CMJ Music Fest: Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY 11.1.06

Woo Wee!  CMJ (NYC’s annual music fest) came in like a lion, roared like a lion and left like – yup, you got it – a lion.  The whirlwind of fantastic jams set the foundation for the Wednesday night show at Bowery Ballroom.  Chock Full O’ Bands that are in various stages of their journey on a streetcar named fame, there was a bevy of talent packing the house for seven hours of music. While tag wearing hipsters skedaddled about the city, your faithful narrator got a spot on the ballroom floor and has a review of each of these acts presented here, because all are worthy of praise and your attention:

What Made Milwaukee Famous– Kicking things off at 7 o’clock W.M.M.F. (confusingly from Austin, Texas) played to a mostly empty house, but that is the audience’s loss as these fellows whipped up a set based on rhythmic key’s, freaky bow on cymbal intros, and up beat rocking.  Using a wide range of emotional playing, they began the set with a few depressing lyrical excursions in the vein of I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, before lead man Michael Kingcaid got up and exclaimed “Fuck this evil shit.  Let’s Party”.  Using their newest release Trying to Never Catch Up as a palette they painted all over the spectrum with professional strokes. The electrofuzz of “idecide” and punch-poppy “Hellodrama” were two high points, and their ability to mix in catchy fun songs with shoe gazers is a plus. Next time W.M.M.F. plays on a bill like this they won’t be jerking the curtain; they will be in a prime spot where more people can be exposed to this talented act, your loss if you miss them when they come by your neck of the nape.

The Bird & the Bee– Greg Kurstin & Inara George form the backbone of this band, tonight they were flanked by three cream clad songstresses and a drummer keeping simple time.  The unobtrusive flow of these Los Anglicans scats upon a beatnik jazzy vibe with a pinch of futuristic sugar on the side.  Amicable in it’s pleasantry and biting in Inara’s (at times) acidic lyrics, the coffee house confessionals work well and let people ease into the show, now if only more were wearing beret’s and lounging in their own self importance.  Feeling their way through the set, The Bird and The Bee succeed in their idiom and are one to watch for future developments.   

Robbers on High Street- New York’s own took to the stage next drawing in a sizable crowd in one of NYC’s best venues however the hometown boys oddly seemed the most out of place on this night.  A small tight set never took off as an awkward tension floated over both band and audience, stale jokes were cracked and predictable tunes were run through, while the music never became energized.  Adding a George Harrison-like jingle jangle ring to most numbers made them palpable but presented here with lackluster showmanship didn’t do them any justice, especially with some live heavyweights waiting in the wings. 

Elvis Perkins in Dearland– Nice-like, two legends’ names wrapped up into one.  Elvis Perkins with a canary yellow crew in tow acted the part of modern day troubadours playing with and on anything in striking/strumming distance.  Elvis’s nasally deliverance was nomadic, at times warbling into Hibbing, Minnesota or flowing falsetto into Baton Rouge territory.  The Dearland backers were energetic and communal supporting the singer in his efforts and adding flourishes via portable bass drum and odd accordion device.  Minstrelsy mining different lazy areas such as colors and answers Mr. Perkins lyrics weren’t cutting rather guiding and questioning.  Sporadically serious, the band worked best when they kept the beats light and the words airy.  The could-be-named Alice Cooper Folk Marching Band paraded around the stage while beginning the first of many cross pollinations to come, inviting a Dr. Dog out for piano on a number, and then the night opened up. 

Dr. Dog– Where to begin?  The unpretentiously clad (some would say sloppy) Doggers 5 took a few numbers to catch their groove but when established, showed that their constant touring has paid off with super tight transitions, booming crescendos, and heartfelt harmonies.   A band who leaps off the stage, Dr. Dog are a whirlwind of Ooh’s and Ahh’s, as they progress through sunny 60’s pop and breezy tunes with a firm grasp on the texture that mucks up the sunshine just enough to feel real.  The bountiful “Living a Dream” was a glorious example of this as was the softer “California”.  Both the Takers and Leavers EP and Easy Beat were highlighted as well as some old gems.  The Cold War Kids, Elvis Perkins and Crew added horns, backing vocals, tambourines and whatever else wasn’t nailed down to “Die Die Die” and the set closing “Wake Up”.  With each passing Dr. Dog show the smile gets bigger and one can’t help but love these mangy mutts as they propel themselves through a catalog that while seemingly pulled out of 1966, still sounds fresh and alive.  One of the better live bands playing today and with room for growth upon the backbone of excellent song writing, solid musicianship, and pristine vocals, Dr. Dog are off their chain running free and were the MVP on this night.

Cold War Kids– With a new album Robbers and Cowards out and the blogosphere a buzz over these fancy lads anticipation ran high for their set.  They pulled out all the stops over their 45 minutes + amongst friends and industry peeps the Cold War Kids came out of the gate guns blazing.  If anything the energy seemed a bit too high throughout the beginning of the set and the music seemed scattered.  Their cinderblock-solid songs and Nathan Willett’s glowing vocals are the strong points of this band, and while bouncing around geeked up was exciting and certainly got the crowd amped, the musical underpinnings suffered in the early numbers.  Things settled down as the set progressed and soon enough the band shined.  “Pass the Hat” had a calypso feel while bassist Matt Musto added an off kilter bass line that was infectious.  The slower tunes such as “Hospital Beds” and “We Used to Vacation” let Willett’s amazing voice take center stage in show stopping manner. Cold War Kids were clearly excited, and perhaps had they gone on before Dr. Dog, the show may have flowed smoother, but it is hard to fault an amazingly talented band for trying too hard.  The group sing-along of “Saint John” to end the set brought back all of the earlier acts to bang and rattle whatever they could grab.  Needless to seeing a bill with these groups on it is like stumbling into upon a traveling family reunion minus the creepy uncle.

Tapes ’n Tapes– The Tapes 4 took to the stage well into Thursday and to a thinned out crowd. Well, it was a school night, but that didn’t diminish the fire with which they played; to the contrary, it sparked a musical bonfire in the late night/early morning hours.  Conducting a taut set that never strayed, yet winked an exploring eye, the TnT boys brought their mix of Violent Femmes and Built to Spill into the Bowery with more power and brutal bass slaps then I’d ever heard them exuded before. Banging upon the hits, they pounded out “Insistor” and “Cowbell” to the utter delight of those still in attendance. The quick changes that guitarist Josh Grier flashed along with bassist Erik Appelwick were matched by the pounding of Jeremy Hanson and the key runs of Matt Kretzman.  A well-oiled machine, they had the crowd singing along with lyrics from The Loon and certainly made everyone happy to have Tapes ’n Tapes finish off a wonderful show.
When the boys from Minnesota put down their instruments a long and exciting night of music came to an end, this lineup was really one of the best that CMJ had to offer and all of these bands have the potential to be something special, as a few of them already are.  An amazing night of music conducted by a group of friends on stage playing to fans and press alike, however, I have a feeling there could have been three people in attendance and the groups would have still gone balls out, which leaves your faithful narrator excited for the future. 

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