by Dan Bolles
Aaand we're back!
I had hoped to update my travels around the CMJ Music Marathon in semi-real time last week. But in hindisght, that was probably a little too ambitious. Between panels during the day, endless showcases at night and the general frantic rhythm of of the city, I barely had time to catch my breath, let alone sit down and write. So, in the interest of jotting my scattered thoughts down and sharing what I found, here are a some highlights — and maybe a lowlight or two — from the week that was.
Denver's the Lumineers put on the coolest show I saw during the Music Marathon, and it wasn't really close. The trio had the crowd at the Mercury Lounge hanging on — and often singing along with — every melodious word with an irresisitble blend of sing-song pop and rootsy Americana that recalls the sweeter side of the Avett Brothers, or perhaps Bowerbirds in their more uptempo moments.
Here's a video of one of my favorite tunes, "The Dead Sea."
And here's one from a performance at the Skinny Pancake in Burlington last March.
Two of my favorite shows last week actually had nothing to do with CMJ, including seeing ex-Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman at club called the Bell House on Friday night. (The other was J. Mascis solo at Public Assembly earlier that afternoon.) I've heard he can be pretty hit or miss live, but Richman was in fine, charmingly goofy form alongside drummer/straight man Tommy Larkins. He seemed genuinely thrilled simply to be performing and his quirky tunes took on another layer of childlike giddiness as a result. At one point, while improvising a new song on the spot, he stopped, turned to the crowd and deadpanned, "Playing guitar is fun." Grinning as the crowd broke out in laughter, he resumed his impromptu tune. It was a great and unpredictable night.
It seems like every year there are one or two bands that rock the collected critical establishment at CMJ and go on to have significant success in the following months. If the post-CMJ buzz from outlets such as Paste, New York Times, Spin and many, many others is any indication, this year it will be gritty soul-rock band Alabama Shakes. Here's why:
I happened to stumble into Gauntlet Hair playing in the back room at Public Assembly on Friday, when I briefly stepped away from a solid, but rather drowsy solo set by J. Mascis. I'm glad I did. My initial impression was that the trio reminded me a lot of Burlington's own Parmaga, but a degree or two heavier — and with a bass player. Upon further reflection, I think that's still an apt assessment, but I'd add that their arrangements aren't quite as intricate as our local space-rock indie duo. Though what GH lack in delicateness, they make up for in brash indie rock swagger, particularly live.
It's not unusual for venues to limit the number of credentialed CMJ attendees allowed into certain shows, particularly for some of the bigger showcases. But this year it seemed to be a growing (and obnoxious) trend. I was denied entrance to a number of shows, big and small, even when the venues were not yet at full capacity generally — and no, I wasn't drunk, thank you very much. Two notable instances were the Secretly Canadian / Jagjaguar showcase at Union Pool and the Sub Pop showcase at Mercury Lounge — with not-so-secret guests, Dum Dum Girls. Of course, with some 1,000-plus bands playing over five days and dozens of unofficial showcases around the city, CMJ hardly suffers a shortage of other quality options. But I spoke with several other folks who had similar experiences last week, many of whom had forked over serious cash to be there. It was a frustrating development to say the least. Should you ever find yourself there, do yourself a favor and show up earlier than you think you'd need to. Otherwise …
Wednesday night, after being frozen out of an earlier showcase, I found myself with some time to kill before the Lumineers set, so I scoured the CMJ guide book for a show to while away the hours. Lo and behold, I saw that Spirit Animal was playing a fun little dive called Fontana's. I raced to to the club to catch their set, psyched to see some Burlington faces in the big, bad city. Imagine my dismay, then, when I discovered the band was not, in fact, our beloved local indie-punk band but instead, these friggin' guys:
Thursday afternoon, a Burlington friend texted, urging me to catch Sophie Madeleine's set at the Rockwood Music Hall later that night. After missing out on the Sub Pop show, she proved a great consolation. The shy singer-songwriter was impossibly charming — a quality undoubtedly aided by her irresistible British accent — playing sparkling little indie-folk pop gems on a ukuele over rudimentary electronic drum loops. I might be in love.