Matador at 21: Fest of a lifetime

Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard (left) and Mitch Mitchell close out Matador at 21 on Sunday night
Photo: Jake Giles Netter

If a middle-aged man without an employee name tag tried to carry your bags, park your car or double your blackjack bet at the Palms last weekend, don’t worry. It was probably just Ted Leo.

The D.C. rocker threw himself into Matador Records’ Vegas anniversary bash with such gusto, his high hairline became more emblematic of the three-day music festival than any song, T-shirt or “Matador at 21” marquee lettering. Look, there’s Ted Leo, singing Billy Bragg by audience request during a late-Friday Ballroom battle set with Canadian hardcore crew Fucked Up. Hey, that’s Ted Leo, crowd-surfing through Saturday’s karaoke party in the lounge. Wait, is that Ted Leo, dashing onstage Sunday in the Pearl to harmonize with Liz Phair on “Fuck and Run”? And somewhere in there, he found time for a performance with his own band, The Pharmacists.

Leo might have been the Lost Weekend’s most ubiquitous presence, but he was far from its only visible star. Musicians walked amongst their fans all weekend, as members of Sonic Youth, Pavement and Guided By Voices rode elevators, brunched and waited in food-court lines alongside the rest of us. Call it indie-rock sleepaway camp, set bizarro-style amid chiming video-poker machines. For fans of the New York label’s influential underground-music roster, Matador at 21—loaded up as it was with reunions, rare appearances and random encounters—will surely go down as a significant life experience.

Matador at 21

Heroes were in great supply. Take Matt Sweeney, for one. The trucker-capped Chavez frontman led his rock quartet out of hibernation for a hypnotic set Friday, then stuck around to ride atop the crowd during Guided By Voices’ raucous, fest-capping performance Sunday.

Or Damian Abraham, Fucked Up’s burly singer, who parted the floor bare-chested Friday, then raised the punk-rock bar one higher by screaming out a tune with his 17-month-old son in his arms.

Sonic Youth only signed to Matador last year, but that didn’t keep New York’s legendary noise rockers from getting into the anniversary spirit. The foursome clanged through 10 spot-on oldies Friday night; later, drummer Steve Shelley hung around the Palms Ballroom past 4 a.m. to take in a bonus set from Japanese trio Guitar Wolf.

Saturday brought a shimmering return from Come’s original lineup (the bluesy Boston quartet’s third appearance in 15 years), along with headlining theatrics from longtime Scottish twee-pop gang Belle and Sebastian. And it served notice that Matador’s future looks secure, too, with strong showings from arty British act Esben and the Witch, the darkly electronic Cold Cave and melancholic vocalist Perfume Genius. Philly rocker Kurt Vile and ramshackle pop trio Times New Viking flew the label’s next-gen flag equally well on Sunday.

Day 2 also found the 40-somethings of Superchunk peeling back the decades for the weekend’s single tightest set. The Carolina quartet merged catalog hits with tunes from ace new record Majesty Shredding, easing up on the pedal only after fast-paced closer “Precision Auto” had been put to rest.

Leo came closest to matching that intensity, bashing out punky rock numbers like a man who’d actually slept since arriving in town. The Pharmacists’ final number, a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label” with New Pornographer Carl Newman guesting, made for a loving tribute to Matador.

Surprisingly, so did Yo La Tengo’s apocalyptic Sun Ra special, “Nuclear War,” sung with for-the-occasion lyrics recognizing individual members of the label staff. If that felt insider-y to the crowd at large, YLT also delivered an ear-busting “Blue Line Swinger,” heavy on guitarist Ira Kaplan’s full-bodied guitar work.

And what fun would a Matador retrospective be without Guided By Voices to finish it off? The Ohio band famous for pop hooks and beer buckets tallied 30 tunes and countless empties in 90 minutes, igniting its notoriously rabid followers (see: those up front singing every word) without injuring anyone else present (see: themselves).

Alas, every epic story needs a villain. Meet Jeff Jensen, whose work as Friday MC was the comedic equivalent of a failed hostage negotiation. Supporting scoundrels: Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg, who let malfunctioning equipment get the best of him during Friday night’s otherwise enjoyable headlining slot; Cat Power’s band, for existing, thus denying us a bone-chilling Chan Marshall solo set; and the shockingly listless crowd. Okay, so the median age appeared closer to 50 than 20. But seriously: bill of a lifetime + fun-time Vegas setting = stand around with your arms folded all weekend?! Sigh.

Mitch Mitchell, at least, came to party. The Guided By Voices guitarist was so excited to be back with the band after a 14-year separation, he ran across the stage—twice—during Yo La Tengo’s final number. Bad form, sure, but you gotta respect the emotion. And then, after GBV finished its second encore and left the stage for good, Mitchell dove into the crowd and began bear-hugging everyone in sight. He might still be inside the Pearl right now, helping Ted Leo sweep up.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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