When you hear that your friend’s band is playing a festival like SXSW or CMJ, maybe you conjure images of cocaine-fueled nights spent mingling with emerging rock stars, maybe even a few celebrity sightings at some small venues? That fantasy is not reality. The experiences of the CMJ attendee and CMJ performer are very different, and while obviously not every performer at the CMJ Music Marathon is going to have the same schedule, for me and my band Valley Queen, the term “hectic” was an understatement.
We knew what we were getting into booking six shows in five days. This sort of week provides plenty of logistical nightmares, hardwood floors on which to sleep, and a slew of characters along the way. Unfortunately for us, it doesn’t allow for much of a spectator’s view of the festival. Going from floor to couch, cafe to venue, Valley Queen’s week in New York proved to be both stressful and blessed.
Upon arrival at JKF airport, eyes wide with a gorgeous view of the Sunday sunset, jet lag and impatience kicked in immediately when all three of our guitars on loan from Guild were not present at baggage claim. They showed up two hours later in the “irregular sized items” area. Good thing we didn’t have a show that night.
Between that hiccup and getting on a rerouted train, it would be over a mile on foot and nearly five hours until we reached our destination on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We stayed there in a friend’s room for two days. Five adults, one bed, two air mattresses, luggage, guitars, cymbals, and literally no room to step anywhere until everyone woke up.
Monday night was our first show, a perfect warm-up for our CMJ showcases. We stopped by a local rehearsal studio for a quick run through of our set to tighten up, then headed over to Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side.
Being a drummer, I tend to play on a variety of drum kits. It would cost way too much money to ship out my drums to the East Coast and either rent a van or Uber them from venue to venue. Thankfully, most (“most” will come into play later in our adventure) venues in New York have drums set up already. Drummers just have to bring their cymbals.
According to their sound man (and I completely agree with him), Arlene’s Grocery has the nicest house kit in New York. As I walked in for sound check, he was putting brand new drum heads on a Yamaha Oak Custom kit (for you drum nerds). I generally had good luck with house kits, but this left me with way-too-high expectations.
As a musician, you don’t always play shows you might expect. For instance, opening for Rock & Roll Karaoke. I obviously can’t see your expression while reading this, but whatever it is (confused? excited?), the night was exactly what it sounds like. After we played a great set to a solid crowd, we joined locals in taking turns singing classic rock hits with a live band behind us. This went well for some, not so well for others. I did my best Fred Schneider and butchered “Love Shack,” and our bassist killed it with “Seven Nation Army.”
Our week went on, with us picking up our official CMJ badges and wristbands on Tuesday. Those allowed us as a band to access a variety of venues, talks, and mixers and get some free swag. We opened up our free reusable CMJ totes and thumbed through the official schedule of performers and panels, many of which we hoped to see, few of which we actually could. Shlepping gear all over New York takes lots of planning and timing if you aren’t trying to see any shows — if you are, it’s damn-near impossible.
Tuesday night started our most exhausting 48 hours. We played three shows in that amount of time, one of which was the first of our three official showcases. The Sidewalk Cafe was a fun show, and we made a few new friends after the set. We followed that by moving our gear and luggage to a friend’s Air BnB in Brooklyn.
The next day was epic, with a great set at The Shop in Brooklyn followed by a midnight set at the Bowery Electric. Here we would see my favorite act of the week, Tim Pourbaix. This band has a very clean way of balancing dynamics, rhythms, and songwriting in the vein of The Whitest Boy Alive mixed with Spoon. Although it was a tiny room, their sound complemented the venue’s size with precision and intimacy.
Thursday brought us to The Rock Shop. I had a funny feeling about this one from our messages with the booker. They said we needed to bring an extra guitar amp and all the drum hardware (stands). After calling about a dozen different friends and rental spots, I was able to get ahold of a friend who plays for a band called Outernational who was out of town and let me borrow his drum gear.
This epic journey led me to another part of Brooklyn where I met my friend’s roommate and carried about 50 lbs worth of equipment up the stairs from his basement and in and out of cabs. After unloading it into the venue, the sound guy told me I would not need the equipment because the venue was providing it. This is the moment in the movie where I break the fourth wall and give the audience a side-eye.
Regardless of the hassle of carrying extra gear, this may have been our best show. The Rock Shop filled in nicely with a very attentive crowd there to support CMJ bands from all over the world, including Robbing Millions from Brussels and Grounders from Canada. This was just the kind of show you want as a band performing out of town. A warm welcome from unfamiliar faces and solid performances from every band on the bill. The only downside of the night was the Dodgers losing and hearing the chant of “Let’s go Mets” in the restaurant portion of the venue.
Our week wrapped up Friday with a glimpse of the one panel I got to see prior to our last show. A discussion on touring in the modern music era was fascinating as artists delved into creative outlets for navigating the nation. Gabe Kubanda of Epic Proportions Tour talked about bringing his solo shows to high schools all over America, taking a band out with him each time.
From there we made our way to the esteemed Rockwood Music Hall. Regardless of the early set time, those who were there enjoyed our final performance. The beautiful wood-lined venue served us well as our week of insanity ended.
As a fan of music and someone who was excited to see many artists at CMJ, I was disappointed when I realized that we were also performing while The Maccabees would be on stage. While Perfect Pussy undoubtedly torn the house down, we were also performing. While Protomartyr was performing… You get it. The opportunity to catch a live performance from one of the most exciting names in jazz, Kamasi Washington, was quickly struck down when one of our sets was pushed back. It’s the nature of the game.
CMJ proved to be a whirlwind week, running from venue to venue, and couch to floor in various apartments. We are lucky to have gone and look forward to our upcoming tours and album releases, but for now, it’s just good to be home in Los Angeles.
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