Amid the exquisite domed acoustics of Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium in Durham, North Carolina, a small voice haltingly emanated from the stage: "I am delighted (and nervous) to welcome you all to the first evening of our celebration of ourselves." The voice belonged to Merge Records co-founder and Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance, who was kicking off the paradigmatic indie label's 25th anniversary festival with its typical air of ambitious humility. Featuring four days of events from July 23 to 26, Merge 25 was awash in neighborly bonhomie and top-shelf music. Here are 15 of the best moments from the celebratory summer fête.
William Tyler's Graceful Noise
Baldwin Auditorium is a concert venue more likely to host string quartets than rock shows, and for the first half of his opening set, Nashville-based guitarist William Tyler kept his wordless acoustic melodies gently intricate and his strummed flurries gently ominous. Seated alone amid the gear of Wednesday night's other two bands (Lambchop, who Tyler has played with for 15-plus years, and local country-rockers Mount Moriah), he created mini-dioramas of sound with little fanfare. But picking up his electric guitar to play a new song, "Going Clear" (the phrase Scientologists use for overcoming past trauma), he tapped pedals, patted the fretboard, and created clipped, anxious rhythms underneath gushes of chords. For his final piece, "Tears and Saints," dedicated to late Lambchop bassist Marc Trovillion, Tyler churned up a reverberating cascade, using loops and effects, and the building shook with a dissonant fervor, both melancholy and bracing.
Lambchop's Kurt Wagner's Lounge-Soul Storytelling
Deep into his revisiting of 2000's career-defining album Nixon, Lambchop singer-songwriter Kurt Wagner took his time, adjusted his ballcap and sang – well, tenderly croaked– over the his band's tastefully swaying soul-jazz: "The city makes a hooting sound tonight/The owl on the roof has got it right/If it's left up to him/He'll take that stupid grin/And decapitate a rodent or a mouse." No matter how many shows, there's probably always a decent number of patrons who do a double-take and go, "Okaaaayyy." But that's Wagner's project, minutely detailing life's existential wonder and nausea, like a lounge singer who lost his voice under shady circumstances, but somehow got vastly better.
Seated downstage left at the end of a semicircle of seven musicians (five of whom were seated) who played a variety of instruments (bass, guitar, pedal steel, Moog, sax, flute, oboe, trumpet, electric and acoustic piano, drums caressed by brushes), Wagner sang his funny-when-it's-not-funny stories about characters who try to spit on the sidewalk but end up wiping the results off their chests. At times, the tempos hurried along the vignettes, other times they slowed to a somnambulant creep, as Wagner practically tickled wisps of sound from his guitar. When the band returned after a standing ovation to encore with a muted, somewhat squirrelly version of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" (from the Super Fly soundtrack), the mood lifted, but only so much. What Wagner seems to love about the song isn't its funky sweep, but the tender half-light tension: "You're such a gun/Make my lungs sigh/Breathin' in the air." You just know he wishes he'd written that one.
Orange County Social Club's Drink Menu
Home to a variety of daytime shows, the Carrboro bar also featured drink specials inspired by Merge deep cuts, like Magnetic Fields' "Absolutely Cuckoo," Portastatic's "Hey Salty," Destroyer's "Canadian Lover" and my favorite, the Rock*A*Teens' "Please Don't Go Downtown Tonight," which got you a "pack of cigs and a rail shot of your choice." That's hospitality.
Hiss Golden Messenger's Steamy Waylon Cover
With Orange County Social Club so packed Thursday afternoon that patrons emerged gasping for air, it was hard for late arrivals to actually see the soon-to-be-fabled North Carolina folk-rock force of nature Hiss Golden Messenger, led by raspy real-deal MC Taylor with William Tyler sitting in on guitar for a cover of Waylon Jennings' "Lonesome Onry & Mean." But it sounded like a killer.
Telekinesis and Eleanor Friedberger's Team Effort
First, there was the complimentary 45 of Friedberger fronting Superchunk for a cover of the Ramones "Oh Oh I Love Her So" b/w Patti Smith's "Free Money," then there was her frisky, charismatic set backed by Seattle power-poppers Telekinesis, and then there was Telekinesis on their own, with frontman Michael Lerner exclaiming about being a member of the Merge fam during his band's set: "This is like a crazy dream come true, I am so happy!" When he bashed into a thoroughly swell cover of INXS's "Don't Change," so was everybody else.
Alasdair MacLean's Sublime Sadness
Despite their literately lovely indie-pop songs of sorrow, the Clientele has never achieved much commercial success or critical outpouring. The English group's 2005 album Strange Geometry, however, remains one of the gems in the Merge catalogue. On record, singer-guitarist Alasadair MacClean has a wistful approachability, but on this night he came across as a wounded "hard man," a tough who takes no guff, except that he's been pelted by a shitload of guff his entire life. The chorus of one especially sparkling romantic post-mortem from Strange Geometry perfectly captured the trio's aspect: "E-M-P-T-Y."
Superchunk, the Lil' Punk Band That Could, and Did
Capping off a long Thursday with their Cat's Cradle set, Superchunk must've known fatigue was probably setting in for some of the Merge faithful. Maybe that explains frontman Mac MacCaughan sprinting onstage and screaming, "Hello, Carrboro, North Carolina," like he was headling Rock in Rio at the Maracanã in 1991. The band itself was shot out of a cannon, so much so that bassist Jason Narducy (manning the beloved spot of Merge co-founder Laura Ballance) stumbled into Jon Wurster's drum kit at one point, bloodying his face but never missing a note. But for the most part, Superchunk has never been a tighter, more powerful force, ripping through an old screecher like 1989's "What Do I" as well as the more coiled-up bittersweet roil of "This Summer," which acknowledges the shitstorm but heads for the beach anyway, a flamethrowing guitar solo lighting the horizon: "Oh, we can take the crowns off of all of these clowns and live on what hope remains/We've got sweaty sheets and an ocean view, and it feels like a time machine." Yeah it does.
Okay, I know South by Southwest's festival food-truck game is legendary, and with good reason, but Merge 25 surpassed anything I've ever experienced in Austin with the Triangle area's genius-children at KoKyu BBQ. Short-rib sliders, pork-belly tacos, tater tots, the sauces! You'll end up with juice all over your hands, but most of the folks at Saturday's outdoor show just licked it off with glee.
Even as people walked up to the Counterculture tent during Saturday afternoon, staring at a sign clearly stating "FREE," they still had to ask: "I can just take this?" Yes you can, the owners replied, you weary, hung-over, sun-blanched indie-rock wastrels! You can even grab two!! Praise the Lord and pass the simple syrup.
Rock*A*Teens' Unhinged Rock & Roll
Emerging from the hardscrabble Atlanta enclave of Cabbagetown, which also helped form musical eccentrics Cat Power and Benjamin Smoke, the Rock*A*Teens were always one of Mac McCaughan's favorite bands and though he never was able to convince too many other people by releasing three of their "artbilly" albums on Merge. But anybody who ever saw the group live, especially howling, lurching, unsinkable frontman Chris Lopez, could vouch for their anthemic, garage-soul roar.
Reuniting for a handful of shows this year, the band endured both sound and lighting glitches at Cat's Cradle on Thursday, but on "Car and Driver" they achieved a sort of ragged stomping majesty. Were the Rock*A*Teens one of the best bands to come out of Georgia in the Nineties? Maybe. But more importantly, for one song, on a good (or particularly desperate) night, they would get down on their knees and testify about rock & roll's ancient burning core like nobody else.
Imperial Teen's Pleasant N0t-Quite Surprise
It comes as no shock to anyone in the Imperial Teen fan diaspora that the inimitable indie-pop band – which attained a slight brush with alt-fame in the mid-late 1990s – regularly laps the rest of the field, in terms of sheer joyful cool, no matter which bill they grace. But still, there was that moment at the Cat's Cradle on Friday when the crowd's reaction intensified as if they were gradually realizing how lucky they were to be in the room, and then the band intensified in response. With witty, intimate, wry, acerbic, self-aware, ferocious songs like "Yoo Hoo," "You're One," "Million Dollar Man," "Don't Know How You Do It," Imperial Teen could've been the leaders of a new movement, "Power Twee," if there hadn't been so many silly Nineties subgenres already. Regardless, there was a lot of Imperial love in the room, as guitarist/keyboardist Roddy Bottum cracked, "We're Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice!" And drummer/bassist Lynn Perko mused, "It's quiet ... you're, what's the word? Mesmerized." Exactly.
"The Concept," a Song That Can't Be Ruined
Some songs are just indestructibly timeless, and Teenage Fanclub's "The Concept" (written by bandleader Norman Blake) seems to be one of those songs. Even after it was the subject of perhaps the most depressing scene in cinematic history – when Charlize Theron's divorced, 37-year-old mentally unstable character in Young Adult tries to pick up her high-school sweetheart, but he's now married to a woman who plays drums in a band that's playing Theron's favorite song, this one right here – those "oh yeahs" can't be stopped.
Mary Timony Shredding with a Smile
Mary Timony has been in a series of terrific bands over her career (Autoclave, Helium, Wild Flag), but the singer-guitarist's new all-female trio Ex Hex has such an immediate exhilarating freshness that it's like she's busting on the scene all over again. Outdoors on Saturday in the early-afternoon glare, she was both regal and punky, tearing off playfully gnarled solos in the midst of her bandmates' relentlessly urgent groove, and seemed to be having the most fun she's had onstage in years.
Dan Snaith's indie-dance project Caribou is, post-Arcade Fire, Merge's next hope to reach a mass audience, which is all the more impressive considering that there's nothing conventional about the Canadian group's sound. At a point now where LCD Soundsystem was in the early 2000s and Animal Collective was in the late 2000s, Caribou recombines indie rock, house music and synth-pop in a way that feels like it's defining the sound of the moment. Dressed all in white, Snaith and crew took the stage on Saturday as the sun set and the crowd grew in size and diversity, getting younger and more racially mixed. Grouped closely together at the middle of the stage, a live drummer, bassist, and guitarist pinballed off Snaith's electronic programming and effects, jump-starting the sweaty parking lot with new single "Can't Do Without You" and it's subtle vocal-sampling shimmer. As the synths spiraled and the beats ascended, Merge almost got a tad rave-y.
The Neutral Milk Hotel Rock Star Impersonation
Before headliners Neutral Milk Hotel took the stage, posters were tacked up around the venue asking that no photos be taken of the band, even with cell phones, and then host Margaret Cho reiterated the point by reasoning that hey, this is for you, don't share it with anyone, respect the artist, etc. Following Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum's request that even the large video screens be turned off during the band's recent performance at the Pitchfork Festival, one has to wonder if this is all just a cagey effort to maintain the band's enigmatic allure. Unfortunately, our reward for adhering to the band's request was to be offered host Margaret Cho's bare, tattooed bottom, which she implored us to post on Instagram.
As far as Neutral Milk Hotel's set, it was, of course, a shambling, clattering frenzy, which stretches of songs produced some undeniably heart-rending flourishes. Mangum's voice keened and rasped with relative clarity as the devoted shouted out the lyrics to "I Will Bury You in Time," "Holland, 1945," "Ferris Wheel on Fire" and "Song Against Sex." Tempos came and went, with the trumpet, French horn, trombones, banjo, accordion and theremin blasting and clashing happily. The flow of the show was half-processional, half-recessional – we kept building and scampering and exulting, and then slowly, grandiosely faded. For his Merge shout-out, Mangum declared fervently: "Record labels can fuck you and they don't fuck you. They take care of you." Then the band flew into "Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone," stumbled, stopped and Mangum yelled, "That sounded like shit! What the fuck was that? Oh well, nobody's fault." And on we went. Without a doubt, in a world of indie flatliners, the man does indeed have a flair for the dramatic.