A bespectacled middle-aged bald man in a striped button-down shirt sings dire acappella warnings about someone called “The Chessmaster from Hell.” Welcome to CMJ 2003.
Well, my version of it, anyway. Having been passed over for press credentials, and unwilling to shell out cold hard cash for either a civilian pass or individual cover charges, for now I’m partaking in a side of CMJ that requires none of these accoutrements. It’s CMJ On the Cheap — or rather, more accurately, CMJ On the Free.
Now, one of the drawbacks of skinflinting it through the festivities is that I’m relegated to what most would probably consider lesser attractions. Bands on the way down, bands so far below the radar (and so far away from the marathon’s best stages) that they may as well still be playing in their moms’ basements, or less desirable appearances by some of the marathon’s biggest draws. But there’s also the strange lure of seeing acts that appear to have cheerfully given up, acts that barely care about achieving any more success than they already have, or acts who are just looking to have fun and hang out in the Big Apple.
Such is the case on Wednesday night at the Luna Lounge. Luna Lounge should be considered ground zero for CMJ cheapskates this year, as all the venue’s entertainment is free and no-pass-required. Given those “limitations”, they’re presenting a surprisingly strong lineup of bills, including this showcase for Teenbeat Records, one of the oldest extant indie rock labels. Granted, it’s not a show to which the young, the beautiful or the heavily expense-accounted will be flocking, but, on the plus side, there’s no line to get in, no claustrophobic crowding, and no fashion inferiority complexes to fight off.
The aforementioned bald man is the evening’s “host,” Jonny Cohen, a Teenbeat mainstay. He serves as an entertaining sort of between-act sorbet, serving up simple tunes with wacky lyrics that recall Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair. Cohen’s duties also include introducing the bands, leaving Teenbeat founder and head Mark Robinson to snap photographs and beam like a proud papa from the audience. Robinson’s dressed in a homemade-looking T-shirt bearing the name of his label in block letters, which is about as low rent a version of publicity as you’re likely to see over the marathon’s hype-heavy duration.
The first act I catch in its entirety is the Pacific Ocean, who seem like they’d really rather be someplace else. Their set is laconic and pretty but surprisingly short, even in the context of CMJ’s stacked bills and quick hooks. About 25 minutes into their set, and despite assurances from the crowd and their pals that they’ve got time to play more, guitarist Ed Baluyut begs off for the trio, and they presumably head off to something more worthy of their CMJ passes.
+/- are far and away the stars of the evening. People are actually crowding in and practically on the verge of dancing. The band smoothly shifts through multiple genres, ranging from catchy new wave pieces to cacophonous rockers to wistful guitar and bass-centered numbers that bear a resemblance to Versus, the previous port of call for two of +/-‘s members. Frontman James Baluyut boasts a versatile voice and a dryly amusing sense of humor, drummer Chris Deaner is absolutely dead on (with help from the cymbal-stopping bassist), and guitarist/co-keyboard operator Patrick Ramos offers a set closing cover of Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rose” that gets the audience clapping in time and convulsing with laughter. Their new album comes out next week, and there’s a good chance that nearly everyone in the room will be seeking it out, as should many who weren’t in attendance.
Mark Robinson takes the stage with the final act of the evening, indiepoppers True Love Always. He actually continues taking pictures from the stage, which is in some ways more interesting than the performance itself. They’re clearly having a good time, even though the crowd has thinned considerably and few people look likely to stick around until the end. All in all, it’s a suitably low-key end to the first day of my frugal experiment.
On Thursday I attempt to take in another side of CMJ On the Free (copyright, me). This time I’m planning to check out some of the in-store performances at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square. In-stores are for bands considered enough of a draw, or with enough publicity lucre behind them, to warrant a showcase in this temple to the dollars and cents side of the biz. Today’s offerings include Josh Ritter, the Shins, and stellastarr*(not to mention a showing of Rush Hour 2 on the store’s big screen).
Photo credit: Laura Finnegan
Sadly, I arrive at the store in time to hear only the last two songs by Ritter, a 26-year-old singer-songwriter and nascent critic’s darling. Even more sadly, the Megastore folks choose the moment of my entrance to crank up the Virgin Radio sound system so that Ritter and his acoustic guitar can’t be heard beyond the first 10 rows of folks crammed into the store’s cafe cum performance space. No matter, since the big pull today is the Shins, already headlining in-demand shows at the Bowery Ballroom and Maxwell’s during the marathon, and just about as surefire a crowd pleaser as you’re likely to find in contentious indie rock circles. The crowd here is the mirror opposite of the one I encountered on Wednesday night, not only in size and degree of hipsterdom, but also, and most notably, age. As you might predict, this crowd’s much younger; while the average age at the Teenbeat show was at least 30, the Megastore is packed to the gills with 20-somethings, college students, older teens, and even what must be the marathon’s only middle school patrons (aside from Rachel Trachtenburg, the 10-year-old drummer for the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players).
While the Shins are setting up, the Megastore employs the not-so-subtle marketing trick of playing the band’s just-released album. The album sounds great — and, though this could be the power of suggestion talking, it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in awhile. Which makes it all the more disappointing when the band starts up and the cafe’s poor acoustics make every song sound like it’s being played through a cellphone left in a cave. One of the many hazards of the free show in a non-concert venue — though I can’t really complain about getting a gratis taste of a band for which I would otherwise be queuing up or forking over.
The Shins play for awhile, to rapturous applause, poor sound or not. I don’t stick around, but once it’s over it’s promised that they’ll be signing purchases. Too bad, guys — a CD is outside my CMJ budget.