CMJ Music Marathon 2004: Day Two: Marathon This!

Alan Astor

I sprinted here: Bed Stuy to the Village, east to west to east then west again, up to Midtown, all around Times Square, down to way, way, downtown, where the streets don’t make sense and me, a New Yorker for over five years, still needs a map to get around. I’m looking forward to spending the next hour or two in one spot, here at the TriBeCa Rock Club.

Outside, the air has a twinge of that fall chill — it’s the kind of night where the cold sneaks up and surprises you, like a game of hide and seek you weren’t aware you were a participant in. Last night, the first night of CMJ, I was dressed all wrong — turtleneck made it hot as hell at Rothko when Army of Me were onstage, but by the time Foreign Born and The October took the stage, the crowd had thinned and they’d pumped up the airco, making my jacket hardly sufficient cover. Last night, the bands were boring and I hated this blasted festival, but tonight the club is empty and I’m much more smartly dressed and all together happier.

Alan Astor. “Fantastic Fantasies” has been one of my mix CD songs — you know, that song of the season that forms the perfect bridge between just about anything, the song you didn’t know you needed that suddenly serves as the nucleus, the MVP, the crown jewel of your music collection. I’m damn lucky I ever even heard the thing; it was a random find in the increasingly overwhelming monstrosity that is my collection of promotional and press CDs. Alan Astor, some days, is the reason I get out of bed in the morning, and he’s the reason I hauled my ass into the city when I would much rather have sat at home drinking Crystal Light and reading analysis of last night’s debates.

CMJ is here again, and everyone, including me, seems to be bored. My friend who works for an unnamed music business entity told me last night that she wished she didn’t have to see any shows. Another friend — the ultimate rock show goddess — tells me she’s having a hard time figuring out what to see. Why? Part of it seems to be the insignificance of music at a time like this — just weeks outside of the most important election many of us have ever lived through, in the shadows of an uneasy global political clime, mired in an economic upswing that feels like a downturn for everyone except those at the tippy top. Political unease is supposed to breed great music — or so the story goes, say those blowhards of counterculture and hardcore — but this time period has birthed only occasional glimmers amidst an otherwise vast sea of simulacra, posturing, and crap. The festival this year feels like a carbon copy of it last year, plus more anti-Bush paraphernalia. But a button here and a “fuck Bush” there do not a vibrant politico-musical culture make. Music has ceased to matter in the same way, and not even a world of chaos can shock it into significance.

But forget that, for now, because I am here to see Alan Astor. The guy I thought couldn’t be but probably was him (sweet-faced, bald-headed, demurely dressed) has been replaced by the guy who is but shouldn’t be him (hairy, hippy, wearing a beaded belt?!??). He’s about to start his something when the power goes out onstage. Five guys are needed to fix it. They all look more appropriate up there than Alan does — who looks more ’60s be-in freak than ’00s electro-synthwave maniac.

But once he begins, Astor finds a way to marry Hair and Larry Tee. He is singing into a mic where the echo effect is so strong, it sound like he’s karaoking to himself on a cheap stereo. The effect of this is fascinating, and I am unable to look away. He is hairy and writhing. There’s an old man perviness to it. He dances like he went to a liberal arts college. His voice booms as if his larynx is a megaphone. Did I mention that he’s wearing a beaded belt?!??

His accompanying music — minus occasional live performed bari sax solos — comes from his iPod, set delicately to his right. Out of it pump bass-heavy keyboard funk that meshes perfectly, if oddly, with his huge, theatrical, grand-old bellow of a voice. His songs have a fourth grade lasciviousness and a Celine-esque drama. He keeps removing articles of clothing. He’s made all the rhythmless boys in the audience start dancing.

Alan Astor. This is what CMJ should be about but too often isn’t. Too often, all of us — myself included — come to festivals like this to see what we’ve already seen a million times, bands we already know back and forth. Beyond the bigwigs, CMJ is also home to plenty of smallwigs, freaks who play tiny shows at out of the way venues, bands itching for their moment in the sun. Much of this is also not worth the beans, but sometimes — like tonight — someone as jaded as myself can find something worth mouthing off about again. It feels good.