Where the first day of Matador At 21 focused on aggressive rock, the second day shifted its attention to mood. Even with noted ass-kickers like Come, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Superchunk on the bill, the night had a more restrained air with Girls, Perfume Genius, Cat Power, Spoon, and Belle & Sebastian topping it out.
“Restrained” is putting it mildly to describe the intense quiet that hung over the Pearl Theater for Perfume Genius’ set. Mike Handreas builds songs with just a piano and his soft voice, and it had the effect of shrinking the giant theater into his bedroom, as if we were watching him work through some songs on his own. He was joined by a second keyboardist-vocalist, and at one point the duo shared Handreas’ piano and bench for “Learning,” the title track from Perfume Genius’ haunting debut. “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress,” Handreas sung. “No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath. But you will learn to mind me.” For just a couple of guys sitting at an electric piano, it was pretty entrancing stuff, and it set the stage perfectly for Cat Power.
Have you heard of Zenyatta? She’s a thoroughbred who won her 19th consecutive race yesterday at Hollywood Park, a new record. Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich—MC for the evening—connected Zenyatta to Chan Marshall: “Because she found that extra gear—and Cat Power has been doing that for Matador Records for 14 years.” It’s a stretch, but the point is valid nonetheless: Marshall is in a league of her own, and when she took the stage with her electric guitar by herself to play the world’s most haunting cover of “Satisfaction,” no one would argue.
Although Marshall’s crippling stage fright and onstage meltdowns are mostly a thing of the past, she often looked uncomfortable when she didn’t have a guitar, even with a full band behind her. She was fidgety, and she often faced away from the audience when she wasn’t singing. When she was, she tended to stay on the far side of stage left, seemingly attempting to avoid the center of attention though she undoubtedly was. Perfume Genius fostered a hushed intimacy in the giant room, but Marshall made it mesmerizing. Is it possible that her voice has actually gotten better with time?
If a similar sentiment applies to Superchunk’s body of work, it’s because the long-running indie band has a formidable arsenal of fantastic songs, the sort of classics that qualify as measuring sticks for the bands that came in its wake. And just in case there was any doubt, the North Carolina band loaded its 11-song set with hits, drawing heavily from the 1991 classic No Pocky For Kitty (“Throwing Things,” “Skip Steps 1 & 3,” “Seed Toss,” “Cast Iron”). After the nine years that followed 2001’s ho-hum Here’s To Shutting Up, Superchunk has returned in top form on this year’s Majesty Shredding. It’s always a test of a veteran band’s mettle when new songs mix in with fan favorites, but the crowd responded enthusiastically to Majesty tracks “My Gap Feels Weird,” “Digging For Something” (its whoa-oh-ohs a new singalong favorite), and “Learned To Surf.” How a band plays fan favorites is also a test—do its members go through the motions for the 8,000,000th time, or can they still dig up some enthusiasm? Again, Superchunk passed. Bassist Laura Ballance did her usual pogo, frontman Mac McCaughan pulled some sweet split-leg jumps, drummer Jon Wurster played enthusiastically, and even the perpetually low-key guitarist Jim Wilbur rocked out. The quartet played a particularly ferocious version of “Precision Auto” to close a set that no one else on the bill could touch. The resurgence of Superchunk is one of this year’s best stories.
After such an infectiously joyful set, what followed couldn’t help but feel like a comedown. And where Superchunk emanates a personable approachableness, Spoon frontman Britt Daniel has a detached coolness. It’s not necessarily snobbery; Daniel just has that cool-guy carriage. Considering he leads the biggest band playing Matador At 21—sure, Belle & Sebastian headlined Saturday, but Spoon is far more au courant—his King Shit vibe was at least a little justified.
That said, it didn’t make for a terribly riveting performance after three transfixing ones. The band opened with “Don’t Make Me A Target,” the leadoff track from 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and returned to that album for “The Ghost Of You Lingers” after dipping into 2005’s Gimme Fiction for “My Mathematical Mind.” Opening with the hits was smart, mostly because this year’s Transference felt a little underdeveloped. In fact, new material didn’t enter the picture until several songs into the set, after a Jay Reatard cover, a nod to the Matador artist who died earlier this year. Daniel stayed taciturn throughout the set, and Spoon isn’t a flashy band in general, but in the end it didn’t seem like it brought anything special to match the auspiciousness of the occasion (six-piece horn section aside). The Reatard cover was a nice touch, but the set on the whole felt like the same one the band would do elsewhere.
Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian almost singlehandedly made up for Daniel’s detachment with a barrage of bons mots during his band’s headlining set:
- “[Matador] is one label where the guys at the label are more rock ’n’ roll than the guys in the band.”
- A story about interviewing Thurston Moore in 1989—Moore yawned in his face. “I was a really shit interviewer in 1989.”
- After throwing autographed footballs into the audience: “Those will be worth about $7 in 20 years’ time. It’s all about the simple pleasures, innit?”
After “Write About Love,” Murdoch brought three women and two men on stage to clap and dance during “There’s Too Much Love” and “The Boy With The Arab Strap.” Murdoch bestowed medals on them all afterward, before continuing the love theme with “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love.” Although the Scottish band can wallow with the best of them, its set Saturday had a good kick. Maybe this night wasn’t for the sad bastards after all.
• Again, you can watch everything over on MySpace.
• The late show in the Pearl Ballroom: Esben And The Witch, Cold Cave, and Dead Meadow (who went on stage at 3:35 a.m.). I opted for karaoke, hosted by Austin’s Karaoke Underground, where I sung J Church’s “My Favorite Place.” Ted Leo, still in Matador karaoke mode from Friday night, did Yo La Tengo and Pavement. A couple of guys did Shellac’s “Prayer To God,” which was pretty awesome.
• Liz Phair—who’s playing an abbreviated 20-minute set Sunday night—sat next to us at the Little Buddha restaurant bar. She ordered hot sake—and that wasn’t the only thing that was hot! BOOM!
• Other random celebrity sightings: Penn Gillette and Kevin Pollak hanging out on the Palms floor. Gillette performs at the Rio across the street, and Pollak was doing comedy at the Palms. On the Palms TV network, Pollak had boasted that if you search for “Christopher Walken impressions” on YouTube, he’s the first person that comes up. Wow!
• Matador artist I’m saddest isn’t here: Mission Of Burma. (“That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” was on the Karaoke Underground list.)
• Coming to the Pearl Concert Theater Dec. 1: the 2010 Mixed Martial Arts Awards. Are their awards shows just as insanely violent?