The longer I’m here the more I realize that the entire thing is an untameable, restless, necessary idea. Each show is forever inching towards capacity, both for the public and badge-holding members of the press. By the time you finish asking yourself, “Where do I begin?” 10 bands you’ve been interested in seeing are already packing up to final applause.
College Media Journal. The festival itself is appropriately titled a “marathon.” A look at it: 1,300 artists, not even accounting for the unregistered unofficial off-shows. Nearly 120,000 attendees. All condensed into five 24-hour periods, with a bit of spillover on the pre- and post-days. Within one of the most overwhelming cities in America. You find yourself checking to see if certain limbs are still present in the morning. Your friends call your other friends to tell them that they woke up, the next afternoon, on the sidewalk. Bands and journalists alike talk about how they kinda can’t wait for the whole ordeal to end.
But the headache of it all has been a slow-coming inevitability. In a disconcerting way, it’s the only accurate form of festival. Fields and stadiums stand as the common ground for multi-date hundred-band events, but with exponential saturation in America’s music scene, a barometer for the contemporary could only take place across the body of a metropolis. Like the impossibility of staying on top of all internet media, there’s just no fucking way you can experience everything you’d like to here in a devoted manner.
I wrote all that within the first days of the festival, but now, it being over, I can accurately reflect on the bands that I saw—the haze of drugs and alcohol and being up 'til 6 am a thing of the past—and the reasons why they stood out to me.
Even for being slightly disillusioned, the take-home is that at the end of any day there’s still good music to discover. At the end of any day, there are still great bands that slap you in the face before they’ve even announced their name. This is why CMJ is a goldmine: searching for something worthwhile until you lose faith but, randomly, a glimmer then presents itself.
MAC DEMARCO—My friend wasn’t home when I got into Brooklyn, so he put me in touch with his roommate. After the address she drunkenly texts me sends me on a three-mile walk away from where I’ll actually stay be staying, I finally end up rendezvousing with him near a bar once he gets back into Williamsburg.
Four guys and a girl are eating at a Mexican cart outside of his loft complex when we walk up. The guys are introduced to me as members of Mac DeMarco, and I will eventually spend multiple nights hanging with them without previously ever having heard their music, let alone their name. I miss their first few shows, even though I try—small circumstances twist plans or prevent my arrival. I apologize but they’re cool with it. They know this will be common throughout the week. Our after-parties have been memorable enough.
But I’m glad I waited to see them live before listening to them. The common idea is that becoming familiar with an artist on a personal level (AKA being asked to pull my balls out while one of the members primes a disposable camera [didn't do it]) is going to set up whether or not you’ll actually enjoy what they do, but I try to never let this get in the way of digestion. Despite the fact that they were all genuine, pretty hilarious, and fun to be around, they ended up putting on one of the most heartfelt and enjoyable sets of the entire festival when I caught them during the Deli’s showcase at Pianos in SoHo. The audience, I could tell, felt the same way.
Mac’s a natural, with a boyish charm that counteracts typical ideas of a great frontman by exchanging them with a sardonic take on leader confidence. But on top of that, the songwriting is universally familiar. You feel the young blood in all their songs—in each melody, self-mocking guitar solo, back-up scream, etc. If Ariel Pink, Neil Diamond, and Cass McCombs formed a lounge band...
AVA LUNA—Ava Luna played the same showcase that Mac DeMarco did, although earlier in the evening. We caught their set by total accident. Brooklyn-via-Portland’s Port St. Willow brought us to the bar around 7:30 pm, and after they finished a fantastic set we decided to stick around the area. Before shuffling out to find some food, my friends and I got caught up in a conversation with a stranger in the back of the room.
Strange how serendipity works. By the time we forgot our hunger the next band began playing and we were silenced, nearly immediately. A six-piece, three girls and three guys. The frontman so totally unassuming, the encyclopedic image of a nerd, but, man, that voice—chaotic and high and sharp with a visceral grit. His modest appearance further promoted the surprise of the start. It was like soul music on fire, neurotic gusto beneath the strength of its grip. We all looked at each other and nodded our heads. “I’m liking the girl to guy ratio,” our stranger says. “In the audience or?” someone in front of us responds. “Well, both.”
Their set was by far the most original I’d seen during the whole festival—maybe, even, across the whole year. Talking to one of the female lead singers, I come to discover that she’s got multiple connections in Portland. Dated a PDX drummer while they went to high school on the East Coast. Friends with another one of Portland’s favorite bands through college. America’s music scene is a giant, vast microcosm.
I’d eventually hop on the opportunity to go and catch them a few days later during a Boston Phoenix showcase at Brooklyn’s 285 Kent warehouse. A band with so much dynamic—a sextet but sometimes only one or two members playing minimally for extensive periods of time - suffers beneath the wash of concrete echo, but they were still recognizably onto something that kept everyone’s attention. Regardless, also, of the fact that they all looked a bit exhausted after the past 5 days of "running." I do some research and discover, to no surprise, that they were asked to play France’s Rencontres Trans Musicales festival in 2010, which is generally recognized across the globe as a showcase of the “next big thing.”
Other bands I caught that were definitely noteworthy:
Life Size Maps—most of their songs sounded like M83’s “This Bright Flash” rewritten multiple times with lyrics behind it. All tightly orchestrated and performed. I liked their live set more than their recordings, though.
Brainstorm—ended up playing incredibly late at Muchmore's, which was more or less reminiscent of any house show in Portland. Still put on a great set.
Port St. Willow—it’s rare to see slow, ethereal music captivate a standing audience, but Nick Principe and company definitely have the right tenacity for their aesthetic.
Francisco the Man—rowdy and catchy, they never looked like they weren’t having a great time. Incredibly tight and melodic as hell.
So Cow—it was everything that I love about punk-leaning pop-punk. The graffiti behind them combined fluidly with their jagged stage energy (a nice surprise was seeing Deerhoof’s drummer Greg Saunier fill in on bass for the whole set).
Would I go to CMJ again? Maybe. I’d need to spend way more time planning it out. I’d need to go through lists of the bands that I really wanted to see and... The thing is you’d have to, for example, show up early for the NPR showcase and stay for the whole thing if you only wanted to catch Flying Lotus’ set at the very end, thereby making it impossible to see any of the other compelling bands on a given day. Orientating is futile. It’s all just a fucking lottery. A great, holy, insurmountable, energetic, drug-induced, alcoholic, name-dropping, everyone-wins-but-everyone-loses lottery. But enormously fun, and everyone is genuinely stoked, and if you can get into shows for free it’s worth the amount of money you’ll eventually spend on caffeine and the L-train subway and concealable bottles of whiskey.
“If you’re in a band in NY and you aren’t playing CMJ, there’s something wrong with you,” a record producer tells me while we wait at the bar. But maybe that’s a good problem to have.