Since its creation over 33 years ago, the CMJ Music Marathon has been a Mecca of buzz. Each year countless rising bands make the yearly pilgrimage to New York City, vying for the title of “band to watch.” To be discovered. To be the next Arcade Fire — who rose to fame after performing in 2004 and became the ultimate CMJ success story.
The five-day music extravaganza that is CMJ boasts over 1,400 live performances in more than 80 different venues. Which is, to say the least, a tad overwhelming. However, after wading through the talent, it is beyond easy to find what specifically tickles your fancy; at CMJ, there is something for everyone. These artists come in all shapes and sizes. Some are shrouded in obscurity. Some already have a strong indie backing. There are bands that play joyous electro-pop and bands that metaphorically bash your head in with their crippling metal riffs.
CMJ goes beyond the artists. It does not just star musicians. The marathon shines light on the myriad of eclectic venues throughout NYC. At any given moment, there are bands playing at some hole-in-the-wall bar, a gigantic professional-grade venue, a performance arts space, the grittiest of DIY spaces, and everything in between. It is a music lover’s paradise.
CMJ is a place to discover and explore the rich expanse of music from across the country and beyond, so it was a bit ironic that I found myself starting off the week with Los Angeles’ own Happy Hollows. The indie rock band headlined a show at Williamsburg bar/venue Grand Victory that included multiple California natives, including the high-octane thrill ride that is Son of Stan and the dreamy indie pop artist Juliette Commagere.
Happy Hollows projected their bubbily indie rock over the crowd with ease. The fun-loving group made the small space their own, especially thanks to their expressive vocalist Sarah Negahdari. Throughout the performance, Negahdari’s high-spirited personality shined through, and there was no denying that Happy Hollows’ sunny music made it an LA-centric night.
Some of the most interesting shows at CMJ stem not just from the music, but from the entire performance experience. One of the most interesting CMJ phenomenons is the regular stream of performances presented by Seattle’s KEXP, which broadcasts their series on a radio show. In addition to featuring a myriad of talented acts, this series takes place in one of New York’s most fascinating venues: Judson Memorial Church. No, this isn’t some tongue-in-cheek name. Judson is an active church that boasts a bustling performance space with many amazing theatrical and musical acts coming in and out of the church’s ornate doors.
The first act I saw at Judson was San Francisco noise rock trio The Weekend. The group’s sound, infused with elements of punk and garage, filled the chapel-esque room well. In an assumedly ironic nod to the church space, the band dedicated multiple songs to God and the like before diving into their hard-hitting beats.
Later that week, acclaimed rock band The Dismemberment Plan took the Judson stage, delighting the mainly college-aged audience (the church is located in the heart of NYU). Although CMJ usually focuses on the up-and-comers, there are always a few acts to warm the hearts of nostalgic music lovers, and The Dismemberment Plan was one of those bands. The music veterans were just as energetic as ever, doling out an utterly enjoyable daytime performance for newcomers, longtime fans, and all those in between.
One rising band that truly proved themselves this week was Welsh quartet Joanna Gruesome. The DIY-centric band flawlessly melds rock, punk, and pop to make a unique sound that is undeniably addicting. Their dark lyrics and heavy themes are punctuated by hard-hitting noise that is gnarled and raw. The group’s unbridled energy is tangible.
However, throughout their short but sweet set at the packed Lower East Side venue Pianos, it was easy to see that the band wasn’t just there to perform. They were there to have fun. Joanna Gruesome ended their set with their excellent single “Sugarcrush” with half the band running off the stage to dance while playing. The band delivered a truly exhilarating experience.
Check back on Friday for Part 2 of my CMJ experience!