Every fall, thousands of music fans, industry folk and music journalists descend on New York City for four days of music, film and symposiums. The occasion is the College Music Journal’s (CMJ) Music Marathon — and for anyone even remotely interested in the goings-on of the modern music scene, it has become something of a tradition.

To purists, playing the showcase is a sometimes-necessary embarrassment; to greenhorns, it’s a chance of a lifetime. The truth behind CMJ’s significance lies somewhere in between, but last week (Sept. 14-17), in celebration of CMJ’s 25th anniversary, music lovers took to the streets of NYC to bask in the reveries, idiocies and future haps of contemporary music. More than a thousand bands and more than 60 venues participated in this year’s festivities. Here’s a taste:

Thursday, Sept. 15

9:35 p.m. Ida @ The Knitting Factory

It was 108 degrees if it was one in Tribeca’s super-cozy nightclub, The Knitting Factory. Thankfully, Polyvinyl recording artists Ida rehydrated the sweaty bods with a clever concoction of gentle noise rock and bluegrass. It was pure musical repose, and to a roomful of indie kids, Ida’s ukulele, fiddle and guitar sound was all the cool they need.

Thursday, Sept. 15

10:07 p.m. Saturday Looks Good To Me @ The Knitting Factory

Scads of unshampooed Buddy Holly types elbowed their way to the front of the stage for Saturday Looks Good to Me. Frontman Fred Thomas commenced the show with a dose of his signature affection: "Thank you, babies." Though the band was without hometown saxman Elliot Bergman, the Betty Marie and Fred Thomas combo — her bubbly pop, his cracking adolescent croon and glimmering tunes — charmed the entire room, which by show’s end has become a sardine can.

Thursday, Sept. 15

11:38 p.m. Fireball Ministry @ The Continental

If a lead singer wearing his own band’s T-shirt on stage isn’t repellent enough, said singer’s contrived metal monster moves and Lemmy-missing-a-testicle vocals should be. Furthermore, when you’re a fleshy 40something playing CMJ to a crowd of, maybe, nine, it might be time to lay down the Warlock and consider a career at Mars Music, bro.

Friday, Sept. 16

1:03 a.m. Gore Gore Girls @ The Continental

So the band name is now a misnomer, and the Gore Gore Girls’ newest addition, Nick Bataran (ex-Back in Spades) on bass is a welcome change. Playing his second show with the girls, Bataran is already slick like a pimp, adding needed doses of low-end dynamics. And while the combination of Bataran’s cocksure ’tude and singer Amy Surdu’s flinty femininity shouldn’t work, it does.

Friday, Sept. 16

8:36 p.m. Tiny Steps @ Coda

You know it’s going to be a great show when: a) creative directors from Jane magazine, add Vice Marketing, Revolver Films and Magus Management (Duran Duran) are in the house; b) nubile honeys (ages 21-24) fill the room; c) Constantine from American Idol shows up; or d) all of the above. The answer is "d." Yes, the curly-headed "rocker" from last season’s American Idol and a bunch of industry folk are digging the Tiny Steps. And why shouldn’t they? The band never sounded better. Part-time singer Michael Cianferani has found his vocal niche; his is more hiccup and quirk, a near-perfect addendum to Eric Weir’s guileless pop. They dished out a few new tunes — less twee, more rock ’n’ roll — that show they’ve taken the necessary leap into adulthood.

Friday, Sept. 16

9:40 p.m. The Volebeats @ Arlene Grocery

There’s a tonal G-spot that can make two voices sound simply on together. And then there’s Jeff Oakes and Matt Smith of the Volebeats, singers who, when together, create music that can make you want to weep, and then thank them for the pleasure afterwards.

Friday, Sept. 16

11:25 p.m. Deadstring Brothers @ Rodeo Bar

Shit you not: the Rodeo Bar smelled of A-1 Steak Sauce and gristle. The joint seemed to be more of a cook shack for beer-swilling meat eaters than a music venue, but the juxtaposition of the Deadstring Brothers and crowd of ravenous steak lovers worked, sort of. From the back of the room, the show could’ve been a David Lynch scene; but the Deadstring Brothers — who recently signed to Bloodshot Records — played into the late-night’s boozy honky-tonk beautifully. Kurt Marshke’s Gram Parsons-inspired songs are worthy of sharing shelf space with the Bloodshot stable. And while the frontman’s songs are singularly fertile, Masha Marjieh’s haunting harmonies have really brought them to life.

Saturday, Sept. 17

1 a.m. - 4:30 a.m. DJ Gold Soundz (Eric Weir) and a bunch of neo-trendy boho types @ Jane magazine’s afterparty

The booze was rot gut, but free. Specifics a blur.

Saturday, Sept. 17

6:46 p.m. Bobby Bare Jr.’s Young Criminals Starvation League @ Union Pool, Brooklyn

This is bullshit. Bobby Bare Jr. will never get the credit he deserves. And it’s sad. Bare’s heartbreak voice, spastic facial expressions, fuzzed-out guitar, augmented by a master drummer (who plays full-bodied percussion with one hand while playing keyboard bass — and a variety of other experimental instruments — with his other) was overwhelming. Joined by a female baritone saxist, Bare’s disjointed alt-country-meets-Beefheart set was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.

Saturday, Sept. 17

11:30 p.m. Last Vegas @ Trash Bar, Brooklyn

It could be said that Chicago-based Last Vegas was the phoniest piece of shit to play CMJ this year. It could be said that the singer’s comical Mick Jagger impersonation was hard to watch. It could be said that the band’s three — yes, three — guitars still managed to sound thin. It could be said that, shy of whipping out his wiener and swinging it like Roger Daltry does a microphone, the lead singer tried everything he could think of to win over the crowd. But it’s probably better to just quote some random guy from the outdoor smoking section: "That band needs to eat a bag of dicks." Not sure what that means exactly; I just know that I agree.

Sunday, Sept. 18

1:30 a.m. The Bamboo Kids @ Trash Bar, Brooklyn

Forget the banter about rock ’n’ roll and whether or not it can be saved. Forget the allusions to Johnny Thunders, Alex Chilton, Richard Hell, Paul Westerberg and all the other dead or nearly-dead greats. New York’s Bamboo Kids are reverential enough to rock’s forefathers to do it right. And that — believe it or not — is more than enough. Yes, it harks back to CBGB’s glory days. Yes, it’s rip-roaring three-chord bliss. But seeing a show this dead nuts, this well executed and this passionate at the tail end of an exhausting music festival was the tonic the spent crowd needed.

Sunday, Sept. 18

2:45 a.m. The Hard Lessons @ Trash Bar, Brooklyn

Somewhere over the course of the past few months, the Hard Lessons went from being a fun local band with gee-whiz attitude to fucking pros. It was late when they hit the stage — everyone wanted to go home — but no one (including me, and I’ve seen these guys countless times before) could take their eyes off of the band. Gone is the self-consciousness, and in its place is a true, if not swaggering, command of the audience. It’s not easy to win over a New York crowd, but the Hard Lessons did. Baby’s done growed up. Eve Doster is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail [email protected]

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