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CMJ Music Marathon 2002

CMJ Opening NightThe Bowery Ballroom, New York CityWednesday, October 30, 2002

Anne Evans 25, New York CityWhassup? “It’s a cheap crowd [Anne’s a coat-check girl]. They don’t tip much. Usually at shows, people talk about the bands. Tonight they’re mostly talking about themselves.”

This year’s CMJ rockathon kicked off with the Polyphonic Spree, a 20-person-plus pop ensemble from Dallas that christened the stage with a show worthy of Jesus and a whole truckload of disciples. Their flowing robes, preacherlike gesticulations, and psychedelic gospel songs about the sun and/or love were surprising crowd pleasers–due both to their talent and abject weirdness. After an all-too-predictable delay, the all-girl rap group Northern State hit the stage–mallrat MCs Hesta Prynn, Guinea Love, and DJ Sprout circled the stage dropping rhymes about Baghdad, Dorothy Parker, and Alex P. Keaton, as if they’d been nourished on a hard-core diet of the Beastie Boys and Le Tigre.

Radio 4 (a PIL-inspired, New York City rock band) and Gogol Bordello (a Chernobyl-inspired, New York City gypsy-punk band) hammered out solid sets into the predawn hours, but it was Sweden’s the Soundtrack of Our Lives who defined the evening. When they finally hit the stage, the crowd was dissipating, mostly because of exhaustion (Soundtrack were the eighth band to take the stage). However, diehards who stayed saw the genesis of a new species of musical animal: big-picture Britpop filtered through ’70s arena-rock bombast. At least live, Soundtrack sound like what would’ve happened if Oasis worshipped Lynyrd Skynyrd instead of the Beatles.

Supersaturating the stage with Swedish guitars, Soundtrack sell the drama: Vocalist Ebbot Lundberg may look like a well-fed Kodiak bear, but he knows how to foster a cult. He spent a third of the show walking through the audience and even convinced everyone to sit–and then lie down–on the dank club’s cold, littered floor. From the balcony, the spectacle looked like a cross between Jim Jones in Guyana and the last scene of Radiohead’s “Just” video.

“They were amazing,” said 22-year-old Alabama rock queen Amber Weackle. “They’re just straight-up fucking rock’n’roll. It makes you feel like you have to be here.” Of course, that sentiment was not shared by Belgian bootleg duo 2 Many DJ’s, who were bumped from the show when Soundtrack ran late and the clock struck 3 a.m.

— Phoebe Reilly

Lookout! RecordsWarsaw, BrooklynThursday, October 31, 2002

Sean Reveron 29, London/New York City/San FranciscoHere to see: Pretty Girls Make GravesWhassup? “I took my nine-year-old girl to see Pretty Girls play in L.A. Later, she told me, ‘Daddy, you are a different kind of daddy.'”

There wasn’t one Mohawk in attendance. Years ago, that would’ve been unthinkable for Lookout!, home of Green Day, Operation Ivy, and those weasels who screech. But these days, the Berkeley, California, label’s three-chord, gutter-pop-punk roster has expanded to include bands that feature synthesizers, complex melodies, and lush female vocals.

Tampa rockers the Washdown, propelled by singer Ryan Hess’ rhythmic convulsions, jump-started the evening, and Baltimore’s the Oranges Band quickly followed with their swooning, battered version of ’60s power pop. But just before the Pattern‘s set began, the crowd tittered as a tall drummer in cartoonish sunglasses played a seductive beat, while a brunette in red sequins sashayed center stage.Shaking her hips to the music, the curvy lady peeled down to her skivvies and some strategically placed tassels, making for a strange and (according to Lookout!) very unofficial halftime act. As if inspired, the Pattern (led by singer and Lookout! president Chris Appelgren) banged through some extra-sexed-up garage-punk jams from their raucous album Real Feelness.

But when Pretty Girls Make Graves started their set, it was clear why nearly everyone was there. (Hint: It wasn’t the burlesque show.)Lead singer Andrea Zollo–who could pass for Kelly Osbourne, but with actual punk soul–belted like she was busting out of jail to beat up a deadbeat boyfriend. When the Seattle quintet finished, Matador Records execs conspicuously schmoozed with the group at the bar, further cementing the Pretty Girls buzz. Closer Ted Leo is no stranger to hype; it’s been floating around his various bands for years. But the infectious chemistry he creates with the Pharmacists on his new album, Hearts of Oak, should start the buzzing stronger than ever. Imagine Elvis Costello fronting the Cars, covering “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Between bands, elderly Polish ladies sold tasty pierogies with cold applesauce and sour cream in a back room. (When not hosting loud rock shows, the Warsaw functions as the Polish National Home.) Danuta Zakrzewska, the 55-year-old wife of the Polish National Home’s manager, wore her bright-yellow hair in a bun as tight as her black stretch pants. Serving hot sausages to the twentysomething rockers, she talked about the bands: “Some I like. Some I no like so much.”

— Jenny Williams

Garage-Rock NightThe Bowery Ballroom, New York CityThursday, October 31, 2002

Sarah Larnach 23, Melbourne, AustraliaHere to see: “The Datsuns. I wanted to come see all the boys in tight pants. It took close to 24 hours to get here, and it’s totally worth it. I think it’s awesome that rock music seems to be having a renaissance.”

On Halloween night, American children roamed the streets dressed as Spider-Man and Donald Rumsfeld. But the costume of choice at the Bowery Ballroom was the Kinks’ Ray Davies circa 1966 or Meg White circa 2001. Even the real Meg was on hand, standing not five feet from a trick-or-treating twin. “You look more like me than I do,” Ms. White joked.

The festivities got rolling with Detroit disco-spoof blues hounds Electric Six, who looked like casino security at the Tropicana dealing a wicked game of three-chord monte. Singer Dick Valentine applauded his own songs and howled “We love your city!” after pretty much every number. The big moment was “Danger! High Voltage,” an absurdist take on wide-lapel-era Stones that laced the line “Fire in the disco / Fire in the Taco Bell” to jowl-shaking boogie. Next up were the Kills, a boy-girl duo who quickly quashed any remaining good vibes. Staring holes in each other’s shoes (as all young lovers do), they suggested the White Stripes with the garage door shut and the car left running.

The bands that followed–the Datsuns and the Von Bondies–were the night’s anointed bonus babies. New Zealand’s Datsuns went onstage strutting like NME cover boys and rocking like ZZ Top with a really good personal trainer. “You can start throwing money at us,” singer Dolf Datsun quipped, which wasn’t so ironic considering all the A&R men doing cartwheels in the back of the ballroom. Datsun’s Mick Jagger impression could have used some swish to go with the swagger, but songs like “MF From Hell” and “Harmonic Generator” got over on the band’s bluster.

Detroit’s Von Bondies flushed out some of the smoke in the Datsuns’ boys room with their two-guy/two-girl lineup and a well-tailored mess of mod-blues hoodoo. Singer/guitarist Jason Stollsteimer’s faux-sharecropper accent was a hoot when combined with bassist Carrie-Ann Smith and guitarist Marcie Bolen’s cheeky call-and-response. And yet the Von Bondies were a tad too studied for the hip-shake tradition they aspired to replicate. So it was fitting that the night ended with Mick Collins’ scene-defining the Dirtbombs–five flashily attired, soot-belching soulsters who took Detroit punk rock back to its R&B roots. They weren’t modern-rockers trying on Iggy’s leather; they were true believers ensuring the tradition will survive long after the A&R men are gone.

— Jon Dolan

Saddle Creek RecordsIrving Plaza, New York CitySaturday, November 2, 2002

Eric Fanali 23, San Jose, CaliforniaThe guitar-smashing skinny: “I’m not usually that into it when bands smash stuff, but I was talking to someone who knew [Desaparecidos], and he said they’re flying back home tomorrow and didn’t want to have to carry their guitars.”

“Can you feeeeeel the Omaha!?”

This shoutout almost certainly had its New York City debut at the Saddle Creek Records showcase–a sold-out, festival-peaking celebration of the nation’s newest indie-rock mecca, Omaha. “I love you!” and “You’re so handsome!” were two others, both female in origin and directed at the night’s resident wunderkind, Conor Oberst.

The dark-haired, winsomely underfed 22-year-old opened with his rock quintet, Desaparecidos, and closed six hours later with his indie-pop consortium, Bright Eyes. That Jake Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst were rumored attendees was an indication of the hype factor. Another was the roar Oberst got when he took the stage in a black thermal undershirt, leading Desaparecidos with riser-jumping, guitar-swinging rockfulness. Between catchy howls against suburban soul murder (from the band’s Read Music/Speak Spanish), he nodded to the war PR machine (“This next song is called ‘Operation Desert Imperialism'”) and generally made college-town leftism sound fresh and urgent. “I just want to kill something,” he sang in the voice of an aimless G.I. “Too bad that nowadays you just point and click.”

Such is a scene’s perceived shelf life nowadays that bands were already singing about Omaha rock’s ruination. Rilo Kiley was the most sweetly ironic. “We’ll go to Omaha,” cooed multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lewis, singing the title track from the band’s spectacular album The Execution of All Things, “to work and exploit the booming music scene.” The irony came not just from the song’s mix of bitter sentiment and gorgeous melody but from the way its majestic, new-wave sweep will doubtless draw hordes to the fragile ecosystem.

When Oberst made his return, he stood alone, wearing an altar-boy tie and singing “The Big Picture,” from Bright Eyes’ Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground: “The picture is far too big to look at, kid / Your eyes won’t open wide enough.” Then the picture became much bigger as the stage filled with banjo players, flutists, trumpeters, and others passing around a bottle of wine and assimilating into the elegant, neoclassical arrangements. Oberst has become a rock version of director Paul Thomas Anderson, another boyish author of compassionate, unwieldy character studies. His aesthetic, however, is pure lo-fi Dogma: a reality-obsessed documenting of every stray whimper. “I have been a witness to such wonders,” Oberst sang. “But I think I’ll be returning now to the town where I was born.” The line echoes Dylan’s famous “I’m going back to New York City / I do believe I’ve had enough,” only with the opposite spirit. Dylan, after all, was never this 22.

— Chris Norris