Gail Ann Dorsey
Story by Tony Bonyata (with Andy Argyrakis)Last week both indie and major record label A&R representatives, music industry folks and thousands of aspiring musicians converged in Manhattan for this year's CMJ Music Marathon (CMJ, or College Media Journal, is the Billboard equivalent to college radio). Like the SXSW Music Festival held in Austin, TX every year, the CMJ Music Marathon is a breeding ground for new acts trying to break big and those in the industry trying to find the next big thing.
Photos by Tony Bonyata and Andy Argyrakis
While the actual trade show paled in comparison to the size of SXSW - which mainly consisted of indie record labels hawking their wares, and other music companies offering a broad range of services - from pressing vinyl records (yes, many record labels still sell those circular wax platters) to online distribution of music - CMJ, nonetheless, offered both artists and industry insiders a wealth of informative panels and seminars throughout this four-day festival.
Hosted by industry professionals, many of these panels offered budding artists and upstart indie labels targeted topics such as How To Sell 10,000 CDs This Year, Video Marketing Beyond MTV, Navigating The Techniques of College Radio Promotion, Digital Filmmaking and a host of other informative information.
In additional to these industry specific seminars, there were also a handful of higher profile panels featuring keynote speakers such as comedian Al Franken (whose wit on politics, music and radio unfortunately fell on deaf ears as the room was nearly empty - this was 10 am in NYC after all, a place where many don't even get home before sunrise), Brian Wilson along with Beach Boys' lyricist Van Dyke Parks (who both spoke about the recent recording and release of Wilson's new album Smile) as well the Velvet Underground's John Cale (who, along with recording artists Ted Leo, Saul Williams and others, discussed the role of the artist in political life.) Even the King of the Twist, Chubby Checker was present; promoting not only his latest hip hop single The Original Master of the Dancehall Beat but also his new line of food products, including candy bars, gourmet popcorn and assorted meat products.
But despite the vast amount of useful information and interesting guest speakers, the real reason so many attend this festival is the immense amount of great live music spread throughout virtually every club in Manhattan. From the Avalon Ballroom and Rothko in the Chelsea District to the Bowery Ballroom and the venerable punk club CBGBs (where acts such as The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Television all cut their teeth in the mid-'70s) in the Bowery to the infamous jazz club The Blue Note in Greenwich Village, this city was teeming with great music.
Two of the better known established acts performing - John Cale and Sonic Youth - not only proved to be highlights of the festival, but both of these acts represented New York underground music at its finest - Cale from his influential start with the Velvet Underground in the mid-'60s and Sonic Youth who later blended their own brand of rock & roll with punk, avant-garde and white noise.
Sonic Youth kicked off the festivities at the CMJ opening party at Irving Plaza with an explosive eleven-song set. While this influential band reached into their back catalogue as far as 1987 with the crowd pleasing "White Kross," the focus of this performance was primarily set on their latest album Sonic Nurse. The vocal trade-offs between Kim Gordon's seductive, yet emotionally detached delivery and Moore's matter-of-fact street cool blended almost as perfectly as the orgy of intertwining guitars and apocalyptic rhythms. The beauty of these newer numbers, however, was that somewhere, buried deep beneath all the white noise and well-orchestrated chaos, stood some truly wonderful compositions crying to break free.
And speaking of New York punk, CBGBs (the club that gave birth to that genre) was also showcasing a number of interesting new acts as part of the CMJ festivities. Despite the fact that most acts currently booked there these days are of the hardcore punk and metal-thrash ilk, there was one band who definitely fell well outside of that realm. Performing numbers from their latest release Pretend You're Alive, the Ohio-based band Lovedrug ran through a passionate set of songs that blended The Bends-era Radiohead guitars with hook-filled pop melodies, while at the same time interjecting the etherealness of Spiritualized along with a couple of brief shots of dirge metal and a peppering of prog rock.
Another attraction worth checking out was the Tooth and Nail Records showcase that appeared to be slightly off the CMJ program's beaten path, but turned out to be one of the most crammed sell outs of the long weekend. The Seattle based label has grown extensively since its early '90s beginnings, launching groups like MXPX, The Juliana Theory and Project 86 to major labels, plus getting picked up in recent years by EMI distribution. In fact, it was Project 86 who kicked off the early evening romp with selections from its latest album Songs to Burn Your Bridges By steaming up the Big Apple's lauded Knitting Room with hard rock rumblings and skull scrunching cymbals.
The momentum continued but turned arty for Mewithoutyou, who's celebrating the new Catch For Us the Foxes, which hit streets to indie acclaim. As the sweat level became stifling between all the moving and moshing, the outfit's addicting melodies provided at least slight moments of relief. Label mates Mae followed building off the pop/punk sensibilities of its debut album Destination: Beautiful demonstrating increased maturity with more alternative, keyboard-spiked arrangements.
Underoath took an approach of melding scalding guitars with hardcore bellows presenting most of its They're Only Chasing Safety effort. The band's already made waves on this summer's Warped Tour, which will be followed up this fall when they open for Coheed and Cambria. Emo idols Further Seems Forever closed out the night highlighting its new singer Jon Bunch (of Sense Field fame). The group's gone through three lead singers in all (starting with current Dashboard Confessional leader Chris Carrabba) but this veteran seemed to be the perfect fit both at the show and on FSF's current project Hide Nothing.
When rock veteran John Cale took to the stage of the Avalon with his young three-piece band, the aging, but healthy and happy looking musician proved that he still possessed the magic of his former days. Cale effortlessly jumped from his keyboard to acoustic and electric guitars on the songs "Zen" and "Over Her Head" from his latest album Hobosapiens, as well as performing one number on electric violin (the haunting version of The Velvet's "Venus in Furs"). And while the packed house might have been secretly pleading to themselves for more Velvet's, Cale and company keep them totally engrossed with a mesmerizing set that showcased a live performer just hitting his stride.
While not officially part of the CMJ Marathon, it should be noted that Gail Ann Dorsey's performance at Joe's Pub during the festival was a show not to be missed. Dorsey has spent the last ten year's as David Bowie's bass player, as well as working with bands such as Gang of Four and Tears For Fears, but is now promoting her own engaging album I Used To Be....
With nothing more than an acoustic guitar and her powerful voice, the beautiful, bald singer ran through engaging acoustic numbers from her new album that were, at times, gentle and thought-provoking and at others highly spirited and majestic. The singer toyed with a snippet of Heart's "Magic Man" immediately following a poignant cover of Olivia Newton John's "Have You Never Been Mellow." But it was her final number of the night, a rousing cover of Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" that brought the house down, including David himself, who was in attendance incognito - sporting a beard and baseball cap. (And as it turned out Bowie may have been the only breathing soul in New York that week that wasn't dying to either see or be seen by the onslaught of music movers and shakers.)
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