by Steven Pisano
The annual CMJ Music Marathon was in town last week for five days and nights of almost nonstop music in clubs around lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, showcasing a rainbow of music genres including everything from female rap, to K-pop, to Aussie folk, to jangly British shoe-gaze, to... well, you name it, somebody, somewhere, was probably performing it.
There are two approaches to covering such a musical glut. The first is to be promiscuous, wandering club to club. The second is to be monogamous, picking one venue, then sitting back and seeing what comes along on stage.
On the Marathon’s opening night, I chose to go steady with Rockwood Music Hall, mostly because they have three separate stages. First up were the Walking Sticks, from Washington, DC. On their recordings, they have a dreamy synth sound (ok, I’ll say it—they sound like the background music in a hotel breakfast room), but live, they had genuine zest.
Next door were four lads from just south of Liverpool. No, not those four lads, but a group called Hooten Tennis Club. They performed as part of WFUV’s yearly live radio broadcast (you can hear an archived recording here). It’s hard not to fall in love with a band with song titles like "Something Much Quicker Than Anyone but Jennifer Could Ever Imagine." Their songs are observational about the smaller, mundane aspects of life. No big anthems, no overt love songs, just sly, poetic musings, often told as stories, and I found them very appealing.
Downstairs on Stage Three, Marco Foster, a singer and guitar player performed in an almost empty room, accompanied by a piano player in the corner. He sang mostly covers, mimicking originals by Al Green, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor, and others. To me, he just tried too hard.
During the changeover between sets, the room’s tables filled to capacity, and next up was a bright, refreshing group from Australia called Oh Pep! (named after its leaders, Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs). They met while in school when both were fans of Paul Kelly, one of Australia’s biggest stars. Oh Pep! is thoughtful folk music, with guitar and mandolin. They greeted the audience with: “Thank you all for coming out tonight. We actually don’t know all of you…which is kind of exciting.”
That was a wry bit of truth about most of the almost 1000 bands that played CMJ—the people in their audiences were primarily friends and family, not paying patrons, or even music professionals. It sometimes made me wonder why some of these bands actually play such a sprawling festival, since the chances of being “found” are small.
Following Oh Pep!, singer/songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling expressed more promising sentiments when he pridefully said: “This has been a great year. I put out an album on my favorite label. I got engaged to my best girl. And I didn’t need to work a whole lot of shitty jobs and got to just play music.”
Stelling has been named by Rolling Stone as a rising talent to watch. He writes very intense, soulful songs that have some of the pain of country, some of the hopefulness of folk, and some of the grit of rock. He's also a heck of a guitar player. But I kept thinking he definitely needs a new guitar. His current instrument (a vintage 1964 Gibson) looks like a thrift shop find and is literally held together with several straps of tape. His initials and other doodles are scratched into the sound board like graffiti in a bathroom stall.
At the end of the set--and no surprise considering how fiercely he plays that guitar--one of his nylon strings snapped. Stelling adroitly replaced it like a fly fisherman tying a new lure. But the new string popped too, and his 45 minutes of allotted time was almost at an end. So he cursed a little sotto voce, then said, sorry, he couldn’t play the song he intended to sing, without that string. But then he did. And listening to that song, the woman in front of me wept.
More photographs can be found here.