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CMJ Music Marathon 2014: The Kills, Slothrust, Nuns and Moon Duo @ Bowery Ballroom

by Steven Pisano

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Last Thursday's CMJ Music Marathon showcase at the Bowery Ballroom featured four very different bands, united by their love of Rock. Openers Slothrust was formed at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010. Lead singer Leah Wellbaum has a voice that should earn her a lot of attention: she can rock out, she can scream, but she can also be quite funny the way she deadpans lines. When she pulled her blonde hair back, she looked like a fresh-scrubbed farmer's daughter, with a playful, teasing look in her eye. But most of the time, she preferred to drape her hair over half of her face, like an introverted middle schooler skipping school to smoke and ride in cars with high school boys. Other times, when she wasn't smiling, there was an almost dark, faraway look in her eyes—like the distant stare of shell-shocked soldiers.

All of these looks were reflected in Slothrust's music, much of which came from their new release Of Course You Do. (My favorite opening line was: “I’m going to leave you anyway”, from "7:30 AM.") With a background playing jazz and blues, there is confident musicianship underneath the band’s surface grunge. Their cover of The Turtles' relentlessly cheery "Happy Together" started off faithfully before the music suddenly got dark, the guitars started to growl, and Wellbaum started screaming. Sunny and innocent love turned into nightmarish and uncontrollable need. And then just as suddenly, the band was all happy again. 

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Nuns, out of Tulsa, OK, dressed all in black like they were back at CBGB's in the 80s. They've only been playing live shows since the start of this year, yet somehow got to tour with The Kills this past summer, which led to their appearance on this bill. Lead singer Hank Hanewinkel wrote all the songs and played all of the instruments on the band’s first album, Opportunities, released this past summer. Hanewinkel then assembled a group of musicians, including his sister Christy on drums, in order to perform the album live. 

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Moon Duo comes from the San Francisco area, which might be apparent to anyone listening to their long, repetitive jams of psychedelic space rock. The band was formed in 2009 as a personal project between keyboardist Sanae Yamada and guitarist Ripley Johnson, who's also a member of the equally spacey Wooden Shjips. As if on cue, the set began in complete darkness and the packed audience surged towards the stage. Everyone got packed in real tight. Then, the music began, along with a trippy light show that drenched the Bowery stage and hid the performers from view. There was singing, but words could not be distinguished above the riffing guitar work of Johnson and the powerful kick drum. (I was standing a couple of feet from the stage and I thought someone kept touching me, the vibrations were that visceral.) There was a sexual tension built up in the pounding, rhythmic music, which became only more evident when Johnson’s guitar kept disconnecting from the amp and the audience experienced musicus interruptus.


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Photo by Steven Pisano

Finally, it was time for the act everyone was waiting for—The Kills. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, who have been performing together since 2001, have had their recordings received favorably by critics. But, this is a band that can bring the roof down when performing live, and their recordings just don’t measure up to their volcanic energy on stage. Mosshart’s soul seems to live back in the punk scene of the mid-70s, and on stage she channels energy from inside the music in a way that few singers can. And at 5’9”, skinny as a model (which she has done some work at), and prancing around the stage Mick Jagger-like, she is compelling to watch. The guy next to me kept reaching out his hand toward the stage, pining “Al-i-son!,” hoping she would reach out and touch him. She never did, though she frequently knelt down at the lip of the stage, within reach of the first row. The Kills is one live show you should definitely go see the next time they come your way.

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Photo by Steven Pisano

More photos here.