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Not-so-slack motherfucker

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

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By Lydia Vanderloo

July 27, 1999 | CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- 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 happiness.

Between performances, members of the Merge staff served as DJs, spinning favorite songs with warmth and gusto -- the way they run their label. | July 27, 1999

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About the writer
Lydia Vanderloo is a writer and editor at CMJ.

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