by Dan Bolles
Howdy, folks. And welcome to the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon, virtual edition, live from drizzly New York City.
After a delay plagued arrival in NYC yesterday afternoon and a minor fiasco at registration — no, we don't know, or care, who you are. So you just go ahead and wait two hours for your credentials like everybody else, asshole — I finally found myself settled in for four days of rock and or roll in the city that never sleeps.
For the uninitiated, the CMJ Music Marathon is kind of like an east coast version of South by Southwest. For the next four days, every single band in the world will descend on the city and play showcase gigs at clubs and bars all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, in hopes that some killer label or high-powered record exec will discover them and turn them into the next Vampire Weekend. OK, that's maybe a slight exaggeration. It only feels like every band on the planet must be here. Still, it's an underground music lover's paradise. So obviously, the first thing on my agenda this week was … um, standup comedy.
Eschewing the musical madness in Manhattan (for one night, anyway), I decided to begin the week's journey last night in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at a bar called Union Hall, for a performance by standup comic Mike Birbiglia. Birbiglia is a personal favorite, and the opportunity to catch him in an intimate setting was too good to pass up. I wasn't disappointed. And yeah, it was part of the Music Marathon. So there.
If you've never seen or heard him — he's an occasional contributor to "This American Life" and "the Moth" on NPR — Birbiglia is not a traditional standup. He doesn't tell jokes so much as stories about his own bizarre life experiences and general social awkwardness. While his bits are often wincingly uncomfortable, he also also exudes an irresistible charm that lures you in. Even when riffing on topics as dark as cancer or death, there is a sweet vulnerability in his style that makes him uncommonly relatable. His weaknesses and insecurities — outlandish almost to the point of caricature — make your own seem somehow more manageable. Or at least less crippling by comparison.
Sporting a scruffy beard, his set in the cramped basement of Union Hall — a remarkably cool bar overall, though the noise from the joint's indoor clay bocce courts upstairs was occasionally distracting … yes, you read that correctly — was an unguarded glimpse into Birbiglia's uniquely skewed psyche. The set was billed as his most recent touring show and album, "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend." In reality, it was a loose mix of stories from that show, his "What I Should Have Said Was Nothing" days and his off-Broadway show, "Sleepwalk with Me." But even his more familiar and structured bits — for example, his well-documented battle with sleep disorder — took on an almost improvisational feel. At times, it was as if he was opening his mental notebook to let us see his sketches in their rawest form. It was a treat.
Particularly engaging was the impromptu Q&A with which he closed his set. Birbiglia answered questions about living in New York (very expensive, apparently … who knew?), the week he spent living in a display window at Macy's (kinda creepy) and whether he ever hears from Dennis Eckersley. (That's a great story.) He also mentioned that he's currently editing a film version of "Sleepwalk With Me." You can check out a clip of the standup version below.