Text by Kathryn Pinto
Photos by Kathryn Pinto and Jennifer Pinto
I’m back from CMJ and just beginning to recover from four days of music in New York followed by another three regular nights of music in LA. The CMJ Music Marathon began in the early 1980’s as an opportunity for college radio geeks to get together in New York City to meet college radio geeks from other places and run amok in the city, go see an whole bunch of bands and drink too much. In 2011 “Left of the Dial” has been replaced by an IP address, bloggers have taken on the role once held only by college radio music directors, the cramped apartments where out-of-towners crash are found in Williamsburg not Alphabet City, but little else has changed. A plague of geeks, drunks and music freaks descends on the couches and streets of New York to see as many of the 1200+ bands as humanly possible. Here is how one writer did it, and some of the most notable bands I saw.
A Band You Love (Hey Marseilles at the Mercury Lounge)
Seeing new bands is the whole point of CMJ, but you can’t really go wrong with scheduling in a couple of bands you love, especially if you haven’t had a chance to see them play live more than once or twice. Hey Marseilles, the Seattle orchestral pop band, just finished recording their second album, mixed by Tucker Martine. The band played a midnight set at the Bowery Ballroom straight off the plane from Seattle (well, with a bit of a detour to the “ball store” to buy a trailer hitch), one of the strongest, tightest sets I saw at CMJ. When the seven-piece band--strings, accordion and horn in the mix with shades of gypsy music in the spirit of Devotchka and Beirut--played it was as if they had been touring together for a month or more, rather than mixing and completing their second album in the studio for months. The set was about half songs from their debut album To Travels and Trunks, and at least half new songs. The band concluded the set with “Rio,” a great end to an evening and a long day. The band simply exudes excellent musicianship, which is refreshing in a sea of garage rock.
Set Roulette (Radical Dads at Bruar Falls)
On the other end of the spectrum as far as choosing shows is “set roulette,” leaving the selection to chance. You just show up and spin the wheel--check out whoever happens to be playing. This strategy is most effective when there are several venues close together so you can move on to another club after a few songs if a band isn’t doing it for you, or when there are several bands you are unfamiliar with and at least one band you know you want to see anchoring the show. The clubs on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side (Piano’s, Cake Shop, Living Room, etc.) are the best bet, but on Thursday I wanted see Radical Dads so I went over to Brooklyn. My chance bets didn’t produce anything memorable, but I did get to see bands I hadn’t seen before and I spent the afternoon at the shows rather than riding the subway from venue to venue. Radical Dads are garage rock done very well. The band includes drummer Robbie Guertin of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah who were a surprise highlight of the Culture Collide festival. Front woman Lindsay Baker plays guitar like a madwoman and sings her heart out. Radical Dads are right in the sweet spot of creating hooky noise. Not only does the band sound great, they have a blast playing for a crowd reveling in the reverb and squeezing every ounce of feedback out of their guitars.
Another way to navigate the hundreds of bands at the Marathon is to go to friends’ shows. Fellow Silver Lake music site We Listen For You put on a day show Wednesday at Piano’s that not only had some good sets (Nerves Junior, The Pass, ARMS I saw, plus the well-received Vanprasta and Parlovr who I didn’t see), but also was the meet up place that afternoon for readers of the WLFY site. Throughout the sets people kept streaming in, including bands (Summer Darling, Vanaprasta, Marvelous Toy), other bloggers (Decibel Tolls, Non Stop Sound, All Around Sound) and even friends from twitter and the late night rooms of turntable.fm.
Where the (Blogger) Boys Are (#MEGABLAAG, CoS)
Choosing show a show to see at CMJ also means saying no to the ten others going on at the same time. Sometimes you go with the bands and sometimes you go where there are people you want to spend time with. Swapping war stories and band recommendations is as much a part of the Marathon as seeing live music, and goes back to the early days of the event. #MEGABLAAG at Matchless in Brooklyn was billed as the music bloggers’ meet up. I’d been warned about hit count pissing contests and similar ridiculousness at previous #MEGABLAAGs, but the bigger problem was a room full of bloggers who by Friday night were too drunk to talk about music, blogging or much of anything. To be any good to anyone, this soiree needed to kick off during the daylight hours. On the other hand, attendees were offered the spectacle of the Canadian electro pop band Born Gold (the former Gobble Gobble). The act is more electro-disco than I usually go for, but the set was all about showmanship, an audience packed in like a container ship (and smelling about as good) going nuts for strobing lights, fog machines and a couple of guys on stilts hitting shovels together, not exactly on the beat. Any band with a prop that looks like a giant inflatable dog bone you’ve got to see at least the once.
The Consequence of Sound party, at Southpaw also in Brooklyn, but too far off the beaten path for easy show hopping, was a laid back affair and a good-sized room, which lent itself to relaxed introductions, chatting and schmoozing with other writers. On the whole the bands (with the exception of Nerves Junior’s room-clearing on-stage implosion) were solid strong sets, though not game changers. Nerves Junior I want to sentence to a month-long Tuesday residency in the midnight slot at the Silverlake Lounge. Even on a normal week in LA I see plenty of live shows and know so many bands that consistently deliver a live set but receive little attention that it’s crazy to me that a band whose debut album was well-received by the blogosphere (Consequence of Sound, Decibel Tolls, We Listen For You) would squander so much goodwill with a lackluster unraveling show.
Word of Mouth Picks/Wild Tweet Chase (Purity Ring at the Fader Fort)
I expected to improvise my show itinerary more than I actually did, based on talking to people and hearing reports of the shows I’d missed. One reason there weren’t more word-of-mouth recommendations was that people I was talking to were other writers whose CMJ previews I’d already read and whose preferences I knew. One exception was a music writer twitter friend who I messaged back and forth for about three days without ever meeting, sadly. In addition to the published picks that I’d already read, we had a bit of “Where are you? What are you seeing? How is it?” chatter that lead me to the Fader Fort Saturday afternoon for Purity Ring, another group a bit more synthy than the standard Radio Free Silver Lake fare. It was super fun electro pop from a guy girl duo playing a packed room. My sightlines from extreme stage right weren’t great, but there was a bass drum, mixing board and an instrument with internally illuminated glass pipes that were struck percussively to make sound that appeared to be controlled by a synthesizer. “We haven’t even named it yet,” answered Corin Roddick when I asked about the instrument after the set. In the live mix the bass end overpowered vocals that are both brighter and spookier in the recorded tracks. Still the effect was a super catchy sound that grows on you, and a highly dramatic visual show.