CMJ 2007 on Someone Else's Dime
October 2007;

[October 2007]

Classes are hell. And even worse are midterms. Two exams prevented me from scooting down the Metro North into the city on Tuesday, the first day of this year’s CMJ Festival, so an early morning Wednesday trek had to suffice. The College Music Journal’s annual music festival is a great gathering of minds and corporate sponsorship; a five-day, citywide celebration of up-and-coming and current college radio chart toppers. The festival is seen as an opportunity to acclimate college music directors with the more human face of radio promotion. Concurrently, it also serves as a swell venue for labels to showcase their bands. CMJ is probably the closest thing the East Coast has to SXSW. Fittingly, as music director for a small college radio station in the Hudson Valley, I was given a badge, a hotel, and an expense limit and sent out the door (with my free-wheeling assistant Kate) on my merry way down the Hudson, with the directive of, “Go forth! And experience!” And for four days, I did. I also ate a lot of free food.

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{Wednesday, October 17th}

Head out from Grand Central on the 6 to our hotel, the Holiday Inn SoHo, on Lafayette. Dropped off bags and got situated. From there, walk to the Puck Building to register and pick up badges. The gift tote this year is a pretty sad sack. Pushed out the door, complimentary energy drink in hand, we head off back down Lafayette and then across Prince St. to the Apple Store for a mid-day performance from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

And what a way to start everything off. The Apple Store is a tad small, for one, but also a strangely adequate space for such a performance. It's odd being forced to sit in rows of cushioned seats a few feet from Thurston as he shreds an acoustic guitar as harshly as an electric, although not an entirely uncomfortable one. Space concerns aside, Moore and the band he’s assembled (including SY drummer Steve Shelley and violinist Samara Lubelski) are in top form. The band steam rolls through most of Trees Outside The Academy and then encores with some choice cuts from 1995’s Psychic Hearts. It’s also a little weird seeing Moore play with people who aren’t Kim Gordon and Lee Renaldo. While still a little fresh on the road (Lubelski is still using notes, a rendition of “Wonderful Witches” momentarily stumbles), these are consummately ragged professionals. We leave with the feeling that we just witnessed a group of people who musically never have a bad day.

From here we eat. And eat some more, and save some leftovers for back at the hotel room. Thank the heavens for this expense limit. It’s nice to be able to tip extra. As the sun falls, we head to Delancey and make our way into the Bowery Ballroom for The Windish Agency’s Deerhunter/Dan Deacon extravaganza.

It’s one of those occasions where the openers outshine (and in one case, outclass) the headliners. Baltimore’s Ponytail are all spit and mental fury. These Wham City alumni offer extremely competent musicianship fronted by a bona fide spastic. Vocalist Molly Siegel flails around on stage, alternately smiling and grimacing, sputtering out the most guttural of sounds. If nothing else, she makes Ponytail an engaging live experience.

Next up is White Williams, recent tour mate of Dan Deacon and Girl Talk. White Williams is the singular brainchild of ex-Cleveland native Joe Williams, although here he’s accompanied by a full band (all with a similar taste for pastiche). Filtered through the lens of synced-up background animations, the band shuffles around on stage to their own brand of electro pop. While the music is absolutely inoffensive (and the only of the night to feature melodica solos), the crowd is only half in-step with it. The mellow dance beats bring us to the cusp of dancing without actually giving us the final push over the edge. While enjoyable, Williams sounds better on record.

No Age then proceed to break the fourth wall. At the tail end of the Los Angeles twosome’s pummeling set of fuzzed out drum and guitar wallops, Dean Spunt (drums/vocals) and Randy Randall (guitar) pull a few of their fans onstage to dance around for the final number. Randall hands his guitar off to a starry-eyed fan and lifts him up on his shoulders, while Spunt continues to bang away on his drum set. The band is a hit, garnering the biggest reaction of the night from the crowd (the merch table was swamped afterward). It’s deservedly so. No Age has energy foaming from the mouth.

Then it’s Dan Deacon’s turn. Armed with flash photography, the press are the ones who end up on stage. Deacon is, of course, down on the ground in front with his hodgepodge equipment deck and trippy green skull (coupled with the recent addition: strobing cat). Deacon’s set is infectious. The house lights are turned off and the only light we’re allowed is from the glow of his deck. We start off chanting "Ethan Hawke" and "Gattaca" before Deacon wisely builds the crowd up to a slow grind. It’s going to be intense soon enough; there’s no need to rush it. As expected, there will be sweat, and lots of it. It’s visible on the brows of everyone when the house lights are turned on full blast in the middle of the set by Deacon’s command. He corrals us to the sides of the Ballroom to make enough room for “a dead whale.” He then sends a few of us on victory laps up and around the Bowery’s staircases. It’s all in the name of fun. He runs through songs like “The Crystal Cat” and “Okie Dokie” to everyone’s expected delight. At the conclusion of his set, he, of course, hands out lyric sheets and the crowd, of course, belts out “Wham City” in unison. And it is, of course, euphoric. Dan Deacon’s got this shit down. There’s not much to actually physically witness during one of his sets. It’s more about the group experience (like that wonderful “Wham City” crescendo) and dancing till you drop. For some, it’s a blast. For others, not so much. To quote my assistant, “I’ve now seen what hell looks like.”

Deerhunter come on stage a bit after midnight. Immediately, singer Bradford Cox (who earlier had been stalking around the venue with an MTV camera crew) laments the fact that they are following Deacon’s set, and it’s the truth: The crowd doesn’t have much energy, or patience, at this point. The band plays well, at times eerily well. Renditions of “Spring Hall Convert” and new track “Calvary Scars” are gorgeous. Regardless, one can’t escape the feeling that Cox’s bandmates are more than a little fed up with him and his antics. Before the band encores with “Flourescent Grey,” Cox shambles out on stage alone, clearly inebriated, relating to the audience how he misses his family and whining for a cigarette before finally breaking many violations and lighting up onstage. (My assistant overhears a sound guy in the balcony: “Hey I don’t care what they do; I’m getting paid overtime.”) Cox continues to alienate himself from the audience and the band long after most of the crowd has filtered out. Everyone looks pissed. And it’s a shame. We walk out after the band has finished, Cox still looming on stage mumbling away about nothing; a sad, solitary figure.

We head back to hotel room and fall fast asleep. We have an early morning ahead of us.

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{Thursday, October 18th}

We take a cab to Other Music after our morning rituals to have breakfast with Vampire Weekend. More than a handful of us cram into the small record store after stuffing our mouths full of the pastries lined up on tables outside. The fresh, young chaps play the floor in celebration of the release of their first single, “Mansard Roof,” on XL Recordings. They’re clearly grateful to Other Music for being the first store to carry their music, and it’s nice to see the band (who are immediately about to go on tour in Europe opening for The Shins) repaying justly with this lively performance. The Columbia grads are unsurprisingly tight live, and their sparse sound carries well in Other Music’s small confines. The band oozes charm as they work their way through several bouncy cuts from their EP and forthcoming full-length, the dreamy “Bryn” and comparatively raucous “A-Punk” being the highlights. Vampire Weekend wrap up the quick six-song in-store with “Oxford Comma,” and the placated crowd disperses rather silently into the afternoon. It must be muffin-induced comas.

We spend the day around town. Forbidden Planet, The Strand, and meeting friends for lunch. Full of sushi, we head to the Gramercy to check out Datarock. Unfortunately, in order to get to Datarock, we must wade through the waters of mediocrity. Tonight, the Gramercy is playing host to the Eclipse Gum Showcase, and apparently a long-lasting gum does not a good show make (and they aren’t even giving out free samples!).

First we’re treated to two completely forgettable bands that sound like The Killers. They’re so forgettable I’ve already forgotten their names. After that troubling twosome is a group of idiots from Scotland, named Biffy Clyro. Outside the venue, stickers are being handed out that are boldly asking, “Who The Fuck Is Biffy Clyro?” But more accurately, “Who The Fuck Cares?” The band emerges on stage, two of three members already shirtless, being cheered on rabidly by four drunken teenagers holding the flag of Scotland. The band then commences to play a labored set of boring “hard” rock tunes. Here’s how tough they think they are: Singer/guitarist Simon Neil hands off his guitar after every song for an identical axe, because he thinks he’s shredded so hard that it’s out of tune after only one ditty. As Datarock’s set time approaches, the music and house lights are abruptly turned on after Biffy’s finished one of their songs. But of course they keep playing anyway, forcing the lights and music back off. When the sound guy shuts the band off for a second time, Neil violently hurls two microphones into the crowd. If I lost an eye at a Biffy Clyro concert I would be inconsolable, probably suicidal. Because nothing would be more pathetic.

But hey, eventually Datarock arrive on stage. And it’s a fun time. The Norweigan electro-rock duo is accompanied live with a drummer and bass player. They play nearly every song they have. Their drummer does the worm. They all jump a lot. Keyboardist Ketil Mosnes plays a mean saxophone, while Singer/guitarist Fredrik Saroea safely crowd surfs and shreds simultaneously. Lots of vaguely homoerotic touching and mutual disrobing. And matching outfits, that can’t be neglected. I wonder how much that ensemble cost. It was a pleasant time, but I think we’re still wary of getting our eyeballs knocked out of their sockets by projectile mics. We swiftly make our way out of the venue before we’re blind.

Head back to The Bowery Ballroom for a second night in a row. Now this is something I’ve been waiting for. See, I have a small list of current touring bands I absolutely must see in a reasonable time frame. The super intense, seafaring lads of British Sea Power are right near the top. And as my luck would have it, their headlining spot at the World’s Fair Showcase is allowing me to check their name off said list with a smile.

The band is in great form here. Somewhat restrained performances of “A Wooden Horse” and new single “Atom” have me pensive, but the lads quickly curtail my fears with pitch-perfect renditions of “Fear of Drowning” and “Remember Me” from their 2003 debut The Decline of.... In fact, they dig back into the dusty vaults several times throughout the set, even busting out the old non-album single, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Brothers Yan and Hamilton trade off vocal and instrumental duties throughout the set. Hamilton plays three new songs, (“Down On The Ground,” “The Pelican,” and “No Lucifer”), proving with a supreme sense of finality that his songs should be given more spots on the band’s LPs.

The band plays for a decent amount of time. Then a crazy-eyed Yan swings his guitar around recklessly, sings his thanks and good-byes to the audience, and eventually abandons the stage with his guitar left feedbacking up against his amp. The crowd waits curiously in front of the squealing guitar and empty stage for a minute or two before a sound guy comes down and unplugs it, the house lights flashing on bright. The band is long gone, probably off drinking tea in tiny cups somewhere. It’s quite the exit. See? You can make a lasting impression without chucking microphones. I swear you can.

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{Friday, October 19th }

Friday is a slow day in preparation for something grand. We have lunch with more friends before heading once again to the Apple Store in SoHo to catch a live performance from Simian Mobile Disco. Their short set is interesting, or about as interesting as dial twisting can be, but the seated venue is certainly not the place for this sort of event. The few standing folks dancing to the Bristol duo’s heavy dance beats in the back of the area just look awkward in this sterile environment. Will say one thing though: killer light set-up.

From here, and after leering at Vince Vaughn’s gargantuan head for awhile at the IFC Center, we head to the Knitting Factory for three levels of noise at the Lovepump United/Panache/Skin Graft/Blue Ghost Showcase

There’s a lot to see here. I’ll do my best.

We start off with Japanther. Yelling their hearts out into telephones converted into microphones, the crusty Brooklyn punk duo captures my soul forever when they partially cover the Misfits’ “She.” The songs they play from their latest full-length, Skuffed Up My Huffy out on EXO, sound incredible on the Knitting Factory’s main stage. The crowd is a blur with maniacal energy. For 15 minutes. And then the set is over and the band gives us the “Thank you, and Goodnight.” It took them about as much time to play as it did for them to tie up the badass ‘Japanther’ banner to their amps. And you know what? That’s perfect. I don’t think the boys will ever be accused of overstaying their welcome.

Japanther’s short set gives us ample time to squeeze downstairs into The Tap Bar before L.A. noise band HEALTH begins. We’re all cramped in like sardines in a can in the small, poorly situated Tap Bar. But that’s just something we’ll have to deal with. HEALTH is just one of those bands I find completely irresistible. Their music screeches, squeals, and bangs on record. Live? It’s something else entirely. The band preps with the drum-led vocal chant of “Lost Time.” The young band jumps around while spookily harmonizing with each other, building up the tension before they pick up their instruments and let it all loose. They fly around stage as they burn through most of the songs on their debut LP. At some points, they lose their instruments and make sounds into their microphones that I’d mistaken for guitars on the record. Never once had I thought it was the human voice that was capable of such sounds. HEALTH pack it up after a blistering performance of “Triceratops,” and to very little shock, I discover I’m caked in sweat and the regretful odors of those in my close proximity.

Back upstairs on the Main Stage, we catch Portland’s Old Time Relijun. The K Records stalwarts bring the crazy to the Knitting Factory’s floor. All the cuts from their recent release, Catharsis In Crisis, have a little sped-up intensity added to them in the live translations. Frontman Arrington de Dionyso isn’t wearing pants, and it’s probably for the best. He’s got to let those chicken legs breathe. The band is crazy good tonight and is probably the only rock band in the whole wide city using an upright bass in the same fashion. Plus, it should be noted that Old Time Relijun is the second band, after Datarock, to further the saxophone craze of CMJ ’07. Saxophonist Ben Hartman even goes as far as to use two of Bill Clinton’s instrument of choice simultaneously during one song. I foresee the revival of the bass clarinet at CMJ ’08.

Hardly anyone is downstairs at The Tap Bar for Washington D.C.’s The Apes. It’s a real shame. The guitarless quartet rocks about as hard as anyone does, filling in the hollow parts with some crunchy bass and keyboards. Vocalist Lucius Twilight flops around on and off stage like a loaded spring. The band runs through a bunch of new tunes off their upcoming 2008 release, Ghost Games. The few crowd members that are there get a bit rowdy, and eventually Twilight urges them on stage. All in all, it’s an erratic, fuzzed out performance with three times the punch of their recorded output.

Up next is the drum cacophony that is Brooklyn’s BIG A little a. The band has three drummers. Enough said. In this live arena, songs that seemed like merely sonic experiments on record become fully fleshed out. The crowd is still unfortunately thin, but I’m happy to be experiencing this audio pummeling, even if there aren’t many around to share it with. Three layers of percussion coupled with keys and distorted vocals; it’s enough to pull even the tightest heartstrings loose. At the close of their set, the boys urge us to head upstairs to check out Montreal’s AIDS Wolf. We do so for a song or two, but the spastic noise and microphone cord strangulation quickly becomes too much for us. We’re still a little cautious around microphones after last night.

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{Saturday, October 20th}

Being a music director at a college radio station has its perks (no, not digging through overflowing mail bins every week). One of the perks is receiving a special laminated invitation to the annual AAM Showcase.

Advanced Alternative Media is the biggest college radio promoter in the business, and as such, they have a lot of friends. And these friends just so happen to be in bands. These bands, also coincidentally, feel inclined to play AAM’s awesome showcase when asked. This year’s line-up consists Trail of Dead, Islands, Mika Miko, Oh No! Oh My!, Anna Ternheim, and a solo set by Will Sheff of Okkervil River.

We arrive early in Brooklyn on the L train and mosey on down to The Music Hall of Williamsburg. I still know it best at Northsix, and seeing it in its newly renovated form leaves me with a peculiar feeling. It’s a radically different look, and the new owners clearly spent a lot of money to make the space look basically like the Bowery. However, the unlimited free Vitamin Water supplied to us when we enter the venue quickly disperses my uneasy feelings. While ultimately leading me to frequent quick washroom stops, one really can’t devalue the immediate joy of receiving unlimited free Vitamin Water.

Austin’s Oh No! Oh My! start the afternoon off with their sunny, sweet array of musical wares. It’s overwhelmingly clear that they are a pleasant bunch of folks, and their music reflects every aspect of their totally harmless personalities. They play songs like “Lisa, Make Love!,” “I Have No Sister,” and “Walk In The Park,” like a band who is truly grateful to be playing for only a handful of people at noon on a Saturday. It’s refreshing. However, that refreshed feeling might also just be the Vitamin Water talking.

Mika Miko, all-girl rock giants from L.A.’s golden coast, are up next. And Jesus Christ are they good. Hands down some of the rawest sounding rock ‘n’roll ever to have graced my delicate ears. The band rips through half a battalion of songs in no time at all, hardly taking enough time to breathe in-between. Singer Jennifer Clavin (who, oddly enough, also sings into a converted telephone receiver microphone) is in a constant state of bouncing and yelping. Bassist Jessica Clavin holds it all down while guitarist Michelle Diane Suarez holds nothing back on those poor, beaten strings. I want to fall in love with every member of this band. But for now, I think I’ll simply bob my head and dream.

Montreal’s Islands are their own band now, fairly separated from any ex-Unicorns stigma they once carried, and it’s all for the best. For instance, singer/guitarist Nick Diamonds is now parading around as a total rock star. Like an unglamorous Marc Bolan, Diamonds strives to be an electric warrior. He’s lucky his band is so likeable. One of the two adorable violinists paused in the midst of a song to smile directly at the flash of my assistant’s camera. They played numbers both new and old, the obvious highlights being the closing triplet of “Volcanoes,” “Swans,” and “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” the last of which features the customary freestyle rap guest spots. In this instance, it’s Despot and Giovanni Marks (formerly Subtitle) lending the freshness.

We go to lunch and come back to the venue in time to watch Trail of Dead play from the bleachers on the balcony. My feet hurt.

Sacrificing another night of potential ear damage at the Jesu/Torche/Fog triple team, my assistant and I retrieve our bags from the hotel, purchase some last chance milkshakes, and head back up the Hudson to the comfort of more familiar mountain territory. New York, you’re perfect. Please don’t change a thing.

[Photos: Kate Larson]

CMJ 2007
October 2007;

[October 2007]

Let me preface this with a few words of advice. If you ever find yourself uttering the following: "Oh, sure, I can totally do a 45-hour 9 to 5 workweek and go see 2 or more shows each night," have a friend alert you to the absurdity of this statement. Unless, of course, you are inclined to imbibe something a little more serious than Red Bull. I am not inclined as such. Add the hellishness of navigating the Lower East Side, and you've got one frustrated girl in her business casual, pushing through the swarms of ironic outfits with a set jaw. Regardless, we've got some notables, folks!

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{Act Most Likely to Actually (Not Ironically) Be From the South and Actually Be Brothers}

The Felice Brothers, 10/16/07, Southpaw

Before the band's set, lead singer Ian Felice treated us to some solo songs, accompanied by his wife on keyboard. A distinctly male-dominated crowd at Southpaw were quite appreciative and assailed her with marriage proposals, which were largely ignored... who woulda thought? Harmonica and acoustic guitar matched with gritty, down-home vocals conjured up images of Wilco and other bands that have managed to fall into the coveted genre of "alt-country." Enter the rest of the Brotherhood, kicking it up a notch with some accordion and a drum'n'bass backbone. I wouldn't be the least surprised to find this band drinking and smoking on the porch, but I was pleasantly taken aback by how much I enjoyed this show. Note to the fakers: this genre only seems to work if you drink too much and aren't from New York, but here's an exception. Please recognize. Quote of the evening: "I've got a joke... it's nice and clean. Why did the scarecrow win an Oscar? ... Because he's outstanding in his field." Ba-dum-CH.

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{Act Most Likely to Unsuccessfully Channel Kathleen Hanna}

Marnie Stern, 10/17/07, Blender Theater

After experiencing the hype surrounding Marnie Stern, I was incredibly disappointed to find myself the target of a complete vocal assault. A girl with an electric guitar is generally a fantastic idea in my book, but I couldn't get over the screeching quality of her voice, and this is coming from a huge Bikini Kill fan. Don't worry, I get the irony. The fact that her band seemed a little confused as to why they were on stage did not help matters, false starts and all. I must be getting too old for this. After the set, I was totally chagrined to hear her talking to someone in a voice several pitches lower than her singing pipes. Go natural, girl!

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{Act Most Likely to Make Me Abruptly Leave a Showcase}

Mika Miko, 10/17/07, Blender Theater

Again, I am a huge proponent of any and all things Riot Grrl. Loud guitars, screaming, the works. These girls had everything but the slicing, empowering feeling that makes it truly great. Instead, a distinct rumble emanated from the crowd as the set progressed haltingly, punctuated by the band's passive-aggressive jabs at the sound and lighting, which included threats of lawsuits if any flashing lights were used ("One of us has epilepsy... I'm not gonna say who... but... yeah.") Charming. For a label I admire so much (Kill Rock Stars), I was totally disappointed with this choice for a lineup, and thus ended my KRS evening.

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{Act Most Likely to Take Up Residence In An Early-'90s Coffeehouse}

Speck Mountain, 10/18/07, The Knitting Factory

Taking the stage at 7:58 PM, Speck Mountain played to a small crowd of devoted music-biz types, because the casual badge-wearers sure as hell weren't showing up till the headliner. A soothing, mid-range female voice perfectly rounded out the clean and simple guitar-driven set, which unfortunately did not capture the attention of a crowd more concerned about grabbing another Newcastle. Still, I would put this band's record on late at night and be a little less sad about the demise of Galaxie 500.

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{Act Most Likely to Morph Into a 14-Armed Instrument-Wielding Supercreature}

Le Loup, 10/18/07, The Knitting Factory

I admittedly get excited every time I see anything besides a guitar onstage in a band's setup, but Le Loup went above and beyond my wildest dreams in terms of how many people/instruments they crammed on that little stage. These kids are talented, not only in their ability to hand off instruments like it ain't no thang, but also in their seamless genre switches, seemingly with every song. Ranging from heavily orchestrated and tragically gorgeous to a two-step prominently featuring a banjo, it becomes clear that in order to be a member of Le Loup, one must play at least three instruments and appreciate absolutely, uh, every kind of music ever. Exactly what I needed to forget I had only slept four hours the night before.

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{Act Most Likely to Have Band Drama}

The Papercuts, 10/18/07, The Knitting Factory

Aside from being a little uncomfortable about being eye-level with the guitarist's extremely tight pants, I was happy to see an organ being toted onstage for The Papercuts' set. Unfortunately, I got a diva vibe from the lead singer/keyboardist right away, which I feared would sour the rest of the set for me... and even more unfortunately, I was right. After spending more than ten minutes on a soundcheck, a song ground completely to a halt, followed by a hissy fit directed at the soundboard from the lead singer. This made me much less receptive to the gloomy, horrorshow feel of this band, who would otherwise produce excellent David Lynch soundtracks. NEXT!

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{Act Most Likely to Inspire Accordion Fetishes}

The Bowerbirds, 10/18/07, The Knitting Factory

I'd seen the Bowerbirds open for The Mountain Goats in Brooklyn about a month before, which I enjoyed, but this time I found myself wishing I was sitting on the couch with a glass of wine, listening to their record instead. However, I'm sure that there were members of the audience who had not yet been exposed to the medieval beauty of this band, who employ only an accordion, a violin, a nylon-stringed guitar, a huge bass drum that one must straddle rather suggestively to play, and melodic, wavering vocals à la Devendra Banhart. Either way, I hoped it would at least inspire some audience members to go buy their album (Hymns For a Dark Horse), 'cause I consider it a worthy investment.

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{Act Most Likely to Restore My Faith In Pretty Much Everything}

His Name Is Alive, 10/18/07, The Knitting Factory

A friend asked me, "You saw His Name Is Alive? They're still making records?" Ridiculously enough, I wasn't familiar with this band before seeing them, but holy god, I've been missing out. "Lost in her eyes" took on a whole new meaning as soon as Andy FM fixed her intense stare on the fading audience and the band began handing out jingle bells for everyone to play. Sticking mostly to their recent release, Xmmer, the set careened from heart-stopping, insanely exquisite walls of pump-accordion, soft jangling bells and soaring violin, to a boot-stomping ragtime number, all iced with FM's intoxicating, angelic voice. Band founder Warren Defever whips out a Flying V, and I'm totally okay with that, as we're suddenly smacked in the face with some good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. From chaos to shoegaze in two seconds flat, I can easily say His Name Is Alive pulled off the most perfect set of the evening. Sure, FM looks possessed for most of it, but I bet it's by something fabulous.

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{Act Most Likely To Receive Scant Coverage Due To My Need To Sleep}

St. Vincent, 10/18/07, The Knitting Factory

John Vanderslice once said he "would buy stock in Annie Clark," and it seems others are echoing that sentiment, as the Knitting Factory was packed to the brim, a stark difference from the scant crowd at 8:00 PM. As her setup went on well after 1:00 AM, I agonized over the hour-long subway ride back to Queens and only managed to make it through a song and a half. However, I have seen a full set of hers (touring with John Vanderslice, of course), and I can credibly tell you that if you had a quicker trip home that night and hadn't already been standing for 4+ hours, there would be no reason to leave. Aaand scene.

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And thus ends my account of CMJ 2007. The next night, I accidentally went to a non-CMJ show: The Section Quartet, who play string quartet arrangements of Radiohead and the like. Beautiful, but unfortunately, will have to garner their own review. Don't take Ohmyrockness.com's show tags as gospel; lesson learned. On Saturday, I attempted to see Jesu and Torche at the Blender Theater, but my ears were already ringing from the week of shows, and I was warned it would only get worse once I stepped inside. After being deposited in the middle of nowhere (read: There are parts of New York City that still look pretty Taxi Driver) by an errant F train at 12:30 AM and then traveling further to find I had missed Band of Horses, I gave up. I'm keeping my day job, if only to ensure that next year I can take those three days off as well as supply myself with the essential case of Red Bull. I repeat: lesson learned.

The Sea and Cake/ The Zincs
The Blue Note; Columbia, MO

[09-17-2007]

The huge stillness of a nearly empty music hall. The instruments are alone on stage, waiting to be played. The emptiness illuminated by the bluish-white overhead lights is miserable. There are cracks and malformations in the floorboards I’ve never seen. There is barely a soul in the place, two hours after the doors have opened. A lone soul moves from the crowd to the stage, hat turned backward with hair spilling down his back. He leans to examine the equipment on stage that has been used over and over before, but not yet tonight. And the ears and eyes of the cliques are still hungry.

How would I describe the rampant stillness? Riveting. Stellar. Fucking brilliant.

And then one guy comes on stage -- perhaps an opener who hadn’t been listed on the program? Perhaps a member of the tech crew running through some last-minute checks? No, he is the representative of the solo/four-member band, The Zincs, Jim Elkington. Cue the incessant hooting -- the “hey-ing,” the “yeah-ing.” Starting first as a subdued and random burst, a withdrawn alcoholic obligation, it eventually transforms into an increasingly hideous monster. With every laugh, with every “SHUSH” (and there are many), it becomes increasingly powerful.

But I digress.

Elkington’s resounding voice echoes against the arcs, flooding the empty floor where the movement of sound has nothing, nobody to block its path. His fingers are in constant movement as they pluck the strings to the accompaniment of an invisible band that lives in the speakers. “I’m representing the Zincs tonight,” he says between songs, as his mouth bounces up and down, chewing the gum that remains in his mouth throughout the entire show. “There’s usually a bunch of us.”

At one point, Elkington leans beyond the lights and sways back and forth, looking to the back of the room where the entirety of his listeners are seated at tables with drinks in their hands. And it never changes. There’s not one person on the floor during the entire time that he’s playing. Not one.

Toward the end of his set, he invites Sea and Cake guitarist Archer Prewitt to play on a song. They both look rather awkward (as I think it might have simply been a spontaneous invitation to Prewitt, who had been standing in the wings), playing together with the timidity of strangers. After the set, Elkington leaves and people finally come to the floor. Twee as fuck, everyone slowly gathers around the stage.

Although he played well, Elkington effectively killed the life of the music hall. And so, even as The Sea and Cake took the stage, bathed appropriately in a seafoam green light, there were only a few yells from the splintered crowd and the drunken calls of The Jackass. There was no movement from the stage or the crowd, as the first notes of “Up on Crutches” calmly tumbled from the towers of speakers. There was the swaying of bassist Eric Claridge and one or two bobbing heads reflecting contradicting opinions of the beat, and that was about it.

It wasn’t so much a concert as it was a middle school diorama: flat figures stuck with glue, with only the illusion of movement. As such, there was a lack of any sort of acknowledgment of the crowd by the band during the first several songs. But it suited the distant mood between the musicians and their listeners. And then, finally, “Mr. F” took the first steps to break through the ice. Then there was movement, then there was excitement. Thankfully, it was a very comfortable show from that point onward -- easy to slip into, an easy fit.

The Sea and Cake made it amply clear that they are veteran musicians. Even with the similar structure and sound of so many of the band’s songs, there were few noticeable signs of communication on stage. Claridge’s intent eyes and beard would every now and again meet the glance of John McEntire as he brutalized the drum set. Prewitt swayed and buoyed with eyes closed for the extended “Exact to Me,” which subsequently stirred and drove the crowd. All considered, it wasn’t the most exciting show, and the initial boredom probably killed two to three people, but that’s all right. It all somehow suited the night perfectly.

Akron/Family / Megafaun / Greg Davis
Bottletree; Birmingham, AL

[09-13-2007]

In Birmingham, there is a legend about an Akron/Family show that occurred a couple years ago at the city’s crusty indie-rock staple, The Nick. On this hallowed night in September, about 13 people showed up, and by the end of the set the majority of those had been on stage at some point, or so the myth goes. Chants in circles, dissonant noises, beards--it all seemed kind of cultish to me. And the unequivocally joyous mood of Love Is Simple had me on my guard. I didn’t want to be waiting for the next appearance of the Hale-Bopp by the time I left the venue. But, there had been preemptive best-show-of-the-year claims by some, and I was willing to accept the possibility.

I walked into the door of the Bottletree wondering how the hell Greg Davis, Megafaun, and Akron/Family could possibly live up to my expectations. I have been a big fan of Akron/Family for a quite a while and have more recently become an equally big fan of Greg Davis. I kept a calm composure, but inside I was buzzing with an unusual excitement.

The first thing I saw when I walked into the door was a single laptop sitting in front of the stage curtain/projection screen. I would come to find out that this was Greg Davis’ setup. He sat Indian style with complete concentration on his laptop and a swirling inkblot projected onto the screen behind him. Whether by choice or by instrumental limitations, Davis focused on drawn-out drones most resembling his material from Somnia. It obviously had a difficult time captivating most of the crowd, and they continued to small talk through his set. Normally, this is where I would rant and complain about the chatter, but the combination of noise and drone had the same effect on me as the time I listened to Ambient 1: Music for Airports in an actual airport. I was removed from my surroundings but hyper-aware of them--an objective observer. His set concluded with Megafaun backing the drones with acoustic instruments that were more reminiscent of the majority of Davis’ material.

With no pause in the music, Greg Davis quietly left, the curtain was raised, and Megafaun started their set. I had no prior experience with their music, so it was a pleasant surprise when they began a quiet chant atop rolling music that was precisely what I expected to hear from Akron/Family, albeit a bit sparser, more melodic, and twangier. The drums were definitely the driving force of their sound, providing a romping and powerful tempo for the other two members to twiddle atop. Without a particularly commanding stage presence, they were a nice warm up for what everyone had come to see.

When Akron/Family finally took the stage, they were joined by both Megafaun and Greg Davis. The small, mustached member started the set by urging the Bottletree staff to “turn off the air conditioning because I need my voice more than anyone else here.” This was the first of a few times his arrogance distracted me from the performance. Luckily, there were seven other people to provide some humble balance. Figuring it best to transition with a joke, the band came out waving an American flag and playing an ironic, Top Gun-style military ballad that faded into “Franny/You’re Human.” I had listened to their new album for a few weeks leading up the show, and I was pretty familiar with their new songs and their Neil Young-ish character, so I was expecting a bit of meandering and rocking out. However, I don’t think anyone was expecting the length to which they would extend the songs, enough so that on a few occasions my uninitiated friend exclaimed to me, “You didn’t tell me we were seeing a jam band!” It took some getting used to, but what can people expect when there are eight musicians on stage and no single person directing the show? A concise and to-the-point three minute song? Hardly. Anyway, I think the underlying bias against jam music has more to do with its listeners than the actual music. So with a combination of energy and alcohol, most of the crowd learned to let their bodies move and enjoy the show.

The quiet-loud dynamic was still firmly in place and worked wondrously with the larger line-up of instruments. Somewhat unfortunately, and presumably due to the loss of guitarist/vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof, they played very few older songs. Highlights include an amazingly well-performed “Phenomena,” the shiver-inducing vocal harmonies on “Awake,” and an interlude of bells leading up to “No Space in This Realm.” Sure, to provide the people with their money’s worth, they played for nearly two and half hours that nonetheless seemed to fly by quicker than shorter sets.

So… best show of the year? That remains to be seen. But I definitely have at least a slight regret about passing up the opportunity to see them again two nights later in Athens.

Bill Callahan / Sir Richard Bishop
The Gravity Lounge; Charlottesville, VA

[09-04-2007]

The show was set in what seemed like a hybrid coffee house-bookstore, buried beneath several floors in Charlottesville’s historic downtown. Rows of seating insured a quiet ambience that was supplemented with candlelight and a backdrop designed as a faux red sky emerging behind a prop of tree outlines that rose above a grey stone wall. In all, it seemed like the kind of place the kids on The OC might visit to hear some über-hipster recite bad poetry. I expected to witness finger snapping.

Opening act Sir Richard Bishop was solid, even if he seemed to appear from some other time and place. Seated with his acoustic guitar, sporting a beard and an awesome ponytail, Bishop put his virtuoso talents on display for all to behold, lending vocals to just two of his many tracks. When he did sing, his voice proved haunting, dripping with an age that made the music seem nearly timeless. Early in his set, Bishop asked whether anyone in attendance was on LSD. At times, during his impressively complex acoustic pieces — particularly when met with droning background sounds and effects — I felt as though I might have been. I suspect that may be taken a tremendous compliment.

Callahan walked to the microphone dressed like a man returning from a southwestern funeral, as he was neatly attired in dark dress topped with grey hair. The onstage setup consisted of a fiddle, a drum and percussion set, a bass, and a guitar manned by the lead. The music matched Callahan’s appearance, as his deep, nearly monotonous voice rolled atop the many downbeat numbers. Much like the supporting act, Callahan’s set was enlivened by a folk sentiment that twisted through songs exploring human connections to physical environments and grounded the music in an earthy plot of inspiration and unity between band and audience. The band was very cohesive, and the whole set felt very egalitarian. The strange setting actually lent an intimacy to the show that is rarely experienced with acts so firmly established. Toward the end of the main set, Callahan even began discussing his dinner plans for after the show.

Throughout the show, the band marched through several of the tracks from Callahan’s newest record, Woke on a Whaleheart, including “Sycamore” and the brilliantly titled “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man.” The highlight of the show, however, came at the end of the encore, as the band eased into an effusive rendition of “The Well.” The track did well to bring all the night’s themes together in one final sonic moment, and I managed to escape the scene without ever seeing a guy with a beret and an awkward goatee scanning the room from behind a shiny cappuccino machine.

[Photo: Mark Parsons]

Bumbershoot 2007
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA

[09-01-07 - 09-03-07]

Rather than bore you with an individual breakdown of each day and my wanderings, I figured it'd be best to highlight some of the best bands of the three-day Labor Day institution. Bumbershoot is full of minutia, and the last thing anyone needs is a three-part article focusing on my fascination with how young kids dress like their belief system is straight out of an '80s teen movie or on how a high school kid caught me off guard while offering me a selection of 12, 13, and 14 year old girls. If I weren't in such a haze, I certainly would have responded with my usual "How much for the women?" but walking back and forth throughout Seattle Center's concrete jungle saps one's impromptu abilities. This lack of motor skills cost me my shining moment when I happened to pass by the likes of Greg Propps and The Gourds' Kevin Russell as I made my way from stop to stop.

Yes, Bumbershoot is really the place where gonzo Austin country artists, former TV personalities, and jaded teenagers eagerly awaiting their wristbands to see Panic at the Disco and Fergie intermingle with ease. As with most festivals, Bumbershoot is a microcosm of Seattle; the haves and have nots chatting up alligator on a stick as old ladies out for a good time dance to the Latin and Caribbean rhythms emanating from stage(s) unknown. Last year it wore me down, and I loathed every aspect of the festival, but this year I came better prepared to handle (and expect) the worst -- and other than how they handle the comedy stages, the staff and volunteers went above and beyond this year to make sure everyone had plenty to see and do.

When I decided to undertake Bumbershoot once again, I was a little apprehensive as I checked out the lineups. There wasn't much meat to sink my teeth in, but I slipped on my journalistic demeanor and decided that I would hunt for the good bands. It didn't take long for the allure of checking out nostalgia act Crowded House to grab me and drag me off to the main stage. I've been a fan of Neil Finn's solo work, but I was hesitant to check out his '80s incarnation for fear they'd sound stuck in a period I was happy to forget. But lo and behold, Crowded House sound like a band that has grown with the changing pop landscape. Other than the dreamy acoustic pop of "Don't Dream It's Over," many of the band's older tracks had an updated sound that played well to the young and not-so-young alike.

Soon after, I made way for the Starbucks Stage (hey, it's Seattle -- who else do you think would sponsor a stage?) to check out Magnolia Electric Company. Sadly, Molina found it easiest to play ballads to an early afternoon crowd more intent on soaking up the sun than on hearing him go for broke with his best Neil Young impression. He was killing my high with the mundane, so I ran across the center to catch The Cave Singers. The local trio, whose Matador debut is gaining a bit of buzz, stole what was left of my breath. Though the guys claim to be folk-ignorant, their tunes are so infused with the blood of the dust-bowl migrants and rail riders it's a wonder they didn't ditch their punk roots ages ago. I would have stayed for the entire set if I didn't have a prior engagement with the KEXP Music Lounge to catch an early performance of The Gourds. After some initial soundcheck problems, the Austin quintet tore the house down with their blend of bluegrass, country rock, and interpretive rap (in other words, they played “Gin and Juice”).

After the early adventures of joys of Saturday, many of the performances began to blend together. While I can tell the difference between the classic rock riffage of Iceage Cobra and the lounge jazz of Victor Noriega (Trio + 2), none of it bowled me over. Bumbershoot certainly had a dearth of talent, and there were very few acts that left me speechless. Menomena's act was riddled with bad sound and even worse pacing; The Watson Twins were a nice Sunday afternoon treat, but other than two beautiful women, there wasn't much soul to be found in their Kentucky brand of country and blues. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club slept their way through a set, and the likes of Kings of Leon and The Shins were as bland as their detractors claim. Those acts that did step up, however, turned in some of the best performances I have witnessed.

One of these highlights came in the form of Tibetan chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo. Her calm, collected demeanor was an unusual site for most of the audience. As she praised togetherness and preached against confusion, hoards of people would leave their seats as even more would apprehensively make their way closer to the stage. Yungchen had an allure that is unexplainable, and though she couldn't coax the crowd to join her in song or sit upon the stage for shade, she had them eating out of her palm with her beautiful voice and glowing aura.

Monday's only highlight (note that I was too sick to stay for Steve Earle and Wu-Tang -- both I have seen before and know to be tip-top) was Smoosh. At the time, the sisterly duo was joined by youngest sis Maia on bass, and though this wasn't the best Smoosh could offer, they're always a pleasure to watch because they remind many of us that music isn't to be taken as seriously as it is. But the festival's best act backs up this thought in spades: Art Brut.

Yes, I said it. I couldn't give two shits about Art Brut until I watched them tear Bumbershoot apart limb from limb. Their performance was energetic, kinetic, and electric. As they won over fan after fan (myself included), I couldn't help but wonder what it was that I was missing prior to this. Maybe it was actually watching the band live the brand, but more so I found myself realizing that Art Brut is just fun. There was a time when music was fun and the messages behind it were nothing more than anthems of good times and social revolution at the tiniest degree (such as the band's cry for actual albums in records store, not DVDs and video games). Art Brut may be Brian Eno's and Andy Warhol's wettest dream, but we shouldn't hold that against them. Never have I misjudged a band as I have Art Brut.

And perhaps that's the meaning behind Bumbershoot. Last year, I misjudged the festival, and though I didn't take the sage advice of a reader e-mail I received last year (“Take more drugs!”), I still found the high that is dragging oneself through thousands of people just to hear music, to see a band you may never see again or to discover a band you'll fall in love with for the rest of your life. Festivals may be the ultimate buffet, and you may be weary of who didn't wash their hands or who ducked under the sneeze guard while selecting your items, but sometimes throwing caution to the wind produces the best results. Bumbershoot won me over, even if the rampaging, teenaged crowds never will.

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