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CMJ Music Marathon in New York Goes Into Overdrive

Originally published on KDHX.org

My second day of the annual CMJ Music Marathon proved no less exciting as the first, as the onslaught of bands continued throughout New York City, from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn.

The deluge of wind and rain has finally subsided, opening up the city and bringing more people out into the streets. I wake up early and meander through a bustling Times Square, past the lines flowing from Carnegie Deli and into Central Park. I come across an upright bassist crooning to passersby, a high-school trumpeter practicing Herb Alpert lines. My greatest musical find is a group of five African-American gentleman beneath a bridge, singing harmonic doo wop and snapping their fingers. It’s life changing.

I take the subway back over to south Brooklyn to hit the Rock Shop, a terrific little two-story dive with good beer and a rooftop patio to enjoy. There are literally only 12 people in the crowd; most of them are here to perform with their own bands. As the bartender reminds me, it is a Friday afternoon and most of the responsible people are “working.” Two hipsters next next to me start discussing Ferguson.

Local favorites Heavy Birds are already at the stage. Normally a trio, bandleader Ryan Drag is at the stage alone, strumming fuzzy, Velvet Underground-style guitar changes and ceremonial beats into loop pedals, creating more of a wall of sound than anything. It’s a little rough going, but he’s able to maintain the band’s minimalist sound.

Hectorina quickly takes the stage next and launches into indie-rock glory, with unnecessarily drawn-out song titles and jarring chord changes. The band reminds me of the New York street style of Parquet Courts, but it’s clear they’re reaching for a more dance-punk sound, mixing the quirkiness of Q and Not U with the elasticity of Gang of Four. “This one’s called, ‘I Traded My Song for a Butterfly Net,'” goes one announcement. And then another round begins, with off-kilter harmonies and irrational arrangements.

Orlando-based quartet Me Chinese are next and make quick use of their set by playing fast, keyboard-led punk, which is more melodic and more akin to ’50s rock than anything — like revisiting the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” soundtrack. From what I understand, the band has been kicked off a few shows during the festival due to their racist name. But one thing is clear: these kids are just having fun, with song titles like “We’re the Mansons.” The band plows through delinquent chords while lead singer Ben Wright dabbles with his vintage electric organ. A high-caliber, house-party band for sure.

Party Lights also uses ’50s rock ‘n’ roll as a takeoff point for their songs. Led by guitarist Anna Blumenthal and bassist Joan Chew, decked out in short black dresses and leather jackets, they smile and sing like a pleasant garage girl group with tunes about boys, lost love and…boys. They end with an enjoyable cover of a Buddy Holly song.

Fellow Floridians Room Full of Strangers end the first half of the daytime shows at the Rock Shop with a great set, calling to mind the black-leather-jacket punk of the Ramones. The singer practices some nifty tricks banging and flipping around a tambourine while singing “Nothing good ever dies/Now I got you between my eyes.” Their garage-punk anthems are MC5-inspired and liven up the crowd, which has maybe increased by five people. It’s a rough show for some great little groups who make the best of it.

I take the subway back to the Lower East Side where the main row of CMJ venues resides. Tonight there are far more people trying to get into shows, with lines running outside, around corners. I opt for Cake Shop, a cool dive bar/pastry shop. I order an Old Fashioned with Earl Grey-infused Makers Mark. What a concept.

Downstairs, thrash punk band Single Mothers are getting wild. In-your-face bloodshed, confined to a stage the size of of hatchback, in a basement so small you have to avoid hitting your head on the ceiling. This is the kind of “I don’t care” punk that you need every now and then.

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I walk to Rockwood Music Hall to catch some of the Stationary Set, a quintet that marries the electro confessionalism of the Killers with the digital nuances of the Postal Service. The venue is three times as packed as it was last night. During “Year of My Sign,” diehard fans can be seen mouthing lyrics. These guys are probably more on the verge of a breakout than anything else I’ve seen this evening. “Lately, I’m arriving on time,” the band collectively harmonizes. This is a great band, but the air is thick.

I go back to Cake Shop to get some breathing room and see one of the best finds of the evening, with Nashville, Tennessee-band Blank Range, an all-things Midwestern, alt-country group, with enough rock ‘n’ roll torque to traverse state lines (in fact they’ll be opening up for Avi Buffalo at the Old Rock House back in St. Louis on October 31).

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Singer Jonathan Childers burns through his guitar chords like a fledgling Neil Young, while lead guitarist Grant Gustavson builds high-wire, country-style solos. One of the members hails from St. Louis, and I’m reminded of my departing flight the next day, which causes me to order another Old Fashioned. And that cheers me up. CMJ Music Marathon concludes tomorrow. Now I just have to convince someone to open a music venue back home that sells cake and booze.

 

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