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Thrill Jockey's 20th Anniversary in Baltimore

The essential Chicago label throws itself a birthday bash in Baltimore, with a little help from Future Islands, Tortoise, Matmos, and others.

Thrill Jockey Records is almost old enough to drink. How time flies. The Chicago label, while likely not as frequently namechecked as your Merges or your Sub Pops, easily has a back catalog to rival those indie behemoths, as well as a rightful place beside them in curatorial excellence. Post-rock gods Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, eclectic electro-wizards Mouse on Mars, musical polymath Nobukazu Takemura, Kraut-revivalists Trans Am, current personal heroes and saviors of rock music Future Islands – I could go on. This is, in a word, impressive.

The label threw a series of transnational birthday celebrations for itself this past month, showcasing its current roster and allowing for a much-deserved pat on its own back. Baltimore, a city with its own incredible collection of envelope-shredding bands (cheap rents will do that for you, Brooklyn), hosted one of these bashes at its cavernous Rams Head Live. A strange venue for strange bands, but no one onstage seemed to mind. Driving from DC means I missed openers Pontiak and Arbouretum, both acts you should never miss, Beltway traffic notwithstanding. Dan Friel, formerly of Parts & Labor, took the stage to an enthusiastic crowd, sitting with a pedal board in his lap, churning out a pleasantly fuzzy blend of Nintendo-bright synth-pop and droning dissonance, joined at times by a viola to give things an extra melodic kick. He made a strong case for being the mastermind behind his previous band’s hooks, and his solo material will be something to seek out in the years to come.

Next up, recent Baltimore and Thrill Jockey converts Matmos banged out a thoroughly professional, exuberant set of rhythm-centric, offkilter pop, transforming the crowd into a singular unit, bobbing its head as one. M.C. Schmidt coaxed eclectic beauty from his array of keys to fill the huge space several times over, looking diffident and dapper in a dark suit while his counterpart, Drew Daniel, tweaked his own synth array and laptop to help his band find the next in a series of indelible grooves. The transition from Matmos to Tortoise felt as smooth as the bass tone coming from the stage, with the legendary Chicago group burning through a set of its signature post-rock, post-prog, fusion – whatever we should call Tortoise, they’re an irreplaceable live act. The band’s members move from instrument to instrument with every song, often working two drumkits to orgiastic effect, each member simultaneously settling into his own rhythmic zen while contributing to the overall groove.

Local boys Future Islands headlined the show in either a nod to their Baltimore home crowd or to their rising star, easily the act with the most critical and commercial momentum on the Thrill Jockey roster right now. (When they took the stage, the average age of the crowd crammed at the front of the stage dropped by about 15 years, for whatever that’s worth.) I’ll admit to being in the tank for these guys, their unimpeachable output over the last few years almost single-handedly restoring my faith in indie rock. Accordingly, I knew what to expect from frontman Sam Herring’s wild, Brando-meets-Morrissey physicality, exploding across the stage in bursts of calculated, cathartic aggression. Despite having seen the band more than half a dozen times in the last year or two, I was still as thrilled as ever. The set featured a good deal of new material, most of which suggests the next Future Islands record will be something of a return to the freneticism largely lacking on last year’s – still incredible -- On the Water. Whatever its direction, the record will find its place among Thrill Jockey’s supreme catalog. Here’s to another 20 years.

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