Colin Meloy of the Decemberists
No matter what anybody tells you, CMJ is basically a rock festival. A hip rock festival. It best accommodates the two-to-four person rock outfit who happen to be strumming something like what’s already in indie vogue. Though the range of what’s most highly coveted is a wide one (I’m hardly one to say bands like Calla, the Kills, the Mars Volta or My Morning Jacket, who all have prime billing at the bigger, better CMJ venues, are all that similar), what’s relegated to the margins is strikingly alike. Mostly a lot of unknown acts on teeny tiny labels. Oh, and the singer/songwriters.
Singer/songwriter is one of the most accursed categorizations you could give an artist; call your musician friend a “singer/songwriter,” and my guess is he or she may not be your friend for much longer. The singer/songwriter is the exact opposite of the rockstar: sensitive and wounded instead of cool and affected, crying instead of screaming, acoustic instead of electric, dowdy instead of fashionista. These days, many of the genres would-bes surround themselves with a kind of puppet band (Ted Leo, Brendan Benson, and even James Mercer of the Shins come to mind), as if to symbolize just how dastardly the label singer/songwriter has become. The few artists who do make a go of it alone have a tough time swallowing the S&S bitter pill; the legendary ones who of course influenced many of us exist almost more as methodological exceptions rather than examples of how the genre could and should be. Don’t dare call Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley, or Nick Drake singer/songwriters: man, those guys were artists.
Lest I turn you aficionados off completely (or conversely, in an act of defying all my cred) I confess: I happen to like a lot of singer/songwriters. Which is part of the reason I spent my second day of CMJ going off the beaten path, seeking out CMJ Unplugged, if you will. (The other part is that by the time I got to the Starlite Desperation, my planned destination of the night, the line was too damn long and they weren’t letting any more people with passes in. Fuck ‘em.) My first dose came in the afternoon, at a familial gathering/party for Kill Rock Stars. At it, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists (another one of those frontpeople who does the lion’s share of creative work in his band) played solo acoustic, doing mostly covers.
Though a huge absence unrelentingly pressed itself over the room (likely related to the suicide of Elliot Smith, a singer/songwriter in the best sense whose first recordings were with the label), the music Meloy chose to play was warm and cheery, as was his demeanor. He is as personable and approachable as musicians get, drinking tea as he apologized for his cold, smiling and laughing to the audience as he forgot words to “The Ballad of El Goodo” (by Big Star), cherishing the appreciation of his friends and family who were scattered amongst the crowd. But despite this modest approach, his musicianship is unequivocal, and no stuffy head nor scratchy throat could marr that remarkable voice, magnificent in its shabbiness.
Craig Michael Gurwich, aka Summer at Chatter Creek
I wish I could say the same for Craig Michael Gurwich, aka Summer at Chatter Creek, who played later at the Luna Lounge. His personality was also the focal point of the show, but this time to its detriment, as he often seemed too scared to be performing and too embarrassed to accept our moderate applause. His live set consists of vibes played sparingly, his melodious though overly bashful vocals, and a tape machine that records things he’s just played or sung, then loops them over and over as he continues to layer harmonies, creating a kind of choral effect onstage. The taping thing is intriguing to watch, but the whole time it seems like a project created in somebody’s bedroom, and one that maybe should have stayed there.
Both Summer at Chatter Creek and Meloy deserve some praise, however, for coming to a festival where so many acts are pushing a cookie-cutter cool and doing something defiantly (or shyly) different. When done well, singer/songwriter can be an emotional, artistic, and even political act of defiance (up yours, masculinist rock stereotypes!). When done poorly, however, it can be a sad, boring, yawn-inducing waste of an evening.