“This’ll just be a big love fest,” said Pavement multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich when his band took the stage Friday for the first night of Matador at 21. He was right, of course. The three-day Las Vegas bender (called “The Lost Weekend” by its organizers) celebrating the 21st anniversary of one of the most important independent rock labels in history couldn’t help but be all back-slaps and high fives. Well, mostly—as Nastanovich’s own band showed, to use the words of frontman Stephen Malkmus, you can never quarantine the past.
But that didn’t happen until later. Friday afternoon a steady stream of disheveled indie-rock types filed through the floor of the Palms. Even without the Matador At 21 swag bag, it was obvious who was in Vegas for Matador, and who was here for Vegas. Dudes wearing plaid button-up shirts with pearl snaps, jeans, and a couple visible tattoos? Definitely. Other guys wearing T-shirts with shorts and black socks, but too young to be someone’s goofball dad? Yup. Guy in Jawbox shirt, lady in Murder City Devils one? Most definitely. It all set up a hilarious culture clash later on in the night as people spilled out of the Pearl Concert Theater and into the casino, where decked-out people waited in line for one of the Palms’ night clubs. One woman dressed to the nines asked occasional A.V. Club contributor Trevor Kelley, “Aww, is that your nerd costume for Halloween?” (His wife’s response: “Is that your whore costume?” It’s high school all over again, folks!)
Inside the cavernous Pearl hall, it was a safe place for the several thousand people all apparently wearing their nerd Halloween costumes. Or zoot suits—on stage as we entered was Jeff Jensen, one-half of Earles & Jensen, who released a prank-call disc on Matador a few years back. Dressed as a sort of zoot-suited pimp in a bright red suit with wide brimmed red hat and long red feather, Jensen established early what would become the most interminable parts of the night: his comic interludes between bands. Even with a couple funny lines—“Not trying to brag, but I banged Sleater and Kinney,” “This guy isn’t talking about Mr. Ed—he’s talking about Nitzer Ebb!”—Jensen’s jokes landed with a thud. At the beginning of the show, though, people were more accommodating of the shenanigans.
Matador’s Twitter feed had said show opener Guitar Wolf would have to cancel because of travel delays, but the band managed to hit the stage only 20 minutes after its scheduled start time. Decked head to toe in black leather and sunglasses, the Japanese trio looked like the wannabe greasers who hang out in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in Harajuku. Without a soundcheck, the band quickly plowed through its Ramones-indebted garage punk, ahem, “jet rock ’n’ roll,” for the next 15 minutes, with U.G.’s bass missing from the PA until the end of the first song, “Jet Generation.” It was all over and done with before Guitar Wolf had a chance to really cohere, but the sloppiness suited the band and the context.
Jensen returned to the stage during the set changeover, this time without a costume, to pretend to call Hans Platzgumer of H.P. Zinker, whose ...And There Was Light... album was the first Matador release. The bit completely bombed, though thankfully it wasn’t long before the reunited Chavez took the stage to deliver the first of the night’s powerhouse sets. If the band’s sound recalled the best of ’90s independent guitar rock (think Shiner, Archers Of Loaf, Hum), that’s because 1995’s Gone Glimmering and 1996’s Ride The Fader helped create that sound. It suited the venue well: Where Guitar Wolf sounded thin and tinny, Chavez created a full, thunderous racket seemingly enhanced by the room’s natural acoustics. The third song, “Pentagram Ring,” received the first big response of the night, and sentiments likely shared by many in the crowd of, “Goddamn, this band was good.”
Technically, Chavez has been active since the 2006 release of the anthology Better Days Will Haunt You, but barely so. When frontman Matt Sweeney introduced the band and said guitarist Clay Tarver’s sons didn’t even know he was in a band, Tarver replied, “We’re in a band?” Shortly after, Sweeney said, “I know that I’m speaking for the whole band when I say we appreciate your patience.” “Patience for a new record?!” yelled someone in the audience. But the self-effacement wasn’t necessary; Chavez was in fine form from start to finish. Wikipedia claims a new album is in the works, but like so many assertions on Wikipedia, that can’t be verified.
Next up was Canadian hardcore band Fucked Up, and because it hails from the Great White North, you know what would be funny? Some hockey-themed humor! Cue Jeff Jensen, who took the stage in a hockey jersey and a shaky “ya hoser” accent to talk about the many great musicians Canada has produced. In keeping with tradition, it was interminable, with a stage manager giving him and his cohorts the “wrap it up” sign three times before they finally did it.
Fucked Up has a reputation for intense shows, which usually find corpulent frontman Pink Eyes shirtless and stretching mic cords to their limit by bouncing around with the audience. He stayed on stage for the first two songs, but spent most of the set prowling the floor and even some of the seats. (“I feel like Ellen Degeneres,” he said.) Fucked Up seemingly stuck to the set they’ve been playing all summer, featuring gems from 2008’s The Chemistry Of Common Life and this year’s compilation Couple Tracks—including “I Hate Summer,” which Pink Eyes dedicated to “anyone who’s a little overweight.” For “Heir Apparent,” he held his tiny, incredibly adorable son, Holden (wearing similarly tiny headphones to protect his ears), in one arm and attempted to freestyle all the lyrics to make them about the boy.
“How many times in your life do you get to say this? Stick around for Sonic Youth and Pavement,” Pink Eyes said at the end of another typically great Fucked Up set. Legendary or not, woe to any band that has to follow Fucked Up.
Of course, if any band this weekend could up the ante, it was Sonic Youth, who followed another awkward set from Jensen, this time under the guise of Matador “bookkeeper” Barbara Butterfield. The band opened with “Tom Violence,” the lead track from 1986’s Evol. Sonic Youth kept it old-school during its tight, forceful set, focusing on material that came out no later than the mid-’90s and generally avoiding any jammy noise freakouts.
Some of Pavement’s reunion shows have been preceded by an antagonistic rant from Rian Murphy of Drag City Records (Pavement’s first label) under the guise of a has-been DJ from Chicago’s alternative station. Sadly, Murphy didn’t show here, and Jensen wasn't a good substitute. Pavement took the stage with characteristic nonchalance and opened with “Grounded,” but equipment problems came quickly. At first it was Steve West’s drum kit, so Malkmus and Nastanovich played “Perfect Depth” together while techs fiddled with West’s kit. Even with the kit fixed, the stage sound was an ongoing problem, as West repeatedly gestured to the stage sound man to adjust the monitors over the course of the set.
It would be a constant problem, at least for Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg. It was hard to tell exactly what was irking Kannberg (His guitar? The monitor sound? His bandmates?), but he spent almost all of Pavement’s 75-minute set shaking his head, yelling at the sound guy, or generally looking pissed off. Pavement blew through its first five songs with barely a word between songs, but Kannberg spoke up after “Shady Lane” to say, “All right, it’s gonna get better after this!” Bassist Mark Ibold looked surprised, and thus the dynamic for the rest of the night was set: Kannberg pissed, his bandmates ignoring him. “Conduit For Sale!” went well, but during “Starlings Of The Slipstream,” Kannberg stopped playing for a bit. With the rest of the band either unaware or ignoring Kannberg’s problems, it seemed he was constantly trying to catch up with them and never could get comfortable.
It didn’t bode well for “Kennel District,” on which Kannberg sings lead. Arriving smack in the middle of Pavement’s 19-song set, it provided a opportunity either to turn things around or simply ride out this final show of Pavement’s reunion tour. In Kannberg’s case at least, he chose the latter. “So sorry everyone—so sorry,” he said after the song. During the next song, “Cut Your Hair,” he unloaded on the stage sound guy (off mic, thankfully), then just shook his head in annoyed disbelief.
Yes, it was as distracting as it sounds—and it was a shame, because the crowd didn’t seem to notice whatever was upsetting him so much. “Unfair,” played two songs before “Kennel District,” received a huge response, and with a slew of fan favorites—“Cut Your Hair,” “Two States,” and “Gold Soundz”—following, the crowd was nothing if not enthusiastic. Kannberg clearly wanted it to be over. After “Stop Breathin,” he disappeared offstage for a couple of minutes while the band played an instrumental interlude and returned for “Shoot The Singer.” He walked off afterward, only to have Ibold grab him to come back for the closer, “AT&T.” While Malkmus was making this thanks after, Kannberg was gone.
For hardcore Pavement fans, it brought up memories of the Terror Twilight tour, and sparked a debate about who was the bigger asshole: Malkmus or Kannberg. (The consensus? They’re both assholes, but different kinds of assholes.) At the end of the night though, it was a bummer—yet unsurprising, considering Pavement’s history—way to close out the first night of Matador At 21, and more than likely, the story of a seminal indie band. Sometimes you can’t go back to those gold soundz.
• You can stream the concerts every night at MySpace (except for Yo La Tengo and Jon Spencer, who apparently don't like the Internet)
• Pavement set list:
Elevate Me Later
Conduit For Sale!
Starlings Of The Slipstream
Cut Your Hair
Shoot The Singer
• Two Pavement shows for me this summer, no “Summer Babe.” Damn.
• In the swag bag: a 10-inch album with Jon Spencer & Yo La Tengo performing Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker” on side one, and The LLAF doing “The League Of Bald Headed-Men” on side two; ear plugs; Matador pin; Matador button; weekend program; postcard.
• “I’m fat, but don’t ever let me get that fat,” guy standing next to me to his friend during Fucked Up.
*Photos by Jake Giles Netter