Not-so-slack motherfucker

Indie rock lives on at Merge Records' 10th anniversary party in Chapel Hill, N.C.

By Lydia Vanderloo

Published July 27, 1999 9:00AM (EDT)

First off, it was a party: a nightclub celebration with adhered-to
set times and a no-guest-list policy; a gig with lots of merchandise for
sale, along with the usual beer and sodas. But the 10th anniversary
bash for the Chapel Hill, N.C., independent music label
Merge Records, held July 22-24 at local live spot Cat's Cradle, also had
a ritualistic spirit to it -- like a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah -- as it honored
creative-minded music of many stripes, from rock to its far-flung fringes.

The label's best-known band, the spirited punk/pop group Superchunk,
includes Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, who also own Merge and
make up a third of its staff. The two initially started Merge as an
outlet for music made by themselves and their friends, but it's since
grown to embrace artists from around the world -- including U.K. acts
Spaceheads and Ganger, New Zealand groups Cakekitchen and the 3Ds, and
New York's Magnetic Fields and East River Pipe. Onetime Merge groups
Cornershop, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Verbena have gone on to major-label
deals and bigger sales. But it was clear from the festivities that
one thing remains crucial to Laura and Mac's dual careers as artists and
business people: The music comes first.

"We're probably too nice," Merge label manager Spott Philpott told the local arts weekly,
the Independent, for an article about the company's anniversary. "Being as
nice as we are, it's amazing that we've been here 10 years."

Cat's Cradle is a high-ceilinged, cavernous space located in a strip
mall in nearby Carrboro, just a stone's throw from Franklin Street, the main
drag coursing through the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill
campus. It has three small bars, holds about 700 people on a packed
night and has probably offered a stage and a few dollars to all of the
15 groups performing during the three-night festival, called alternately
Mergefest and M10K.

It wasn't the kind of event that had one gigantic culminating moment;
rather, there were several smaller epiphanies, times when the music soared
so high it was easy to forget where you were. The weekend kicked off
with a rare set from Portastatic, a side project of McCaughan's. He did
a set of mostly covers -- "I haven't had much time to write songs lately,
so I'm going to become like a jukebox tonight," he warned the
audience -- first strumming out songs on acoustic guitar, and later backed
by a five-member band.

While Thursday's show also included sets from angst-rockers Karl Hendricks Rock Band,
New York's Versus and local heroes Pipe, the true high came during
Spaceheads' short but mesmerizing performance. During a weekend filled
with trumpeters -- a full third of the weekend's lineups included the
instrument -- Spaceheads offer the most novel use, drawing on Andy Diagram's
effects-laden tones as the lead instrument. His trumpet soared over
rhythmic grooves constructed from Richard Harrison's live drumming and
some nifty tape loops. Like Australia's Dirty Three, Spaceheads are
broadening the definition of rock without the use of vocals or
conventional instrumentation, with astounding results.

On Friday, after performances from the goofily theatrical group Music
Tapes, instrumental jam-rockers Shark Quest and the Nick Cave-inspired
Rock*A*Teens, the Magnetic Fields performed 23 of their new "69 Love
Songs" (a three-disc album due out in September). Leader/songwriter
Stephin Merritt had assembled a cast of five rotating vocalists
(including himself) cast in a newly arranged lineup, featuring solely
keyboards and guitars -- no drums. But even Merritt's morose songs, cast
in diamond-perfect song structures, only elevated the mood with
their lovely harmonies and spot-on vocal performances. Then Superchunk
launched into a set striped with some of the newer, more subdued songs
off their upcoming album "Come Pick Me Up" -- such as the peppy "Hello Hawk" --
and nuggets from the quartet's earliest days, including the 1990 indie-rock anthem "Slack
Motherfucker." Despite heat so sweltering that even going outside for a
breath of stagnant air provided no reprieve, the audience reveled in the
local-kids-make-good success story.

Saturday's high came late, after performances from local pop-rock band
Ashley Stove, orchestral pop group Ladybug Transistor (lots of horns!),
original emo-punkers Seaweed and contemporary psych-pop troupe Olivia
Tremor Control. A long, rich set from Nashville country-everything band
Lambchop provided the cozy closing punctuation to a weekend filled with
a love for music and all stages of its expression. Filling the stage
with horns, strings, guitars, lap steel, vibes and more, Lambchop have a
sound that's as inclusive as it is effective. And with a recording
lineup featuring 14 members at last count, the band puts on a live show
that's both rare and spectacular. After about half an hour of summery
songs built atop slow, slithering grooves, the group launched into a
cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love (Love Song)," a
disco/soul-infused number from last year's "What Another Man Spills."
Unencumbered by the cheesy strings that drench the recorded version, the rhythms came alive, cueing a much more upbeat and festive second half of the set. Lambchop's
own cast of brass players was at varying times augmented by Spaceheads'
Diagram, Ladybug Transistor's Gary Olson and Merge's own Philpott,
while McCaughan manned a keyboard and another Merge employee, Charlotte
Walton, made a couple of cameos playing blocks and dancing on stage.
Singer Kurt Wagner's broad smile didn't seem wide enough to hold his

Between performances, members of the Merge staff served as DJs,
spinning favorite songs with warmth and gusto -- the way they run
their label.

Lydia Vanderloo

Lydia Vanderloo is a freelance writer in New York.

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