CMJ 2011 – Show by Show Moments

October 25. 2011 | By Olivia Harrington

CMJ has come and gone. As the survivors piece together their half-remembered nights and empty their beds of drink tickets and beer bottles, it is likely that those who have lived to tell the CMJ tale will approach their discussions in similar ways. They will quizzically tilt their head to the left, an experience still slightly painful given their post-mosh-pit knot, and ask about  others’ favorite shows. ‘Did you see that?” “Were you there for _____?” “How the hell did that happen?” Conversations will be filled with establishing and reliving all the moments you remembered and best forgotten. Thus, in the spirit of such revelations, we bring to you a list of some of the CMJ shows we attended where it wasn’t always the music, but something about the event that was revelatory. Presenting the CMJ 2011 “The Show Where…” compilation.

Titus AndronicusThe Show Where…we caught the first glimpse of promise for the rest of CMJ.

In case it fell into questionable territory, something should be cleared up immediately: Titus Andronicus puts on an amazing live show. Within the cramped room at Glasslands, backed by the ethereal cloud ceiling installation, Titus managed to make the artsy Bedford haven feel like an underground, guttural punk show. But perhaps all the more special was that, unknown to the audience, Amy Klein is leaving the band. Perhaps it is for the best that this fact was not common knowledge, given the potential for riots, but it does seem to make a first night of thrashing much more meaningful than just the handful of collected bruises.

DOMThe Show Where…there was a really great view.

While scenery isn’t everything, a nice view certainly doesn’t hurt. Such was the case at the top of the Ludlow Hotel, where despite a a rainy day, the clouded windows did little to disguise the misty city skyline. Perhaps it was this fact that quelled a packed house from rebelling at DOM‘s almost hour-late entrance to the SmartLounge stage. Of course, the open bar and turntable DJ set featuring members of the Passion Pit and the Smiths could also have contributed. However, the crowd eagerly pushed aside the DJ table and crowded to the front when DOM took to the stage. DOM‘s slightly bratty, but really more high slacker vibe is at ease with many of their current counterparts, with Wavves being an easy comparison. But while acts like Wavves or Smith Westerns have been embraced for both their on and off-stage antics, DOM has yet to find the same stable footing. It’s a shame because many of the currently adored musical categories, “lo-fi, sunny, ’60s, fuzzy,” are easily boxes ticked by the Massachusetts band, yet the lounge was almost empty by their set’s end. Well, at least the view was spectacular.

PujolThe Show Where…people realized Cake Shop wasn’t conducive to crowd-surfing…and did it anyway.

In a similar vein as the band who would follow them, Pujol and Turbo Fruits do more than just share a garage-rock-punk sound. They share a “scene,” perpetuated by Nashville punk house parties, a friendship (along with other garage-friendly Nashvillians, JEFF the Brotherhood) and now the honor of two attempts by the same commendable concert goer, who tempted fate by crowd-surfing against the low slug ceilings of Cake shop. Pujol‘s last song, “Black Rabbit,” whipped the crowd into such a frenzy that while the accompanying photo is hardly the most flattering, it is probably the most appropriate in encapsulate the whirring insanity of that moment.

Turbo FruitsThe Show Where…it was realized that possibly the best show of the week was in a sweaty basement at 4:00pm on a Saturday.

If nothing else Jonas Stein is dedicated. “Man, I really have to take a piss,” he noted as the band stood after completing their soundcheck. “But I guess I’ll have to wait.” He looked to the ever-increasing audience that had already staked out realty at the front of the stage. A voice from behind the magical sound-man curtain boomed, “Well, it’s okay, you’re not scheduled for another…” Before the voice could utter another word, Stein cut in and pointed to the audience, “Not according to these guys’ schedule.” The crowd squealed with glee. “Oh no, you’re right,” Stein mused, “We have to wait for that Warner Brothers executive to get here.” He pauses, “Kidding, no fucking Warner Brothers executive is coming.” And with that, a quick count off and a strum on the guitar, Stein leaps into the air, his quintessential trademark. And while Stein carries much of the shows antics (leaping, jumping into the crowd, sharing the mic, falling into the drumset, and collapsing to his knees while violently shaking his head), it should be noted that the solidarity and consistency of his bandmates grounds their sound in a catchy, rough-and-tumble jam.

EMAThe Show Where…you are slightly disappointed.

If it makes people uncomfortable it’s usually at least worth a listen. Such was the attitude toward EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson), whose debut album Past Life Martyred Saints handed out her heart on a slab with very little intention of cleaning up the blood. In fact, there was a pleasure in watching people squirm. EMA songs allude to the often unmentionable: sexual perversion, self-mutilation, and a raw anger that pushes against any confines as to the limits of female emotion. She grabs her crotch when she feels like it and possesses little hesitation in wrapping the microphone cord around her head. But EMA can often seem emboldened in her softer moments, gently caressing the mic stand as a solo spotlight hits her cropped blonde hair. With all of that potential, the show at Bowery Ballroom should have been stellar. Perhaps it was the lackadaisical crowd who barely managed to half-fill the venue. Perhaps it was witnessing that with all these different shades of identity, EMA hasn’t quite figured out how to navigate through them all to make a consistently engaging live show. If anything, EMA is not one to be called boring, so it’s a shame that her set felt a bit flat.

WidowspeakThe Show Where….you watch it on TV.

Cake Shop was packed for Widowspeak. Luckily, through the aid of the behind the bar television, those in the back needed not miss the rasp huskiness of Molly Hamilton’s dark croons. While many bands employ every new device or toy they can fit on stage, Widowspeak relishes in its simplicity. It’s mysterious and woozy, with songs like “Ghost Boy,” a seeming product of a hazy late night dream. Conversely songs like “Hard Times” bring in more of the twangy, surf sensibilities, but remain centered and cohesive given Hamilton’s alluring drone.

Twin ShadowThe Show Where…you learn that you cannot eat noodles on the dance floor. (But, given his fine vocals and charm, George Lewis Jr. could likely get away with it.)

In the ever-expanding list of non-problem problems, the lack of energy that comes about during the marathon event of CMJ quickly catapults itself to the top. After the 15th or 20th band, things can start to get really tiring. You need to refuel. Well, not according to Santos Party House who didn’t take too kindly to a noodle dish on the dance floor. What they didn’t realize was that the oh-so-necessary calories were in order to regain strength to watch the smooth, new-wave musings of George Lewis Jr. A man who could make a menu sound soulful, Lewis also manages to caress his guitar to bend to his every will. Echoey chord repetition never felt flat and easily morphed so that songs like “Yellow Balloon” sounded like a morbid disco and “Castles in the Snow” sounded like, well, a morbid disco. The only problem with the set? The audience seemed intent on not moving. See? We should’ve had noodles for everyone.

Memory HouseThe Show Where…at least three people asked if Memoryhouse had already played and then proceeded to call them boring.

Yes, the title is less than witty. More so, it’s simply an exact statement regarding the reality of the show. Squashed within Glassland, after the Toronto band had left the stage, three or more people questioned whether Memoryhouse had already played and when the truth was revealed, or even to those who already knew, it seemed the general consensus was a sense of boredom. To be fair, it’s a wonder if any of those people had ever heard Memoryhouse before because loud and visceral isn’t exactly their thing.

Ava LunaThe Show Where…7 people on stage really works.

Part doo-wop, funk, and electro-pop, Ava Luna utilized every member of their small village-sized entourage. Three female vocalists provide the needed anchor as songs meander from soulful ballads to synth heavy, punk-infused dance tunes.

GrimesThe Show Where…you see potential. You and 40 A&R reps.

It can hardly be claimed that CMJ works as some sort of organic process. Sure, there is the chance that a random stumble upon a show can lead to undiscovered greatness; that’s the hope. However, CMJ is engineered not just for the average audience, but for the artist to catch the eye of whomever’s industry sockets are deemed desirable. The rise of the day party has helped to perpetuate this. Bands can play shows wracking up into the double digits (see further down the list for the band Caveman), with many of the day time shows clumped together not necessarily for a working audience, but for the reps who can make it out for a lunch break. It’s a generalization, but it is one that seemed easily applicable to the Grimes show at Pianos where the small room seemed packed with those whose titles means they’re in “the biz.” It wasn’t surprising given that the show was that of 22-year-old Canadian, Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, whose breathy falsetto soars above dissonant, sometimes ghoulish keyboards and electro samples. It’s mesmerizing to watch and even when the ethereal moments are broken in between songs by Boucher’s lisp-y laughter, there is still something enticing about the lone artist on stage. Unfortunately, while Grimes certainly has something, her songs often seemed needlessly long and meandered when they could have had a striking effect if only 30 seconds shorter. That being said, the composition of the audience was no coincidence; Grimes is definitely poised for a breakout moment.

Dry The RiverThe Show Where…you wished you had gotten there early.

Walking into the last minutes of Dry The River‘s Bowery Ballroom set was like entering a cacophonous wall of sound with heavy guitar riffs all sampling the same Americana spirit. After reaching the stage at the end of the set, it was disheartening to hear that it was their only CMJ performance.

CavemanThe Show Where…everyone is there to see the “next big thing.”

Caveman are apparently omnipresent. They appeared on every bill, almost magically, as if being written by a cloaked hand at each venue entered. Their appearances quickly hit the double digit mark. While the case for the multiple shows seems to be based solely on the desire to replicate Surfer Blood‘s 2009 success (a concept and perceived outcome of subjective value), CMJ is a fickle beast. While Caveman provided all the necessary atmospheric synths, reverb guitar, and an entrancing aesthetic with lead singer Matthew Iwanusa front and center pounding a lone tom drum, it would be hard to say if any of their countless shows seemed like the show. At the end of their set, a short exchange of pleasantries with a few in the audience proved this daunting response: “So what’d you think?” “Oh, aren’t they the band who’re playing just a ton of shows?” A hectic schedule isn’t probably the infamy for which they were aiming.

VacationerThe Show Where…you realize you only like the remix.

There’s something endearing about a band that seems positively gleeful at the prospect of being on stage. Add to that the announcement that this is only their fifth live show together and it can really make you want to root for them. But sometimes it just doesn’t resonate. Or perhaps something does, but unfortunately it’s a remix for someone else’s song…like “Jesus” by DOM.

Free EnergyThe Show Where…you walk away from the stage.

GiversThe Show Where…you realize how terrible your plan was to walk away from the front of the stage during the last set.

The title says it all. After escaping to the back during the painful Free Energy set and perhaps making a stop at the bar and then to the alley sidelines to watch some bowling action, it became readily apparent that the crowd that came out of nowhere to fill the room wasn’t going to move anytime soon.

The StepkidsThe Show Where…you contemplate quitting your job.

Former touring members for outfits like Alicia Keys decided to switch up their day jobs and start their own band. The Stepkids have taken their soulful roots and amplified it with an electric shock of the avant-garde and psychedelic. Decked out in white and projecting images and colors onto their very beings, The Stepkids seem to understand that showmanship isn’t a lost art.

INC. – The Show Where…live drawing took place.

4AD signed Inc.(formerly Teen Inc) played a soulful R&B, pop-fused set, but it was this girl who frantically drew their every move that threatened to steal the show.

Unknown Mortal OrchestraThe Show Where…the lead singer kept apologizing and it wasn’t clear why.

Apparently these Fat Possum’ signees were tired coming off a long bit of touring. Noting that the next day offered them their first day off, singer Ruban Nielson repeatedly apologized for the band’s psych-pop stage oddessey. If he hadn’t, no one would have noted any sort of inconsistency with the band who played a solid set, although brief set, that included “Ffunny Ffrends” and “How Can U Luv Me.”

GuardsThe Show Where…you realize the early morning wake-up was worth it.

CMJ time is not set to the normal Eastern-Standard clock. Shows can start tortuously early (see Grimes for a simplistic analysis of the day party), a seeming punishment to follow the nights that feel utterly endless. Such was the case with Guards, whose 2:00 time slot on any other day would have seemed far from daunting. But inevitably the responsibility and curiosity kicks in and limp limbs struggle valiantly to push aside bed sheets and stumble over to the downstairs room of Pianos. It was a trip well worth the effort. While CMJ often picks its winners and losers ahead of time, something only further perpetuated by the rise of blogged-hype, it would be hard to believe, after it’s all said and done, if Guards didn’t somehow place for an award. Led by former Willowz singer Richie Follin, brother to Cults lead-singer Madeline Follin, the man demonstrates incredible vocal range that complements the melancholic “doom-wop.” There’s something foreboding and yet completely hypnotic about Guards, whose self-titled debut EP contained gems like “Resolution of One” and “Sail It Slow.”

A few other tidbits of revelation: Almost any band with a synth was later described as being “New Order-ish.” First, this is a mighty abuse. Second, in the coming generations, what will be the new ubiquitous benchmark? The Ace Hotel is quite beautiful. The NPR open bar was by far the easiest place to be starstruck.

Wish List: Double Dagger, Trash Talk, Zola Jesus, not having to work, basically everything not seen.

Thanks for the memories, the shows, and all the moments. Until next year, CMJ (that’s the approximate recuperation time right?).

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