Saturday, October 19, 2013

LIVE FROM NEW YORK: CMJ 2013 - 4 Days, 13 Artists, 4 Venues

This past week has been an utter blast. I spent it party hopping to four different showcases at the CMJ Music Marathon -- a week-long celebration of new and indie music here in NYC. Basically, it's a beautiful groundswell of new talent of every genre imaginable and --I'm not joking -- everyone I saw was super talented and fun. I'm so excited to share with you the artists I got to see live and definitely encourage ALL OF YOU to come on out for future CMJ Music Marathons. It's such a great opportunity to be turned on to new artists!

The majority of the artists were given 4-7 song sets depending on how high up on the bill they were. I tended to stay for the entire showcase per venue because I'm lazy and the result was getting to know a wide array of new artists. I've linked the artists to their profile pages if you are interested in learning more.

Photos/Instavids are courtesy of my Instagram are available for your perusal.

FYI - this is a gigantic post. #SorryNotSorry

DAY 1 (Tues) - Le Poisson Rouge / Mercury Lounge
After hitting up registration, I skipped on down to Le Poisson Rouge (LPR), an almost cabaret style performance lounge in NoHo (North of Houston Street) with a large stage and a gigantic hanging fish tank at its entrance. The showcase that night featured artists exclusively from New Zealand, including Tiny Ruins, a female folk singer-songwriter acoustic guitar-driven project complimented by a drumkit. Her set was simple and stripped-down acoustic -- very raw.

I stayed for a few songs then was back on the move to the famed Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side, best known as the original stomping grounds for The Strokes. While LPR was a small venue, this was smaller still -- probably the smallest of the venues I went to. At the back of the skinny bar is a garage-sized performance space with brick walls. The acoustics were impeccable; I understood immediately why this was such a great iconic space. It was so intimate (read: teeny tiny) but the speakers sounds didn't overwhelm.

First up was Mystery Skulls, a more electronic venture by Luis Dubuc (known as The Secret Handshake). The set up was just him with two computers, a synth machine and a microphone. It was definitely not your typical electropop act -- Luis can really sing and pulled out a lot of sweet falsettos (think Penguin Prison mixed with MGMT's "Electric Feel") and had an underlying funk-feel. The whole set had a really great groove and he got a really great reception.

Next was five-piece alternative rock act Panama Wedding (bass, keys, guitar, drumkit and the lead singer manned a drum and a synth keyboard). They are already drawing a lot of comparisons to Toad the Wet Sprocket, which feels accurate, but they also have shades of Of Monsters & Men with a synthesizer. Single "All of the People" is available on iTunes and it's sparkly synthetic goodness that shouldn't be missed.

Finally came the headliner of the night in Swedish dark electro outfit NoNoNo. Their performance that night was their first US show ever, hot on the heels of their single "Pumpin Blood" gaining serious hype and momentum after a placement on the CW's The Vampire Diaries.

I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't become the next "Radioactive" or "Can't Hold Us" to become a viral commercial sensation. Lead singer Stina was incredibly striking, wearing all black with a silver arm cuff, her long hair ruffled and messy, incredibly intense and emotional. If you get the chance, take a listen to their Pumpin Blood EP, out now on Warner. "Like The Wind" is lurks with an earwormy "oh oh oh oh! oh oh oh-oh! oh-oh-oh!" bit. "Fire Without A Flame" is bass-heavy and jaunty. "Jungle" is minimalist and intense. And "Pumpin Blood"...sigh. Basically, the whole thing is flaw-free and I cannot wait to hear their full set. All of these tunes were played at the Merc Lounge along with two others.

The crowd reaction was intense for NoNoNo and euphoric. Stina herself was moved to say it was one of the best shows they've done and it really showed. They fed off the crowd excitement and immediately became one of my new favorite artists.

DAY 2 (Weds) - Bow Tie Cinemas
A chose to have a light day and took in an exclusive film screening of Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig's upcoming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film will be coming to theaters this Christmas and was previewing during CMJ. While I felt like the story itself was predictable, the journey was beautiful. The cinematography was simply fantastic as we followed Stiller's Walter Mitty travel across the globe in search of a freelance photographer (played by Sean Penn). Music was an underlining piece to the film's puzzle as well. There is a fantastic scene where Kristen Wiig's character appears to Stiller in a daydream while he's on his search (at this point in Greenland), encouraging him to take a risk while singing David Bowie's "Space Oddity" (Ground Control to Major Tom...).
DAY 3 (Thurs) - Gramercy Theatre
I've been to the gorgeous Gramercy Theatre once before, to see Ms. Kelly Rowland three years ago. The venue was built in the 1930's. It used to double for Off-Broadway productions and definitely has that live stage production feel. It was by far and away the biggest venue I stopped by during CMJ. In a true representation of its vintage-to-modern feel, the two bars that flanked the general admission standing section offered both bags of popcorn ($2) or jello shots ($1 a piece).
The showcase opened with the young, buzzworthy, unsigned brother trio AJR (Adam, Jack and Ryan) from NYC. The two elder brothers, Adam (22, bass guitar/vocals) and Ryan (19, keys/ukulele/vocals), both attended or are attending Columbia University. The youngest, frontman Jack (15, vocals/drums/synth), is still in High School. Their style is a little bit like if you put fun. in a blender with The Lumineers, added a dash of Beach Boys, and served with a garnish of early Jonas Brothers fun. They were instantly contagious and are sure to be a hit with the teenage girl set. One of the songs they performed had a little Motown-esque breakdown before launching into the chorus. They are a true hybrid homage to a wide variety of genres and were a lot of fun to watch. Their single, the handclappy-and-super-catchy "I'm Ready," is out on iTunes now and was recently featured on 'Good Day New York'. Can't wait to see what's next for them.

Following them was a six-piece folk band from Texas called Wild Child that was fronted by two vocalists, one female (her voice was insanely fabulous, like a folksie Adele) and one male, playing a fiddle and a ukulele respectively. It also included a drumkit, keyboardist and a cellist to the side. A few sound problems plagued them in the beginning but once they settled in, they really cooked. Their latest album, The Runaround, was just released. Check out "Crazy Bird" -- a highlight from their set -- complete with whistle solos.

Next up was a four-piece rock band called NGHBRS (pronounced Neighbors) that bended the traditional rock set up with a slamming drumkit, a bass, a guitar and the lead vocalist with a keyboard set and a loudspeaker to alter his voice during certain songs. He had an incredible, gruff voice (think early Kings of Leon mixed with Fall Out Boy's catchy pop sensibility) but balanced his grunge feel with synth twinges. All four looked like they were having a total blast on stage. At one point, there was an epic drum solo as the drummer pounded away, grinning, and the bass guitarist grabbed a stick and joined in, too. Their latest album, Twenty One Rooms, is available now. "Hold Up Girl" is my running favorite.

Then came my girl Neon Hitch, whom I recently saw at New York Fashion Week and have been following since 2009(!). She played the proper (gypsy) popstar complete with set decorations miming a theatrical 1950's dressing room (Marilyn Monroe is, after all, a huge inspiration for her and it showed in a big way), complete with vanity table and mirror (with 'NEON HITCH' written in lipstick), sidetables, flower pots and bottles of wine which she sipped from goblets. Her new band included a drumkit in the back, a bass guitarist and a lead guitarist (all dressed in black suits) and a female amplified violinist in black cocktail attire (and some seriously sick sequined sky-high heels).

Neon opened with "Midnight Sun" and plowed through a set of mostly new material, treating her short set as a mini-Neon Hitch concert, totally in her element and cementing me as a fan of hers for life. She also really interacted with the fans in the audience, cavorting around and constantly dancing and posing, and telling stories in between songs. She walked on stage in a black-and-white checkered bustier and white pencil skirt with a large slit, big hoop earrings, her hair done up in classic pinup blonde curls and wrapped in a scarf. Of her previous singles, she performed a new version of "F*ck U Betta", in her words "gypy-fied". Prior to her last song, she bounded off stage and returned in a new outfit -- a white bustier and white high-waisted panties/shorts, pearls slung around her neck with a white robe pulled over her shoulders. The hair scarf was gone -- mimicking Marilyn's iconic look as she posed by the vanity and shimmied to what I believe was another new tune, perhaps called "I Like It Hot" (references to "Fever" and "Some Like It Hot" abound).
A highlight from the newer material was "Salt & Honey", inspired by her "obsession with Bonnie & Clyde, which has been like [her] template for love". The song was a stripped down, burlesque-y tune, performed with acoustic guitar. She mentioned the long wait between releases and openly stated she hit rock bottom and came out the other side, and she "hope[s] to inspire everybody who needs inspiring." She premiered a brand new song from her upcoming album, a slightly more rock-bended song tentatively titled "Colors" (although she stated the song doesn't have an official name yet), on the heels of that statement. The song is about expressing your true self and not being fearful. As she said, "F*ck the world, let's be us!" (Yeah, that got a huge roar of approval.) Basically, she slayed and everyone should bow down.
Five-piece Joywave (vocals, keys, guitars, drumkit) had the hard task of following that up, and did a pretty good job with their own brand of synth-enhanced dream pop. I already had an affinity for them, as they are fellow Upstate New Yorkers from Rochester. Their final song was the one I was already familiar with -- synthy "Tongues" -- and it stood apart a bit as more dancey from the rest of their more mellow set.

DAY 4 (Fri) - The Westway
Located on the Lower West Side (get it, WestWay?) and a hop-skip-jump from the West Side Highway and the water that lines Manhattan's side (New Jersey right across the way), my final night of CMJ madness began here -- at a former strip club that was converted to be a music venue. The place offers three different rooms for dancing (and undoubtedly debauchery), with one smaller one set up for CMJ. To say it was cozy was putting it mildy -- it was easily the most packed showcase I saw all week (but, to be fair, it was a Friday night). The room had black glitter walls. The middle of the floor housed a raised platform with lights where former stripper poles were positioned (they've been lifted out but the poles are still there to swing on in other rooms). In lieu of a disco ball, there was a spinning, disco sculpture of a naked woman's torso. Basically, I was all up in Ke$ha's element.
The house DJ, who played as bands set up and strike the stage, deserves a mention in himself -- he spun a variety of mixtures that to me exemplify New York music nerd cool. One minute, it would be a remix of Charli XCX, the next Two Door Cinema Club, flipping over to vintage Madonna ("Ray of Light" completely with a huddle of gorgeous gay men vogue-ing), to Disclosure, to a dance remix of Boyz II Men's "Motownphilly." It was phenomenal and kept you dancing all night long.
Leading off the bill was mellow dream-synth band Basecamp -- a trio of dudes (all in hats) originally from Tennessee (one vocalist, two synth rockers). They set the tone for the very synth-fueled night (my fave - "Smoke Filled Lungs") and closed their set with an unexpected but totally awesome mellow cover of Ace of Base's "All That She Wants". I need a recorded copy of this ASAP.

Next was Strange Talk, an Australian four-piece fronted by one of the most gorgeous tattooed men I've ever seen in real life. Their sound was very 80's homage-esque, sort of like St Lucia. Their self-titled EP is out now on Wind-Up Records and "Cast Away" and "Climbing Walls" are must listens (the full set is already out in Australia -- I'm ready for this to be massive in the US). A lot of folks were there just to see them and it became apparent why very quickly.

Third was ASTR (pronounced like Ast-er), an NYC duo that was easily the "hot ticket" of the night for a lot of the folks there. A good way to think of them would be if Robyn underwent a sex-fueled makeover and went dancing at a club in the 80's. Vocalist Zoe is a dynamo of sensual energy; she's got stage presence for days. In addition to their brand of electropop (complete with intense krump dancing), they also offered up a beautiful cover of Drake's "Hold On, We're Coming Home" (I swear, all these covers of this song are better than the original -- especially the female ones!). They have a handful of singles out on iTunes with an EP coming soon -- definitely check out "Operate" and "R U With Me". They are definitely a phenomenal party band.

In an unexpected twist, my new faves in NoNoNo returned for another fresh set at the Westway. (So I can officially say I saw their first two US performances -- that's a new first for me.) Their set was shorter this time round than at Mercury Lounge and the reception was a bit more tepid than it was first go around. No matter -- I was rocking out front row, screaming all the words to "Pumpin Blood".
Finally, FINALLY, we came to the artist I was so excited to see for literally months now -- the much hyped and much buzzed about Betty Who, who recently scored a deal with RCA. This Australian firestorm looks like a lovechild of Robyn and P!NK with her close-cropped platinum blonde hair and is a total bundle of energy that was so utterly joyous to finally see live.

Her band included a dude on drums, and two ladies filling rank on an oversize bass guitar and keys. All, including Betty herself, were dressed in red-orange varsity cardigans with "BW" printed on the side. From the minute Betty bounded on stage dressed in a white crop top and white skirt to fill out her cardigan, the energy in the WestWay was through the roof. Its hard for me to describe the pure, positive excitement that just exuded from her -- she looked so utterly at ease, constantly dancing around and kicking her feet, grinning ear to ear.

Her brand of pop is such a welcomed return to form to the unabashed pop I grew up listening to. Couple it with the fact that she's got some killer pipes on her and you have a serious force to be reckoned with. New single, "Heartbreak City", is a dance stomper despite it's melancholy subject matter. "High Society" was a huge highlight and a big crowd favorite. But the second "Somebody Loves You" (recently a viral sensation thanks to an adorable marriage proposal at Home Depot), the crowd went wild and it was like suddenly the song was in stereo as so many in the crowd sang along.
Sometimes, you just feel that X-Factor pulsating and radiating out toward you. That was what Friday night with Betty Who felt like. She needs to be gigantic. Like...yesterday. Her EP, The Movement, is available right now in iTunes and if you don't own it, we cannot be friends.
Despite seeing so many stellar artists, it was still a mere drop in the bucket in terms of what happened this week -- over 1000 artists performed somewhere within 80 venues here in the City. This kind of energy is utterly addictive and fills you up with excitement over what good music (and artists) tomorrow could bring. I finished my Music Marathon with a bunch of new artists to obsess over -- and isn't that what it's all about? 

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