No one seemed to care that the first letter of “MERGE 25” needed to take a nap last night. At the opening show of the label’s quarter-century summit, seven large and well-lit characters that spelled out the event’s name had been propped against a stage right wall. They served as subtle stand-ins for the sort of advertising banners that normally flank festival stages and as Merge’s solitary onstage concession to the celebration of itself. Still, the “M” slumped well below the plumbline, its heavy lean suggesting an elementary school student sleeping through a history class.
That single errant detail aptly summarized the wonderful tension that shaped the start of Merge 25, held in the regal and remodeled Baldwin Auditorium on Duke University’s East Campus. Merge is an indie rock label, born of and still thriving in small, cramped rock clubs. But there were ushers last night, tickets with perforations to be torn and in-house acoustic engineering that makes Baldwin a world-class listening room. Lambchop was set to play an old album in its entirety, preceded by two austere openers. It could have been Merge, gone high-brow.
Despite the night’s auspicious and ballyhooed circumstances and the stately setting, an air of indie rock modesty prevailed. When Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald began his opening remarks, for instance, feedback shot through the auditorium. And when Merge co-founder Laura Ballance read a short speech from notecards, she confessed to nervousness and to being the label’s in-house introvert. The pomp vanished; dome ceiling and comfortable seats or not, the big room felt very familiar.
William Tyler embraced his shortened opening set with elevated intensity, strumming the dense acoustic parts harder than is typical and letting the noisy electric impasses roar well past the point of polite. He emphasized his control by suggesting at first a lack of it, a feint made apparent when he lifted or slinked from those fraught passages into the more diaphanous portions of each piece. During “Terrace of the Leper King,” from his non-Merge 2010 LP Behold the Spirit, he danced along the strings at one point with conspicuous arrhythmia, a move that only highlighted the song’s prevailing and lovely arches. And “Going Clear,” a new piece for an electric 12-string, pitted stacked sheets of shimmering notes against a distinct, low melody played along the guitar’s neck, as though Tyler were reaching down through a cloud to move boulders beneath. It was a narcotic preamble to Merge 25, an invocation that pulled the audience close and whispered “Welcome.”
It didn’t take long for Tyler to pick up his guitars and the rest of his gear, freeing the stage for Mount Moriah to plug in its own instruments and settle into place. It did take them a bit longer, though, to settle onto the grand stage in front of an expectant crowd. At the start of their set, divided evenly between four new unreleased numbers and four of their best old tunes, they felt rehearsed but distant, trying somehow to find the shortest path from their elevated platform to the attentive house. They were the green ones on the night’s bill, anyway; although their Merge debut arrived a full month before Tyler’s, he’s played on a dozen other label albums and at previous Merge fetes with Lambchop. Mount Moriah were the new love interest brought home for the holidays for the first time, working to establish a rapport among the already-intimate.
They steadily got there, too, thanks in large part to the strength of the new material. Guitarist Jenks Miller inched ever closer to the lip of the stage, while Heather McEntire took her hands from her own guitar and moved them in motion with her words, forcing her thoughts and images into the crowd. There’s a soul-music swagger to the new songs, a gusto that Mount Moriah has always been working toward. You could feel its effects during a particularly poignant version of “Plane,” which the band used to close the set like an elongated ellipsis, as suggestive of the future as it was declamatory of the present.
The decision to lead the night with Tyler and Mount Moriah in advance of Lambchop was a smart one. Tyler and Mount Moriah have become satellites to Lambchop’s strange country mothership, as longtime Lambchop collaborator Mark Nevers produced both of their recent records. What’s more, laments of nostalgia always hound events like Merge 25, as though celebrating the success of the past were simply a sentence to grow content with it. But the openers proved that the roster is still pressing the label’s limits, both in terms of stylistic variety and family tree.
Of course, there was also no need to protest the past while Lambchop played its 2000 opus, Nixon, in entirety. Nearly 15 years later, Nixon still sounds like extraterrestrial country-soul, wonderfully mercurial stuff that’s easy to cherish but hard to comprehend. Kurt Wagner’s voice, for example, seems deep and round and full-bodied for a moment, but only until it fractures into falsetto and dissolves into the air. And the six-piece that stood and sat to his right in a wide semi-circle Wednesday night rendered the music in perfectly prismatic form. Guitars sometimes sounded like the record’s string sections, sometimes like the doom of industrial giants. Rhythms cantered and scattered, and harmonies blossomed and vanished. Nixon felt beautiful and alive, an intoxicating shape that remains just beyond actual grasp.
You could sense that, too, in Lambchop’s concentrated performance. Their sets are generally full of jokes and asides, split between Wagner and pianist Tony Crow. But they remained silent throughout the night, focused on getting through the songs and getting through them well and only speaking (graciously, effusively, almost tearfully) during the encore. In his horn-rimmed glasses, thin plaid shirt and a ballcap with holes in the back for perspiration, Wagner suggested a farmer fixing an old tool or a craftsman quietly plying his old trade, shut off from the distractions of the modern world.
The performance was so perfect that I wondered whether or not Wagner noticed that slinking “M,” located directly across the stage—an off-note in an auditorium of true ones. If he did, I doubt he would have cared to fix the lean. It just felt right.