Thinking about the annual CMJ Music Marathon, which aims to introduce college radio jocks and other musos to new music over four nights in New York, one thing comes to mind: lots of young white folks playing and listening to contemporary indie rock. Not being much of a fan of such music, I worriedly pored over the schedule, wondering what would appeal to me among the hundreds of bands appearing at dozens of local clubs.
One night, I did go with the flow and check out a young, white band that has garnered critical kudos. Unlike most indie rock outfits, Polyphonic Spree is large and spiritually-oriented, a troupe of 20-plus 20-somethings dressed in flowing white church robes. The group augmented the standard indie rock instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums with a trumpet, a flugelhorn, and even a harp. Above the instrumentalists stood a choir of ten, framed by a stained-glass window. The sound: a youth choir and its backing band from a church in the suburbs of Dallas, circa 1976, drinks Sunday punch laced with acid and proceeds to take music lessons from The Beach Boys, Supertramp, The Carpenters, Up With People, and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
I had a hard time knowing whether Polyphonic Spree is a seriously spiritual response from front man Tim DeLaughter to the drug overdose of his former bandmate or just a clever postmodern pastiche of various ‘70s sounds. Maybe it’s both. In any event, though the group’s music was interesting and somewhat enjoyable, it did not particularly move me.
To a lesser degree, the same could be said of what I had heard two nights earlier, at the Daptone Records showcase, though Daptone’s revivalist funk is surely more my taste than the preachy rock of Polyphonic Spree. At the Daptone showcase, I saw fewer people than at the Polyphonic Spree show and nearly no CMJ badges. Considering the soulful nature of the music performed by the Daptone bands, this did not surprise me.
Built by half of the two-man team behind the now-defunct Desco label, Daptone, like Desco before it, releases records influenced almost exclusively by the music of James Brown and other hard, funky soul of the late ‘60s. The instrumentalists in the Daptone bands, mostly young, white players, aim to sound just like the JBs and the Meters, and the vocalists, mostly aging African Americans, seem to be living out their adolescent fantasies of being James Brown or Lyn Collins. Interestingly, instead of just playing straight covers, the Daptone groups write seemingly original but overwhelmingly derivative songs that combine a variety of elements—from lyrics to beats to horn lines—from the old songs to which they pay homage.
Though much of the Daptone music I heard sounded highly unoriginal, some of the performances struck me as genuinely inspired. The Mighty Imperials and friends turned in a brief but impressive all-instrumental set, playing jazzy soul-funk with feeling (think the JBs meet Grant Green). After filling the beginning of his set with some James Brown shtick, Lee Fields, backed by the Sugarman Three, belted out a few heartfelt, original ballads. Headliner Sharon Jones, who looks like one tough lady, worked the crowd with relish, taking her shoes off and leaping off the stage to dance. Members of Jones’ band, the Dap-Kings, included a shiny-suited keyboardist who sounded like Stevie Wonder, a female trumpeter, and one super-tight drummer. Jones sang a few smoky slow burners between frantic funk numbers like the Isleys’ “Its Your Thing” and James Brown’s “There Was a Time”.
In contrast to the other, fairly entertaining shows I saw during the Music Marathon, the Cody ChestnuTT performance I witnessed on its final night was nothing short of revelatory. Despite this, the ChestnuTT crowd, like the audience at the Daptone showcase, contained few concertgoers wearing CMJ badges. Though ChestnuTT plays rock, it is not contemporary indie rock, but rather nuanced rock deeply informed by vintage blues, gospel, and soul.
ChestnuTT, who bears some physical resemblence to both Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, fronts a superb band, the remaining members of which happen to be three scruffy white guys. On some songs, the band vigorously pounded away at their instruments. On others, such as the one instrumental number they performed, they simply grooved, with ChestnuTT and his lead guitarist trading licks. Yet another sound—gentle and understated—came across in ChestnuTT’s gorgeous, three-part song cycle about romance. In particular, ChestnuTT’s drummer stood out, looking and sounding like a combination of Levon Helm and Keith Moon.
Speaking and singing, ChestnuTT eloquently let the crowd know about his reliance on Jesus, taking his creativity back from the Devil, and breaking free of restraints imposed by the government and the music industry. Pointing to The Headphone Masterpiece—the 36-song CD he recorded in his bedroom—ChestnuTT encouraged those in attendance to be creative as well, first by singing along during the show, and then by making their own music after it. Colloquial, humorous, and positive, he even managed to convince nearly everyone present to join hands at one point.
Most notably, ChestnuTT told his listeners that he cares what they think about his music and what they feel while listening to it. In other words, he let us know that he knows the show is not all about him. Maybe this was just a facile line, and perhaps he uses it with every audience he plays to, but I sure believed what he said.
The CMJ Music Marathon used to be called the CMJ New Music Marathon, but no longer. I guess, in a way, this makes sense, considering how retro most indie music is today. To my ears, neither Polyphonic Spree nor the bands that record for Desco Records sound all that new. Yet, in the end, the CMJ Music Marathon lived up to its old name by introducing me to Cody ChestnuTT, who, though he has roots in the past, is standing in the present and facing the future.