I committed the jackass foul of cutting the around-the-block line to get into They Might Be Giants’ show. But the length of the line maxed out precisely when the rain was most dramatic, so I felt it was ok. Once inside I joined the also long queue of alt-rock nerds, eagerly awaiting the performance of the duo’s 1990 album Flood in its entirety. As the self-described “hardest working band in Brooklyn that still takes the L train” put it, the nights show would feature a bifurcated set, “that’s a fancy way of saying we’re playing two sets with a fifteen-minute break so the bar can sell drinks.” The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has developed a strong reputation for their live shows in their 26-year career. And they were chatty and hilarious throughout their two and half hour set, mocking weary CMJ photographers (“That ringing you hear when you finally lay down your head on a pillow is not going away”), their sometimes discombobulated endings (“Don’t let the song get in the way of your first place finish”), cheap weed (“I just got high from some terrible second-hand weed smoke”), and Flood’s original two-star rating in Rolling Stone (“They were right about Hendrix and they were right about us”). The second half of their set featured classic They Might Be Giants anthems, new and old alike, such as “Mink Car”, “Dinner Bell”, “Seven”, “Older”, and “James K. Polk”. That they played two encores by popular demand only cemented the night’s stellar vaudevillian-like set, closing with the educational “Alphabet of Nations” and crowd-favorite, “Fingertips.”
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As a New Zealand trio known for their wildly energetic shows chock full of crowd interaction, Die! Die! Die! seemed hopelessly discombobulated in the spacious three-quarters empty Blender Theatre. While I can’t blame this entirely on the band (the Blender Theater is a world away from most other CMJ venues), it certainly didn’t help them. Though they made an earnest effort to whip the crowd into a frenzy with their garage punk stylings—jumping into the crowd and rolling on the floor—it never seemed to adequately hit the mark they were aiming for. The band had a solid chemistry, but put forth a product that was far better suited for a venue half the size and twice as full. Instead, Die! Die! Die! played a set that resembled a high school musical being performed at Carnegie Hall.
There’s something both incredibly organic and dramatic about The Octopus Project’s live sets. Watching the Austin foursome power through their energetic electronic sets, which sound something like trip-hop on speed, there’s a pervasive sense of manic chaos that still manages to seem planned at every step of the way. The group’s Saturday night set at Blender Theater wasn’t any different. Band members swerved past each other, passing off instruments or twirling knobs on synths—all of which were connected by sprawling tentacles out of a main hub front and center on the stage (and if that’s not where they get their name from, I’ll eat my hat). I can’t for the life of me listen to one of their studio albums, it just doesn’t translate. Their sprawling soundscapes seem dependent on the interplay between the band’s members during solitary moments which create an aura or an essence that can’t be tied down or bottled up—something that makes the experience of seeing them live that much more memorable and beautiful.
They soldiered through sound problems. They played to a half-full house of tired CMJers at a venue off the festival’s beaten path. But Yo Majesty! still gave about 150 people a performance that will undoubtedly close out the CMJ Music Marathon with a lasting memory. It may not have been as uninhibited (their performances often end in topless bedlam) as fans are accustomed to, but Yo Majesty! still brought their brand of sex-laden hip-hop to the Blender Theater with confidence and gusto. Mugging for a line of cameras at every moment, MCs Shunda K and Jwl B powered through a quick set of caffeinated rap odes to sex, partying, and passion. Constantly arguing with the venue’s sound man, no volume dial could have turned their electro beats up loud enough. “This is a party, our name is up outside the building,” Shunda K barked during the early part of the set. “We’re not here to sing some karaoke, so let’s turn those tracks up.”
In a hip-hop performance, if you can’t work the crowd with your bravado and beats, you’ve got no business being on stage. Luckily for Yo Majesty!, the duo has the requisite braggadocio in spades. If you weren’t into it, they’d find you and get you there. A Yo Majesty! show partially hindered by unmitigable circumstances would still serve as a peak for most bands, and they proved to the crowd why their name and no others were on Blender’s marquee.
I’m having welcome flashbacks to Melt-Banana’s “Cat Brain Land” and Queens Of The Stone Age’s “Six Shooter” here, but I can’t remember the last time I saw music this hectic in the flesh. Astonishingly, beneath all the howling and grunting there seems to be a genuine grasp of form: Push, pull, relax, and repeat. Which is to say—the riffs aren’t always the most pleasant thing to take in, and some of those chords would have probably managed to get guitarist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh excommunicated back in the 1700s, but when the song ends, I feel like they’ve accomplished something, even if I have no clue what just happened.
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