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CMJ Music Marathon 2014: Wednesday Recap

CMJ Music Marathon 2014: Tuesday Recap

by Steven Pisano

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Photo by Steven Pisano

For the last 34 years, the CMJ Music Marathon has presented New York with an overwhelming number of live music performances crammed into just five days. This year, there are over 1,400 bands appearing at more than 80 venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, some trying to get signed to a recording contract, others already with contracts but trying to amp up their profile.

Trying to determine which performers to see from this incredible bounty of music is an impossible task (though CMJ does offer a daily guide of "Top 10 artists to see.") And not feeling any compulsion to see the “coolest” show or the “next big thing” (like getting to say you saw the Beatles in Hamburg), I just jumped in, randomly.

I started at Bowery Electric, down along the Bowery near East 2nd Street. I was there early, around 6:00 pm, so I was not surprised to see there were more people with CMJ credentials hung around their necks standing outside the club smoking than there were people inside. The Map Room on the main floor is a tiny room at the far end of the bar that can seat about a dozen people, if that. And the stage does not face the seating. There really is no way for an audience to see a band here, only hear it. And your best bet for even hearing the music is to actually be a member of the band. Or be the sound guy with frizzy hair parted in the middle who sits arms-length from the stage, adjusting the reverb. In other words, if you've been sent to play in this cramped, dark, afterthought of a space, you've been sent to music Purgatory. It's not quite Hell, but it sure ain't Heaven.

A bearded guy named Fred, wearing a plaid shirt and a plaid hat (and different patterns of plaid at that), was just finishing up his set. I heard him sing a couple of songs, but a day later I can't remember anything about them. He reminded me of some dad with a guitar singing songs at a Saturday program at my kid's school.

It's early, I thought. It’ll get better.


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Photo by Steven Pisano

Next up on stage was Meghann Wright (and her band, the Wrongs). The atmosphere immediately sparked up as Wright launched into a stream of alcohol-fueled songs about love and life, tears and disappointment, like a downtown Bonnie Raitt. Raised in Hawaii, Wright calls Brooklyn home now, and is regularly booked at Lower East Side clubs when she’s in town. Definitely a cut above your average bar band, but still not quite different enough to draw your attention above a teeming sea of similarly talented singer-songwriters. 

After Wright was Lisa Bianco, originally from Queens, who plays guitar with the all-female band Hunter Valentine, but who was here performing solo. She was accompanied only by a piano player named Gabe, who because of the stage configuration was facing away from her all night. (It’s not easy to follow the singer when you can’t see her!)

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Looking a little like Sheryl Crow, Bianco plays a mean guitar, and she let loose with some hot, fast-fingered solos. Her music is pop-rock-heartland, and she sings with a yearning honesty that makes you feel she really means the songs she’s singing. A highlight of the set was a cover of Blondie's classic "Dreaming," a recording for which all profits go to benefit a group called Little Kids Rock, which donates instruments to schools and trains teachers across the country to help support kids' "right to rock." 

Both Wright and Bianco cracked jokes and introduced songs with little stories, as if they were performing for a large, enthusiastic audience, not shunted away into the forlorn little Map Room. I was taking pictures, facing the stage, so I never bothered to look behind me, but when I finally did, there was noone there, save for a man and a woman standing in the doorway. If it were me on that stage, I would have been so depressed performing to…nobody. So, in retrospect, hats off to these ladies for being so professional in their performances even though their audience was basically me and the sound guy with the frizzy hair. (It wasn't until I was leaving that I learned Bowery Electric has a downstairs room that houses their main performance space. Oh well...)

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Photo by Steven Pisano

A walk down Bowery and then over to Allen Street brought me to Rockwood Music Hall, which has three stages in three separate rooms. Hailing from South London, Happyness is a 1990s-style trio - guitarist Benji Compston, bassist Jonny Allan, and drummer Ash Cooper - with an upbeat American indie sound, ready-made for college radio. Indeed, radio station WFUV was streaming the concert live. (You can listen to an archive here.)

The group’s first album, Weird Little Birthday, features songs like "Great Minds Think Alike, All Brains Taste the Same" (not the zombie anthem it sounds like!), "Pumpkin Noir," and "Anything I Do Is All Right,” all of which they performed on Stage 2. Toward the end of the set, the band gave a shout-out to the album’s producer, Adam Lasus, who has worked with bands like Yo La Tengo and The Lilys, saying they actually had never met him. That prompted Lasus to yell out from the back of the crowded room, “I’m here, boys! And you’re playing great!”

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Next door on Stage 1, Shayna Steele was working up the crowd with her powerful and expressive voice. Steele has performed on Broadway in "Rent" and "Hairspray" and recently toured with Rihanna as a supporting singer. Steele sings a mixture of jazz, blues, and R&B, with many originals in the mix. (Her second solo effort will be released in early 2015.) She seemed physically hemmed in by the small stage, which is mostly taken up by the piano, and it was clear she would have liked more space in which to dance around. Imagine Tina Turner trying to sing in your bathroom - or better yet, in your bathtub.

And thus ended my first night at CMJ. I wished I could have stayed out longer and see more shows when the “real” music gets started, after 11:00 pm and into the early morning hours. But it was time to hop on the F train and head back home to Brooklyn.

More photos can be seen here.