Published Sep 01, 2004Wandering through the Cat's Cradle during this five-day love-in, you might have seen an unassuming but strangely familiar couple hovering by the back patio why yes indeed that was Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan looking characteristically worried, with drinks in hand, taking in Richard Buckner. But that's just the kind of week it was in Chapel Hill. The little label that could marked 15 years of surviving on determination and their time-tested approach: help yourself and your friends, put out records you love and build a community around you. MergeFest kicked off in typically luminous low-key fashion: a free show with Lou Barlow, generous enough with his time to step back and let new kids Arcade Fire blow the roof off the Local 506. Their performance remained the buzz of the festival, and given that contenders included Crooked Fingers and Lambchop, that's saying something. But other moments shone like diamonds in the dew: M. Ward ambled around onstage with the lazy assuredness that only the technically brilliant can pull off. Despite coming after the Essex Green and pre-Superchunk, he held the room rapt with his chillingly gorgeous songs and a cover of Dylan's "Forever Young," verses reworked into a love letter to the label. Superchunk, rumoured to be playing their last show, mowed their way through their back catalogue with incendiary enthusiasm. "Detroit Has A Skyline" was on fire and "Slack Motherfucker" inspired the usual sing-along and idiocy that suggests cross-border pollination between fans of Superchunk fans and the Tragically Hip. Laura Ballance's bass playing was fierce as ever, and at seven months pregnant (and gorgeously lethal), she was a vivid reminder that pregnant women are often at the height of their powers. It was enough that Polvo's Ash Bowie materialised to sing "Can I Ride" for the encore, but when Lou Barlow arrived on stage as Superchunk launched into "Brand New Love," you could feel the goose bumps rise. Double Dynamite reunited their unlikely "only every five years" project with music video director Phil Morrison and Ira Kaplan. Morrison's chrome blue suited antics and inopportune pants-splitting were delivered with such panache that Portastatic had to hustle to keep up. Camera Obscura pulled off a sparkling if underwhelming set, though a sexier tambourine shake than Kenny McKeeve's isn't to be found this side of the Atlantic. Underappreciated and less than prolific locals Shark Quest marked their 12-year relationship with the label with their most breathtaking material yet. Half of Merge's staff comprised what might just be the best Destroyer formation to date, including label manager Spott Philpott on trumpet (who also appeared with Crooked Fingers), Paul Cardillo on bass and Mac McCaughan, who just may have improved on the already sublime guitar that opens "Sublimation Hour." Spoon crammed in a career's worth of hits that surely will fill their box set years from now, and despite career plans to move on, their presence spoke volumes. On the closing night, label and fans' looming middle age was acknowledged with a sit down concert at the Carolina Theater in Durham with David Kilgour (joined by Hubley and Kaplan) and the Clientele's wooing of the staggering masses with their exquisite dreamscape. The night, however, belonged to Lambchop, newly plush with the inevitable string section. Perhaps it was the posh surroundings but Kurt Wagner managed to keep it clean, though in thanking us for coming he couldn't keep from exhorting us all to come together. It was a bit of overkill at the point of rock over-saturation, but hey, isn't that what rock'n'roll is all about?