Competing With Life

Annual clusterfuck pulls in hordes except when it doesn't

A caveat: I can't handle these clusterfucks of industry. The glossy flyers, demos, Scion ads masquerading as street mags—all leeching to "music." So generally I avoid festivals as I do my exes who live in Texas.

Maybe I'm just showing my age, unable to endure parades of indistinguishable bands and whiskey on the rocks till 6 a.m. like I used to, scaling it back to 4 a.m. now. Four years of l'Austin living, and I always dodged South by Southwest, as the city was suddenly overrun with coiffed coastal labelheads, green-haired PR, rawk lawyers, long lines of glass-eyed kids, and somewhere at the end of it all, musicians too plastered to play their ho-hum songs in a half-hour slot.

Never as concentrated or geographically constrained as SXSW, CMJ's throng thins each year. Whether it's Atkins or indie-rock atrophy, outside events—be it Usher and Kanye, the Sounds Like Now Festival, or hell, the Vice party—are more danceable, daring, and drunken. Wednesday's bands even lost out to the boob tube, as the despised Dubya and BoSox kept folks more impassioned and homebound.

Mu (a/k/a Mutsumi Kanamori), best karaoke singer of the festival
photo: Cary Conover
Mu (a/k/a Mutsumi Kanamori), best karaoke singer of the festival

Ageless Sonic Youth tethered the CMJ Opening Party at Irving Plaza by playing the new stuff, while Thurston goofed, throwing his gangly frame off the stage as if it were 1991 all over again. Dusting off the vintage "White Kross," they melted it into a feedback fountain of . . . you know, youth. Then Wednesday's Bowery crowd was modest for Austin's fresh SOUND team, a six-piece so clean-cut, sweet, and crisp you could almost eat their perfect pop. Hungry out-of-towners circled with business cards soon after.

Slipping into something more grizzly and aged, the Knit's Tap bar was similarly sparse that night for German free-fire saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and his trio, who turned jazz into plasma by way of electronics and sheer physicality. Having gone at it for four decades now, he blew out the anemic pop of the Absolute Kosher showcase upstairs in a single breath.

Maybe indie-rock could incorporate new beats and karaoke moves. Gang Gang Dance (Irving, Wednesday), while not exactly catchy, flashed a new-wave edge while sounding like a wasted night of Cocteau Twins crooning in a Taiwanese bar, all blurry 4AD lushness and synths set to dis-orient. Down in an empty CB's Gallery, Canadian Jake Fairley faked techno-Ramones on the mic, deadpanning about quaaludes over his ceaseless thump. Best karaoke singer of the festival was Mu (a/k/a Mutsumi Kanamori) screaming over a CD of twisted fun-house music made by her absentee producer-husband, Maurice Fulton. Bawk-bawking about Paris Hilton while writhing around in "Like a Virgin" revelry, she flashed the crowd her Union Jack panties.

At the Avalon, a collegiate badge holder asked midset Thursday if John Cale was playing yet. A few seconds later, I identified the elder of rock and the avant-garde for him. Cale only whipped out the violin (and VU cred) for "Venus in Furs," preferring instead to sample strings and his own catalog. Still literate, classical, classy, Cale's band simmered underneath his extended, bleak Welsh tales, as well as Nico's "Frozen Warnings." For "Gun," the noir was slowly cooked down to a gurgling tar of strangled guitar and throats.

Oneida, seniors on the Williamsburg campus (or as the law was decreed in Dazed and Confused: "I get older, they stay the same age"), thickened the already swampy and packed confines of Tonic on Thursday with their hallucinatory chug. Locking into "Each One, Teach One," the trio was as precise, clamorous, and intoxicating as a night in the Brooklyn Brewery bottle factory.

Friday night, Sunn O)))), cloaked in druid hoodies and bathed in red lights, gave the Bowery crowd that distinct sensation of irritable bowel syndrome, their Moog rumbles and drop tunings resonating over their Metamucilstopheles sludge. It was followed by the anthemic hyperbole and volatile pretension of . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Their New York shows always double as an Austin expat convention, where faces of the past re-emerge, and party again as if mere nights—not years—have passed. It's also an excuse for this year's Siren Festival co-headliners to get even more soused and sloppy.

The Dead hauled the audience up onstage to render their finale of "Richter Scale Madness" anticlimactic, as the real epiphany had come two songs earlier, when the majestic emo-goth of "Aged Dolls" dissolved into feedback and instrument-smashing. Guitar shrapnel flew, and fresh blood was drawn from the front row. For an instant, I was back in a small, sweaty club deep in the heart of Texas, when everything still felt dangerous and new.

 
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