Superchunk, The Parting Gifts
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Aug. 24, 2013

The last few times that Superchunk played Cat’s Cradle, the indie rock entrepreneurs picked openers that reinforced their unflagging vitality. Since 2009, surging local rock acts Hammer No More the Fingers and Gross Ghost got their chance to open for the Chapel Hill legends at the club they made famous, as did the nervy but propulsive pop duo Veelee and the rangy folk singer Ryan Gustafson. Performing with these young talents highlighted Superchunk’s persistent knack for packing unabashed hooks and screwy guitar lines with triumphant energy. This made sense surrounding Majesty Shredding, a 2010 LP that found them confronting their 40s with gleeful defiance. They owned more gray hairs, and they were writing the checks for Merge Records, Durham’s favorite success story, but that hadn’t stripped them of their youthful verve.

Saturday, Superchunk played after The Parting Gifts, a sleek rock ‘n’ roll band that pairs Ettes frontwoman Lindsay “Coco” Hames with Asheville’s Greg Cartwright. In this setting, Cartwright dug into songs like the romantically confused “Strange Disposition” with wounded swagger, balanced deftly by Hames’ no-nonsense coos. The performances were straightforward, riding tasteful grooves and Cartwright’s cutting guitar lines to satisfyingly familiar conclusions, but his simmering reflections made many of them quite powerful. As with those young upstarts, The Parting Gifts were a near-perfect pairing.

I Hate Music, Superchunk’s 10th album, had been unveiled a few days before, and this was the celebration—though they also indulged in an intimate, release-day tune-up at Durham’s Pinhook. The new LP is darker and more desperate than Majesty Shredding, staring down mortality and reckoning with the role music plays in a finite existence.

“I hate music, what is it worth?” Mac McCaughan cried during “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” finding outrage more unhinged than what ended up on the smoother studio version. “Can’t bring you back to this earth.” The take was a little clunky. New bassist Jason Narducy—who recently stepped in for founding member Laura Ballance—fell out of synch with Jon Wurster’s clobbering drums, a rare miscue from a duo that already display enviable chemistry.

A few of the set’s early moments suffered from similar setbacks, and the fact that McCaughan couldn’t keep his guitar in tune didn’t help matters. But the resilient ensemble soon found their footing, ripping through serrated versions of I Hate Music standouts “Low F” and “Void” and more insistent older numbers, exemplified by an especially searing trip through the eternally manic “Precision Auto.” McCaughan was as electric as ever, pinballing around the stage and trading scintillating riffs with fellow guitarist Jim Wilbur. The rhythms justified his vigor, driving forth with unyielding force.

For their penultimate song before a pair of encores, Superchunk revisited “Digging for Something,” Majesty Shredding‘s aggressively wistful opener. The chugging riffs and slashing fills locked into a furious swell, bolstering McCaughan during the infectious hook. At the risk of stalling momentum, they elongated the slow-building bridge, allowing Mac to relate a story from their stagehand Laura King. She told them about a time in high school when her band was asked to open for Sebadoh, but her mom wouldn’t let her go. It was a school night. And King gave what McCaughan estimated was the only fitting response: “Fuck you!” It’s a struggle to keep going out as you get older, he admitted. Sometimes, the weariness and the overflowing responsibilities get the best of you. But “you still have to say ‘fuck you,’” he preached to the crowd of willing disciples. “Say ‘fuck you’ to yourself.”

Thus far, Superchunk have followed that dictum, pushing past age, past mortality’s creeping shadow, past strings that just won’t stay in tune. That, above all else, is what makes them one hell of a rock band.