Summer festivals—even great summer festivals—are a dime a dozen. Camping, road trips, outdoor settings, gorging on gluttonous and glorious musical buffets: these are merely par for the course.
But there’s something much more special about an event that only takes place every five years, in a small town, curated by a boutique indie label that feels like family.
And so it was that my ladyfriend and I headed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina last week to celebrate Merge Records’ 20th anniversary. We had myriad personal reasons to embark on the journey as well—which, truth be told, were probably the main push that brought us there. We’re both fans of the Merge roster, but there didn’t seem to be a lot on the line-up that we hadn’t seen many times before; the main musical attraction was the Magnetic Fields, who rarely tour and who have soundtracked our lives—together and apart—since the release of 69 Love Songs 10 years ago.
There was a part of me that wondered if this would be a swan song for my indie rock past. I have little nostalgia for much of anything from the ’90s, a decade that for the most part sounds like one long wasted creative opportunity. I rarely, if ever, get excited about guitar rock bands anymore. My tolerance for standing inside black-walled clubs for hours on end is at an all-time low. And although their curatorial history is largely impeccable, I found 2008 to be a consistently disappointing year for Merge releases.
So why did I end up having the best musical vacation of my life at Mergefest?
For starters: the people. The staff at Merge—past and present—are, to a person, warm, engaging, entertaining, and fanatical music geeks. They remember your name and face even if you’ve only seen them for a grand total of five minutes in the past five years. And then there are the fans, the ringleader of which is “Crazy” Tony Susco from Jersey City. He MC’ed the Saturday night proceedings, and organized the Friday afternoon kickball game that introduced strangers from all corners of the continent, who became fast friends over the course of the weekend at various dinners and day trips to swimming holes.
Secondly: the locale. From Toronto, Chapel Hill is definitely worth a leisurely drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains with a camping stop along the way. The town reminds me a lot of Guelph or any other quaint university small town with nearly every amenity you would want from a major city (and Raleigh-Durham is a 20-min drive away). The food was uniformly excellent. And most importantly for an event like this, the Cat’s Cradle club holds a lot of people comfortably, with good sight lines from anywhere, a back patio to escape to, and consistently excellent sound. If you’re going to be stuck in a club all week, this is the one to be in. (Hats off to the remarkably efficient stage crew, as well.)
To the music: Each night was a surprise. The organizers purposely kept the schedule a secret, in part to ensure excitement for each slot. This was occasionally frustrating—is our dinner going to run late and we’ll miss Favourite Band X in the opening 7 p.m. slot? It also dangled the idea of additional, unannounced surprises—which was ultimately a big tease, especially for the trainspotters who were somehow convinced that Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire or Dinosaur Jr. would show up. I think I was the only one crossing his fingers for the first-ever show by the reclusive East River Pipe. (Not entirely improbable: Fred Curnog was there all weekend with his wife and daughter, smiling and hugging everyone and enjoying the shows. One of my weekend regrets was finding this out too late to meet him myself.)
Friday night opened with what had been promised would be a can’t-miss affair—which it was for locals who remember the band Pure, who hadn’t played together in something like 18 years. Even Merge didn’t know what had happened to them in the interim, until the drummer showed up at a Portastatic show in Asheville last year. Pure were the first of many reunions—most of which meant far more to the locals than to the tourists like me.
Pure were followed by Lou Barlow, who was a new Merge signing when he opened the 15th anniversary shows five years ago; at that show, he was opening for a band no one had heard of called the Arcade Fire. His 2004 album Emoh holds up remarkably well; he has a new one due in the fall. Yet through his set and the subsequent show by Oakley Hall, I was regretting the fact that I was missing Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers—one of my favourite songwriters ever, and whose Forfeit/Fortune album of 2008 has been in constant rotation in our house since its release. He was playing an early solo show in Durham entirely unrelated to the festival; I could easily have seen that and caught the last three acts at Cat’s Cradle, as one local did. Why he wasn’t at Mergefest is anyone’s guess, just as it’s a mystery as to why he voluntarily chose to self-release Forfeit/Fortune, his finest album.
The Clientele is a band I didn’t have the time of day for until I saw them at Mergefest five years ago, playing on the Sunday night of the festival in the beautiful Carolina Theatre opening for Lambchop. There, their wispy British dreampop was a cool breeze after a week of sweaty rock’n’roll. Here, they helped open the week with music that ultimately sounds best when you’re on vacation and your mind has time to wander; I’ve seen them in Toronto and I’ve heard their records, but nothing compares to seeing them in Carolina. They too have a new album due in the fall.
Hanging out on the back deck between sets meant that you often walked back in the club with no idea if anyone had started playing or not—and no idea who it might be. So when I strolled in to see the Magnetic Fields on stage in mid-song, I may have exclaimed “holy fucking shit” a bit too loudly for the hushed, reverent tone of the room. Vocalist Shirley Simms was on board to sing the songs from the 2008 album Distortion (played entirely without distortion—this was an all-acoustic set, with Stephin Merritt on some kind of mandocello, Sam Davol on acoustic guitar, John Woo on cello and Claudia Gonson on a real piano) as well as her share of the 69 Love Songs. It was as magical and marvelous as I could have imagined, and for the first time since seeing Leonard Cohen last year, I was weeping openly at a show—and I was definitely not the only one. The only song not from the aforementioned albums was “Give Me Back My Dreams” by the 6ths (originally sung by Sally Timms); sadly, Lou Barlow didn’t perform “In the City in the Rain,” the song he recorded with the 6ths. During “Come Back From San Francisco,” Claudia leapt up from her piano mid-song, clearly alarmed by some critter that then crawled behind John. What the audience couldn’t see was a six-inch flying cockroach (the Southern euphemism is “palmetto,” apparently) making its way around the stage, cracking up the entire band, who nonetheless managed to finish the song by only slightly butchering the coda. Of course, it’s hard to imagine a more forgiving crowd.
The Rosebuds had the challenge of following up the most sublime moment of the weekend—and as a result, I can’t remember a single thing about their set, other than that I heard my two favourite songs from Night of the Fireflies. Conor Oberst and his Mystic Valley Band then put on a marathon set at the end of an already-marathon evening. Despite the awesome intensity of his band—the kind of players who sound like they practice together for eight hours a day before the gig—I remain mostly indifferent to Oberst’s charms, and not for any of the usual playa-hater reasons. He does, however, earn my respect for insisting on wearing a ridiculously large black sombrero that he would reinstate after every guitar change.
Thursday began by meeting Claudia Gonson in the parking lot of the Cat’s Cradle, and telling her how much the set meant to me, and that the Magnetic Fields were the one band I was looking forward to the most all weekend. “Oh, well, sorry for wrecking the rest of your weekend!” she replied. The rest of the Magnetic Fields had split, but Gonson was very present all weekend, happily chatting with anyone and everyone, posing for pictures, jumping up and down for her favourite bands, organizing swimming excursions, and getting all Merge artists and staff to sign her copy of Our Noise, the new oral history of Merge, like it was a high school yearbook. I spent the rest of the weekend wishing that she had gone to my high school.
One of my companions for the weekend had to miss Thursday night due to a prior engagement; she didn’t miss that much. The Broken West opened the night with a solid set that made me want to revisit their records; they also covered a song from the Teenage Fanclub album that Merge put out. Sadly, few other bands made similar gestures; apparently Spoon has covered Destroyer’s “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane” in the past, but they wouldn’t this weekend.
Richard Buckner sounded exactly the same as he did when I last saw him five years ago, with each dirgey number bleeding into the next with minimal melodic differentiation. I’ve never been a fan; this didn’t change my mind. I had no prior opinion of Guv’ner, another one of the weekend’s reunions, but it was painfully apparent to everyone that they had barely practiced—perhaps not even picked up an instrument—since their last gig ten years ago, when ’90s amateurism was going out of style. Versus also seem stuck in the ’90s, and not in a bad way—just not in a way that sounds remotely interesting anymore; they were a time capsule, and sounded suitably frozen.
So when New Zealand’s 3Ds took the stage and announced that this was their first gig in 18 years, my expectations sank. (It didn’t help that I only knew one of their songs, “Beautiful Things.”) The band themselves seemed befuddled that anyone still cared at all, never mind a packed club on the other side of their world. And yet this was one reunion that clicked; even at its sloppiest, they still had the kind of chemistry that’s impossible to acquire or enforce.
That set the stage for Superchunk, the reason for the season. Merge’s flagship band has been largely silent for the past six years, with only occasional area appearances distracting them from their families, their jobs as Merge executives, or, in the case of drummer Jon Wurster, an extremely busy session career. I’ve seen this band several times over the past 15 years, and have never been disappointed—except possibly when they were touring my favourite album of their’s, 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, which found them introducing more acoustic guitars and keyboards while the dwindling audience that came to see them in Toronto mostly wanted them to sound like it was 1993 again. So maybe it’s best that they’ve been laying low, because shows like this prove that these four musicians are in absolutely no danger of losing their edge—just in case that’s something people actually care about. They were on fire from the first notes, each one of them incredibly animated and invigorated, and the set list spanned their entire discography (including early manifestos “Slack Motherfucker” and “Cool”), slowing down only for “Like a Fool,” which was no less intense than the rest of the set. For many people there, this was a weekend highlight; for me it was as good as Superchunk always is; maybe I just take it for granted that they’re such a phenomenal live band.
Friday opened with the Essex Green, who I missed because we were dining with new friends we met at the afternoon’s kickball game. They were followed by Yet Another Reunion, this one being the (aptly-named?) Spent; much like Versus, this sounded fine, but it was a part of the ’90s I’m happy to leave behind.
Unlike most people there, I had few expectations of Lambchop, the much-revered Nashville orchestra that has probably put out more records on Merge than anyone else on the roster. I enjoy two of their albums (Thriller, Nixon); the rest do nothing for me, in some cases even less than that. I saw them put on a somnambulant set here five years ago, the highlight of which was the between-set banter between singer Kurt Wagner and pianist Tony Crow. Here, however, they executed a carefully paced set that began with the delicacy they’ve built their career on and slowly ramped up into the R&B and soul excursions heard on Nixon, which inspired some bona fide disco dancing on the floor. From there, however, the intensity continued to be ratcheted up to full-on techno territory, with all 12 members devoted to a pulsing groove that wound up Wagner to the point where he finally abandoned his seated position and started to get seriously unhinged, climaxing in a verse of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” that took everyone in the room right over the top. Lambchop are a band that doesn’t tour; their hardcore fans are spread few and far between. Seeing them have a packed club in their clenches like they did here is hard to imagine anywhere else; this was an extremely rare treat, and it was the unanimous highlight of the entire weekend.
The only way to follow that was for something completely different. Ladies and gentlemen, Polvo. Revered as gods at home both in North Carolina and far afield, Polvo are a big deal to a lot of people. (Dan Bejar: “I got in a taxi at the airport and told the cabbie, ‘I’ll give you $100 if I get to see the last 10 minutes of the Polvo show.’ ”) Those people enjoyed this show. I couldn’t care less, and unlike with Lambchop, there was to be no conversion.
So still coming down from Lambchop, expectations were again lowered for Pipe, a local Punk Rock BandTM on the reunion train. Except that Pipe is everything you want a Punk Rock BandTM to be: ferocious, fowl, snarling, soaring and soaked in beer cans that the audience has pelted them with. These were not creepy old men trying to relive their youth; they could happily kick the ass of ten dozen bands half their age. Score one for the local team.
Spoon were the closers on Friday, and studiously avoided their “hits” in favour of newer material and songs from their first Merge release, Girls Can Tell. Spoon’s popularity may be growing—their last album debuted in the Top 10 in the U.S. and Canada—but this set found them getting pointier and more peculiar, with increased use of Echoplex, dub drops and sharp guitar parts. Spoon were the only act of the whole weekend who draw any serious influences from soul music (Lambchop’s twisted take notwithstanding), and while that went a long way to loosen up the dance floor (especially after Polvo and Pipe), there was still a detachment present that garnered a noticeably subdued reaction for a band that is Merge’s second-most-popular active group. People lost their shit for Lambchop and Pipe; people seemed to merely appreciate Spoon. Perhaps there was no more shit left to lose.
Saturday afternoon was an outdoor show under a tent in the parking lot of the Orange County Social Club, the go-to bar for all pre- and post-show activities. Various commitments caused me to miss nearly all of this, except for the Radar Brothers and an encore set by the 3Ds, both of which went down fine with sno-cone mojitos and mint juleps on this blazing hot day. That meant missing The Music Tapes (one of the only non-guitar bands present, sadly), Portastatic (whose “Noisy Night” always conjures Carolinian memories), Matt Suggs (whose last album, as part of the band White Whale, is one of the most underrated Merge releases—go find it right now!), and Tenement Halls.
Other than the Magnetic Fields, the one act I was most looking forward to seeing was Telekinesis, Merge’s newest signing—if only because I had seen most everyone else before, and Telekinesis’s self-titled debut is the best power pop album I’ve heard since the New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema. The album is the work of drummer/songwriter/singer Michael Benjamin Lerner; he does have a touring band, but a series of family emergencies and calamities caused them to cancel on him for the weekend. So he called up Nada Surf guitarist Matthew Caws and the Rosebuds’ Ivan Howard on bass; they practiced once, three hours before their gig opening up the Saturday night show. You’d never know anything was amiss; they’re all pros, and Lerner’s songs would stand up to any treatment. Lerner probably isn’t much older than the label itself, but you can bet that he’ll be a big part of the next 20 years.
Erectus Monotone: sweet Jesus, are the ’90s reunions over yet? And does Ladybug Transistor count? Because I haven’t even thought about them since they played this festival five years ago.
Which brings us to M. Ward, who apparently insisted that he not close Saturday night, perhaps because he was playing again on Sunday with She & Him. I’ve been a casual fan of his since I first saw him in San Francisco seven years ago; he’s an amazing guitarist and singer, a great producer and a decent songwriter. My only complaint is that I find his songs and albums interchangeable; I rarely reach for them. I’ve seen him solo and with various bands over the years, but his current line-up is by far the best configuration for his live show. They bring out the old-timey rock’n’roll in him, right down to the covers of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and the occasion-appropriate Beatles’ “Birthday.” Ward seems to be having more fun on stage than ever; this set was much more joyous than any of his recordings would ever suggest.
Joy is not something one would normally associate with a Destroyer set, but Dan Bejar seemed to actually be enjoying himself. Maybe it’s Mergefest itself; my favourite Destroyer show was his performance here five years ago, with a back-up band of Merge staffers dubbed “The Treacherous Fops” who picked the set list. This time he played solo—not an easy feat after M. Ward’s barn-burning set—and played songs from nearly every Destroyer release, reaching back to “Streets of Fire” from the debut (later covered by the New Pornographers). The newer songs held up well in the absence of his backing band, on whose arrangements much of his recent records have relied heavily. Bejar pondered requests and happily engaged in some mutual heckling with the enraptured crowd—much like with the Lambchop show, it’s hard to imagine an audience that was as totally geeked out as this one. As a huge fan who was ready to give up on Bejar a couple of years ago, this set won me back. Maybe all it took was the occasional smile from the stage.
That left Imperial Teen… and the notion that there was still going to be some surprise act. Most delusional overheard comment: “I heard that Imperial Teen were never supposed to play and their name was only a placeholder for the super secret surprise.” Yeeeee-ah. Right. So facing that kind of implausible expectation, sure, Imperial Teen might have been a bit of a letdown. And sure, they’re not the greatest band in the world. But they’re a fun party band, and they managed to rouse most of the audience who wasn’t still crying over the fact that they’d spent the past week dreaming the impossible dream of a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion. Get over it, people! And dance!
Sunday night we finally got to leave the Cat’s Cradle for the considerably more upscale Memorial Hall on the leafy University of North Carolina campus. Opening the show was another new Merge signing, Baltimore duo Wye Oak, whose new album, The Knot, is so unbelievably superior to their passable debut that I barely believe it’s the same band. Jenn Wasner is a haunting vocalist and occasionally raging guitarist; drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack does all sorts of on-stage juggling to complement her many-changing moods. Sadly, backing vocals are not one of his live duties, and nor are any of the violins and pedal steel heard intermittently on The Knot. But those are minor quibbles, and I’d love to hear this band in a club; the cavernous acoustics of Memorial Hall are not cut out for rock bands, even ones as sparse as this one.
They are, however, ideal for American Music Club. I had no idea what to expect from this set; I knew songwriter Mark Eitzel’s towering reputation among many critics, and I knew that I’d heard him occasionally over the years and nothing every really stuck. So I was a bit shocked, to say the least, to see a dumpy guy in a trucker hat accompanied only by a pianist and singing like Tony Bennett—with all the vocal reach and mic control that reference implies. Eitzel is a storyteller first and foremost, both between songs and in his lyrics, and while I still doubt I’ll buy one of his albums, I would go see him again in an instant. He’s an amazing and unique showman who is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious; I can’t even begin to contemplate a comparison point.
She & Him are anything but unique; singer Zooey Deschanel writes songs that fit perfectly into early ’70s Laurel Canyon pop ala Carole King and Linda Ronstadt. Nothing wrong with that—after all, Telekinesis and M. Ward are just as derivative—but after a weekend of unique and iconoclastic performers like Lambchop, Destroyer and the Magnetic Fields, it certainly seemed the wrong note to close on. And this was definitely a more mainstream crowd than that at the Cat’s Cradle; even before she sang her first note, the first dude of many piped up, “We love you, Zooey!”
I like the She & Him album well enough; I couldn’t care less that Deschanel is an actress first and a singer/songwriter second. Live, however, she is simply unbearable: cutesy, cloying, bouncy, and seemingly without any knowledge of how to sing into a microphone properly—which is key when you have a chirpy voice like she does. (After witnessing Mark Eitzel, this was a particularly egregious crime.) To make it worse, her stage banter was cringey—perhaps because it wasn’t scripted. I felt bad for the band, including M. Ward, not only because they were mere window dressing for the Zooey show, but because the acoustics smothered the set in rumbling bass.
And then came the covers. Deschanel and Ward do a fine acoustic version of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” mostly because she sounds far better when she’s singing harmony than lead. But tackling Sam Cooke was considerably trickier; attempting Joni Mitchell was a trainwreck (“You Turn Me On I’m a Radio”). As her piece de resistance, she actually had the chutzpah to blurt her way through Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”—I cannot begin to enumerate the reasons why this was such a horrible, horrible idea.
There were many jaded indie rockers in the audience who don’t like sickly sweet pop music of this vintage variety in the first place—but I do, which made this show hurt even more. Where’s Camera Obscura when you need them? Needless to say, there was some extremely spirited lobby conversation afterwards.
Not that any of that could stain the memories of the past week. Mergefest is one of the only rock festivals with the down-home intimacy of a folk festival (next weekend’s Wolfe Island Music Festival, outside of Kingston, is another), due in large part to the Merge ethos itself: open ears, open minds, sustainable scale, earthbound expectations.
They inspire a loyalty that few other labels maintain, both to and from their artists; and naturally, that trust extends to the mutual relationship with the label’s fans, who gather once every five years for what more than one person called an “indie rock fantasy summer camp.”
A thousand thank yous to all the Merge staff, as well as everyone else who made this trip so amazing: Martin Hall, the Orange County Social Club, Carl “I don’t want to use the phrase ‘genre exercise’ before nine in the morning” Wilson, Wendy Spitzer, Jay Cartwright, Tony Susco, Autumn Cannella, Django Haskins, Jessica from Asheville, Margaret from Orlando, Craig and Rosa from San Francisco, Saleen from NYC, Todd from D.C., Kirk from Lumberton, Mary Catherine from Seattle, Ky from Boston, Carl from Top Drawer Records in Seattle, Bob the Tragically Hip fan from Seattle, Matt from the Dead Mechanicals in Baltimore, and everyone else I encountered there. And to the lovely Helen Spitzer, who five years ago first talked me into doing this—and so many more wonderful things ever since.