CMJ: The Final Nights

Posted October 24, 2011 in

The final nights of CMJ had a strange way of mashing into each other. It’s always easy to party until the sun comes up in NYC, but when you throw in a music festival that comes with occasional free drinks and bars that stay open until 4 a.m. it becomes exponentially easier.

Friday started with a trip back to The Living Room for the third day of Paste Magazine’s daytime parties. When I arrived, We Are Augustines was already on stage and seemed to be a few songs into their set. Although this three-piece were good musicians with a strong stage presence, their style was a little too mellow for my taste. After only a few songs they had some sort of equipment malfunction and stopped playing. They tried to piece it back together, but after a few attempts informed the crowd that it seemed to be a lost cause. They played one final song: a stripped-down ballad that really showed off their talent. Their drummer sat quietly behind his drums as the lead singer ditched his malfunctioning guitar to sing over only the keyboards. During this final song, the lead singer became so emotional that he appeared to be crying. It was a powerful ending to what could have been a disaster of a set.

My initial plan was to eventually make my way to the Bowery Ballroom to see Dum Dum Girls play with Crocodiles. I had some time to kill before that show began and wandered to Cake Shop to check out whatever was going on there. Balkans, a four-piece from Atlanta, GA, were just starting their set. This indie rock group reminded me of a less noisey Wavves. The music was catchy and seeing their short performance at Cake Room made me want to check out more.

Next up was Jennifer Castle, a Canadian singer-songwriter based out of Vancouver. She has an unassuming presence on stage, and initially the basement bar crowd seemed more interested in chatting with each than paying attention to what was happening on stage. After a few songs, her powerful voice (which reminded me a bit of Joanna Newsom and Dolly Parton mixed together) grabbed my attention. Although she was talented, I think her style of music would have been better suited for a space like The Living Room next door.

After she wrapped up her set, I left Cake Shop to head toward the Bowery Ballroom. On my way I stopped by Fat Baby, where Salt Lake City natives Spell Talk (full disclosure: I’m good friends with this band and I’m dating their drummer) had been added to a last minute showcase. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived they had already played. Their set time had been bumped up to an earlier slot and a band called Moonlight Bride was setting up. I stayed for a few songs, but decided to leave to catch the show at Bowery Ballroom.

When I arrived, I was greeted by a giant “sold out” sign, which wasn’t really surprising considering the amazing performance that I’d seen come from Dum Dum Girls the night before. I hoped they were still accepting CMJ badges, but as I approached the venue, I had a sinking feeling that they probably wouldn’t be. My assumption was correct and I was turned away.  Although it sort of derailed my plans for the rest of the evening, I was happy that I had been able to see the group before. Unwilling to feel dejected by the news, I fumbled through my schedule, trying to find a venue in close proximity with groups I still hadn’t seen during CMJ.

Ultimately I decided that I would attempt to check out Spell Talk’s final show of the night at a bar called The Delancey on the lower east side. When I initially arrived in NYC, my friend with whom I was staying warned me about the bridge and tunnel people who typically populated the lower east side on the weekends. “What the hell is a bridge and tunnel person?” I asked her. “Lots of popped collars, it’s the guido culture, the kids that infiltrate the city from places like Jersey using the bridges and tunnels,” she told me. When I arrived at The Delancey I found out exactly what she meant. More of a “club” than a music venue, this place was packed. I was initially shocked that I’d been admitted to a place that clearly looked over-capacity after just being turned away from another venue. Once inside I found myself smashed against a crowd of bridge and tunnel people and I instantly understood why my friend was weary of visiting the lower east side on weekends. I made my way through the crowded space, used a grimy overflowing restroom (the nastiest one that I encountered in NYC) and migrated downstairs, where Pink Cashmere was playing.  Admittedly, I don’t know a ton about DJ culture, but I know what I like and I have enough friends interested in the music that I know what is considered good. What was happening on stage was really bad. Maybe this DJ was simply catering to his crowd, but to me the beats felt really stale and played out. 

At around 3:30, the hot mess exited the stage and the crowd instantly cleared out. I was excited to get to see Spell Talk in New York, but found it kind of disappointing that they ended up playing to a sparse crowd that was mostly composed of people who were already somewhat familiar with their music. Thus is one of the challenges of being an independent band touring without the help of a label, PR reps or any big promoters. Regardless of the late night slot and the sparse crowd, the set was as entertaining as their regular Salt Lake City gigs and a refreshing change in musical pace after being assaulted by Pink Cashmere’s overwhelmingly long set.

When Saturday rolled around, I was determined that I would not make the same mistake that I had the night before. Although there were a number of acts playing that I wanted to see, I decided it would be best to pick a single band, show up early and hope that the opening acts were as entertaining as the headliner. I decided on Peelander-Z at the Bowery Poetry Club. I assumed the space would be small and they’d probably reach their badge capacity fairly quickly.

Big Ups were just wrapping up their set as I arrived, and although I only caught a few songs, I dug their sugary punk rock and also liked that they appeared to be throwing a giant piñata into the crowd. I had a good feeling about this showcase and I’d only been there for a few seconds. Big Ups wrapped up their set and the next band, Gary Lucas & God & Monsters, took the stage.

Gary Lucas & God & Monsters were an older group, and my initial impression was that these seasoned music vets would put on a great performance. Unfortunately, my assumptions about this group were about as incorrect as possible. When you take a handful of aging musicians who have been successful with earlier projects and liquor them up, it isn’t anything good or pretty. It probably should have been a warning sign when a few of the members had to be beckoned away from the bar to actually get on stage and start the show. The set was way too long, and I found the music to be too disorganized to be interesting.

The next two bands that played, Moonlight Towers and Clutters, were better than Gary Lucas’ project, but so uninteresting that it was painful to focus on them. At least what was happening on stage was music and looked like a performance, but the groups were forgettable. The venue was sparsely populated and I was beginning to regret my decision to show up early—suffering through three mediocre groups was becoming trying. I kept fumbling through my CMJ schedule and worrying that I had missed something epic happening somewhere else in the city.

After what felt like forever, Peelander-Z finally took the stage. Although this Japanese comic punk group hits Salt Lake City fairly regularly and I’d heard amazing things about them, I’d never had a chance to check out a show. The sub-par nature of the opening groups made me begin second-guessing how the Peelander-Z performance would turn out. Luckily, for the first time of the evening my assumptions were correct. Peelander-Z murdered it. As soon as Peelander-Yellow, Peelander-Red, Peelander-Green and Peelander-Pink took the stage in their brightly colored outfits, I knew that everything was going to be alright. Within seconds an exuberant smile stretched across my face. Their show was interactive, engaging and I can’t imagine closing out my week in NYC in a better way. The jumped around stage with more energy than any group that I’d seen play and spent time between songs playing baseball, bowling and even limbo. Throughout their set they held up giant poster boards to get the crowd to sing along to simple songs like “Mad Tiger” and “So Many Mike.” At one point they handed members of the crowd metal bowls and drum sticks to drum along to the music.

For a lot of the time, my final night in CMJ felt like it was going to be a giant bust. Peelander-Z saved the day, and when I woke up a mere three hours of sleep to start my journey home I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a perfect way to end a killer week in NYC at CMJ.