There’s something to be said for a band that can hold it down as a three-piece, and Thrill Jockey’s Pontiak can do just that. One the heaviest, more intelligent bands I saw over the course of CMJ, Pontiak proved they are more than just a “heavy” band. Their tracks are minimal, yet composed with great accuracy, and were able to hold the audience’s attention with a trance-like quality until the guitar exploded into freak-out territory: A true psychedelic, stoner metal experience without all the assorted clichés.
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Royal Bangs must be sitting on top of the world right now. They just supported The Black Keys on the Akron duo’s biggest tour to date and released an album on the band’s label earlier this year. Their CMJ performance wasn’t dead on, but it didn’t need to be. Their chops were great, their energy was great, and the audience from front to back was paying attention, and that’s more than you can ask out of any CMJ experience, especially at midnight on the very last evening (we were all just about dead by then). Their name is out there, now they just have to get their sound out there—and frankly, they are doing a damn good job at that.
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.”
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.