At the kick-off of Merge Records' 20th anniversary last night, the lyrics of Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo" proved utterly fitting. "What are we doing in this dive bar?" bellowed singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt in his froggy baritone. And then the kicker: "How can you live in a place like this?" Merritt conspiratorially smiled and shrugged to the 600 diehard fans packed into Carrboro, North Carolina's Cat's Cradle.
One word answers both those questions: "Merge." The venerable label, founded by Superchunk mates Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan in 1989, helped earn a reputation for the Triangle (the university-heavy area between Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh) as a hotbed for important, intelligent rock music. But even more, the label earned a reputation for itself throughout the '90s and beyond as a tasteful, well-run refuge for any like-minded band-from Nashville's Lambchop to Kansas' Butterglory to New Zealand's the 3D's to Scotland's Camera Obscura.
As for why we were packed into that dive bar: Merge is celebrating its birthday with a string of four nighttime showcases at the Cradle, featuring a bevy of bands from its roster, both past and present-with one catch: there's no schedule. None. Just a list of bands who will be playing at one of the four gigs. All anyone can do is show up and hope that a favorite is on the bill that night. The top dog at last night's gig was apparent upon entry: A drum kit emblazoned with Conor Oberst's Mystic Valley Band logo sat fully assembled onstage, but it wouldn't be until almost 1 A.M.-six hours after doors opened-that the Bright Eyes frontman and his pals stumbled onstage.
And we do mean stumbled. Clad in a gigantic, Zorro-style black hat, rolled-up jeans, and girlish boots, Oberst emerged with his face already damp-and it was from more than just the humidity. He sang and mumbled through spittle-covered lips, while guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth's eyes rolled around loosely in their sockets. What the two had been doing since soundcheck was a mystery, but it's fair to say it didn't include watching any of the half-dozen acts that played earlier.
But when he stopped rambling about Kurt Vonnegut or offering multiple, discombobulated Merge toasts, Oberst found a stretch of creative sobriety-even though the crowd had thinned out due to general fatigue and disdain for the singer's altered demeanor. The thoughtful, 12-string strum of "Cape Canaveral," off his 2008 self-titled album, was sublime and restrained, and while the chorus of "Moab" asserted dubiously that "there's nothing that the road cannot heal," it was executed with an exceptional grace and nuance given the band's condition.
Other performers included local band the Rosebuds, who roused the house into a charming singalong on "Nice Fox," off last year's Life Like; pristine U.K. popsters the Clientele, whose new album Bonfires on the Heath, will be released in October; the aforementioned Magnetic Fields, making their only live appearance of 2009, and surviving a mid-set attack by a giant flying cockroach to close with a cutesy one-minute romp through 69 Love Songs' "Punk Love," which they hadn't played in a decade; plus, Lou Barlow, Oakley Hall, and a festival-opening set from Pure, an Asheville, N.C. trio who released one noise-fuzz 7-inch on Merge in the early-'90s and hadn't played live in 18 years.
So, at least we can cross those bands off the list of possibilities for nights two through four-and with Spoon, Superchunk, Telekinesis, M. Ward, and more yet to play, there are plenty of worthwhile hours in that dive bar yet to come.
(P.S., we've been asking, but apparently Arcade Fire, Merge's biggest-selling band, will definitely not play; they're working on a new album.)