Conceived almost a quarter of a century ago, the CMJ Music Marathon is a showcase for all music, regardless of style, label affiliation or unit sales. To some, the festival is a minefield to navigate, containing bands many people don’t know, don’t need to know and won’t know by the end of the week. Ask a random follower of the underground or alternative music scene in the New York metro area, for an opinion on 80% of 100 bands playing this week and you will receive a mixture of blank stares and quizzical looks. Variety and choice is important in any culture, but when or where should the line be drawn?
There has to be a place for festivals like CMJ, otherwise new music would remain in the constant grind of the local music circuits, like those poor sharks placed in aquariums to spend their remaining years traveling in circles viewed by people staring through the same glass walls. Obviously the music industry doesn’t really work that way, as bands would never get signed which is why we have recorded music, but that’s an entirely different argument (see: The Fate of the Album, PopMatters, 2 September 2004).
Maybe I am as guilty as the next person of craving to be there when the next music messiah is pronounced or to witness the birth of the new Beatles. By throwing together random collections of artists in disparate venues around New York City, CMJ provides an opportunity to vet a greater quantity of obscure acts that perhaps will lead to a discovery. There are occasions when it creates an odd detachment such as an alternative-punk band playing prior to a hip-hop/preacher/musician, before a trance-dance number followed by recognized alternative rock bands. Juxtaposing line-ups work best when the contrasting styles contain an element that can be traced through each act, providing a binding ingredient for the audience to latch onto. Moving Units, Saul Williams, Gang Gang Dance followed by Sonic Youth shared the bill uncomfortably and may not have worked to enhance the reputation of the lesser known groups of artists. It should be remembered and accepted that not every band will be recognized and rarely has more than one band come away from the festival labeled the “band that was discovered at CMJ.”
Moving Units is a phrase you would expect to hear amongst executives; however, the band that shares this corporate catch phrase as its moniker might be better left in the research and development stage for a while longer. Like watching young animals acquire motor skills and instinct that take over in the fight for food, it is heartwarming to see the Moving Units are developing the skills to survive yet another year. Initially the caustic rhythm guitar against a billowing bassline proved entertaining, coupled with sneering lead vocals. Despite a promising start, the Moving Units delivered only mild variation of what has afflicted much of the post-new wave experience of late. Blake Miller displayed an affected and passionate stage presence. It is with disappointment that I noted the limited variation to the bands’ sound or style achieved by throwing a guitar to the stage rendering the sound less uniform. The interchange between frontman and drummer was entertaining, yet the bass player, having provided the necessary upbeat dance tempo, appeared somewhat embarrassed by the antics of his contemporaries. The drive to the bands’ next appearance in Rhode Island may be a quiet one.
A 10-minute opening monologue by Saul Williams, unaccompanied by any instrument, just crept beyond the threshold of interesting into the realm of sub-par Gil Scott-Heron preaching. Nevertheless, myriad political messages were interwoven with dancehall melodies and plucked violin to great effect throughout the seven song set. During “African Student Movement” Williams expressed his dismay at the education system and the audience cheered him along appreciatively. In “Telegram”, Williams’ Hendrix-influenced guitar chimes were used effectively, combining well with dark stylized hip-hop storytelling. A well articulated and entertaining performance was to conclude with a piece that may have been better performed by Prince’s dulcet tones. For what Williams possesses in a gift for language and an obvious level of musical aptitude, he sadly lacks in an ability to sing.
In the interests of safety I can only offer the following advice for anyone contemplating Gang Gang Dance—don’t. Save yourself from, even by my limited 30-plus years on this planet, the worst combination of sounds anyone could ever have the misfortune to hear. Describing the noise as being close to a Chinese opera would be accurate, but even then it would not do justice to the level of sheer audio terror. It baffles me to believe that someone would consciously add Gang Gang Dance to any event based loosely around music. So bad was Gang Gang Dance’s output I had to seek reassurance from my fellow audio hostages that I was not just tragically un-hip and didn’t understand what I was hearing. Alas, my original deduction was not wrong and the most comforting moment of the entire performance was the silence that followed its conclusion.
Sonic Youth arrived from behind a series of projected iconographic New York City images; yellow cabs streaking up the avenues pausing only for traffic light changes and clips of ordinary people pacing the sidewalks. As a reminder that Sonic Youth are merely normal people who happen to have stumbled into a rock’n'roll lifestyle, it’s not very convincing. More than by chance have this collection of friends been able to successfully deliver an album of music every year since 1982, when it wasn’t always safe for ordinary folk to pace the sidewalks in some New York neighborhoods.
Safe however, is not a word you ever want to use in the context of Sonic Youth’s musical harvest, as it careen along a path of seemingly indiscriminant chaos but always within boundaries of melodic containment. For 20 years, Sonic Youth has been able to tame and engage the feedback-driven demons with moments of personal guitar solo/feedback trance indulgence. Both Thurston Moore and Jim O’Rourke truly enjoy toying with the very edge of the musical spectrum, as demonstrated by the latter’s fevered teasing with the high-end of distortion during a mesmeric unannounced third track, resulting in a Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future level of self-indulgence. Sonic Youth plays music with the hedonism afforded to those musicians that have proven themselves and now revel in the luxury of entertainment for the mutual enjoyment of everyone in and listening to the band.
20 years on the stage haven’t been kind to all aspects of Sonic Youth. For all his musical finery, Moore carries the infectious enthusiasm of a 12-year-old and unfortunately appears to have retained a similar age range for his dress sense. Moore’s battered blue jeans, sneakers and a slightly torn speckled moon T-shirt were in stark contrast to that of his wife’s beautiful black cocktail dress and silver dress shoes. To be fair, Moore’s T-shirt may have only been torn during his impromptu moment of crowd surfing. As he bounded through the first ten rows of hardcore Sonic Youth fans, the audience dutifully laid hands on the guitar he offered them, creating an ambience of unworldly sound that settled slightly uncomfortably over a room containing more than the usual number of corporate types at this kind of show.
Kim Gordon is more than a token beauty, having adapted beyond the occasional vocal with bass fill-ins, looking more comfortable switching between the roles of rhythm guitar, bass and lead vocal. We find Gordon truly in her element as she takes the microphone sans instrument for a twirling and twisting “Drunken Butterfly” at the group’s finale. Appropriately, the song appeared to characterize the entire sprawling CMJ festival, but without it we wouldn’t appreciate new talent when it eventually does appear.
Perhaps the reason bands agree to play these abbreviated sets with so many diverse bands around the city says more about the music community as a whole. CMJ’s shows are not exclusively about entertaining the audiences. Bands come to CMJ to watch and play for other bands, executives come to CMJ to talk and play host to other music executives. CMJ is a tradeshow more than it is a festival, held to allow an industry to communicate en masse. Products are not produced at tradeshows, ideas are shared, trends are developed and plans are made. CMJ is to music, what Comdex is for technology or the boat show is to the sailing industry. Money, as with any tradeshow, will most likely be a discussion point on the CMJ convention agenda, hopefully addressing the high ticket prices that resulted in poor sales for the mainstream artists’ summer tours and which also blighted the Lollapalooza tour. Summer ticket sales maybe be down as much as 40% from 2003 as reported in the Wall Street Journal (11 October 2004).
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