All fizz, no gin

New York’s perennial music fest, the College Music Journal (CMJ) Music Marathon, limped through its 23rd year last week like a 7-foot hoops stiff, slow afoot and horribly uncoordinated, whose still-valued size can’t distract from frequently uninspiring performances.

Featuring more than 750 acts at 50 venues during four days, the festival’s still a boon for young bands. But there were fewer impact shows this year, and a decidedly less-pervasive industry presence.

Love (of course!), Echo & The Bunnymen, Andrew W.K. and Mars Volta headlined, backed by lower-profile artists the Shins, Death Cab For Cutie, My Morning Jacket and Rainer Maria and proverbial B-list vets Joan Jett, Killing Joke and Pharcyde. Since past years have featured everyone from Eminem and R.E.M. to Marilyn Manson and Public Enemy, this year’s extravaganza felt rather pedestrian. Literally.

New York’s recent ban on smoking in bars has turned Gotham streets into the world’s largest smoking lounge. Its sidewalks were more clogged than Cartman’s arteries after a lifetime of cheesy poofs, slithering gray plumes slinking skyward from the pockets of club-goers lining curbs.

Aside from the obvious annoyance of lurking in frigid weather while leaving your beer to flatten at the bar, other unforeseen consequences presented themselves. Never the most hygienic subculture, and when absent the bar’s smoky redolence, indie-rock crowds are rather spicy with the hot, acrid, smothering funk of too many cappuccinos, too few showers and an ever-festering cynicism.

More vexing was the bodily imperative of an addiction that found this smoker longing for shows to end to duck outside for a fix.

This problem first introduced itself during Brendan Benson’s nearly two-hour performance at South Paw Wednesday night. Benson played at the Star Time showcase with new faces in the Well-Fed Boys lineup, including the Waxwings’ Dean Fertita on bass. Benson offered a 45-minute set of his classic, literate power pop, including a pair of new songs, along with faves “Folk Singer,” “Sittin’ Pretty” and the gorgeous “Metarie.” Then he returned for a second set, longer than the first, which included an extended version of McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.”

The new lineup (down to a four-piece) was solid, but lacked the energy of the Well-Fed Boys’ show here last year at Irving Plaza. The guitar courageousness of Zach Shipps and keyboardist/Mood Elevator Chris Plum are missed. Unlike Benson’s albums, which are resplendent with rich harmonies, the band’s show offered little in the way of backing vocals. They also need to work out a few of the kinks, one of which forced Benson to stop midsong to correct. But this did little to detract from the quality of the show, as Benson was in fine voice and form; his warm guitar tones rang out and the melancholy ballads even benefited from the sparer context.

CMJ’s second night offered a D-town twin bill of the Go and Detroit City Council at the Continental. The Go’s gee-rage writhes with punk-rock attitude, scabrous, fuzzed-out guitar anchoring their three-minute turns. With a rock-solid, if somewhat unimaginative sound, the band’s live presence is keyed by bug-eyed vocalist Bobby Harlow (sporting newly shaved eyebrows), whose hyperactive antics recall Chuck Barris on an absinthe bender. Prancing and posturing, jumping out into the crowd for a tête-à-tête with a drunken audience member, Harlow — replete with myth-buying Iggy self-mutilations — was as mesmerizing as a grisly roadside auto accident.

Tom Potter’s Detroit City Council followed, clad in dental-white suits. DCC betrays Potter’s Dirtbombs and Bantam Rooster roots, boasting a roaring guitar sound with a strong garage undercurrent, melded to often-funky, soul-based rhythms. The results on a good day could be interpreted as the Stooges doing Sly & the Family Stone, coarse edges over a booty-bouncing sway. Potter was loose and irreverent on the mic, taking the opportunity to assail the new smoking law and flouting it from the stage. His insubordinate shtick typified our town’s rep for iconoclastic, devil-may-care front men, but the audience ate it up and members of opening bands crowded the front of the stage and frothed.

The next couple nights of shows were significantly less satisfying, chief of which was Wayne Kramer’s no-show at Tobacco Road. (Kramer apparently checked in at the venue, went for dinner and never returned.) With the best CMJ acts inevitably scheduled at the same time in different corners of the city, choosing where to go is like triage. Kramer’s remission cost us the chance to see the Singles. Slumber Party also played around the same time, but CMJ listed the wrong date, leading to a completely unnecessary, day-late trip to Brooklyn.

Kramer did make it to his Saturday noon keynote for the DIY segment of CMJ’s convention, thanking those assembled “for making it in so early this morning.” Looking suspiciously like Yertl the Turtle in his green turtleneck, he waxed on how the music has changed (“They had a principle called artist development which they don’t now”), the MC5’s influence (“I think we helped open up a new way of thinking, that we could create our own music”) and the role of politics in music (“I think there’s a bigger danger in not doing it”).

Festival turnout seemed disappointing at all but the biggest shows, though up-and-comers, such as the Wrens, were able to pack the joints, due in part to the predominantly college-aged participants.

This was once a huge industry event. One might have expected an outpouring of suits here given the recent largesse lavished on here-today-gone-tonight indie bands like Hot Hot Heat, Thrice and Thursday.

CMJ’s marathon has become decidedly more white bread, populated by legions of near-faceless, indistinct indie rockers. This year seemed particularly light on hip hop and heavy on the hardcore-thrash hybrid, math metal.

One of the math-metal pioneers, Dillinger Escape Plan, played what promised to be one of CMJ’s most intriguing sets, opening for Dirt McGirt, aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard. DEP certainly delivered the goods, playing a rocket-fueled set of roaring, surprisingly supple hardcore-jazz-metal that turned the floor of the Knitting Factory into a chaotic spasm of bodies.

Ol’ Dirty Bastard hit the stage for the first time since his incarceration looking like a little boy lost in the city. Perhaps that was due to the angel dust one Knitting Factory employee claimed they’d been smoking in the dressing room. After a tepid version of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” he left the stage, only five songs into his set, the official excuse being that he was feeling “sick.” The entire show lasted all of 20 minutes.

ODB was a fitting exclamation mark on a CMJ that promised little and delivered less. Absent the record-company buzz or the draw of bands poised for a major jump, the convention seemed to return to roots, when it was a chance for college kids to hang in the big city and see unknown bands. Perhaps that’s for the best, for the lure of seeing a dozen great bands you love over four days is powerful, and what CMJ once did best was offer an idiosyncratic mix of unusual acts you’ve never heard of and who you’d imagine would never make it past tiny club tours.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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