Now that posters touting next month’s VH1-sponsored Eurythmics reunion concert at Madison Square Garden have been plastered all over LIRR stations, the writing is literally on the wall: Alternative music is the classic rock of the ’90s, making great fodder for balding DJs at high-school reunions, but having little other relevance.
While this might be news to those of you whose car stereos got stuck on WLIR back when it seemed Clinton would restore dignity to the presidency, the fact that Britney Spears, not Björk, is the current music-biz babe is not exactly shocking. On the other hand, the fact that there are record-industry types out there who are still whining about the decline and fall of alternative music is.
This cultish group of die-hards, who still believe in the gospel according to Perry Farrell, came together last week at the 19th annual CMJ music festival, a downtown Manhattan trade show for those in the music industry who define “alternative” as owning a Sonic Youth T-shirt. Hosted by the Great Neck publishing company College Media Inc., the get-together (panel discussions during daylight hours and club concerts at night) has always acted as a mirror for participants. Sort of like a dysfunctional family reunion at which you can step back, look objectively at your relatives and realize just how fucked you all are.
This year continued that tradition. But while there were just as many ridiculous haircuts, poorly-drawn tattoos and snotty attitudes as before, this time around the vibe of the whole shebang was noticeably different. The buzz wasn’t about the next big breakthrough band; it was about the utter lack of a next big breakthrough band.
Sure, the crowd (comprised of college-radio types, indie-label execs, rock journalists and other “professionals”) tried its best to talk up the lackluster lineups at the nightly CMJ gigs. But when two of the big shows being promoted are Cheap Trick and Willie Nelson, there can be no denying that the times, to quote another musical geezer, they are a-changin’.
Simply put, alternative music (or college rock, or new music, or whatever label you want to slap on it) is never going to relive its glory days of a decade ago, when Smashing Pumpkins, REM and Nirvana moved millions of units. Still, even taking this into consideration, all the angst at CMJ seems somewhat silly. Despite the reality that no one’s gonna get rich jumping on Beck’s bandwagon these days, the raison d’être behind the CMJ convention remains much the same as ever: To provide kids working at college stations and interning at two-bit record companies across the nation with an excuse to hang out in the East Village for an extended weekend and use expense accounts to hone their binge drinking.
That said, most yet-to-be-discovered bands still find it worthwhile to participate in the proceedings. In fact, while it’s debatable whether an appearance at CMJ amounts to anything more than fond memories for most acts, the competition to capture a performance slot is fierce. For Long Island bands, the prospect of CMJ success is especially alluring. Coming from a place a little too close to New York City to easily declare itself as musically distinct, but a little too far away to bask in the reflected glory of the rock mecca, Nassau and Suffolk musicians can use a spot at a CMJ show to bring a little respect back to the ‘hood.
This year, the home team included Handsome Boy Modeling School (led by Amityville’s own hip-hop genius Prince Paul), cult hero Mike “Sport” Murphy and punk posterboys Error Type:11 (who garnered the much coveted title of “CMJ Featured Band”). Judging from the caliber of groups they shared various stages with, who ranged from truly shitty to moderately talented, these Island outfits made a strong showing. Thanks to them, at next year’s convention it may just be possible to introduce yourself as being from Long Island without catching hell about Debbie Gibson. —Valerie Acklin
MAKE NO MISTAKE—ET: 11 ROCKS LIKES NOBODY’S BUSINESS
Somewhere near the top of the CMJ-fest sewage stream this Saturday night, deftly navigating the debris of buzz-bands, badges and guest lists like a speeding car in a school zone on Route 25A, comes Error Type:11.
Teamed with Hot Water Music at the Some Records showcase at Westbeth, ET:11, comprised of New York’s new favorite sons (from Douglaston, Amityville and other environs), comes to play the game. They just aren’t delusional about it. There’s no false humility or feigned minimalism involved. Very uncool. Every step of the way is unabashedly calculated.
It’s simply not acceptable to be so full of yourself these days. Artie Shepherd, ET:11’s notorious frontman, couldn’t care less. He leads the charge at this show, a textbook example of how to fit arena-sized rock attitude in front of a few hundred friends and fans at a sold-out club on the West Side of Manhattan.
As the four-man band files onstage to the tune of “The Firebird Suite” (the same music that Yes used in the ’70s as its walk-on theme), the shrieking welcome of young girls is almost overpowering. Each member is uniformly clad in black, an effective contrast to the upbeat and melodic anthems in store.
Guitar in hand, Shepherd accosts the crowd—”What’s fucking up?”—to renewed cheering. Some girls close to the front whisper to each other and point. It would be nauseating if it all weren’t so appropriate. ET:11 has all but engineered a true rock concert.
“We like to do it that way,” Shepherd says later, “and besides, it’s so much different than all the other bands.” He’s right, too. Some of the other acts appearing on the bill, like Kill Holiday and Boy Sets Fire, downplay their own performances to the extent that it seems they’re embarrassed to even be here. Shit, Artie Shepherd is known more for mimicking Robert Plant’s demeanor than Eddie Vedder’s. You got a problem with that?
It’s been a year of mixed blessings for Error Type:11. Five tours, most notably this summer’s jaunt with their label mates, carved the band into the hearts and memories of young emo-rockers across the country. “I bring the arena wherever I go,” says Shepherd of his uniformly haughty stage presence, be it in a club, bar or basement in the middle of nowhere.
A few months earlier they supported a successful European tour for the veterans of Samiam. This sort of traveling, though it is the backbone of any self-respecting young rock group, can take its toll. But what did not ruin Error Type:11 has only made the band more determined to be rewarded for their efforts. And Error Type:11 remains in on the joke. “We don’t play shows for industry people,” Shepherd says as he and the boys prepare to play a big industry show this night. “We pay shows for kids who want to see us.” If, of course, they can get tickets.
Opening the set with two proven crowd-pleasers, “Take a Bow” and “Adventures in Conversation” (both from ET:11’s self-titled debut LP), is another clever move. The faithful can’t help but sing along. The crowd shouts the verse: “Set ’em up, knock ’em down,” and Shepherd’s microphone becomes superfluous for the rest of the song. Eric Matheu strikes a nearly casual pose behind the drums, while guitarist Phil Hanratty and bassist Adam Marino remain on their feet but seem equally relaxed.
Shepherd, meanwhile, comports himself like a true headliner—that is, were he headlining over, say, the Rolling Stones. At times I wonder if the people around me, many of them ex-hardcore scenesters, actually get the point or if they mistake his arrogance for some sort of faux-pas. “I don’t care,” he says. “The spotlight’s on me. I’m the star. Everyone else can fuck off.”
“I Hope All Your Dreams Come True” is announced as the last song. It’s the very first song Error Type:11 ever wrote together.
“Do any of you guys own our first record?” Shepherd asks, drawing the obligatory cheers. “This is the last song on it. We’re retiring this one after tonight.”
Minutes later, the last line is sung: “I never did anything wrong.” Now you dispense with being humble and just rock-the-fuck-out, well…how could you make a mistake? —Artie Philie
THE SICKENING TRIUMPH OF MIKE ‘SPORT’ MURPHY
As I watched the sun rise from my seat by the windows of Long Island Jewish Medical Center’s ER, it occurred to me that Mike “Sport” Murphy’s show at Thread Waxing Space was much like the bout of food poisoning that I was being treated for. It was intense, painful and riveting, with moments of humor and touches of out-of-body otherworldliness that I had never experienced before.
Feeling drunk before 8 p.m. is never a good omen. Feeling drunk before 8 p.m. when you haven’t tossed back anything stronger than Diet Snapple all day is even worse. I should’ve turned around when these thoughts crossed my mind last Friday, but disembarking onto the sidewalk on lower Broadway was no small feat, considering I was already starting to see double. While I waited on the line for CMJ badge holders, a kid with spiky hair the color of Granny Smith apples laughed at my obvious discomfort and joked that my face had turned the same shade as his ‘do. I wanted to chuck all over his platform Doc Martens, but I didn’t want to get booted before checking out the acts that I’d already suffered so much to see.
The evening offered five bands representing Kill Rock Stars, a small Washington state label that dabbles in the fringes of numerous genres. The company’s roster is so diverse that it’s impossible to define a KRS sound, but there’s definitely a KRS feel: a guitar-oriented earnestness that gives its wide array of acts an art-for-art’s-sake genuineness that’s nearly impossible to come by these days.
Sixties girl-group heroine Ronnie Spector and punky popsters Bratmobile were the headliners, but my reason for being, former Skels frontman Murphy, had just hit the stage when I made it up to the second-floor performance space. Because the entrance to the room is actually behind the stage, the first thing that hits you is the glare and heat from the stage lights. The second thing that hits you is the realization that there is absolutely no air conditioning in the joint. That winning combination forced me to spend the first two numbers of Sport’s set in the ladies room, in a failed attempt to keep nausea at bay. Rationalizing that since I was already presenting the symptoms of a wicked hangover I might as well drink, I downed a $6 can of tepid Rolling Rock and settled into one of the folding chairs at the back of the room.
Murphy, a Ronkonkoma singer/songwriter (and Long Island Voice contributor) took scraps from a variety of sources and wove them together into a magic carpet ride that transported the audience to intimate scenes, embarrassing incidents and self-defining moments. While my impending death, which at that particular moment didn’t seem so far off, is rarely a source of amusement for me, Sport’s ability to mix the profound with the pathetic on songs such as “The Night Surrounds” had me smiling. Although his poetry is influenced heavily by his heroes Charles Ives and Stephen Foster, Sport never sounded derivative during the set, which included tracks from his impressive debut solo disc, Willoughby. The everyday brilliance of his work was enthralling, without being overwhelming. I simply leaned back in my chair and listened:
Kettles will be whistling to proclaim, with shrill insistence, an impending cup of Sanka
Someone will be hearing [and, presumably, enjoying] something written by Paul Anka
Dogs will be forsaken and taken to the pound on the day they lay your body in the ground
A rock band will be praying for that single A&R guy who appreciates true genius
Someone in love will croon to someone who’s already leaving: “I hope nothing comes between us”
Flags the wide world over will fly high atop the mast when that day comes to pass.
Towards the end of the song I shimmied my way up front to see just who were the individuals producing this lush soundscape. Sport himself was a gentle giant on the postage stamp-sized stage. With a performance style that falls somewhere in between Jim Morrison and Joe Cocker, he acts out many of his scenarios using wild hand gestures and facial expressions, then suddenly switches gears and crouches down low with his back facing the audience. The opposing styles made for a perfect accompaniment to complex melodies that swapped Motown grooves and dissonant jazzy riffs with punk rhythms and pop melodies without missing a beat.
For numbers such as “The Dilettante Ball” and “Pulling Out of Amy,” Sport’s backing band, the Sound-Sations, contributed vibrant Moog undertones and wailing harmonica interludes that added accent to his compositions. Although I couldn’t help wishing that they rocked with the intense power and emotion that Sport’s songs deserve, the sextet played solidly, allowing Sport to concentrate on his raspy, rambling singing and sound effects.
While I tried valiantly to concentrate on what Sport was howling about on stage, I ended up slumped against the piss-poor, starving-artist canvases that line the wall of the club, passing in and out of consciousness. —VA