CMJ Music Marathon is five days – that’s 120 hours – of almost non-stop music. It’s the music festival spoken about in hushed terms and prefaced in press releases with phrases like “brace yourself,” and endless promises of free coffee, cupcakes and beer. It’s the most rewarding ordeal you’ll ever put yourself through.
Having only attended CMJ shows sporadically or accidentally in years past, I approached the week with a dedicated, borderline masochistic sense of purpose. And though I learned that CMJ is indeed a marathon, I emerged from the other side with a renewed sense of pride, both for the city I live in– a vital, endlessly hustling incubator of talent, and the industry I work in– safe for another year thanks to an outpouring of fresh new faces (and some veterans ripe for rediscovery), ready to grace stages and Spotify accounts the world around. Until next year, CMJ, you saucy minx. Can’t wait.
Happiest Accidental Discovery
I burst in the doors of the Mercury Lounge, sweating, only to be told that the act I had rushed to see wouldn’t be on for two more hours. Angrily, I stormed into the enclosed back room, only to discover an artist who would become not only my favorite act of CMJ, but perhaps my favorite new artist, period.
Marlon Williams is a singer/songwriter from New Zealand who, at only 24, has the soul of a man five times his age. Clad in a suit jacket and tie, he stood alone on stage with naught but a guitar and worked his way through a stunning set of songs about the stuff of lonesome cowboy dreams, from hangings to state hospitals.
Williams carries an intoxicating, spellbinding power in his high tenor, with a range so striking he often had to pull back from the mic. The introduction he offered to his song, “Katey, My Darling,” is a perfect illustration of the emotional depth that far belies his age. “I wrote it when I was 16,” Williams told the sparse crowd. About a schoolboy’s crush, or other typical 16 year old concerns? No, he continued, with a knowing smirk, it’s “about an alcoholic father who tells his daughter to go and leave him alone.” I’d be tempted to laugh if it wasn’t so damn good. Williams takes cues from the country balladeers Jim Reeves and George Jones, and closed his set with a haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On A Wire.” I have no doubt we’ll be hearing more from the artist, who has his first full length dropping in February.
Hottest Instrument Of CMJ
Here’s looking at you, Saxophone. I know things got hairy there for a while, and Kenny G did some irreversible damage to your cool, but you came back with a vengeance at this year’s CMJ fest.
Though the sax popped up at least half a dozen times throughout my concert going, my favorite appearance came when Ezra Furman took the stage at the Knitting Factory with his backing band the Boyfriends. The group came on late– at 1 am– but the second the cross-dressing singer grabbed the mic, the room’s collective exhaustion fell away in a storm of high energy.
With a nasal croon that’s been understandably compared to that of the Violent Femme’s Gordon Gano and vacillates flawlessly between vulnerable and vicious. Furman wraps unapologetically political posturing in achingly personal, self-conscious confessions, and his couldn’t care less attitude mixes with volatile punk swagger in his live shows.
Band With A Message
Just a while ago, Mitski (a brilliant artist whom I absolutely adore, but sadly missed this year since she only played one set) offered a challenge to Blur’s Damon Albarn, who stated, “Look at music now. Does it say anything? Young artists talk about themselves, not what’s happening out there.” Mitski’s suggestion to Albarn? “I would suggest he go to a Downtown Boys show… and see if he’s still of the same mind by the end of their set.”
I had a chance to check out the very same Downtown Boys at Ad Hoc’s weekend showcase at one of the fest’s quirkiest venues- a working carwash in Williamsburg, and got to see the riot for myself. The band’s songs begin with front woman Victoria Ruiz performing furious, breathless sermons on liberal politics, from specific topics such as gender, economic and racial inequality to more abstract ones– peace, justice and self-acceptance. “Think of a time when you felt hurt, think of a time you felt alienated. On the count of three say no to it!” Ruiz shouted, red in the face, while the band kicked in over her, spiraling into a freewheeling combination of rock and free jazz that, like Ruiz’s monologues, often come off as improvised.
The whole band cuts a defiant figure. From the wild-haired lead singer, who peeled off bulky layers of clothing as she heatead up, to the male guitarist in bright red lipstick, the Boys’ ability to genuinely rile up an audience of too-cool-for-school hip kids is a testament to the deep-seated anger and genuine passion that drives the band, one which a new generation clearly craves.
Quirkiest Origin Story
Car Seat Headrest seems like a mouthful for a band name, let alone the moniker of a single young artist, but Will Toledo had good reason for selecting it. It’s an homage to his first recording studio– his car, of course, where he sneak off to when he couldn’t find privacy in his Northern Virginia home. CMJ can be tough for those in daytime, mid-week slots, but well before the sun went down, Toledo packed Pianos downstairs to capacity and beyond.
Mining the great treasure trove of inspiration that is suburban upbringing, Car Seat Headrest makes music in the vein of proudly book-smart rockers before him- the angsty, self-deprecating wit of Ben Folds or Weezer, with the fuzzy, distorted style of the Strokes and an added dash of overpowering existential dread. His ennui is evident in his set closer, “Stop Smoking,” or the lyrics of “Something Soon,” one of the best off his new record, Teens Of Style: “I want to break something important/I want to kick my dad in the shins.” Life got you down? Turn Car Seat Headrest up in your speakers and mope your heart out.
Biggest Band On The Smallest Stage
I dropped into Cake Shop midday on a whim, curious to see how a band with (according to their posters) a small army of members, would fit on the stage in Cake Shop’s modest digs. Six of the members represented Austin band Sweet Spirit, and despite the keyboardist posting next to the stage instead of on it, and a few near beheadings by guitars (or perhaps because of that cramped, sweaty vibe), they rocked the stage like none other. Their wild and charismatic front woman, Sabrina Ellis, shouted to the crowd, “I’ve been playing this stage for over a decade, and I change my hair all the time but they still recognize me.” Avoiding the temptation to rip down the lights from overhead, she lead the group in a blistering set that mixed sweet melodies with loud, thrashing guitar riffs. Cowboy boots and harmonica solos give them a distinct Austin flair, and their lighthearted punk demeanor begs the intriguing question of just how much damage they might do given the space. Something I’d definitely pay to see.
Straight Off The Plane Talent
Between the easy, poppiness of his melodies and the rushed, almost frantic quality of his set at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory (he had just arrived in town, and confessed to the riled up crowd, “I have a reputation for being late”) it’s tempting to dismiss Juan Wauters as a novelty act, or even laugh at his goofy nonchalance. His songs are often simple and catchy, with a strong underlay of synth and layered, echoing vocals that would make the Beach Boys jealous. But his silliness, and the tossed off way he slams on his keyboard with only one hand, is not only brilliant in and of itself, it also gives way to evocative, poetic imagery and forlorn introspection.
His show was exhilarating, from the first moment to the last, and I found that his was a style that I couldn’t shake off easily. Of all the music I heard at CMJ, his was the work I sought out for repeated listening the fastest.