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Guitars roar at indie rock reunion

It began with a trio of Japanese dudes, collectively known as Guitar Wolf, who came outfitted in more leather than an S&M shop and who tended to view rock ‘n’ roll as a single-celled organism: basic, primal, the root of all life.

Watching them scratch at their instruments in the service of crude, heart-palpitating garage punk was suggestive of what it might have been like to witness cavemen discovering how to make fire: such a simple, yet vital and thrilling act.

Guitar Wolf’s 20 minutes of torque and ‘tude at The Pearl at The Palms on Friday night served as the opening salvo of Matador at 21, a three-day binge of bands currently and formerly aligned with influential indie label Matador Records.

Matador is in town celebrating its 21st year of issuing seminal releases spanning caustic heavy metal, progressive electronica, idiosyncratic hip-hop and tempestuous indie rock.

Though Matador’s lineup has long been characterized by a chaotic, diffuse roster of acts, there was something of a unifying theme to the evening Friday: It was all about bands enamored with six-string heroics.

Of the five acts on the bill, all but one featured a guitarist who hoisted his instrument high above his head at some point in a triumphant pose, like some overconfident wideout who just scored a game-winning touchdown.

The lone exception was a band whose name is unsuitable for print. (They’re a punk sextet from Toronto fronted by a burly bowling ball of a man who goes by the name of Pink Eyes. Google it.)

Singing in a gruff bellow, Pink Eyes (Damian Abraham) sounds like a grizzly bear arguing with another grizzly bear over a salmon or something.

Two songs into his band’s tense 40-minute set, he clambered over the barrier that separated the stage from the crowd and barreled into the audience on the floor, hugging strangers, thrusting his mic into their faces.

Though the band’s guitarists lacked the visual flash of some of their peers on this night, their playing was just as heavy on the aplomb, as they conjured up swelling squalls of equally ambient and concussive sound that lent their songs an expansive, open-ended feel.

Combined with Abraham’s sweaty, kinetic presence (the guy performed the entire set with a plastic cup smashed into his forehead) it made songs like "Black Albino Bones" sound like a call to arms, an invocation to revolution, even though it was really about the geeky thrills of collecting obscure records.

At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of expended energy was the evening’s headliners, reunited indie rock pacesetters Pavement, who ambled onstage like a group of record store clerks heading out on a smoke break.

Pavement became semi-famous in the early ’90s with sardonic, self-aware songs that seemed like they were written off the top of the band members’ pointy heads.

They made nonchalance a kind of aesthetic.

At The Pearl, the band alternated between pretty, shambolic pop that seemed deceptively effortless in its execution ("Shady Lanes") and off-the-cuff, fired-from-the-hip blasts of guitar snarl ("Conduit for Sale!").

Onstage, they seemed both cocksure and a little sheepish.

Introducing the band’s biggest hit, former college radio staple "Cut Your Hair," singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus described the song as being "not very good."

He wasn’t so modest, however, when it came to those moments when he made his guitar approximate the roar of industrial machinery.

No doubt Malkmus’ playing was indebted to the group that preceded his onstage on Friday, art rock veterans Sonic Youth.

The band has built a long career out of making noise sound like something other than noise, mining the melody in dissonance in songs alternately well-suited for eliciting dance moves or deafness.

The principal members are all in their late 40s and 50s now, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them, as they still bound around the stage with the unchecked enthusiasm of a bunch of kids who just got exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

They lunged at the crowd, both physically and aurally with songs such as "Stereo Sanctity," a four-minute bombardment of slashing guitars and near-tribal drumming.

There were poppier interludes (a bouncy "Bull and the Heather"), but then it was right back to epic jams such as "Death Valley ’69," which registered in the spine.

Their time onstage ended with guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo smashing the necks of their instruments together in a kind of mock sword fight, Moore on his back, Ranaldo looming over him.

Then Moore lurched up and grabbed one of the stage monitors, flipping it over on its side.

Finished bullying his guitar, it was on to the next target.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at 702-383-0476 or e-mail him at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com.

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