Wednesday, July 31, 2019

North Carolina to New Jersey. Not Much Sleep.

Superchunk at Merge 30

Merge 30 / A Giant Dog

"Was it what you wanted?" Gloree asked me during the wee hours of Tuesday morning after we'd just witnessed A Giant Dog, Dentist, and her band -- The RockNRoll Hi-Fives -- play a sold-out Saint in Asbury Park. Little Dickman and I had put together what, for me, was the show of a lifetime.

I sat there, my t-shirt drooping under the weight of my sweat, and said, "The bands are happy. The venue is happy..."

"NO!" Gloree said. "Was it what YOU wanted?"

"Yeah..." I said as an irrepressible smile came across my face. "More."

Back up a bit.

Monday's show was just the topper to six days of shows, friendship, and good times. Last Wednesday, I headed down to Carrboro, North Carolina for Merge Records' 30th anniversary festival. The RockNRoll Hi-Fives put me up in their new home for the whole weekend. We went to all the shows together. We played in the Merge 30 kickball game. Then, we met up back in Jersey for the rock and roll oven of peace and love that was the show at The Saint.

I could write a book-length review of the whole Merge 30 festival / Saint show. This is the Internet, though; so nobody really wants that. But I'll give some notes and observations.


Mac McCaughan welcomes the crowd to Merge 30.

Beautiful show at the lovely Carolina Theatre in Durham featuring The Mountain Goats, Hiss Golden Messenger, and H.C. McEntire. The always gracious press team at Merge got me a last-minute photo pass so that I could shoot from the pit in front of the stage. The chorus to The Mountain Goats' "This Year" -- "I'm gonna make it through this year if it kills me" -- has become a sort of mantra to me.

H.C. McIntyre
Hiss Golden Messenger
The Mountain Goats

Ran into Titus Andronicus at the after-party at Motorco. That was a theme of the weekend. Artists were out and about among the crowds, accessible, and just as into everything as everyone else in attendance. Escape-ism and The Rock*A*Teens played that one. I was in a Rock*A*Teens cover band with Gentleman Jim Norton for about 2 weeks a few years ago.

The Rock*A*Teens


Laura Ballance kicking off Night 2

Things moved to Carrboro's Cat's Cradle for the remainder of the fest. There's a big main room and a smaller back room. Since I always need to get and maintain a "good spot" for photos, I made the executive decision to cover the main room only. Regrets? Well, obviously, missing all the acts in the back room (like Will Butler, Telekenisis, Torres, Spider Bags, Mike Krol, and more) and missing out on the opportunity to schmooze with artists in the courtyard between the venues. Oh, well. That's the cost of doing a job that nobody ever really asked you to do.

I love Swearin', and I don't think I've seen them since a Shellshag release show at Maxwell's about 6 years ago. I was texting pics and video of Lambchop's set to Lambchop superfan, Renee Maskin, back in Jersey. New Merge signees, Sacred Paws, turned in a stand-out set of globally-influenced pop. I started going pretty hard during Fucked Up's set. Lead singer Damian Abraham is simultaneously intimidating and super-sweet. Once they got into selections from David Comes to Life, I lost my shit.

Sacred Paws
Fucked Up

Superchunk were otherworldly. The main set consisted of a song off of each Superchunk release in chronological order. Sabrina Ellis (more on Sabrina later) joined the band to sing her part on "Break the Glass." Damian came back during the encore for "Our Work Is Done" and stuck around, joined by Swearin's Allison Crutchfield, for "Slack Motherfucker." I was screaming into Damian's mic along with the rest of the people up front.

Superchunk and Sabrina Ellis
Superchunk, Damian, Allison


Kickss Golden Messenger w Andy the Grumpire

Friday afternoon was the Kicknic, organized and emceed by Jersey City's Dancing Tony. 3/4ths of The RockNRoll Hi-Fives and I were on Kickss Golden Messenger, while Evren kicked for the Ballfield Dogs. Kickss Golden Messenger won with a walk-off basekick by yours truly in the bottom of the 5th. By now, I could barely walk.

Friday in the main room started in mellow fashion with William Tyler's intricate and beautiful guitar work. He went electric -- and actually sang -- on a cover of East River Pipe's "Make a Deal with the City." Merge honcho / Superchunk guitarist and vocalist, Mac McCaughan, joined Tyler for the final piece.

William Tyler and Mac McCaughan

Imperial Teen had reunited from various points on the map to play only their second show in over two years and brought the fun.

Imperial Teen

This was the evening I was most looking forward to as it featured both A Giant Dog and Titus Andronicus. I've gone through the last couple of years with this giant, gaping hole somewhere inside me; and both of these bands are able to fill in all that space and get me a little bit (ok, a lot bit) outside myself when they play.

A Giant Dog's Sabrina Ellis lays it all out there, and -- even though I did snap hundreds of pictures during their set -- I found myself just absorbing it all during a few moments. I thought, "Geez. For a photographer, I have my eyes closed an awful lot."

A Giant Dog
A Giant Dog

Titus Andronicus played a set that consisted exclusively of their releases with Merge. That meant no The Airing of Grievances, The Monitor, or Local Business. It also meant that they closed out the set (before covering "I Wanna Be Sedated," that is) with the suite of "Mr. E. Mann," "Fired Up," and "Dimed Out" from The Most Lamentable Tragedy, which is one of my favorite and, for me, one of the most cathartic live music things ever. 

Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus

Oh, I also don't want to forget to mention the mesmerizing set from Wye Oak right between A Giant Dog and Titus Andronicus.

Wye Oak


The Spinanes

Merge held a free day party on Saturday. We bopped in and out and caught Joyero and the highly-anticipated closing set from The Spinanes. Destroyer's Dan Bejar, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, all of Superchunk, and other artists were among the crowd.


Saturday night was interesting. There were intimate -- And, really, even in the large space of the main room, they felt intimate. -- acoustic sets from Destroyer and longtime CDM favorite Waxahatchee. The crowd was respectful and attentive for both. Katie Crutchfield brought Mary Lattimore out for a few songs to accompany her on harp.

Waxahatchee w Mary Lattimore

Washington DC's Gauche are another recent signee that took advantage of the opportunity to impress. Defiant and danceable post-punk. The revelation of the festival for me was Nigeria's / UK's Ibibio Sound Machine. The crowd went apeshit. Frontwoman Eno Williams sings in both English and the Nigerian language Ibibio. Williams was visibly moved by the crowd's response to the set.

Ibibio Sound Machine

Ex Hex closed out the festival. They've added bassist Michelle Mae which allows Betsy Wright to join Mary Timony on guitar. The new setup really works. And the hard rock riffs, high kicks, and sweet harmonies with Laura Harris are all still there.

Ex Hex
Ex Hex


Flew home. Went to watch CoolDaughter #1 swim the 100m breastroke in the Junior Olympic finals. She finished 8th even though she was recovering from a mean stomach bug.


When Chris Dickman and I confirmed that we'd booked A Giant Dog for The Saint a few months back, I was incredulous. I knew immediately that I wanted Dentist and The RockNRoll Hi-Fives on the bill. When that all came together, it was like a dream come true.

We busted our asses promoting this one, and damned if we didn't sell out The Saint on a Monday night. The crowd arrived and packed the place out early. The RockNRoll Hi-Fives and Dentist played to a basically full house. CoolMom came out!

The RockNRoll Hi-Fives
The RockNRoll Hi-Fives

Once again, A Giant Dog gave us everything; and I greedily ate it up. I can't thank them enough for what they do. From the first seconds of their set to the end, when Sabrina was crawling along The Saint's bar, it was literal and figurative heat. It was sweat and wild abandon. Beautiful.

A Giant Dog
A Giant Dog
A Giant Dog

So, was Monday night what I wanted? The whole damn six days was what I wanted and what I needed. And I'm gonna keep heading out there, looking for it, trying to make it happen as long as I'm able.

I'm uploading the many hundreds of pics from the last week to Flickr as we speak.

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