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Live review: Matador sticks to the beat at 21

October 4, 2010 |  7:18 pm

Belle & Sebastian and other indie rockers sing the label's praises at a birthday bash.


Lyrical tidbits best capture the essence of this past weekend's Matador at 21 series of concerts at the Palms Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The words arrived in rhyming couplets and shattered-monocle verbal abstractions, delivered by 26 acts over three days. At various times defiant (Ted Leo and the Pharmacists), literary (Belle & Sebastian), brutal (Toronto hard-core punk band with a naughty name that means “messed up”) and mind-bendingly catchy (Guided by Voices), the party celebrated guitar rock in all its angular glory.

“You've got the flavor,” shouted the Blues Explosion's Jon Spencer, dedicating the song “Flavor” to his former record label, the East Coast indie tastemaker Matador Records, during a raucous set of meta-blues and trash rock at the casino's concert venue the Pearl Theater. The New York label, with the aid of L.A.-based promoters FYF Fest, threw a memorable, nearly seamless bash to celebrate its 21st birthday.

“I'm working, but I'm not working for you!” yelled Superchunk's Mac McCaughan during the event's most exuberant performance. Celebrating the do-it-yourself ethic of the independent rock music scene of the mid- and late 1980s, from which Matador and its ilk sprung, it was delivered by a band whose members went on to start their own indie label, Merge. (That label just earned its first No. 1 album on the Billboard charts — for Arcade Fire's “The Suburbs.”)

Alongside Merge and others, Matador rose to prominence as one of America's most lauded indie imprints, whose specialty — literate, boundary-stretching art rock — was on full display at the Palms. Many of the bands that earned the label's reputation played during the concerts, including Yo La Tengo, the New Pornographers, Cat Power, Pavement, Liz Phair and Sonic Youth.

That the term “indie rock” is a genre used to describe everything from Weezer to Grizzly Bear to Florence & the Machine is in part because of the efforts of Matador's co-founders, Gerard Cosloy and Chris Lombardi. Two decades ago, the pair of New Yorkers and their kindred spirits reinvigorated independent rock in America by building the foundation of not only a musical niche but an entire movement. 

“I love my label, and my label's got high hopes in me,” sang Ted Leo, covering an old Nick Lowe song, “I Love My Label,” and though the original was tinged with irony, on Sunday night Leo sang it sincerely and with great emotion. Throughout the weekend, Leo, who only recently signed to Matador after stints at a number of different labels over a decade-long career, embodied Matador's philosophy.

The night before, during a joyous karaoke after-party at the Playboy Club, Leo was onstage covering a classic early indie song “Cast a Shadow” by Beat Happening. Later he crowd-surfed during a karaoke rendition of Pavement's “Summer Babe.” He dueted with Phair during a rendition of her R-rated (of course) ode to one-night-stands.

“You're getting older, and you don't know why and you don't know what to do,” sang David Kilgour of New Zealand post-punk veterans the Clean, and the response was answered over and over again: Keep playing music. Many of the acts started out in bands in early 1990s, but though chubbier than in their youth, most continue to push forth new ideas. With a few exceptions — most notably the introspective piano songs of Perfume Genius — daytime and late-night slots were devoted to Matador's newer, younger signings such as Cold Cave, Kurt Vile and Harlem.

Matador has dabbled at times in both hip-hop and, rather oddly, German techno, but at the Palms the guitar reigned supreme. It was strummed by the dapper Stuart Murdoch of Scottish band Belle & Sebastian, which turned in a joyous Saturday night performance of danceable Anglo pop. Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo wrestled with his Fender like it was a poisonous serpent.

And in the hands of Tobin Sprout of reformed Dayton band Guided by Voices, the electric guitar set forth fluid, sticky melodies inside song-bursts composed by songwriter Robert Pollard, whose oft-cryptic lyrics have a logic all their own. “I'm here to stay/ Gold star for robot boy!” he sang. What he meant, exactly, is best left to the obsessive fans, many of whom pumped their fists with glee during the party's final performance. But the inspired weekend of rock offered proof that gold stars are often more valuable than gold records, whether awarded to kid robots or record labels.

[Update, 11:03 a.m. Oct. 5: The original version of this post said that Guided by Voices was from Cleveland, Ohio. They are, in fact, from Dayton. We've changed the text to reflect this.]

--Randall Roberts

Photo: Stuart Murdoch and Sarah Martin of Belle & Sebastian. Credit: Jake Giles Netter