Although many think it is, CMJ isn't a festival. It's a conference, one billed as a music marathon. That's an entirely accurate description. Started in 1980, it’s an event that has swelled to epic proportions which, for just under a week each year, takes over practically every venue New York City has to offer. This year, hundreds of bands flood both Manhattan and Brooklyn, day and night, for five days. That’s a lot of music. You need a lot of stamina. The focus is mainly new – and often hugely-hyped – bands, but there are always a few (relatively) big names drawing in the crowds.
This year, The Mountains Goats are one of the first established bands to play, taking to the stage on the Tuesday night. One of the most prolific and consistent songwriters in modern music, John Darnielle is just as impressive live, and he incorporates a number of songs from the Goats’ recently released 14th album to a rapturous and clearly devoted crowd at The Bowery Ballroom. Similarly, when Local Natives take to the same stage the following evening, it’s almost as impossible to move inside as it is to get inside – and for good reason. The LA troupe preview a number of songs from their forthcoming new record ‘Hummingbird’ for the very first time and it feels like a genuinely exciting and special thing to be witnessing. Another well-known name, Wild Nothing close out the event with a stunning set at that venue on the final Saturday at midnight to a crowd noticeably frazzled by five days of gig-going and partying. But what a way to end it.
But it’s in the smaller venues where the real discoveries happen. Take The Debo Band, for example. An eleven-piece Ethiop-groove collective – and yes, that’s one of the most terrible monikers ever, but we didn’t invent it, okay?! – they combine traditional Ethiopian vocal melodies with tuba, accordion, guitar, fiddle and who knows what else to create the most wonderfully joyful, inspiring and uplifting music – there isn’t one person in the Knitting Factory who isn’t smiling or dancing along.
Metz are one of the other highlights. They play a series of raucous, high energy sets over the five days, destroying audiences wherever they go with their sublime and visceral grunge revivalism. That said, Pissed Jeans also do a wonderful job of (self)decimation – in a sublime and chaotic performance, they invite anarchy onto the stage by throwing pizza into the crowd. The inevitable result is pizza – and beer cans and anything else found on the beer-soaked floor – hurled back at them with energetic zest, until a stage invasion brings their set to a close.
The Front Bottoms transcend their terrible name with a superb set of their quirky, melancholy but joyful indie punk, while The Karl Hendricks trio proved their namesake is one of the true unsung talents of alternative music with one of the best sets of the five days, ending with a terrific and, at times, harrowing cover of the Neil Young classic ‘Thrasher’. Elsewhere, Beach Day’s ‘60s surf gals impress, Rebecca Gates wows with an intense, hushed solo set and Mac DeMarco’s stoned out feel-good songs are uplifting, whimsical and thoroughly.
It’s not all good, of course. King Tuff are embarrassingly bad – moustachioed hipster-lite crap devoid of any substance that’s as bad to listen to as it is to watch onstage – while the much-touted and heavily-hyped Savages come across as nothing more than petulant divas who write formulaic contrived songs that are mere shadows of the post-punk/no-wave bands they think they’re being so innovative by copying. But, by and large, the talent at this year’s CMJ is a sign that new music in 2012 is alive and kicking. Same time next year? Sure, but we’ll need that long to recover…
Words by Mischa Pearlman
Photo credit: DL Anderson