By: Ginny YangBetween October 22 and 25, fifty venues played host to nearly 900bands that infiltrated New York City for CMJ’s annual musicmarathon. With the convergence of industry representatives, rockjournalists, eager college students, and even guest-speaker YokoOno, the festival seemed like one big adult playground of club gigsand open bars. The films and educational panels also helped shinelight on worthy underground artists, like Brooklyn’sTrachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. Of the countlessfestivities, two concerts in particular embodied the lively spiritof the overwhelming event, bringing new music to the attention ofthe masses—and showing what can happen to a band that getsits big break.
With the haunted-house-meets-ancient-Rome décor and the numerous posters advertising weekly amateur striptease nights, Webster Hall hardly seemed like the venue to kick off a festival celebrating independent music. Yet on Wednesday night, the spacious dance club played host to the opening party for CMJ’s annual event, offering a diverse set of acts: from hardcore metal to electronic beats to southern rock. The only thing missing was an appearance from P. Diddy.
The Fever was the first band to perform, evoking the noisy, jumpy sound of CMJ alum Hot Hot Heat. The band fit the mold of garage rock in both style and in, well, the fact they sounded like they were in an actual garage due to the cavernous space of the venue. During their raucous, reverb-heavy set, lead singer Geremy Jasper stomped around the stage to the persistent smashing of Achilles’ drumkit, twitching and shaking the microphone cord with conviction. The crowd bounced along to the band’s catchy melodies, punctuating breaks with occasional shouts of “You’re hot!”
Black Box Recorder followed up, their crisp white suits and gloomy British restraint adding to the band’s sober demeanor. With a trip hop style that was reminiscent of Portishead and Mono, the band sharply tackled topics ranging from family dysfunction to British society and politics. Lead singer Sarah Nixey, who was backed by Auteurs’ Luke Haines and former Jesus and Mary Chain drummer John Moore, delivered many of the lyrics through long, breathy monologues. “These Are The Things,” their big hit in the UK, was a sinister-sounding love song paired to a New Order-style melody. “Facts of Life,” with its gasps and echoing heartbeats, was interrupted by noisy feedback—a recurrent problem throughout the night—while “England Made Me” included the morose lyric “I had a dream last night that I was drunk / I killed the stranger and left him in a truck.” The band closed with “Child Psychology,” a song that got banned in England, with a chorus that repeats “Life is unfair / Kill yourself or get over it.” However, this was not enough to stimulate the restless crowd. With the exception of Nixey’s slow dancing with the mic stand, the Black Box set was extremely subdued—and even a bouncer was caught falling asleep onstage.
Fortunately, VHS or Beta provided a refreshing change from the morbidity of the previous act with their wordless intro of whirling electronic funk with grinding guitars. When lead singer Craig Pfunder eventually opened his mouth, the audience was visibly impressed that the Robert Smith-style yelping came from such a small frame. In the dance-rock vein of the Rapture, they jubilantly indulged in instrumental squeals and noisy samples. However, when guitarist Zeke Buck took his turn at the mic, his voice was masked completely by the band’s own engulfing sound. Bassist Mark Palgy fared slightly better with digitized vocals that sounded bizarrely like Stephen Hawking–set to a pulsating club beat. The band was also the first to mention Elliott Smith’s passing, which they described as “a really horrible thing,” before wrapping up their set.
Fully embracing the Halloween spirit, Killing Joke went onstage in combat-style gear and ghoulish face paint. Lead singer Jaz Coleman even appeared with a giant white tarantula imprinted on the belly of his solid-black outfit. The music was similarly aggressive, heavy on thrashing and growling stage antics. Half the crowd obediently flayed to the primal wailing of the singer, while the rest were bewildered bystanders, trying their best to avoid getting their toes stomped on. Despite a backdrop of seizure-inducing lighting and Ozzy-like trembling, the wide-eyed stares of Coleman seemed more vacant than intense. As the 25-year-old industrial rock outfit mechanically lumbered through their thick and thunderous set, the repeated howling and posing grew tiring, and it wasn’t until a shirtless stage crasher was thrown off-stage that the show’s monotony was lifted.
Fortunately, the performance followed with the southern rock stylings of My Morning Jacket, who effectively combined the Kentucky drawl of singer Jim James with profuse head banging. With their ragged guitar riffs and surging vocals offering to “take your money and your pain away,” the band channeled the rock intensity of Neil Young. Throughout the whipping of his abundant hair, J. Glenn offered the audience an impressive drum solo while the rest of the band took turns jumping to the center of the stage, throwing their heads back and thrusting their instruments to the sky. During one brief moment of calmness, frontman James introduced a song by graciously telling listeners “I hope you live interesting and fulfilling lives,” proving that subtle charm was more satisfying than mere loudness.
Friday night brought a sold-out crowd decked out with asymmetrical haircuts and Converse All-Stars to the Roseland Ballroom for the highly anticipated pairing of the Rapture and Mars Volta, who both released much-hyped albums this year. During the rousing 40-minute set of the Rapture, singer Luke Jenner jumped around like a vintage-shirt-wearing cheerleader, and the band was clearly energized by their own hypnotic beat. Hopping back from one foot to the other, the punk-funk outfit shouted out their infectious dance-ready tunes in a performance that was perhaps more suited for a rowdy club than the large-capacity ballroom. Nevertheless, during their indie club hit “House of Jealous Lovers,” Gabe Andruzzi knocked on his cowbell like it was the best job in the world. The crowd was receptive and displayed their decidedly pro-cowbell stance by throwing their hands above their heads to clap along to the beat.
When the lights dimmed again, signaling Mars Volta’s arrival, the crowd immediately surged forward in mosh-ready stances. As Cedric Bixler Zavala slithered onstage, he kicked into high jumps and near handstands, abusing the mic stand as he howled impassionately. However, Zavala immediately chastised the audience for crowd-surfing, saying the band would prefer it if they “feel each other up, guys-on-guys or girls-on-girls or whatever.” To emphasize this spirit of sex over violence, he frequently bent over towards the speakers, showing the crowd that he was in fact wearing no underwear under his impressively tight pants. During Zavala’s fluid glides across the stage, suggesting a prog-rock version of James Brown, Omar Rodriguez delivered intense wailing solos, followed by kicking, stomping, and whipping the guitar around his neck to indulge in occasional boogie breaks. The audience was even treated to some fro-on-fro action where there was a dance-off between the well-coiffed Zavala and Rodriguez. Yet, even as their limbs seemed in danger of flying off, Mars Volta still had the energy to deliver gut-wrenching screams.
At the end of the show, Zavala hugged a security guard from behind and caressed his head, then jumped into the audience to the delight of the still-moshing crowd. But one got the impression that amidst the fury, Mars Volta fans were inspired during the sexually charged set to comply with Zavala’s request, and got to know each other a little better.