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The CMJ Festival 2002
by Grant Moser


The CMJ Music Marathon came to New York again this last week of October. With 60 venues participating, at about 5 bands a bill, for 4 nights, there were over 1500 bands here in the city to catch. What a treasure trove of music - or a nightmare. I only went to two clubs here in Williamsburg - Northsix and Luxx - and it felt like I was speed-dating.

Wednesday, October 30

Northsix - I set out that night eager to hear what our fair nation had brought us. I stopped by Northsix first, and caught the first band of the night on the main stage - the High Tigers, from New York City. A combination of The Smithereens and Green Day, they played entrancing pop with the drone familiar to the first band and the melody overlays from the second. I then went downstairs and caught the end of a funky bass-driven sort-of reggae/Rusted Root sounding band I thought was called The Joggers from Pittsburgh. However, they aren't listed as performers on the CMJ website, so I don't know who I heard.

They were followed by Pinq, a quartet from San Francisco that produced a wall of sound; liberally playing with tonal qualities. They were a mix between Birdwatcher and Secret Machines, a textured moody music that built nicely. I kept thinking indie the whole set, sort of an Afghan Whigs, Built to Spill, Joy Division fusion - if that makes any sense. I got one of their CDs, "Quiet Games for Hot Weather," which is worth checking out. It seemed to me they also would have sounded better in a larger space, but they pulled off what was given to them wonderfully, and the crowd was very happy.

I then went back upstairs and saw Circle and Square who were all over the place. The music was chaotic rock, crazy and almost W.K.-like, but speed-jerky. The singer was very sure of himself on stage, which is usually a good thing, but not this time. I split for Luxx.

Luxx - I walked in on Broke Review, a road-house, roughneck, chicken-wire-in-front-of-the-stage band. They had attitude, played brashly, and exemplified why sometimes whiskey is spelled with no "e." They are based here in the city, and as the set went on the music became more rock than hillbilly. I heard a weird surf vibe somewhere in there too.

Next came Sea Ray, which I've heard a lot about. There are 6 people in the band, one a girl on cello (I think it's a cello). They played a movie behind them on the wall. They were obviously early-80's influenced, with a New Order-feel, but lighter. They're from Brooklyn and play good music, but it was just a bit too light and floaty for me.

Thursday October 31

I didn't go out that night. Let's just say I was still handling the night before and my excesses.
It was also Halloween and I heard two different opinions about the night: 1. It was Halloween, people had other stuff to do and so attendance was down; 2. Attendance was fine.

Friday November 1

Well, I decided I should flip venues and start at Luxx tonight, but that was blown to hell when I got to Luxx. Two really good bands were playing later, so I went over to Northsix to see their opening bands. Of course, upon arriving there, I learned there were good bands playing there late night as well, so I ended up going back and forth between the clubs about three times.

Northsix - Armor for Sleep was a pop band, pure and simple. They were a Goo Goo Dolls emo-rock band with crescending bass, or American Hi-Fi. They were dramatic and loud, they liked to rock out, but the music was just so pretty. It was nice, but like my friend said, "Yeah, they're great. Five years ago."

Schatzi was a loud moody pop-rock band from Austin. I've heard lots of good things about Austin, but these guys were very similar to Armor for Sleep - a good bar band. It was poppy fun, but just like Foo Fighters or Blink-182 or whatever. Just wasn't anything new or exciting.

Luxx - So I headed back to Luxx to catch Love Life from Baltimore. Damn. A goth, Joy Division, Cult, garage-y, psychedelic, tribal vibe. They were dark, raw, inconsistent, yearning, and consistently shifting within songs from drunk depression to outrage and angst. It was like an American Barbez. Bombastic and experimental, they asked to play with no stage lights, and the long and involved songs were like meat stripped from bones, sparse and cleansing, like an exorcism. I picked up one their CDs, "Here is Night, Brothers, Here the Birds Burn," (which should tell you about them immediately) and you should keep an eye out for it and them.

Next came Oneida, from right here in Brooklyn. A high-energy band, they also incorporated chaos into their songs, a Velvet Underground with screeching guitars. The rhythm of songs was punctuated by bedlum from the keyboards. They were trying out sound, giving it an audition, then moving on to the next applicant. They were aggressive, talented, and moody with passion. They made noise beautiful.

Northsix - Back at Northsix I caught the Oxes, another Baltimore band. They were loud, obnoxious rock with no vocals that I caught. It was Rage, Slayer, System of Down, and Incubus rolled together - a roaring sound. They were pure rocking energy and attitude. They stood on their amps and jammed and the vibrations ran through everything in the place. Raw and intimate, the crowd loved them. At the end, they began a cover of The Strokes' hit for about 10 seconds and then took off in another direction and made it better, like jazz musicians expanding upon a theme. It was pulsating, pounding, and blistering.

Then came Har Mar Superstar. I don't really know how to explain him. Apparently he is a big deal - he has a whole page in the latest Spin, has opened for the Strokes, written songs for J. Lo, and partied with Nicky Hilton. I'm not really sure why, maybe it's exactly why circuses have freak shows - pure entertainment value.

He does a white rap shtick with R&B music reminiscent of Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder - that funky early-70's sound. Or Bell Biv Devoe. Either way, he looks like Tiny Tim and Ron Jeremy mated, and he has no fear of undressing during the show. His rhymes are quick-fire and humorous, he is arrogant and cocky, and you have to watch. It's repulsive and amazing at the same time. It's an experiment - that won't last very long.

Saturday, November 2

The last night of the Marathon I decided to go to the Knitting Factory to see the Merge Records line-up and try a different venue from Williamsburg.

The first band I see is Destroyer, a Velvet Underground, early-Bowie band. They were fun to watch, and their last song ruled - a climaxing, jam-ridden, roller coaster. The next band was the Radar Bros. from California. Very melodic, but like a slow Floyd. I started talking to my friend, and didn't realize they had left the stage.

Then came Britt Daniel, the whole reason I came tonight. He's the lead singer for Spoon. He performed solo (well, he had a boom box for a few songs to supply back-up) and he could have played through until the next morning and I would have stayed. He was perfect. As singer-songwriters go, this guy is un-*&^%$-believable. Melodic, catchy, original, fun, enjoyable, perfect phrasing and tune management. Ryan Adams who? If you've never had the pleasure of hearing this guy or his band, go get their music now. My god. He's going to be around for a long time.


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