CMJ 09: A Crash Mansion Affair
The CMJ showcases I saw this year certainly had their ups and downs
Both of the CMJ events I saw this year successfully captured the spirit of independent music, both in good ways and bad. My first experience with CMJ was Tuesday October 20th at Crash Mansion. This is a really cool room. It's downstairs in a low, dimly lit basement with clean modern furnishings, very few lights and a swanky, quirky bar. A hand-written sign on the beer tap reads, "No draught beers, Ever!" and the best deal in the house is a shot of bourbon with a beer ($8). According to the bartender, the keg lines are twisted somewhere and they can't seem to find the problem. As my friend and I settled in with a round of drinks, the air of alcohol-soaked hipster swagger edged on overwhelming. It was an odd, but entirely appropriate feeling for the show.
The dank atmosphere belied the high quality sound system and well-appointed, though small, stage. This is one of the few small clubs I've seen with a good monitoring system for the band and equally good speakers for the audience. The first artist I saw was Sydney Wayser and her band. The foursome had a tight groove and pulled off complex rhythms and vocal harmonies flawlessly. I especially enjoyed the upright bass playing; he was able to lock in an opposing rhythm and lay down the groove like cement. Sydney played the keys and sang beautifully. Her clean, melodic voice is reminiscent of Lilly Allen.
After a long interlude of depressingly bad comedy from the emcee, Family Of The Year took the stage. All the way from L.A., their music sounds like Jackie Greene and Ben Kweller at a whiskey-fueled jam session. The simple, though rock-solid chord changes and male-female vocal call-and-response reveals a strong background in American folk music. This six-member crew just barely fit on the stage and though they played a very strong set, seemed to fight for monitor space. Especially good were the vocal duets from the lead female singer and the male guitarist who sang together in crisp harmony. The crowd response to this band was very positive. They were the only band that really got the people moving.
The last act I saw, after another very long set break, was Denise Barbarita and her band. Having heard a lot about this group, I was excited to see them in action. Their music was about anger and angst. With songs like, "I Don't Like You," and the ironically dubbed, "Happy Happy," the lyrics and music were fast, loud and somewhat depressing. Unfortunately, the crowd seemed upset as well, and thinned out during this set. A few of the songs featured Barbarita excreting strange sounds from her guitar with a violin bow a la Jimmy Page. She has a powerful voice that conveys her message very well and the lead guitar playing provides a powerful support. The lead guitar payer, in fact, was the highlight of this band. He played loud Hendrix-esque, blues driven, licks that seared my eardrums the way only shredding guitar can. The band overall smacks of The Hives with more electricity. They have a new record due to be released in January and their music is featured in an independent film called "How To Grow An Olive Tree."
The second CMJ showcase I attended was right next door to Crash Mansion at BLVD. This club is much more upscale than its basement counterpart (they are actually two sections of the same club). The first act of the night was British singer/songwriter Nick Howard. His ear-catching acoustic driven tunes sounded a bit like Jason Mraz. He was accompanied by another acoustic player who added beautiful melodic patterns and color to this singer's clean and clear voice. Next up was another singer/songwriter, Alyson Greenfield. This musician has a distinctive and unique sound coupled with an in-your-face attitude. She mixes poppy electro-beats and melodies with her unique voice and psychedelic lyrics. Alyson has the rare ability to change styles from song to song while maintaining a high quality sound. While one song may harken hip hop beats from the 80's, another tune will sound more like piano rock.
The final artist of the night was Kirsten DeHaan. Although an indie rocker at heart, Kirsten ties in elements of other genres like country and folk music. Her set began late but started to rock right away. She wasted no time getting the crowd going while she showcased songs from her latest album, "Thorns On A Crown." The single from that album, "1984," was the biggest highlight of her showcase. The tune continued to build throughout its duration and the hook was inescapable.
The CMJ showcases I saw this year certainly had their ups and downs, but overall, they were successful and ended on a great note.
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