Thursday, July 31, 2014

Show Review: Merge 25 at Cat's Cradle Parking Lot

Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
Usually when I spend all day getting drunk in a parking lot it's highly frowned upon, but apparently when a record label is involved it all becomes okay. As the closing day for Merge Records' four day anniversary bonanza, Saturday proved to be a day filled with constant stimulation. Whether it be the seemingly non-stop flow of incredible Merge acts both young and old, the delicious beer on tap, the FREE SUNSCREEN (because Merge cares) or that sweet Locopops goodness hidden around back, there was plenty to love about the day-long event that took over the Cat's Cradle parking lot.

Merge's anniversary celebrations are always a pleasant reminder that one of the most prolific, important record labels in the past 50 years was built and blossomed right in our own backyard. Merge planted their roots all over the Triangle and those roots swiftly blossomed across the nation, now a quarter century later they're home to some of the largest names in indie-rock history. Events like Merge 25 run the gamut for Merge's impressive lineup, new signees like Hiss Golden Messenger are able to share the spotlight with esteemed acts like Destroyer, Wye Oak, The Love Language and other indie acolytes. It's a wonderful way to not only put-on for your constantly deepening roster, but to show the fans that you appreciate all that they do to support you.

The Love Language
Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
Despite the intermittent clouds that would shade us all from the sweltering heat, the day was a sweat-filled foray into many different corners of Merge's roster. The day began with Vertical Scratchers, a tightly wound, simplistic pop/rock album that one would expect from Merge. They were the typical college-rock expectation, thus I was more than happy to scarf down some Carburritos while they performed. As local darlings Love Language took the stage though, the crowd was palpably more excited, singing along to their infectious summer anthems. Acts as great as The Love Language can seem to become little more than filler music for fans that have seen them countless times, but having them re-contextualized amidst Merge's impressive roster makes you remember that they're not those road worn locals to everyone else. Some folks at Merge 25 drove across country to see acts like The Love Language in everyones favorite local venue parking lot, which truly makes you appreciate the breadth of our local scene.

Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
The afternoon all seemed to bleed together as acts like Ex-Hex and Mikal Cronin took the stage, blending together low-key punk with high-energy pop sensibilities. While Ex-Hex left me focusing on following the shade like some nomad lost in the desert, Mikal Cronin momentarily took me away from the parking lot and into a thoughtless haze of shouting and swaying to Cronin's alt-pop goodness. But surely enough as every band announced that they were on their last track I high-stepped into Cat's Cradle to enjoy the luxurious air-conditioning before the crowd herded in. I stayed inside throughout most of Bob Mould's set, never getting into Husker Du is definitely something I regret, but seeing Mould for the first time in this light with no prior context of his musical explorations was just something that didn't feel right. But with Jon Wurster on drums I'd imagine that Mould's set was a raucous occasion to say the least.

After Mould the night kicked into overdrive, representing the vastly different ends of the Merge spectrum. Caribou brought an hour of dance-filled, entrancing electronic music while Neutral Milk Hotel left most folks standing still and transfixed on the dimly lit icon Jeff Mangum. There were two massively different vibes for each artist, as the sun was setting during Caribou's career-spanning set there were handfuls of folks dancing wildly (myself included) to Caribou's intricately arranged and brilliantly executed tracks. Frankly my only problem with the Caribou set was the amount of people just cross-armed and uninterested, seemingly unwilling to give this music a chance. But even a whole slew of curmudgeons couldn't suck the fun out of a set filled with "Sun," "Odessa," and "Can't Do Without You."

Mikal Cronin
Photo Credit: Agatha Donkar
Afterwards MC Margaret Cho came out to inform the crowd to kindly put their phones and cameras away for the evenings headliner, as per the artists request. Everyone by now is familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel's picture policy, but that was something totally beside the point for this set. I love Neutral Milk Hotel, I've got some of Mangum's lyrics tattoo'd on my arm, I'm a full-on fanboy for this band. I've seen them three times this year and each time I was closer than the last, but it still doesn't entirely feel right. The songs still move me, they're just as powerful as they've always been. Everytime I hear the opening strums to "Two Headed Boy Pt. 2" my heart still sinks a bit. But, seeing Neutral Milk Hotel live isn't particularly what this music is least to me. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is and always will be a pivotal album for many people, these songs are vividly attached to places, times, memories and people. It's a joy to be able to see these things revitalized through the art of live music, but it's never going to match the crackle of that record you've played a few too many times. Now that doesn't particularly take away from how beautiful and cathartic it is to shout over "how strange it is to be anything at all" amidst hundreds of other diehards, but in a sense it becomes less of a personalized experience. Maybe my reasons for feeling detached from these shows is a bit selfish, or maybe it's because I saw an older woman grinding on her husband during, "Oh Comely," but nothing can detach these songs from my own experiences. Granted that's not what they're trying to do here, they're trying to allow folks that never got to see this short-lived act a chance at redemption, but it's hard for me to gaze upon a stage full of aging indie-rock figureheads and pretend like I don't just want to close my eyes and travel somewhere else. All in all though Mangum and company put on a fantastic performance, even it it's roughly the same set most folks have seen time and time again. Neutral Milk Hotel is a testament to Merge's perseverance, and one can only hope that they have another long, illustrious 25 years of life. So here's to hauling our gray-haired asses back out to a parking lot in 2039.

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