Josh Ritter
Workplay / Laser’ s Edge; Birmingham, AL

[10-31-2007]

Last year, around the time Josh Ritter’s Animal Years was released, I got a chance to hear him play at Workplay. There was a dilemma, though: Black Heart Procession, whose spell I was then under, was playing the same night at BottleTree with Castanets and The Devics. I was happy as a little songbird, then, when Laser’s Edge, a local independent music retailer, announced that Ritter would be playing in the store several hours before his Workplay show. Unlike most nights in this town, which has begun to offer some tough choices in the way of national touring acts, I got to see Ritter strum his guitar for 30 minutes before I beat it over to BottleTree for BHP.

Halloween night was no less difficult. Celebration, Dragons of Zynth, and local cred-worthy up-and-comers Lonesome Spirit Device were playing a free show at BottleTree in the midst of a Halloween costume contest, where I later discovered that the winner was dressed as a Nikon camera and the award presenters were dressed as Nelson.

Despite my knowledge of all I would be missing on the hipster side of town, however, it’s true that I’ve been spinning the ambitiously named The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter since my promo copy arrived in the mail a few months ago. Also, I love it. I let myself become beguiled by the record’s one sheet, which tells a story of delightful barn recording sessions, and I imagined swaying horns skronking over messy bales of hay and “string sections screamin’ like horses in a barn burnin’ up,” as Ritter sings in “Rumors.”

So a friend and I belted up in our Ginny Weasley and generic cat-with-a-litterbox-filled-with-rolled-oats-and-Tootsie-Rolls costumes, respectively, and made it to Workplay about four songs into Ritter’s set. The band was costumed; there were two instrumentalists with a pink wig and a blue wig, a drummer with a half-mask, a guitar player in some sort of mummy get-up, and Josh Ritter, barefoot, dressed as a Greek god. Wearing a huge, boyish grin, he referred to himself repeatedly as Optimus Prime.

The band was evidently in a great mood, and their onstage banter and jaunty performance suggested as much. I sat with friends and listened intently during the quieter and more reverent songs such as “Girl in the War” and the philosophically lewd “Temptation of Adam” but was excited to run down to the floor and dance foolishly during more upbeat songs like “Night Moves,” “Rumors,” and “Real Long Distance.” For the most part, the audience was not of a like mind, and this is something that is annoying about many singer-songwriters’ live shows. There are usually rows and rows of staring, obsequious fans too enthralled by the songwriter’s poetic turns of phrase to realize that, hey, this is a FUN song. It’s upbeat. and, AND... I can DANCE to it! I mean, admire the lyrics during an intimate listening with iPod and liner notes in the quiet of home, right?

Fortunately, the crowd was a bit stirred up by Ritter’s rendition of the lovely “Kathleen,” which couched an unexpected interlude of Ritter reading (paper in hand) Vincent Price’s rap from “Thriller.” The band mimicked a few of the signature dance moves from the video, and Ritter’s goofy grin once again won over all the twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings in the audience. It was quite an amusing spectacle, and something special since it was only to be caught on Halloween night.

Ritter played a brief encore that included “Harrisburg,” one of my favorite songs from 2004’s dynamite Golden Age of Radio, and “Lillian, Egypt” from Animal Years before announcing that the party would be moving to Laser’s Edge for a final midnight in-store performance.

Expecting a fun and casual setting, I dragged my Ginny Weasley to Laser’s Edge and walked in on a hush-hush audience once again adoring to the point of annoyance. We stuck around for the whole performance, which included lots of jokes and acoustic guitar sing-a-longs. Watching everyone try to keep up with Ritter during the wordy “To the Dogs or Whoever” was the highlight, and before we all expected it, the night was over. We bid farewell to “Optimus Prime,” who left a final impression by popping one of my litterbox Tootsie Rolls into his mouth and dousing the “litter” with blue Pixy Stix dust, “messing it up for the other cats,” he said, laughing, with that winning smile.

[Photo: Traci Edwards]

Two Gallants / Blitzen Trapper / Songs for Moms
Media Club; Vancouver, BC

[09-18-2007]

It doesn’t happen very often – hell, my success rate of being told I’m on the guest list and actually being on the list is barely above 50-50 – but occasionally, I feel like I’ve ripped someone off by getting in free to a show. This was one of those rare nights. Not that it started off all gangbusters, mind you. The doors were supposed to open at the standard 8 PM, so my girlfriend and I rolled in blazed and mildly drunk at quarter to nine. With the inside of the hundred-odd-capacity Media Club pitch black, the nice man at the door informed us it would be at least another twenty minutes till he’d have some info for us. All we knew at that point was the bands weren’t there yet. I’m a stickler for detail myself, but what can you do?

We circled around Library Square with the justifiably striking union CUPE Local 15 till 9:40 when, by some miracle of fate, the advertised triple bill fashionably arrived. They set up with no time to spare for tuning or proper mixing and hit the stage without pause. Rawk ‘n’ roll!!! There was barely enough time to grab a beer before the openers Songs For Moms landed balls-deep in their set.

With Carey hammering away on a pared-down kit while Molly and Alana split the bass, guitar, and lead vocal duties, they constitute one of the most pungent all-girl power trios ever to come out of San Francisco. Their songs mostly ran in three-four time, but they jammed through their bluntly relationship-based waltzes and occasional post-punk, rock jaunts with all the swagger of a young Sleater-Kinney. The inadequate number of female attendees migrated steadily forward, feeding on the groundbreaking vibrations, forcing the guys to ditch their inhibitions and join in. Waves of swaying and nodding ensued. I haven’t seen a vibe like that for an opening-opening band in years. I gave the band props at my earliest opportunity, while picking up both EPs (a bargain at $8) and a t-shirt they had for sale. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for these guys, for sure. Hell, if I had a label, I’d have signed them myself. Thank gawd for nice surprises.

Next up was the real reason I was there: Portland’s favorite sextet Blitzen Trapper. Several month’s previous, I’d said in a review for their self-released third album, Wild Mountain Nation, that “it’s a wonder they’re not on a major label.” The next month, their signing to the famous Sub Pop was announced, leaving me feeling quite vindicated. Their set easily lived up to my own hype, mostly grinding out songs from their latest and obviously greatest record (save a bizarre track from a supposed unreleased children’s album, the likes of which Bruce Haack would thoroughly approve). Replicating some of the angular Steve Miller nightmare riff constructions off that album is no small feat with all those fingers, but they pulled it off in spades. Those six guys created a full, big sound for such a small venue. You can bet your ass it’ll be the last time BT will be seen there again, though. They seemed like honestly nice, down-to-earth guys from their stage presence and the brief conversation I had with a couple of them, so I’m happy for them.

Sadly, the late start forced my girlfriend home before the headlining Two Gallants, nor was I able to stay much longer, but I liked what I heard. They’re a duo from the Bay Area with roots in Robert Johnson delta blues, so White Stripes comparisons are a critic’s standard. However, from my vantage point, they’re completely unwarranted, no doubt formed out of journalistic laziness by their numbers, not by their music. Yes, they had a similarly explosive sound, but it’s pretty hard to be subtle and remain interesting as a pair with all that stage to walk around on. Adam Stephens picked away on his vintage red Gretsch while drummer Tyson Vogel exploded viciously on the kit, after initially building suspense with rubber mallets. This, in turn, beckoned Adam to cross over from quiet confession to vibrant, screaming expression. It’s easy to see why they’ve been playing together since childhood ‘cause they push all the right buttons for each other.

The whole experience was fantastically inspiring. The one-two-three knockout punch of bands all clearly on the upward path paid off in one of my most thoroughly enjoyable concert experiences of recent memory. I’ve found myself waning on the whole music thing, but this show totally reinvigorated my life’s passion. For all these reasons and more, this show was a robbery at the price of admission.

The National / The Forms
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY

[10-12-2007]

After staggering through the new & im-poshed (and eerily familiar I might add -- Bowery Ballroom, anyone?) basement bar entrance of what used to be Northsix and hissing "I hate it" to my girlfriend Liz about 57 times, we make our way into the small crowd that has gathered in front of the (now fucking humongous) stage. I tap a guy on the shoulder and ask if the opening acts have gone on yet, and he's refreshingly friendly, telling me the first act had already gone on, prompting me to feel slightly ridiculous about dreading a show in Williamsburg.

Four young'n'earnest lads shuffle onstage and treat us to some of the prettiest four-part harmonies I've heard since Mrs. Woolever's select chorus. The Forms are pretty cute, and their drummer gets ten points for having obviously taken music theory, but sadly, their scope is limited. Some semblance of fingerpicking is needed to break through the albeit pleasant but monotone wall of guitars, but there is none to be found... sort of like hearing an instrumental Sunny Day Real Estate break on repeat. Launching into a cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies," The Forms induce a bit of a sing-a-long, but we're restless. After dedicating their final song to Reggie Jackson, they pack it up, and I run downstairs for another G&T, which causes me to run smack into my junior prom date. I kid you not.

Back upstairs, Liz informs me that we have a "music critic" on our hands. He is standing directly behind us and expounding on his infinite knowledge of rock music, which includes the following fun facts: (1) girls don't like classic rock; (2) girls don't like any type of music featuring a deep voice; and (3) girls don't like him, and that is why he is waving his arms around pretending to know what he's talking about. (I made that last one up.)

Moving along. The National takes the stage, and Matt Berninger gives Northsix a nod, mentioning that they used to practice in the basement, which now houses a bar. Berninger doesn't look like he's quite sure he's allowed up there, but his warm baritone eases us right into “Brainy,” an ethereal, drum-driven track from Boxer, an album that you've heard of by now, I'm sure. The crowd is small but focused. I'm guessing most people caught them the night before with electric guitar songstress St. Vincent, and it's a relief to not be fighting for space. I perk up when I hear “Mistaken For Strangers,” a song that at one time signaled how my boyfriend-girlfriend housemates were, uh, wishing to be left alone. I look around and realize that most of us are couples in various states of tenderness ranging from “get a room” to “awww.” Girls don't like The National, indeed.

My personal highlight is a charged-up rendition of “Squalor Victoria,” including a calculated yet sparkling guitar interlude; you can tell the kids have been waiting. I spot my junior prom date across the crowd and can't help but crack a smile. And as always, it is a great day when a roomful of Brooklyn concertgoers raucously applaud a violinist. Gets me right in my orchestra-geek heart. I'm a relatively new fan of The National; so many songs sail by unnamed. But at no point am I bored, which speaks volumes of this band in concert. There's enough for me to recognize, however, and when a cute girl comes out to play tambourine for “Fake Empire,” I'm genuinely happy. (Note: I have been informed that this “cute girl” is Marla Hansen, a member of My Brightest Diamond and also a member of Sufjan Stevens' brigade. Sweet.) The crowd sings along in a hush, which is at once eerie and romantic, to say the least. The band rounds out the “official” segment of the show with “Start A War” from Boxer, and at the song's close, a throaty voice screams, “BEST. CONCERT. IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.” Okay, sure.

We are treated with a lovely, long encore, and the veteran fans are feeling it because the final song of the evening is “Mr. November” from 2005's The Alligator. With a final shy grin, Berninger exits, and every couple has one thing on their mind: getting home as quickly as possible. Oh yeah.

Girl Talk / Dan Deacon
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA

[09-20-2007]

Dan Deacon was scheduled to open this show as a supporting act that has arguably become larger than the headliner, Girl Talk. In truth, I was most excited to witness a performance from the man whose shows are increasingly mythologized in exclusive circles of quirky hipsters and Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts. As it turned out, Mr. Deacon failed to show (due to the now infamous "coughing up weird chunks of yellow+blood" incident), and the only indication of his slated appearance was a gigantic green spider placed on the right of the small stage.

While most in attendance seemed understandably disappointed, the energy in anticipation for Girl Talk was incredible as the crowd bided time before the dance party that would eventually erupt. Thankfully, Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis did apparently drop by that night, though I don’t think I ever saw him above the many craning heads and cool haircuts. I might have heard him say something through the sound system, but I can’t be entirely certain of that, either. All I really noticed was the crowd pressing toward the stage, mounting it, and then dancing convulsively. I’ll concede that I, too, engaged in a bit of ironic dancing — it was nearly impossible not to, given the club-like atmosphere and the conveniently empty bars.

While all the familiar elements of Girl Talk’s mash-ups were present, including the tendency for tracks to jump from one to another with little or no transition beyond those linking samples several times per song, the pieces of tracks were assembled differently than they were on the last record (Night Ripper), a fact that contributed a novelty to the show that also made it feel more like a rave than I maybe would have liked. Considering the emerging feeling that I was at some sort of indie rave (and yes, glow sticks were twirling) and the presence of that giant green spider, I felt that drug use was likely all around me. It had to be, now that I really think about it. What else could possibly explain hundreds of hipsters getting crunk to music that they would never listen to without an über-cool DJ who makes the effort to splice “Juicy” with “Tiny Dancer”? When I see kids in skinny jeans and high tops go apeshit for the detonation of Top 40 hip-hop, I can’t help but wonder if they do the same on the weekends in the clubs downtown. My guess is no, but I suppose that’s one of the beauties of indie culture: neither consistency nor rationality ever seems to have found its place.

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.