunion”. Besides literally reuniting with friends from the college era, and seeing acquaintances I once knew but couldn’t really place, I felt the whole weekend like I was seeing familiar faces, people who I could have met before even if I hadn’t. Chan Marshall of Cat Power put it another way during her set, when she described recognizing in the crowd all the people who she used to see standing awkwardly against the back wall in small clubs around New York City. She may have meant it literally, but still I felt I understood.

Talking to fellow concertgoers about where they were from and who they were there to see, was a key part of the experience. I talked to people from Toronto, Baltimore, San Francisco, Texas, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and elsewhere. In general people’s stories ended up being in part stories of migration and travel. I talked to a couple different people who travel all over the world, seemingly all the time, to attend concerts and festivals. I found myself standing in front of a whole contingent of ex-Kansas Citians who now live elsewhere. Most of the people I talked to throughout the weekend were from someplace and also from somewhere else. It’s a sign of the times, for sure, that middle-class young-ish people these days are more willing and able to migrate, but also maybe something else. Another definition of nostalgia is homesickness. I started to wonder to what degree many of the people I met, like many of the musicians perhaps, are searching for something. Maybe it was the length of time I spent inside of a Las Vegas casino, a disorienting place, but I kept thinking about the music fans I know for whom love of music seems like a quest for something unattainable, an obsession with something that’s hard to grasp. I thought about how much my friends know about music, and what they’re doing or not doing with that knowledge. I thought about friends I know who go out to see bands nearly every single night of the week, getting up early the next morning for work. I kept thinking of that Superchunk song “Digging for Something”, wondering what everyone is digging for. That song’s lyric “it’s just getting dark / and you’re waking up” seemed like a theme for the weekend, which was an exercise in losing all perspective of time and place, something Las Vegas is good at.

SPOON / Photo by Fiona Diffley

Las Vegas itself thrives on nostalgia and a sense of homelessness. The first hours in the town are immediately strange. What is this place, that’s sort of no place and everyplace at once? After a couple days you start getting restless. Sunday morning I found myself walking outside just to get away from the stale casino air. Then I’m walking and what do I see? More casinos. So I think, “I haven’t been in that one yet”, and I go in, and get lost. That’s Vegas.

The experience of leaving my family behind to fly by myself to Las Vegas for a not inexpensive concert kept making me wonder what I was doing there. “A normal person doesn’t do this, right?”, I kept thinking to myself. I’ve thought that question many times in my life, usually either late at night, waiting by myself for a band to start, or the next morning, trying to get up for work. At the same time, my level of obsession with music is not normal. Normal kids don’t take photographs of their cassette tape collection, and they definitely don’t spend hours arranging them right first. Normal teenagers don’t spend most Friday nights in their bedroom listening to the radio. I am not normal. One of the best parts of Matador 21, besides answering my dream question “what if most of my favorite bands from college played at the same concert?”, was realizing that many of the other people there, in the crowd or on the stage, were as “not normal” as me.

When I flew back to Kansas City early Monday morning, after just a few hours of sleep, Jon Wurster from Superchunk was on my flight. Even after spending the whole weekend seeing musicians walking around, that fact still struck me as strange. No one flies to Kansas City unless that’s where they’re going, and why would he be going there? Sitting in the van for the parking lots, waiting to go pick up my car, I saw him drag his instruments outside, waiting for someone…which is when the music geek in me remembered that he plays with the Mountain Goats, who were playing in Lawrence, Kansas that night. Then the Mountain Goats’ van pulled up, hugs were exchanged, and they started loading his equipment in. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the out-of-time nature of the whole weekend, but seeing that got me thinking philosophically about the varied people tied together through this passion, obsession even, for music…thinking about all of the people coming together for one weekend and then about the lines being drawn by people afterwards as they travelled back across the globe…about those lines always being drawn…about this invisible web that’s always being spun by the travels of music fans, of the downright weird human beings whose devotion to music is mighty enough to keep them always on the move, always on the lookout for something.

PAVEMENT / Photo by Fiona Diffley