William Tyler, Ex Hex, Mac McCaughan
Bull City Records, Durham
Saturday, April 18, 2015

The first person in line outside Durham’s Bull City Records for Record Store Day 2015 arrived shortly after 6 a.m. I joined as the fifth fan not long after 8 a.m. The group stayed small until about 10 a.m. That’s when the line started to stretch back beyond the Locopops store front.

There were other record stores already open with many of the titles the folks in line at Bull City were hoping to buy, but we all waited for owner Chaz Martenstein to arrive and open the store at its standard 11 a.m. Why?

Maybe it’s the annual tradition of folks passing out free doughnuts and Bojangles’ biscuits. Or perhaps it’s Cory Rayborn, the force behind Three Lobed Recordings, handing out whatever random apparel he finds in storage. (My partner scored a Wu Tang beanie.) But the chief answer became clear when Martenstein walked out of his shop for the first time to cheers, took a picture of the line to post online and smiled like the luckiest man in the world. Saturday was not about coveting Johnny Cash on “Soviet-red vinyl,” but celebrating a store that feels like a friend.

Merge Records helped by putting together a free show so stacked it could have sold out several venues in town. (You can listen to audio of the show via NYC Taper here.) Mac McCaughan broke the afternoon’s silence with solo guitar and his unmistakable adenoidal voice as the sun began to peak out from behind the clouds. New songs from his upcoming solo album, Non-Believers, fit comfortably alongside Superchunk favorites. Ever youthful, McCaughan sang with his mouth wide and his eyes closed before he kicked on his pedals with conviction. He whipped his guitar around as if actively battling the gray creeping in at his temples.

Despite being the only person on stage, William Tyler certainly filled it. Tyler closed the afternoon with a few songs from his debut, Deseret Canyons (reissued by Merge for Record Store Day), as well as a thrilling rendition of “Portrait of Sarah.” He paused briefly before starting the second half in double time, playfully baiting the audience into applause. The misdirection pulled everyone out of a trance. “That’s what we call hoedown music,” he joked at song’s end.

But the celebration had already reached its peak, when Ex Hex played a set as relaxed and locked in as I’ve ever seen from them.
Betsy Wright strutted and lifted her bass high in the air; Mary Timony leaned into solos and danced as she dug into accents. Each song transitioned into the next, keeping the momentum up. “New Kid” pulsed as Ex Hex pushed the tempo slightly. Ex Hex have often been playful; on Saturday, they seemed downright ferocious.

During “New Kid,” I looked around and spotted Martenstein in the crowd. With his arms across his chest, he took a deep breath an smiled.