After a somewhat trying Wednesday, things here in Chapel Hill improved at least slightly yesterday. First there were tacos stuffed with the largest serving of shredded beef I have ever seen, topped by what was quite possibly the best salsa I have ever tasted. Then there was this, which, seriously… if I never see another Starbucks in my life, I will be fine with it.
And then of course, there was the Cat’s Cradle for night two of Merge XX. After years spent reading and reporting on bands and their tour dates, it’s nice to finally make it to one of those venues you always see listed, especially when it’s as pleasant a place as the Cat’s Cradle. It’s like a wider, more run-down version of Mercury Lounge, with outstanding sound, a sizable, sorta separate bar area, and a deck out back with lots of seating and some picnic tables. We need more decks in New York, obviously.
As you may have read, the people at Merge haven’t announced who’s playing each night—the idea being that it’s their birthday party, and you’re supposed to be going to celebrate them, and not just to see Spoon or whatever. I like this because it makes it so that I have actual justification for scoping out my surroundings for famous people. I also like listening to rumors about who might be playing next spread across a venue in what seems like seconds.
Last night’s first band turned out to be the Broken West, whom I have a complicated relationship with. I don’t dislike them, exactly—they write perfectly serviceable power-pop cut from same cloth as Sloan. The melodies are generally strong, and their technical prowess is impressive. There’s a certain something missing, though. There’s no massive sing-along parts, no shifting dynamics, no… edge. It’s the same thing live—enjoyable for a few minutes, with nothing really commanding you attention.
Next up was Guv’ner, a Merge band from the mid-90s who I just realized were actually from New York. I always liked Guv’ner, with their quirky, borderline lo-fi indie-pop that was addictive and exciting despite what always seemed like questionable technical know-how and less than perfect singing. They maintained most of that charm last night. A friend said they made him remember how much more you could get away with in the 90s in terms of not being particularly tight.
And then Richard Buckner played. I don’t want to be too negative here, but if you have a birthday party any time soon, you probably shouldn’t ask Richard Buckner to play. He’s a brilliant songwriter, obviously, but he is… how can I put this gently? A complete fucking downer.
Fortunately, NYC’s very own Versus took the stage next. There are two periods in my life, around 1997 and then again in 2000, when I listened to Versus probably more than any other band. Their dreamy pop songs have gone from lo-fi and rickety to polished and sturdy without losing any of their ability to hit home, which is something not many bands can say for themselves. They played mostly older songs, with a new one mixed in there as well. They sounded amazing.
A New Zealand band called The 3Ds played next—loud psych-rock that made me feel like kind of a jerk for having no idea who they were. You should go check them out. We both should.
Annnnnd, finally, Superchunk. I was a little surprised that the guests of honor would play this early in the week, but man, did they kill it. They played mostly old songs, of course, because, well, aside form that single they released last year, they really only have old songs at this point. I’ve seen Superchunk close to a dozen times, probably, and somehow it always comes as a surprise when you realize jut how many great songs they’ve written. “Detroit Has a Skyline,” “Cast Iron,” “Watery Hands,” “Like a Fool,” “Driveway to Driveway” — all played with the kind of energy that’s rare in bands half their age.
Photo by Kevin Norris.