By Sunday, the revelers at “Matador at 21: The Lost Weekend” were showing signs of strain. After three days in Vegas with no sleep, no oxygen, and no food that wasn’t swimming in grease and sucrose, the fans on hand for this historic indie-rock blowout were not exactly at peak freshness. In fact, most of us looked like Robert De Niro just escorted us into the back room and slammed a desk drawer on our knuckles. And right across the street from the Palms Casino, there was a billboard advertising an upcoming Halloween show from Mini Kiss, the world’s first all-dwarf Kiss cover band. Oh, Vegas.
Guided By Voices capped the weekend with an amazing high-energy set, with their cooler of beer onstage, Robert Pollard’s high kicks and Tobin Sprout’s guitar-hero moves. It was a reunion of the classic ’93-96 lineup, more or less the one that made their 1995 masterwork Alien Lanes, along with their almost-equally-great albums, 1993’s Vampire on Titus and 1994’s Bee Thousand. The Ohio players raged through the brew-sloshing classics that the crowd came to scream along with: “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Motor Away,” “A Salty Salute,” “Shocker in Gloomtown,” even mellower gems like “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” At one point a fan crowd-surfed his way to the stage, grabbed a beer and started singing along — it was Matt Sweeney from Chavez, who blew everyone away on Friday night. (And who has gone on to play with Neil Diamond, which gives him more Vegas cred than anyone.)
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Liz Phair confessed right off the bat she was suffering from her “notorious stage fright,” and although her voice was shaky with nerves, she pluckily made it through “Supernova,” “Divorce Song,” and “Stratford On Guy,” teetering on heels that were taller than her mikestand. The crowd was on her side, sharing her affection for the songs and respect for the occasion. But the cathartic moment came when Ted Leo rushed out from backstage to added some badly needed tambourine and back-up vocals to “Fuck and Run.” It was a chivalrous gesture that just confirmed Leo’s status as the festival’s hardest-working star, from his performance of Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow” at Saturday night’s karaoke throwdown to his hoops game in the Hardwood Suite to his Sunday set, where he brought out the New Pornographer’s Carl Newman for a duet on Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label.”
Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and Tom Scharpling, the “Best Show” duo from WFMU (and makers of the past decade’s finest comedy albums), were unbelievably great MCs. Wuster posed as an indie blogger who gave the New Pornographers’ performance a 1.6 (“out of 100!”) even though they hadn’t played yet, explaining “It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m the first to report it.” He also did a brilliant impression of present-day Gene Simmons, shilling for his new book The Demon Laughs: The Gene Simmons Joke Bible, with jokes like this: “Why did Peter Criss cross the road? Because I told him to. I’m Gene Simmons.” (Wonder what he thinks of Mini Kiss?)
The New Pornographers were a full-on Canadian lovefest, with ringmaster Carl Newman looking bemused at the Altman-esque cast of talents he has lured into the band to bring his glorious songs to life. They’re a strange mix of personalities, but fortunately, they were all on their best team-player behavior tonight. Hair-wagging madman Dan Bejar sang lead on a spectacular “Myriad Harbour,” while Neko Case and Kathryn Calder shone on “Use It,” “Sing Me Spanish Techno” and the double-shot finale of “Letter to an Occupant” and “The Bleeding Heart Show,” which rollicked like some kind of hippie-gospel kiddie revue (in a good way). Newman also told the story of meeting his wife Christy while she was working at Matador. When he admitted, “People always think my lyrics are bullshit,” drummer Kurt Dahle interrupted to speak his only words of the night: “Carl, we don’t think your lyrics are bullshit.” You Canadians, honestly!
One of the weekend’s hands-down musical highlights happened Sunday afternoon, when many fans were still waking up. Barely an hour after landing at the airport, the Clean played for a packed Pearl Ballroom audience that included members of practically every other band on the bill. The New Zealand indie rock pioneers were clearly amused by the fuss (“I’ve never seen so many cameras in my life,” said bassist Robert Scott) as they churned through “Anything Can Happen,” “Getting Older” and “Odditty” (dedicated to label honcho Gerard Cosloy), with David Kilgour’s surf-freak guitar and Hamish Kilgour’s urgent drums reaching new heights of jittery splendor. Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley joined for an awesomely drone-y “Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” before the Clean signed off with “a nod to the roots,” a rave-up version of the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It.”
Yo La Tengo did a sluggish set, heavy on novelty tunes (“Mr. Tough,” “You Can Have It All”) and a feedback jam that mostly made fans wish Mogwai had made it here. Perhaps they were just pissed off at playing for so many GBV fans? But they livened up their cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” by namechecking practically everyone who’s ever worked for Matador.
It’s like Gina Gershon told Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls: In Vegas, there’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down behind you on the stairs. Except sometimes it’s someone older and drunker! And for all the bands here this meant Guided By Voices. What a night. What a festival. And what a 21-year legacy of musical adventure. There still isn’t a plaque for Moe Greene in this town, but there should be one for Matador — because the Lost Weekend festival was one for the ages.