For the hundreds of bands, music industry insiders, college radio programmers, DJs, and music fans who descend upon New York City every Fall, October means one thing: It’s time for the CMJ Music Marathon. Every year, a staggering number of showcases and parties, not to mention all the shows that normally are happening in the city, all with great music well worth checking out.
The appeal in a festival like CMJ is discovering relatively unknown baby bands and up-and-coming artists with a ton of upside. Some could become that “next big thing” that we’ll hopefully be talking about for the next year. And some may simply fade away.
Like Austin, Texas’ annual South By Southwest Music Conference, CMJ can feel logistically overwhelming when deciding where to go, and when (and how) to get there. But unlike SXSW and it’s relatively closely plotted venues, CMJ is far more spread out across Manhattan and Brooklyn — and so you may find yourself hoofing it all across town and over the river. So, (like SXSW,) you’ve got make choices and tightly map out your schedule if you hope to catch multiple things in a night.
My first CMJ was a total nightmare in some ways, mostly because I was expecting the ease of SXSW in terms of getting to venues, getting inside the venues, and seeing a ton of music back to back to back. Instead, I had to be more targeted, deciding on the one venue I wanted to camp out at and trust the showcase would present a lot of great options. Overall, I still saw a great deal of my favorite bands, and a lot of new discoveries.
Some highlights: Flying Lotus, Death Grips and Buke & Gase at NPR Music’s showcase; Telekinesis featuring Superchunk guitarist and Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan and Fred Armisen (of SNL and Portlandia fame) on bass! And a Brooklyn Vegan day party let me see a bunch of young bands — Hunters, Sinkane, Eternal Summers — and catch a packed but tiny show from R&B superstar on the rise Miguel.
BUKE & GASE @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Some bands claim to be DIY, but Buke & Gase truly embody it. The experimental prog-punk duo is named for the Frankenstein instruments they use: Arone Dyer plays a tricked-out bass ukulele through an impressive array of foot pedals. Aron Sanchez plays a hybrid guitar-bass through two homemade amp speakers — one for the bass strings, one for the guitar strings. As if that wasn’t enough, both members also simultaneously bang and stomp on a kick drum or wrap their feet with shakers and a “toe-bourine.” On paper, this could risk sounding like a gimmick, but the intricate riffs and bottom-heavy clanking rhythms Buke & Gase creates capture the imagination like few indie bands right now.
On the band’s debut Riposte, and its brand new EP, Function Falls, Buke & Gase expertly envelops Dyer’s chanting vocals with a big, souped-up mess of distortion, and fuzzy melodies that turn sharp corners into unexpected places. But this is also what makes the duo so exceptional to see live. In this NPR Music and Soundcheck co-sponsored concert — recorded live Wednesday at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City during the week of the CMJ Music Marathon — Buke & Gase kicked things off with the hypnotic, aggressive “Hiccup,” delivering the perfect fiery jumpstart to the night’s lineup.
DEATH GRIPS @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Sometimes you walk out of a show unclear what you just saw. This appeared to be the case for many in attendance for Death Grips’ stunningly pummeling set at New York’s (le) Poisson Rouge during the NPR Music/Soundcheck showcase during the CMJ Music Marathon. From the California group’s The Money Store — which has been among the year’s best hip hop records — or the recently self-leaked follow up, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, Death Grips is all about challenging the listener with its boundary-pushing music.
On stage, Death Grips’ delivers a visceral assault on the senses thanks to deep, gut-rattling bass, serrated beats and samples and the brutal, stick-breaking drumming of Zach Hill. But even amid the caustic deconstructed grooves, the blinding strobe lights and visuals on dual monitors behind the group, it’s MC Ride who commands all the attention. Performing shirtless, the muscular and heavily tattooed MC is such a powerful frontman on stage, you cannot take your eyes off him as he flails and shouts with an imposing, unrelenting flow.
After the set, many in the crowd looked equally traumatized and totally blown away with huge grins, knowing they just saw something completely unlike anything they’d ever witnessed. Whether or not it’s “your thing,” that’s always the sign of a great show from a singular artist.
TELEKINESIS @ Mercury Lounge
“I’d like to thank Merge for getting me off my couch.” — Michael Benjamin Lerner, Telekinesis
At one point or another, we’ve all read about an extraordinary concert in some book, or in Rolling Stone, on Pitchfork, or just on social media and thought “Damn, I wish I was there.” It doesn’t make much sense fretting about missing out if Band X played its entire album front-to-back or Band Y played a surprise show at two in the morning. That’s life, right? Can’t be there for everything. But it is music geek human nature to feel the slightest twinge of regret.
Still, every once in awhile, if you go to enough shows, you luck into seeing something special that will make others seethe in nerd jealousy. For me, last night’s Telekinesis set — at Merge Record’s CMJ showcase at New York’s Mercury Lounge — was one of those times.
And it all started because I couldn’t get into the crammed-to-capacity Sub Pop showcase at Knitting Factory. Instead of waiting around in a line going nowhere, I sucked it up and hoofed it by L train and F train to see if I could catch one of my favorite bands play a few of my favorite songs.
When I walked in, I saw Fred Armisen milling about in the back during the end of Eleanor Friedberger’s set. Known to most from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, I chalked it up to being a New York celebrity sighting — and him being a music fan. But soon, as Michael Benjamin Lerner — Telekinesis’ singer-songwriter and drummer, took the stage, I noticed Armisen pulling a Hofner “Beatle” bass out of its case. Whoa. Then, I noticed Mac McCaughan setting up stompboxes on the other side of the stage. McCaughan, guitarist and singer of Superchunk, and Merge Records co-founder, had played a solo set earlier that night, and obviously stuck around to lend a hand.
It was clear the room was in for a treat. I personally kinda lost my shit.
As Lerner explained near the end of set, he had not played a live show in a really long time, and was prodded by Merge to get off the couch, and fly here to New York for CMJ. But Lerner didn’t have a new working band yet — hell, most of his new songs weren’t really even finished yet. But instead of doing what he described as a “lame acoustic set,” he dropped a few emails to McCaughan and Armisen to see if they were interested in joining him for a few songs. Not only did they agree, they worked up an entire set of Telekinesis’ songs just for this night. No rehearsals either, just a bunch of scattered sheets of paper with the chord progressions mapped out.
They then proceeded to unleash a loose, exuberant set of some Lerner’s best songs (“Tokyo”, “Car Crash”) and even a new song from an album due out next April. Telekinesis’ real skill is in crafting perfect, bouncy power pop songs brimming with lilting guitar melodies and pounding drums and vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along to. Lerner is one of the best out there creating indie pop melodies — and honestly it’s a bit baffling why he’s not huge yet. Hopefully with a new record coming next spring, he’ll reach more people.
Yet, as one might expect, there were a few awkward moments for a band that had never really played together. McCaughan and Lerner at one point realized they were playing two different (though admittedly similar sounding) songs — “Foreign Room” and “Coast Of Carolina.” Lerner joked that he just had a realization that two songs he wrote have nearly identical chord progressions. Other times, they missed a few cues or played a missed note, or were just not always locked in like a more fully practiced working band.
But really, no one seemed to care in the slightest: many in the crowd were just having a blast witnessing something special and rare — flubs and all. That raw energy and loose, jokey feeling carried through with many fans singing along to Telekinesis’ impossibly catchy choruses. It was just damn impressive and a boatload of fun. I still cannot believe I was there to see it.