I arrived to the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro about ten minutes after the 7:15 pm start time of the first night of Merge Records’ 20th anniversary music festival, aptly named XX Merge. Walking into a already-packed Cradle, a trio of bass, drums, and guitar greeted me with a mixture of Pavement melodicism, Pixies-like noise, and the tightness of bands like Slint. Being one of the few Merge bands I didn’t recognize by appearance, after their set, I asked a guy next to me who just played. “Pure,” he responded. Pure, a band from Asheville who released just one 7" single on Merge Records in the early 90’s before disappearing, provided the absolute perfect kick-off to what was sure to be a night of great music and immediately turned me into a fan (anyone got a copy of that 7"?)
Nearly right after Pure’s half-hour set, I noticed Lou Barlow, of Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh fame, take the stage to begin setting up for his set as Pure was tearing down. Barlow, who released an album of understated folk-pop titled Emoh on Merge in 2005, played a quiet, acoustic set, treating us to a couple songs off of his next album for Merge, Goodnight Unknown, due out this fall.
Next up was the country-tinged indie rock of newer Merge signees Oakley Hall. Seven members strong on stage, the group played a sometimes raucous, sometimes poppy set of songs that felt like a 70’s AM radio station’s signal interfering with a college station’s.
The Clientele were the next band on the bill. One of my favorite Merge acts, The Clientele played a set of their signature twilight indie rock that was as pretty as violinist/keyboardist Mel Draisey, ending with a driving performance of “Bookshop Casanova” that had the entire crowd moving.
I may be one of the few people who thinks that The Magnetic Fields live are superior to The Magnetic Fields on record. Don’t get me wrong, I love the records, but live, playing all acoustically, the songs take on an intimacy and beauty that just isn’t quite as strong on record. With a mere 40 minute long set time (this is a band that played two sets with an intermission last year at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall), the band played crowd favorite after crowd favorite, including “California Girls,” “The Book Of Love,” and my personal favorites “I Don’t Believe You” and “Papa Was A Rodeo.” Singer Stephin Merrit’s deadpan humor was present as ever, trading quips with pianist/vocalist Claudia Gonson. When told they only had a minute left, they decided to play the humorous minute-long “Punk Love” to close out the set. It was a fitting exclamation mark to a fantastic set.
Coming on next were Raleigh’s own Rosebuds. If you’ve never seen The Rosebuds live, you owe it yourself to catch them sometime. I’ve seen them more than a few times and they’ve never put on a less-than-stellar show. Opening with one of my favorite songs (and the song I had stuck in my head prior to their set), “Drunkards Worst Nightmare,” the band charged through a set full of songs from all four of their long-players, from the dancey synth-pop of “Get Up Get Out” from Night of the Furies to the hauntingly beautiful set-closer “Nice Fox” off the recent Life Like (including, as always, audience participation on the refrain “And it don’t mean nothing at all.”)
From the merch table in the back selling Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band shirts to the drum kit with the words “The Mystic Valley Band” emblazoned across the kick drum, it was apparent who the night’s headliner was from the moment you stepped into the Cradle. These days, instead of playing confessional folk songs, Oberst is busy playing raucous country-rock. Backed by a five-piece band, Oberst took the stage in a wide-brim cowboy hat that wouldn’t be out of place in an old western. Oberst played a generous hour-and-a-quarter long set consisting solely of material from his two Merge albums, last year’s self-titled record and the newly-released Outer South. Backed by a five-piece band, it was a nice way to end the first night of XX Merge’s festivities and get people excited about the remaining four nights.
More coverage and photos of the other four nights are on their way, so check back soon!