The leaves on the trees in New York City (yes, there are some trees in New York) are starting to change colors and fall to the ground which only means one thing – the CMJ Music Marathon. For those of you not familiar with the CMJ Music Marathon, it is 5 urban days packed with music. Over 1,400 performances take place in over 80 venues throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, many within a short distance of one another. You will not find the same headliners from the summer festival circuit. Instead you will find many artists that you’ve never even heard of, along with others that are just beginning to emerge. Discovery of new music is the main goal of the marathon. Bands that have emerged during the CMJ Marathon in the past ten years include; Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Hot Chip, M.I.A., MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Passion Pit, and Mumford & Sons. In the past three years alone you would have been able to see acts such as Avicii, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes, Gotye, Icona Pop, and Foxygen.
Those who endure this 5-day journey are often rewarded with stellar sets from artists giving it their all in turn for a shot at more exposure. A massive amount of media coverage is applied to this festival each year, and many other musicians and music insiders alike can be spotted at all of the venues. Additionally, this week serves as a perfect time for established acts to make appearances and this year was no different as both Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire announced rare gigs in front of their highly anticipated new albums.
With the sheer amount of live performances that are available to see in this one week, it is impossible for any single person to cover it all. All you can do is plan ahead, circle some of your favorite shows, and always have a backup plan! What follows below is my account from the 2013 CMJ Marathon . . .
My marathon started at Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 2. This venue, which has two other performing spaces as well, is nestled in the middle of a thriving music scene in the Lower East Side and is the perfect jumping point to several other venues. It also helps that it is one of the more intimate and comfortable spaces that you can find in the city. The London based 5-piece band Duologue was the first act that I caught in this venue. Like many of the acts that I would go on to see this week, I knew very little of this band beforehand. My first impression when they jumped into their set was that they sound like Radiohead circa early 2000’s. Lead singer Tom Digby-Bell’s falsetto is a dead ringer for Thom Yorke’s distinct vocals, and the choppy beats and overdrive backing it up solidifies the previous comparison. Even some of the songs themselves bear uncanny resemblance to Radiohead tracks; check out “Get Out While You Can,” which is a dead ringer for Amnesiac’s “I Might Be Wrong.”
Duologue’s “Get Out While You Can”
This comparison of course is all in high praise of Duologue, as they have complete mastery over these songs. There are a lot of different effects and sounds created to provide the complete atmosphere in each song and the entire band is hard at work with various petals and loops to establish their sound. A dramatic tension is constructed during their sets that keeps the level of intrigue high throughout the show. This is definitely a worthwhile band to check out and their live show does a great job of bringing these complex and moody songs to life.
My next stop of the night was the Bowery Ballroom, just a few blocks away who were hosting the Talkhouse Showcase. This showcase was headlined by Norwegian pop darling Sondre Lerche, and also featured performances from Luke Temple from Here We Go Magic, Teen, and Wet. I arrived for the very last song from Teen, a female foursome based in Brooklyn who produce a dreamy and laidback sound. Their set seemed like a good transition into Luke Temple’s which followed shortly after.
Luke Temple’s own sound doesn’t differ much from that of his band, Here We Go Magic, but the overall mood seems to be a little less spacey which actually helps some of the songs out greatly. There is a good pop sensibility to his own material and a very lighthearted nature to it. Tracks like “Florida” definitely convey this feeling, as a bouncy bass line introduces the song. Despite the lyrics being a little less sunny than the mood, this song still finds an easy way to get inside of your head.
Luke Temple’s “Florida”
Luke Temple’s set certainly established a jovial mood at the Bowery Ballroom, which was taken to further heights with Sondre Lerche. This was my first time seeing the Norwegian singer-songwriter, whom I had first become familiar with from his work producing the score of the movie Dan in Real Life in 2007. Lerche has enjoyed a decent level of success ever since the release of his debut album, Faces Down, which was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the top 50 albums of 2002. His songwriting borrows from some of the best of the craft and the voice that he provides to his tracks makes them very easy to listen to and become immediately engaged.
Sondre Lerche’s set from the Talkhouse Showcase was a great introduction to his music as he played selections spanning his entire career. Lerche seemed like one of the most genuinely likeable musicians and is completely at ease while on stage. Songs like “Hands Are Shaking” and “Two Way Monologue” display Lerche at his finest and leave you excited to see and hear more.
As mentioned above, one of the most important aspects of the CMJ Music Marathon is the ability to make last minute substitutions for events when necessary. Trying to fit everything into your schedule can be a difficult task but flexibility will ultimately be what allows you to last through the week. When I got an invitation earlier in the day for a press screening of Ben Stiller’s directorial film debut, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I figured that it would be a pleasant way to transition into the evening as well as a good way of resting my legs for a few hours.
I knew nothing about this movie prior to watching the trailer that came along with the invite. A good soundtrack and breathtaking visuals are typically enough to get me to sit through a movie, but I was very pleasantly surprised with what I saw. Based off of a 1939 short story from James Thurber, the movie follows Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) who is constantly dreaming up alternate scenarios and adventures in his head until a point where it is difficult to discern the differences between reality and imagination. Kristen Wiig fills in nicely as the romantic interest and the movie also features Adam Scott, Sean Penn, and several other notable actors. You’ll get the chance to see the movie this Christmas when it is released nationwide.
Following the movie, I decided to stay in the Chelsea neighborhood and check out the Ooh La La showcase at the Highline Ballroom. I arrived right in time for Lou Doillon, who is a French model, actress, and singer. There was a huge French presence at this concert as she has amassed quite the following in her native country and many were singing along all throughout the set, despite all of the lyrics being in English. Her debut album, Places, was released this past Spring, and she performed several of these songs at the Highline Ballroom. She often times sung about personal experiences and took several opportunities to connect with the crowd. Her backing band created a very full sound to accompany her folksy style of singing. At times she evokes Patti Smith or Fiona Apple – despite having the looks of a model, her songs express a vulnerability which makes her very human on stage.
Jonathan Rado’s “Faces”
On Thursday night, I found myself back at the Bowery Ballroom for the Domino Records Showcase. This night was headlined by Real Estate, and featured sets from Jonathan Rado & the Gentlemen Jets, Hookworms, and Piano Movers. I arrived before Jonathan Rado and managed to get a spot directly in front of the stage for this performance. I had first been seen Rado perform on the very same stage at last year’s CMJ Marathon with his other band Foxygen, who were one of the biggest breakouts from that festival. Seeming as if they were lifted straight from the 60’s, Foxygen completely blew me away. The swagger that the frontman, Sam France, possessed combined with the intricate songs and atmosphere created by Rado was one of the best surprises of the past year.
It is rather impressive that Rado has already released his own album of material in the same year that Foxygen’s debut was released. The intricacy that is present in Foxygen’s Take the Kids Off of Broadway can definitely be found in Rado’s Law and Order. When seeing Rado perform these live, it helps your understanding of what goes into each track. While Rado’s songs certainly hold up on their own, they lack that energy that is added from frontman Sam France in Foxygen. This statement mostly applies to their live show as it was much more sedate than one of those of Rado’s other band.
Following Jonathan Rado & the Gentlemen Jets was the headliner of the evening, Real Estate. The beachy band from nearby Ridgewood, New Jersey came onto the stage around 11 pm to a sold out Bowery Ballroom. Real Estate has two full LPs to date that have both been received very well by the indie mainstream. They were one of the more ‘high profile’ acts to play the CMJ Marathon this year and their laid back tunes had everybody on the floor swaying in unison. The set opened with “Easy,” which is the title track off of their most recent album Days. “Easy” pretty much sums up Real Estate in a nutshell. Their demeanor on stage is very casual and laid back. This of course matches their sound which is akin to lying on a beach with waves crashing in the distance.
“It’s Real” and “Beach Comber” were other highlights from the set, which spanned all of Real Estate’s releases as well as material from their forthcoming album expected in early 2014. The overall live experience is much like the studio experience, but much more immersive. The looping guitars swirl around you in the live setting, making you yearn for summer days. With a new album on it’s way, you can expect to see Real Estate bringing the beach party on the road for some time to come.
When the weekend comes around for the CMJ Music Marathon you can always expect big things. With plenty of highly anticipated albums to be released in the final months of 2013, a few shows seemed to generate an unnatural amount of buzz. Although they weren’t under the CMJ Music Marathon umbrella, both Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire announced that they would be playing at separate venues in Brooklyn on Friday and Saturday night. Arcade Fire, under the pseudonym “The Reflektors” announced that they would be playing a “secret” show for around 2,000-3,000 people at a warehouse space in Brooklyn. Tickets for this concert went unnaturally fast although there seemed to be no shortage of available tickets on StubHub and Craigslist. These concerts were in anticipation of their forthcoming album, Reflektor, and the crowd was encouraged to come dressed in costume and formal attire.
Pearl Jam, on the other hand, had announced that they would be playing their first NYC area shows in 3 years a few months prior to the Barclays Center shows. These shows also sold out very quickly, and with their new album Lightning Bolt being released the same week, the timing couldn’t have been better. I was lucky enough to score tickets to the Friday night Pearl Jam concert at Barclays. This of course interfered some with seeing CMJ showcases, but I wasn’t going to relinquish my first opportunity to see a band that I’ve loved for over 20 years live.
Real Estate’s “Wonder Years”
Having been to Barclays Center several times since it’s opening just over 13 months ago, I can easily say that this was the most crowded that I have ever seen it. With the entire 360 degrees of seating being utilized in addition, Barclays Center was definitely near it’s capacity. No openers were on the bill either, giving Pearl Jam complete control of the arena for the evening. In complete darkness, the members of Pearl Jam took to the stage, as the opening notes of the dark and moody new track, “Pendulum” began to ring. Frontman Eddie Vedder had complete command of the audience from the moment they stepped on stage. His grainy vocals combined with Mike McCready’s prowess on guitar completely captivate the audience. Pearl Jam quickly went from one of their newest tracks to a fan favorite from their debut album Ten with “Release.” Even with some of their quieter tracks, the noise level was cacophonous as thousands were gleefully singing along.
With over 10 studio albums released over a span of 23 years, Pearl Jam has established themselves as one of the greatest bands to come from the 90’s. They continued to pick songs spanning their deep catalog as they went into “Elderly Woman Sitting Behind the Counter in a Small Town” from Vs. next. The energy in the arena never dipped below what it was from the outset of the evening. For a band to play over 30 songs in 3 hours and have the crowd in complete awe throughout speaks volumes about this band. Very few currently touring acts have the power to pull this off.
By the end of the evening, Pearl Jam had played 8 songs from their new album with highlights being “Infallible” and “Sirens.” The new songs were very well received in the live setting and even enhance the experience of going back to listen to Lightning Bolt. It’s amazing how this band continues to mature and evolve and Pearl Jam offers a stark contrast to the acts that performing at the CMJ Music Marathon.
What the CMJ Music Marathon gives you is emerging artists. Almost all musicians and bands start small, this 5 day marathon provides them with a platform for exposure. While you may not now the names of the bands that you’re seeing today, a year from now – or even 20 years from now, you could be reflecting on the time that you saw them in their early days in an intimate setting in New York City.
Written By Jesse Zryb
OurVinyl | Senior Writer & Photographer