My days and nights generally consisted of setting out to see this or that band, missing the desired set, catching the next couple bands, getting blown away by one of those bands, and repeating that process throughout the week.
While there were about 1,200 bands to perform at the festival, I saw 60 or 70 of them. And not to indulge in cynicism, but for every impressive act I discovered, there were a dozen bands that left no impression whatsoever. But one man's floor is another man's ceiling. And that's the beauty of an epic festival such as CMJ -- there's a little rock and pop for everyone.
Another Dead Clown at Rockwood, October 15
The first show I caught was early Tuesday afternoon in a small and welcoming club in lower Manhattan. It was a great introduction to the festival. Another Dead Clown performed friendly and light-hearted folk rock that included ukuleles, toy keyboards, kazoos and percussive chopsticks. Crowd participation was plentiful throughout the set. But while they had their fun with certain songs, they also belted out somber songs like "Akashic Field" and "Spencer's Bad News," which were both memorable and passionate.
Ghost Wave at Pianos, October 15
Typical that a zonked out and psychedelic Stone Roses-inspired set would come from a New Zealand band. Featured on an afternoon showcase among a dozen or so other Aussie/New Zealand acts (including the glorious Delta Riggs and the Griswolds), Ghost Wave made everyone want to dance with its repetitive rhythms, hyper-melodic bass lines and plaintive vocals that the band had come to perfect in the last couple of years. GW performed songs that seemed to stretch out forever, giving one the sensation of, well, riding out a really long and endless wave on your surfboard on a sun-soaked day down under. Despite a focus on the surface of their songs, the songwriting is also stellar, nearly reminiscent of the sounds of the '60s British Invasion.
If Manhattan were Blondie, Brooklyn would be the Dead Boys. Brooklyn has a noticeably different vibe, and a walk down Bedford Ave. and you'll be stunned by the array of band flyers plastered to any surface available. I can't lie, it took will power to walk down the dark and empty streets towards the water's edge where the omininous club 254 Kent Ave sits. The venue isn't for the faint of heart; it's a huge warehouse practically covered by the Williamsburg Bridge, splattered with graffiti and complete with makeshift beer-run bar. Big Ups, who I expected to be an aggressive pop-punk band, surprised me with the most intense punk-rock show I've ever seen. Between striking bizarre poses, screaming and just generally spazzing out, the vocalist hoped off stage to weird out and intimidate the crowd. Given the shady and uneasy location of the club, when he screamed, "There's definitely caskets over there!" it naturally made us all a little uneasy.
Following Big Ups was the anti-funk Homeshake. While they certainly took a while to warm up to their dehumanized version of funk, they turned out to offer some eerily fun music in the vein of the Talking Heads circa 1977. Aside from tunes like "Northern Man" and "Don’t Try" the best part was recognizing this band as the group of guys getting busted by the cops (probably due to the open brews in tow) on my way to the venue. This venue was legendary, and seems to have picked up where CBGB left off.
I spent plenty of time hopping club to club around the bowery. On Ludlow Street, in particular, several clubs are bunched together on the same block. This made for optimal show hopping, and I took complete advantage. While many of the bands featured the similar mopey indie-rock aesthetic, bands that broke the mold were applauded. TV Ghost was one of those bands. Basically doing what Nick Cave did with the Birthday Party years ago, TV Ghost featured some of the most challenging music I heard at the festival, and some of the moodiest frontman stage antics too. Spooky vocals about evil machines were encased by disconnected guitar squeals and other messed-up noises, all while the vocalist bellowed in a low guttural howl and rolled his eyes as if either disgusted by the pretty faces in the crowd or pleading to some imagined towering machine about to destroy him. But as quickly as it began, the band ravaged a few several-minute-long songs and ripped off their guitars and unplugged their amps before people could wholly digest what they just saw. They never announced their name, thanked the audience, or said anything. I loved it.
White Prism at Electric Bowery, October 18
White Prism is one of those bands that offer dance-flavored pop music fit for a 1980s "Scarface" montage. I caught the band at the Electric Bowery, across the street from the former CBGB; the showcase featured a handful of similar indie dance-pop groups like My Midnight Heart and Bright Lights Bright Lights. But, White Prism stood above the others with its pulsating synths and glacial vocals. The group performed with a stunning backup female vocalist and without a bass. Strangely enough, the drumming was fantastic. Providing solid and danceable beats with humble fills, it was clearly the foundation of the songs. But the soothing and sexy vocals were the icing on the cake. Practically cooing into the microphone, White Prism made you want to live it up in that particular half-hour set of theirs. The band could easily be laughed at or mistaken as a gimmick had it not done it so damn good. When you get a job on Wall Street this will be the soundtrack of your rise to the top -- and then some.