A Much Belated CMJ Report
CMJ in New York City is a clusterfuck. Too many bands billed at each venue for them to handle with ease in one night. Too many shows to choose from all within a 2-block radius with about fifty bands you have never heard of and only nine you have. And too many people who are there for the “CMJ” experience rather than to witness the bands. Nevertheless, this CMJ was a good one.
My first year of CMJ, I avoided it completely. The second year, I managed to catch one show: Prince Rama live the Cake Shop. At the show, I met Sara, a pixie-nosed blonde. Afterwards, we shared a drink at Arlene's Grocery and talked about how it’s possible for a realist to be an optimist. Later we snuck into a 24-gym. That morning, I woke up on the train at Coney Island cold and lonely.
This year, I was determined to make CMJ better. SM slaughtered me with emails for CMJ events. Many events featured sponsorships from various organizations including: marketing organizations (Terrorbird Media, Sneak Attack Media), the press (Noisey, Relix, Stereogum, Nylon), and even the automotive business (Scion). This CMJ, I managed to see nine different bands, a tiny sliver of the 1000+ bands booked in New York City for the five-day festival.
My CMJ began on a Tuesday at the Brooklyn Bowl, a deceptively high-quality music venue with excellent live rock sound, immersive lighting, and plenty of space. A tall and lumpy red-velvet curtain runs high behind a wide stage facing a pit the size of a middle school gym perpendicular to sixteen lanes of bowling. Bowling balls whir up the gutter as others crash into clusters of pins. Cheers follow. All of these sounds then disappear as the band starts to play.
Opening at the Bowl were the sisters of SHEL, a quartet from Colorado equipped with keyboard, mandolin, fiddle, and djembe playing ambitious and hearty (as in full of heart) acoustic pop. Honestly SHEL could become the next darlings of the audiophile world with their diverse instrumentation and rich harmonies. They even have a song called “Vinyl Memories”! Mikey’s gotta hear it. Their self-titled release sounds a little squashed on some of the material and other recordings more dynamic, but holy crap are the songs well-written.
Like anyone who shows up at a-show-of-a-band-they’ve-never-seen-before-where-there’s-a-mandolin-player, I wondered, “Are they going to play Battle of Evermore?” This usually never happens, but by George. Their version starts with a vocal introduction mimicking the original’s guitar and mandolin harmonies followed by a bare-bones verse: mandolin with a simplified strum and lead vocal. In comes the fleshy earth-pounding djembe, and suddenly the girls are in full swing with each other performing with gusto and recreating a classic with respect.
Particularly striking was an instrumental piece titled “Tuscany” by mandolinist Eva Holbrook. A duet between herself and violinist Sarah Holbrook (yes, the girls are all sisters: Sarah, Hannah, Eva, LizaSHELnow do you get it? SHEL?). Eva’s dynamic performance featured subtle slow-downs and powerful tremolos and showcased her deft composition skills with witty melodic turns and sophisticated resolutions.
Basically, SHEL deserves your attention.
Following SHEL were headliners The Infamous Stringdusters, a bluegrass 5-piece visiting Brooklyn as part of the PledgeMusic, Relix & Tunecore Present: Silver Sky Tour 2012, Official CMJ 2012 Showcase. The Stringudsters played a jam-filled set to a surprisingly phriendly audience. Most impressive about the Stringdusters was their ability to weave tapestries of string interplay with each individual pick or strum well-placed in the arrangement, clear and supportive. Their bouncy set included the rollicking “The Hitchhiker” and the head-bopping “Fork in the Road”, and while I didn’t get to hear favorites “Rockets” or their heartfelt cover of John Mayer’s “3x5”, the audience was treated to a version of the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone”. Everyone sang along. For a download of the Stringdusters show at the Brooklyn Bowl, here’s a torrent.
And here’s video of their performance of “He’s Gone” recorded by YouTube user blwoodable:
Following the Stringdusters, I hopped on the L train to catch Sparxx, a Brooklyn-based pop act that use deep synths and ambient guitar bursts to support hypnotizing choruses. Heather Sparxx performed graciously for her crowd at Legion by walking and swaying with the crowd while singing and smiling, a pleasing contrast to her stark and cold synthesizers. Guitarist Justin Matthews replicated Alex Lifeson’s atmospheric gusts of notes from the mid-to-late 80s Rush records while also throwing in blasts of fast slides and distorted triplets. I asked Matthews if he listened to Lifeson after the set, to which he cackled and then yelled to drummer Cinque Kemp, “Did you hear what this guy just asked me?” as if this had been a topic of conversation before. Matthews then addressed me: “Most definitely.” Sparxx’s songs are delightfully simple with catchy melodies and ethereal and spacious sonic effects. Total ear candy. Sparxx’s music can be heard here.
Thanks to a nod from Music Hall’s Leland Leard via SM, I awkwardly attended the ultra-hip Fred Perry sponsored live recording showcase at Stratosphere Sound on 11th Avenue on Thursday. Bands participated in short live recording sessions while attendees enjoyed Oreos and Brooklyn Lager. I caught a performance by Slug Guts.
Bands recorded into Stratosphere’s room-sized 32-input NEVE 8068 MkII console from behind a sound-proofed enclosure. Vocals were recorded in a separate booth. Two large unused Genelec speakers rested within the walls. Monitoring was instead done through the classic Yamaha NS10s. Here’s a great article by Gizmodo’s Bryan Gardiner summarizing why the harsh NS10s have stuck around since the 80s as a reference for studio monitoring.
Slug Guts of Brisbane, Australia played aggressive boogie rock with angry howls and odd time signatures. A saxophone punctuated their experimental edge with out-of-synch blasts from his horn. The bass player had a paper-thin yet crunchy attack to his sound at Stratosphere. Their latest release Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat can be streamed on Spotify or purchased at Sacred Bones records.
After Slug Guts was a band called Bleeding Rainbow, but I had to get moving to meet some friends at Cameo for the Carpark/Paw Tracks CMJ showcase where I saw Dog Bite, Dent May, Young Magic, and Prince Rama. Dog Bite, an alternative band from Atlanta, Georgia, were disaffected and unanimated. I thought the southern boys would bring a little bit of that Southern rowdiness, but instead, they were just trying to be another boring Brooklyn band. Fortunately, the ultra-peppy Dent May from Oxford, Mississippi came in to save the room with their 80s inspired disco hipster frat-rock. They even played the Dead’s “Shakedown Street”! That’s two Dead covers in one week! Not bad.
While bundles of sage were lit and circled around the room, Young Magic began their set of throbbing drones and heavy drums. Laser dots speckled the audience for the most packed show of the evening. Sullen and seductive guitarist Melati Malay conjured evil and foreign sounds from her multi-effected guitar, which she arpeggiated flawlessly while singing. Young Magic impressed with their cohesion and inherent grooves, a suitable opener for Prince Rama’s oncoming rhythmic onslaught.
Taking the stage at approximately 1:30am were headliners Prince Rama, a late start probably due to their complicated stage setup. Sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson seem to have been working for years on their vast collection of synthesizers and percussion instruments. Taraka surrounds herself with samplers, Casios, and rich-sounding synthesizers. Nimai circles herself with layers of tom-toms, splash cymbals, and a cowbell or two. Also performing with the band that evening was all-purpose dude Christopher Burke on bass and guitar. All band members smeared their faces with gold glittery face-paint.
At the start of the show, Taraka is carried on her back like a funeral procession by a willing ensemble of men. As she is carried forth, her spirit shrouded in white haunts the crowd, like a possessed “Like a Virgin Era” Madonna with stark poses and spooky chant. Taraka’s ghostly introduction served as a death-knell to Rama’s hyper-rhythmic, transcendental, and Krishna-inspired chats of older albums and ushered in the a new era of Prince Rama. Nimai Larson and Burke join the stage.
Performing songs from their latest release Top 10 Hits At the End of the World, Prince Rama’s new material was everything their title indicates: apocalyptic, sacred, and full of joy. While Rama’s previous shows were plagued by their severe spirituality, the new songs brought their spiritual intensity into a global and accessible context of pop music. Nimai’s wild and wide grin no longer looked like a mad spirit induced from their divine yet unearthly incantations but now an expression of the unadulterated happiness that their music's positive energy spread around the room. On the closing number, the sisters jumped into the audience for a song’s performance full of synchronized dance moves. The smiles between the sisters brought on such a warm fuzzy feeling of familial love, far holier than anything I’d seen or heard from the sisters before. After the show, Nimai was ecstatic to share, “We’re done with the serious stuff!” Prince Rama’s Top 10 Hits At the End of the World is available from Paw Tracks records. It’s even available on vinyl!
Although there were no late-night rendezvous nor piercing cold winds, I’m happy to say it was a great CMJ.