Frederick Foxtrott’s CMJ Music Marathon Review
This year I had three days in my schedule to attend College Music Journal’s annual marathon of music that takes place all across New York City. Over a thousand bands played over 200 venues over the past week. This does not even count the hundreds of unofficial CMJ events featuring a myriad of other shows. As a former server in New York’s late night Meatpacking District, I have come to value my nights and weekends. Now that I have a right and proper day job, I could see three nights of shows in a row. This is unheard of people.
It would have been great to have had the CMJ pass so that I could wander from venue to venue seeing only the bands I personally chose. However, I did not and was left to spectacles that only chance would provide. Sometimes, when I go to shows, I catch the rare opening act that blows my mind, or at least provokes me to think about buying their next EP. Other times I shake my head and wonder what possessed me to show up early yet again. This year at CMJ there was plenty of both scenarios. Over-all it was a great experience. I not only saw some of my favorite bands, but I also got the opportunity to introduce them to others as well. I wasn’t the least bit afraid that I had over hyped them, and they did not disappoint. The following reviews are from my notes, diligently taken over three nights and over many, many beers.
Friday October 19th 2007
Indaba Music Loft
I walked into this PA fellow’s set just as it began. I was happy both to be able to see Eagle Seagull in an extra small venue and to drink free beer, but hearing Peasant, aka Damien Derose, turned out to be another pleasant reason to visit the Indaba loft for CMJ. When we entered the unassuming space, the listeners were quiet and contemplative, listening to his melodic ballads. I learned that he is signed to Paper Garden Records and that he is releasing an album called On the Ground in 2008, which I am eager to hear as soon as possible.
I received a sample of Peasant‘s work from his label and I was very impressed with the recording. His live performance was wrought with delicate and beautiful sunbursts and his demeanor was without pretension or guile. He was simple and deliberate, open but not protracted. I hope to see him again for a longer and more generous display.
By the time Eagle Seagull took to the small makeshift stage, I noticed the temperature in the loft. The heat was beginning to make me uncomfortable. I was unsure as to how Eagle Seagull was going to proceed. It would be hard to dance in a sauna. I pumped some brew from the keg for my fiancée and myself, but it did not seem to cool my sweat factories. The crowd gathered as the band opened their set, bobbing their heads up and down, clearly interested in the music condensing on their skin with waves of heat and perspiration. One gentleman, seated on a couch in front, stood up and said to another seated next to him, “Man these guys are good.” The second man replied from somewhere in the bottom of his belly, “Uh huh!”
Kids leaning against the walls panted like cocker spaniels in the summer heat. The band played what I image to have been an excruciating set. For their part, they did not let the heat impair the music too severely, although I was afraid Austin was going to collapse at one point. Movement was an unappealing concept. Dancing was a meditation on heat stroke survival. But I danced and I sweated. I soaked myself head to toe at this sticky, steamy show. Perhaps if everyone in the joint danced like maniacs it would have been a better experience. Collective masochism could be cool.
Friday October 19th 2007
Arlene’s Grocery (Chicago Showcase)
Tom Schraeder & His Ego
I was especially excited to see the Chicago Showcase this year at CMJ. After all, in the recent past I have lived on both sides of our beloved Windy City. As usual, I arrived to Arlene’s a little early so I grabbed some prosciutto and mussels at a nearby bistro. After dinner I walked into Arlene’s not knowing what to expect. I had never been to the grocery store turned venue before. The bar is cut into two halves, a straight bar and a venue, both of which have a grim aesthetic of dingy neon. By the time my beer was in hand, Tom Schraeder was set to play.
I had heard some positive things about them in response to my promotion of the CMJ Chicago Showcase. One reader wrote, “Tom Schraeder & His Ego are a treat – like Ryan Adams and Gram Parsons, but with some Neil Young grit. I’d be there if I were in NY.” Truth be told, I do not really agree with this assessment. Ryan Adams is in no way represented in this band. If you have an alt-country act, or as I might label, alt honky-tonk, you can’t just compare them with names out of the air and hope they stick. I appreciate the sentiment though. This guy writes heart wrenching songs about love. But the grit involved isn’t a la Neil Young, it is a la Uncle Jesse Duke. But again I appreciate the sentiment- Tom’s Ego is not as clean as Gram Parsons.
Tom Shraeder’s live act was not the most dynamic show of the week. The band’s timing was very loose. At times the drums and melody seemed derailed and out of sync, and the songs were not very well defined from another. There were some Dylan-like moments, but it is an overall failed comparison. It should be said however, that there were aspects of the music that were excellent. One song grooved with strings, while the guitars became introverted and submissive, revealing a much more resplendent potential. The organ sounds projected them into entirely different territory. For five seconds their sound was related to Murder by Death, and it was awesome. Unfortunately the more subtle aspects of Tom and his Ego do not seem to be emphasized often. To my disappointment, the string section was certainly undervalued. Tom Shraeder & His Ego have demonstrated their talent. Now they need to trade in a bit of that steel for a tad more bow.
This was a strange act to review. I think I liked them. Unique Chique concocted a mixture of jazzy elementals with high energy prog-rock. For the Chicagoans out there, they sounded like a more sing-song structured Tortoise. The vocalist had deep pockets of passion, standing among the more sincere performers at this year’s marathon. The problem is that I don’t think he liked his own band. It seemed obvious that this guy took this show very seriously, making the unpopulated room feel as if they weren’t good enough because of its lack of density. This aspect of their show split a hairline fracture through the band.
Unique Chique’s set was cut short, which is a shame because even if the music wasn’t the most amazing thing I had ever heard, they were fun to watch. Ernie the bassist looked to be a hyper-active Dungeons & Dragons playing, trench coat wearing, metal head. His skills were incredible and his awkward, stompish dance proved his commitment to the rhythm and roll of it all. The drummer reminded me of a skinny gold-town swindler whose nickname might be Ratsy or Barth. He had a slick skill with chiseled chops and a swanky style. The drum and bass section were quite the duo. Joe Starita’s lack of interaction with the rest of the musicians was simply odd. I might just have eaten a bad mussel, but the perceived tension definitely impaired the show.
Unfortunately, at this point a few friends arrived and I began to fade in and out of a social coma. I did however catch most of Skybox. The last time I saw this band was at the Subterranean in Chicago. Back then they were dressed in brilliant white suits, projecting an eccentricity both musically and visually. At the showcase, they were comparatively dressed down. I almost didn’t recognize them in the earth-tone attire. But then I heard the music. Skybox has a very extroverted style. A friend turned to me and asked, “What would you call these guys.” I shrugged. In retrospect, vaudevillian berum-pum-pum tat-tat-tat comes to mind. This band is big, stout, and eager to slap your nose with a finger wiggling melodrama. They were off kilter and spastic, a little weird even. Dr. Suess might have had a hand in their warped sense of style. Thankfully Skybox flowed in full flavor.
They took a while to set up and they played for what seemed like an eternity. It may have been the Jack Daniels talking but this band was no more than tedious hippie-rock. Return to social coma…
Head of Femur
Head of Femur came to New York with something to prove. How can a band known for having a multitude of multi-phonic, multilayered, tempo driven textures recombine itself into a rawer, more fundamental creature? Are we witnessing the replication of peacock DNA into that of a sparrow? I am not here to provide an account of Head of Femur’s origins, lore, and exploits, rather I have simply been charged to review their show at this year’s CMJ music marathon. Truth be told I have seen these guys far more as a 5 piece than as a 15 piece band. So hearing songs performed that might otherwise have been adorned with nine part orchestration is not entirely new.
An important item to remember while we contemplate our pleasure or displeasure is how the metamorphosis has imbued or slandered what we have come to know and cherish. Not only this but we must remember that Head of Femur has released a new EP and is set to release a new record in 2008. The very identity of Head of Femur is under review. I am not only speaking of the band mates themselves, but additionally to their ability to successfully negotiate such foundational change. Their appearance at Arlene’s Grocery displayed a band with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and confidence. Make no mistake, Head of Femur know what the fuck they are doing.
The show began with an introduction by a well spoken poet. I wonder if it is a Chicago tradition to be introduced by a poem. It reminded me of the many times I have seen Thax Douglas recite his words to puddles of second citizens. They were dressed to kill and had a decent crowd waiting as they ascended onto the stage. From the first note the energy was high and riddled with intention. A crowd of Neural Scientists dancing in the front row raved about how dreamy the band looked. Even my own fiancée was weak in the knees for this weird, weird band, especially as she said “the cute new keyboardist.”
The music was full, well written, and more alive than ever with hellacious hooks and melodies that did not come off as merely compensation for the inclusion of only four or five instruments. Rather older songs were reconceptualized within a new paradigm and new tunes defined the structure, the style, and the future of that paradigm. Head of Femur are no strangers to change. These kids have reshaped themselves many times, each instance renewing their commitment to all things beautiful and entertaining about obscurity.
Nick Westra’s charm and nonchalance while playing bass wooed the ladies as Colby Starck’s drumming emitted a sexual charisma unrivaled by even the most experienced of Kama Sutra practitioners. Matt Focht and Mike Elsener kept the front of the stage moving as they introduced new tunes to eager ears. Head of Femur is on the move people, and you all need to get with it and give these guys the attention they deserve.