New York rocks to a cast of thousands
CMJ Music Marathon puts the future of pop music on display at 50 venues. Rising out of the chaos is Priestess, a Montreal band that shook the foundations of the Bowery Ballroom
NA full moon weekend in Manhattan, and musicians scurrying around like rodents. Or vice versa. This was the CMJ Music Marathon, and with a thousand bands hitting 50 venues through the wee hours Monday, it was the last opportunity in 2006 to find out what we should be listening to in 2007, to take the pulse of pop music.
Montreal has its own burgeoning fest now, and people who’ve attended CMJ and Pop Montreal have paid tribute to both – enjoying the scruffier, can-do spirit and innocently cheerful audiences at the Montreal fest. It is true: if you are searching for ur-hipster, or for posturing jade-oids affecting the nighttime slouch of terminal been-there in broad daylight, then you’ve found their official game preserve in NYC. But once the full chaos gets rolling, there’s no denying the scale here. And of course, CMJ does have a pedigree: in its 26 years, it has hosted REM, U2, Eminem, Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beasties and many others.
Well, they weren’t here this year. However, there were a few impressive discoveries and one bona-fide revelation in my admittedly selected sampling (50 venues, remember). And somehow, it all ended up back home.
The unpromisingly titled Stephen Brodsky’s Octave Museum brought a cheery, veteran quality to indie pop, tinged with an almost Liverpudlian melodicism. Which is weird, because Brodsky’s day job is metal in a band called Cave In. For those whose blood is a little thinned out from an alt-pop diet, Favourite Sons brought a statuesque Roxy-related poise to their art-pop. Lead crooner Ken Griffin of Dublin (now Brooklyn) led with gentility, yet command- ed no false energy, a bit of Bryan Ferry with a dash of Bono at his most controlled. And the band gave him space to sing, a true anomaly outside of the diva genre.
Speaking of divas, Noel Gallagher’s offered his endorsement of IV Thieves, the latest next-heroes of Brit rock. Advantage: everyone in the quartet writes, and everyone’s heard of the Kinks. “Dunno what the last band had to put up with, but this mic fookin’ stinks,” said the reedy-voice Nic Armstrong, before also celebrating the virtues of drinking beer in the afternoon (it was 3 p.m.). There is a future here, when the focus gets tighter.
The Cinematics will already enjoy a present, since their aloof private-schoolboy look and a sound as angular as the haircuts will find a ready-made audience. Thing is, this spiky guitar/reverb sound had been washed clean of anything but the most necessary new wave elements.
Luckily, for writers, all is not rosy. Hypes are also exposed. The Black Lips cruised in on a wave of excitement and turned out to be garage pretenders whose stomping “rave-up” performance energy couldn’t disguise their inability to tune up properly. There was love from the crowd, yeah, and fair enough, but this was proof that, with a yeah-yeahyeah attack and cheap beer in the venue, you can fool some of the people some of the time.
Of the most heavily hyped acts, only one was unattainable, Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes had a solo showcase Friday night in the Mercury Lounge. The gig was so oversold that the doorman, eyeing the hundred or so people queueing up to maybe buy additional tickets that might possibly be released, said the venue would only begin honouring CMJ passes at 1 a.m. Er, wasn’t the gig at midnight? Yeah. No matter, when you could walk face-first into the remarkable immensity of Norwegian synth drama band 120 Days. Five keyboards? Their multi-layered echoplex of sound – glacial, thudding and prismatic – had the crowd in Sin-é slackjawed. Quebec will die for these Scando Floydscapes; and a quasi-symphonic I Wanna Be Your Dog, taken at half-speed, was amazing.
Slouching against their vehicle on Attorney St. afterwards, singer Ådne Meisfjord was gutted because the band’s equipment had “malfunctioned,” limiting their sonic palette. Really?
And last Saturday, two promising bands delivered us to the home run of the convention. New York’s Surefire have evolved away from their original contempo-Tom Petty sound to a more straightforward ’70sriff groove. Led by Ben Rice, in boots, beard and dirty blonde hair, the band’s deceptively simple but polished set made it easy to forget these guys are teenagers.
L.A.’s Wires on Fire were convincingly agro-anarchic, with a frayed edge shredded by goth accents and punk energy. And lots of gobbing straight out of Hard Core Logo. Keep them in mind, and wear protection.
But the revelation came from Priestess. On tour since January, the Montreal band’s hour-long performance sent a suddenly packed Bowery Ballroom heaving on its foundations. Superhumanly tight, the attack was near-perfect; even Vince Nudo’s drum solo was spot-on. (Praise for a drum solo – it nearly gave me physical pain to write that). Quite possibly the best hard rock band on the planet right now, they’re certainly the most enjoyable.
Mikey Heppner (right) and Dan Watchorn of Priestess rocking Montreal earlier this year.