CMJ Festival 2006

Sunday, 03 December 2006

In the weeks before the 2006 CMJ Music Conference, the annual music industry event which takes place in Manhattan every year, I have done possibly more research and preparation than I have for any other industry event in my life. Why? Well, I have decided that I want to “maximize my experience.” I have listened to clips of bands I never want to hear ever again, I have investigated MySpace pages, I have RSVP’d to promo reps and typed things like “I can’t wait to go to your RAD party.” I have made a fairly copious list of daytime and nighttime events. Made a note of what is free and what is not, and generally have fully geeked-out on the whole process. I had gone to SXSW earlier this year and basically went on a band rampage and just constantly went to shows, barely ate, drank Red Bull, and just tried to see as much music as I possibly could. I had a great time. I quit drinking alcohol two years ago and so now I have no excuse for not actually seeing any music at these events, so with CMJ I am prepared. I am practically righteous with preparation. Granted, my reasons for being at these events do not simply lie in rabid fandom, this is officially a work-sanctioned event. I have a day job which requires me to “familiarize myself with up-and-coming artists.” Don’t laugh. So naturally, I go into this with the same sort of studied preparation that I would go into any aspect of my job with. Okay, you can laugh at that one.

Flying directly into JFK from dear old San Francisco, I am accompanied by my friend and co-worker. She is great. She used to own this record store (Aquarius Records). When you want to buy some tropicalia records or some Norwegian death metal—that’s where you go. By the time I have arrived at my hotel room on the west side, we have made vague plans to meet up later, but we can’t decide on what act will draw us out to a similar place, so it’s just “okay, well—let’s talk later.” In my mind, I’m thinking that I want to see Lupe Fiasco. Food and Liquor is pretty much out-of-the-ballpark awesome and he’s playing at this bizarre showcase with this indie pop duo Matt and Kim (also awesome, but more in the vein of a younger Mates of State with more yelling and smiling). The clincher is that you are supposed to dress up like a zombie, and chances are that I am flying solo that night and I just don’t want to bust out the facepaint solo in NYC on my first night. I watch quietly as this little flicker of inspiration falls to the floor. Then I call my friend LuLu, who lives near Chinatown and is reliably cool and good to hang out with. She has texted me and informed me that her boyfriend’s band is playing at a place called 205’s. He’s in this band Growing and suddenly I’m excited again because Growing rules and there are just two of them and they play with massive fat stacks of equipment and are so loud and are so in awe of the mighty power of the drone, and they are just two totally nice guys, well that’s a deal that is sealed right there. They are purportedly playing a non-CMJ event for the label Social Registry. Also on the bill: Psychic Ills, which I am repeatedly told are “fucking awesome.” Sounds good enough to me, and I quickly inform my coterie of SF buddies in town that they all NEED to come see Growing because . . . well, they’re name is Growing and how fucking heavy is that name? Think about it.

Well, turns out that the P.A. provided by the club is about the size of a box of tissue paper and Growing decide they have to back out because they don’t want to sound like complete horseshit. I hear more about this from one of the guys later, turns out it’s not just primadonna style antics, they just don’t want to sound bad. I’m a little bummed, but then the guy from Growing (Kevin) gives me some behind-the-scenes stories about working with Arthur Magazine and an anti-CMJ diatribe and I’m happy with that.

Somehow found myself in the proximity of the Club Delancey, where my friend Bart’s band (Honeycut) has just wrapped up a show. I’m not the hugest fan of their new record on Quannum, but I am down with the song “Shadows” (Single of the Week in the French iTunes store, if you’re keeping track). I am prepared to quarrel relentlessly with the door man (“I said, ‘Do you know who I am?’”) as I have yet to pick up my $500 badge. But nobody checks for badges, I just walk right in. Regardless, I am there—but Honeycut are done. In their place are the guys from the Thievery Corporation doing an alt-rock band thing. My friend thinks they sound like the Archers of Loaf (much feted mid-90s indie-crunch rockers), but I think it sounds like generic loud/soft alt-rock and it makes me feel a kind of queasiness, as if I am watching a local band showcase. Somebody in the band briefly hangs from the ceiling pipes. I wish him well with the endeavor and go upstairs. I see Bart and he gives me a hug and only says this: “Bert fucking Jansch.” This is a reference to a show we both recently were at by the legendary folk guitarist. I guess it’s our common bond now. But the conversation is over after that.

Upstairs on the rooftop bar, there is much talk about the previous night’s Carnegie Hall show featuring George Jones and Kris Kristofferson. Some people cried at the show. People I was with. These are not old people. It’s just simply what happens. I call it a night and go home and realize that three Red Bulls is too many. I watch “Mindfreak” for over two hours. It is abysmal. It is like Nikki Sixx and David Blaine had a baby who sucked at magic. But he does a thing on ghosts which freaks me out because my hotel is reportedly haunted by teenage runaways. I turn off all the lights and hear weird metal scraping sounds and I wonder if this is the last sound you hear before the ghosts come. Last time I look at the clock it is 4:30am.

The next day starts off much brighter, as my wife has arrived and suddenly my fear of ghosts seems asinine and I fall back into the bed and sleep like a drunken baby until noon. I spend my day in front of the computer in my hotel room, writing and doing some editing. When I crawl out of my room, my eyes stinging with computer screen overload, I make a direct line for this rooftop party in which Thurston Moore is scheduled to DJ. Thurston Moore is a righteous dude and pretty high on the totem pole when it comes to the distribution and enthusiasm of underground music, so who am I to not go? I am not the only one who feels this way and I manage to get past the doorman, who looks like he could be the son of that guy in Poison who went through rehab and is now totally nice and sweet. Thurston is playing a crazy mix of old punk and skronk (of the noise and jazz variety). I talk to my old boss who seems to take Thurston’s fairly loud set personally.

“Who is he trying to impress with playing all this obscure stuff? It’s totally unlistenable.”

I realize then that this man believes that anyone who listens to more “difficult” music is faking it. I back away carefully.

Moore’s elongated set means that I miss both Bow Wow Wow and Deerhoof. I try to weasel my way into the party for Harp Magazine (in a strangely belligerent manner, which is odd considering that I have no idea who is playing). The guy at the door is not having it and shoos myself and my friends outside. I watch some people eat hot dogs and we all end up going to a bar on the East Side and hear some guy spin records. Turns out that this guy is a no-show and myself and room full of San Francisco ex-pats fill a room as somebody somewhere plays big-balled jams from Led Zeppelin, The Who and Thin Lizzy. This turns out to be my favorite night in NYC.

The next day involves a bit of record shopping, and I come away with a great Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood album, a Nilsson record, and some salsa action thanks to Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco. I am happy. By mid-day I am in the wrong part of town, looking for a club that isn’t there. I finally end up at the right place just in time to catch both Pink Nasty and Wooden Wand. Pink Nasty is fine, not especially nasty, not especially interesting, but a few people around me assure me that she has done interesting things. Someone introduces me to her and I’m not sure what to say.

“Your record company sent me your album for free. I haven’t listened to it.”

Wooden Wand is something else. He releases a lot of music. Somewhere in the realm of the avant-folk-raggedy improv stuff that is going in the world, you’ll find him. Then he does records of broken-sounding singer-songwriter material. Tonight, he’s in the singer mode, and his songs are very simple, chord-wise, but he’s got a good grasp at impressionistic poetry. It sounds nice and it makes sense in the good way. We top-off the evening eating at a place called Jones, which serves soul food late into the night. The jukebox plays Fred Neil, Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton and The Band. It’s easily the greatest place ever built by human hands.

For my final day in New York, I figure it’s about time to go and pick up my badge. Not one person has ever asked to see it. I have been instructed many times that “badges are no good here”, though. But my wife thinks the complementary bags are good for groceries and so we go and pick that up. The bag is filled with scraps of promotional copy barely ripe enough to plunder. I keep a disembodied G.I. Joe head and a Borat pin. I notice that the last Public Enemy record is included in my gift bag. So that’s what it comes to. That night, I stand in front of the Hiro Ballroom, trying to decide if I should go and see the Fall. They are just about to start and gee whiz, I haven’t bought a Fall record since Extricate and my wife will have to pay thirty bucks to get in, so in the end I back out and go spend two hundred dollars on sushi. Ha! Showed you, Mark E. Smith!

As I pack up my stuff, I realize that I missed all of main CMJ events. Why? Because CMJ is a weird beast. It’s hard enough to have an event in NY without the city taking precedence over the event. It’s like if Mr. T showed up to your birthday party. Everybody would be like, “Oh my god, Mr. T is here.” Then no one remembers why they came in the first place. Same with CMJ. CMJ is an industry-fed event that the locals seem to hate and the bands barely tolerate it themselves. The line-up this year also happens to be extremely light—marked with big events courtesy of past glories (The Fall, The Slits, Bow Wow Wow) and mediocre buzz bands (The Knife), pre-established indie faves (Decemberists, The Shins) and next-big-things (Cold War Kids, Annuals), but seemed to lack in the sort of eclectic and interesting programming that CMJ’s springtime rival, SXSW, tends to offer. That’s the one side. The other side is that New York might just really be the best city in the world, and I would be a complete moron to tell you that seeing tons of bands in an amazing city is any kind of a washout. But there is something happening with our good friend CMJ, something that favors exclusivity and private parties over music fans with a five hundred dollar ticket in their hands. Old news, perhaps, but I’d say this party needs to rethink some of its approaches lest its irrelevance takes center stage in the years to come.

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