In his day job as record label owner, Mac McCaughan has had a great year. His label, Merge Records, founded in 1989 with Laura Ballance, has just celebrated its 25th anniversary in some style, with a series of anniversary shows and releases. One of the label’s bands, Arcade Fire, has just come off the back headlining Coachella and Glastonbury, while another act, Caribou, has seen anticipation for his new album on Merge reach commercial fever pitch. Of course, the label was only started in the first place to release records by McCaughan’s band Superchunk and other albums by friends of theirs.
While it’s amazing that Merge has grown from strength to strength, it’s somehow even more remarkable that Superchunk is still going strong after a quarter century of releasing albums filled with punky power-pop anthems. Their show at the Center for the Arts was career-spanning, drawing heavily from their two most recent records (2010’s kind-of comeback Majesty Shredding and last year’s excellent I Hate Music), but the group also time travelled through its back catalog to deliver a series of songs that it was difficult to react to in any way other than deliriously energetic pogoing.
After an initially sluggish response, the crowd began to do exactly that, as McCaughan’s infectious energy (the guy is pushing 50 but throws himself around like he’s 22) and his insistence on turning some lights on so he could see the fans cajoled everyone into being a little looser and letting their hair down. Superchunk knows how to do this. They’ve been doing it a long time, and even the necessary replacement of Ballance as bassist has been pretty seamless. The fact that they have remained compelling without any major alterations to their sound is due to an intelligence that is rare for the genre and a knack for throwing out so many memorable memories from the same template that it seems unfair to other bands, as if Superchunk has somehow hoarded them all for themselves.
The venue gave the show the feel of an awesome high school gig rather than one by indie veterans, so its pleasures were of the innocent and uplifting variety. There were highlights both expected and unexpected. The late rendition of “Slack Motherfucker,” one of the band’s earliest recordings and still arguably its best known, was received with an understandable enthusiasm, but there were also the likes of “My Gap Feels Weird,” a much more recent song from the second coming of the band, which somehow managed to be even punchier live than on record.
Being a one-off show rather than coming in the middle of a long tour probably contributed to the high energy levels, so by the time it all drew to a close a good hour and a quarter after it started, McCaughan in particular looked like he was ready for at least another hour or so. Clearly the sheer passion for music that makes Merge such an impressively consistent label is something that is equally applied to the continuing story of Superchunk. They’ll probably still be doing it when they’re 80. And I still won’t be complaining.
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