Day One of our coverage of the New York-based new music festival, including pit stops with Travis, the Killers, Menlo Park, and the Prosaics.
Tonight, luck would have it that I've landed tickets to see Travis, a band I've liked throughout their career and one of the few Britpop behemoths I have yet to see. The trouble? It's the first night of CMJ. Mistakenly thinking the band is part of the festival, I agree to attend the show; by the time I realize they aren't, it seems nearly impossible to back out.
And, really, why should I try? Aren't Travis CMJ material? Many a British act have made a pit stop at the festival as a way of translating their UK successes into American ones -- including Coldplay a couple of years ago, Clearlake and the 22-20s this year, and even Travis themselves, back in 2000. Why the snub? Perhaps the answer is that Travis had grown too big for their britches. Having officially "broken", there was no longer a need to launch the band on these shores.
But there is another way to think about their absence: CMJ is not for the fallen.
All of us who care about and are invested in music have a love/hate relationship with festivals like CMJ, so I won't bore you by launching into a hackneyed commerce vs. art diatribe. I will simply say, like it or not, CMJ has become a critical pit stop for indie and undiscovered musicians of all stripes. And, like it or not, it is a business, with all the opportunities, problems, and complications that carries.
But beyond the economic narrative, there's another one that sits beneath the surface of CMJ: that of the American Dream. Bands come to CMJ, now in its 23rd year, from all over the country and the world hoping that it will help them in "making it" (or maybe "making it more", for artists like the Mars Volta or the Shins, who are also playing this year). Being part of the festival is trumpeted as a type of success in and of itself -- an admission card to the wonderful world indie/college music in officio, including all its rabid, hungry, spending-prone fans. Of course, the companion to this is that some acts will fall short, but this specter of failure is in its own way necessary -- it's the foil that makes success meaningful and noticeable. We go to CMJ to hear the bands that someday soon will be inescapable, and forget, with a tear, a smile, or simply a blank look, the bands that fail to escape it.
But the festival story doesn't have a place -- or even a language -- for the "Travis Condition": the artists who (in America, anyway) explode, deflate, and then simply exist. These are artists with loving fanbases who no longer charm the media's eye. Not a complete wipeout, they are also not the picture that best illustrates the festival's potential. While there is a certain kitsch/sacred (take your pick) value to including artists long past the prime of their career (Echo and the Bunnymen or Joan Jett for instance, who are also both part of this year's activities), bands who are simply doing their thing have no place.
Scotland's Travis have never fully capitalized on the attention garnered by their international breakthrough album, 1999's The Man Who, a record which many point to as the gateway drug to America's re-addiction to British bands in the post-Oasis late '90s/early '00s. On their coattails, Coldplay, the Doves, Elbow, Starsailor, Haven, and many other of the pop-friendlier British acts took a stab at conquering the lucrative U.S. market in 2000 and 2001. But the tide, today at least, has surely quieted in that type of British rock, as has the presence of Travis themselves. Some of that has to do with the unfortunate pool accident suffered by drummer Neil Primrose in 2002, which stalled the band's career after the lackluster Invisible Band and threatened to break them up. But this year, Travis have re-emerged with the haunting 12 Memories, an album critics are already praising despite its being much darker than their previous, precious material.
Travis's continued draw, in spite of their pitfalls, earns them a two night stand New York's Beacon Theater, though outside the venue there are a considerable number of people trying to give tickets away. (Considering the $40 face value, this is an amazing thing to behold.) Still, once inside, the venue is respectably filled, with patrons who for the most part seem completely unaware of the bustling festival on the city's lower end. These Travis fans are single-minded and hopelessly devoted; they are college students and thirtysomethings and people who never regularly attend concerts; they are screaming girls (and a few boys) who adore lead singer Fran Healy especially, despite his scraggly appearance tonight and unfortunate ponytail. They are exactly what a band like Travis needs.
The band tonight is much like their musical catalogue: honest, forthcoming, and memorable. They play all their songs with the grandiosity of anthems, and for this crowd, they certainly are. Favorites like "Writing to Reach You" and "The Line is Fine" sound somewhat akimbo to newer material that is more serious (because of this, Healy feels the need to preface "Beautiful Occupation" about the war in Iraq, as "not wanting to offend anyone"), but they are all spiraling and watertight. Travis might not have CMJ, or the world, but they have a professionalism and obvious love for their music and their fans, making this huge theater feel instead like a big bear hug.
* * * *
It's 10:15pm, the venue is already behind schedule with the showcase, and nobody cares. Instead, more and more bodies cram their way into downtown venue Don Hill's, to catch a glimpse of the buzz-worthy wunderkinds playing the ASCAP showcase tonight: the Killers, Menlo Park, and the Prosaics. All of these bands have yet to sign deals in the United States, and the excitement surrounding each, though different, is overt.
The Killers from Las Vegas, are the first of the three to take the stage, and they've accrued a gaggle of screaming retro girls at the stage's edge, who are snapping pictures and screaming like cheetahs at the four boys before them. And why not? They've certainly all the visual trappings of the bands that charm the downtown set. Mark Stoermer is the sallow-cheeked, uber-serious bassist, tall and Nordic-ly handsome; Dave Keuning has a nebulous oversized and somewhat effete mop/fro, the kind rendered noveau chic by members of the Rapture and Longwave; Ronnie Vannucci, on drums, is puppy dog adorable and just as yappy; and lead singer/keyboardist Brandon Flowers is a sharp dressed man, a compact lightning rod of sensual affectation. And when they play, these elements jive together to render a sound New Romantic meets funk, a supercharged, almost macho new wave that's as sleazy as the Vegas Strip. And this is a band that knows they've got it, and flaunts it. Flowers is all over the stage, posing for the howling, dancing, throbbing masses of us, barking out the often sex-charged lyrics ("you've got a real short skirt/ I wanna look up" he sings at one point). Keuning and Stoermer are not as physical but are no less intense, keeping the pace up with expertise. Vannucci is one of the few drummers I've seen who spends more time off his ass than on it; at the end of the show, he dramatically stands on top of his bass drum and hammers the shit out of the crash cymbals. As my first introduction into the official CMJ, I couldn't be more thrilled with my choice. Ladies and gents, this band will go places, and you would be smart to watch.
If possible, England's Menlo Park were even more animated and equally talented, though maybe not as universally appealing. As they took the stage, it is clear that this band packed more drama than a Shakespeare company: ruffled collars, full brass section, velvety robes, strings, and practiced, maniacal looks. Lead singer Chris Taylor is Tiny Tim channeling John Lydon (or vice versa), cannonballing himself into the crowd like he's suffering seizures, belting out songs like crowd-pleaser "Porn Rodeo" as if it is an opera. Their music is a polka surf rock klezmer riot, swampy and devious, yet overwhelmingly jitterbug-able. Like the Coral (who they are not unlike, but their music is far more conniving and interpretable), it takes a certain appreciation for the eclectic to dig Menlo Park, but once you start digging, there are wealths to unearth. I fucking love it.
The Prosaics take the crowd back to the postpunk with fiery exactness and cataclysmic rage, though their stage presence is considerably more tame than that of both of their predecessors. Singer/guitarist Andy Comer, bassist Josh Zucker and drummer Bill Kuehn (also of Rainer Maria) are all stylishly dressed in differing manifestations of skinny-tie chic; their uniformity and almost startling good looks emit a brooding severity with sharp edges, a good allegory for their sound. Rather than bandy about, this band stews in their juices, bottling their madness inside until it explodes in a spray of bass minefields, guitar shrapnel, drums like bombs. You want this turmoil to also erupt in Comer's vocals, but a problem with the sound monitors (maybe coupled with some timidity?) prevent this tonight. Still, having seen the band once before in their earliest days, they've progressed an unfathomable degree, and the potentialities of their obvious talent can't be clocked.