Here Are the Best Bands We Saw at the 2015 CMJ Music Marathon

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CMJ typically has festival-goers crossing the Williamsburg Bridge with a dizzying frequency over the course of its five days, and this year’s edition — its 35th — was no exception. From Kate Nash’s last-minute set at the Bowery Ballroom to Elvis Guesthouse’s consistent at-capacity status to the newly constructed stage in the confines of a former car wash on Lorimer that played house to Perfect Pussy, Protomartyr and more, bands filled whatever expanse they could find with ear-splitting screams, body-massaging bass and tinnitus-inducing riffs.  

Martin Courtney

Entering the Rockwood Music Hall on CMJ’s opening night, the question lingered: How will Martin Courtney pivot from Real Estate? Courtney is the latest member of the fantastic Brooklyn-based surf/garage rock band to venture out on his own, following a path carved by Ducktails and Alex Bleeker & the Freaks, and his debut album, Many Moons, sees its release on October 30. As the curious shuffled inside the club, they were met with a couple of familiar faces setting up onstage, including Real Estate’s keyboardist, Matt Kallman, and Wood’s multi-instrumentalist, Jarvis Taveniere. But at the center, delicately tuning his acoustic Martin guitar, was Courtney.

When on his own, Courtney displays some of Real Estate’s grooviest qualities, from the wholesome lyrics that detail a nostalgic yearning for his New Jersey suburban past to his mastering of the mid-tempo rhythm that casts body-swaying spells. Taveniere produced Many Moons, and his deep, melodic bass lines gave an extra peppiness to Courtney’s mellow vocals. One of their final moments was a cover of Pavement’s “Major Leagues” and Courtney and Co. nailed each of the Nineties gem’s subtle characteristics, including the obscure electronic ending. This set was only the band’s second time playing together but their tight coordination and performance verified Courtney’s leadership. – Silas Valentino

Ezra Furman & the Boy Friends

In a raucous headlining set for Panache Booking’s showcase at the Knitting Factory on Wednesday, Ezra Furman proved why his brand of snarling glam-punk goes above and beyond mere posturing and into essential territory. Clad in a plaid school-girl skirt, with pearls around his neck and lipstick on his face, the purple-haired, gender-fluid Furman delivered a series of three songs mid-set that were clear game-changers. The first, “Body Was Made,” is a vitriolic fuck-you to body police; he dedicated it to “all the queers.” That was followed promptly by “Wobbly,” possibly one of the truest odes to gender dysphoria ever penned. But it was a rollicking rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” that placed these personal protests back within a musical milieu, reminding the crowd that music has been about rebellion for a long, long time now. Furman is brilliant at using his art to examine the possibilities of a post-gender reality. — Lindsey Rhoades

The Joy Formidable

You don’t have to be able to decipher a Welsh accent to get the enthusiasm and sheer joy Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan was hurling out to the crowd at Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday night. (Pretty sure “FOOKIN'” is a variation on a word that requires no translation, and Bryan’s banter embraced that phrase a-plenty in between songs.) The Joy Formidable were eager to share new material off their forthcoming album, (working title) Hitch, with their long-since-satiated New York fans. Bouncing between the new stuff and the stadium-fillers from 2011’s The Big Roar and its follow-up, 2013’s Wolf’s Law, Bryan, bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas were confessionary and cool as hell as they got personal (Bryan introduced one track as a song she and Dafydd had written about their break-up) and loud (with “Whirring,” their anthemic, career-launching hit). Sometimes, straightforward rock is just the ticket, and Brooklyn Bowl certainly benefited from that of Northern Wales at CMJ. — Hilary Hughes

Empress Of

After a rather irksome set from Australian provocateur Kirin J Callinan ran nearly an hour over his scheduled slot (partly due to de rigueur CMJ technical difficulties; partly due to Callinan’s insufferable antics), Lorely Rodriguez was all business, hustling to set up her equipment like the pro she is and sound-checking in record time. Her hustle is part of the reason why her recording project, Empress Of, has garnered such buzz of late, but her vital, unflinching debut LP Me certainly helps cement that legacy, too. With live keys and drums provided by back-up players, Rodriguez was free to shimmy and sing, delivering “Standard” and “Make Up” with buoyant sexuality, all while reminding the audience that she’s the one controlling that aspect of her onstage performance. With smash single “Kitty Kat,” she coyly delivers the line, “Don’t kitty, kitty kat me like I’m just your pussy” without skipping a beat. Dev Hynes grooved along from the sidelines of the Cameo Gallery stage; if the Blood Orange producer has signed off on your project by waving his arms in the air, that’s when you know you’re the Queen. — Lindsey Rhoades

Crooked Colours

Moments before they played their opening note, the three members of Crooked Colours huddled together over the drum set for a quick embrace. It was an endearing moment of band camaraderie and exhibited moxie from an act edging closer to a big break. The trio from Australia offers a dual synthesizer attack over complex drum patterns thanks to Liam Merrett-Park, who splits his rhythm with one arm commanding the kit while the other maneuvers the drum machine. Part man/part machine, their delectable R&B synth-pop flawlessly carried CMJ into the weekend.

After a dark and murky cover of MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” Crooked Colours ended their set with their recent single “Step.” Structured on a synthesized melody similar to James Blake’s “The Wilhelm Scream,” the song features a glittery beat drop during the chorus that could easily belong on a major EDM track. For the past few years Crooked Colours have been gaining traction in their homeland, but it sounds as if they won’t remain down under for much longer. – Silas Valentino 

Dilly Dally

Toronto’s Dilly Dally might seem at the outset to be just another group of grunge-pop revivalists, but they pull it off with such aplomb that the last two decades might as well never have existed. Case in point: the caustic hiss of “Purple Rage,” from the quartet’s debut LP Sore, offered blistering angst courtesy frontwoman Katie Monks’ earth-quaking yowl. On “Desire,” her rattling yelps and gnarly growls came out of nowhere, sometimes right in the middle of an otherwise nonchalant (or even syrupy sweet) delivery, the titular ache buffeted amongst ragged guitar and pummeling drums. It’s almost as if the goal was to wake up a hungover Baby’s All Right crowd at the Brooklyn Vegan day party Saturday; clearly, Dilly Dally want to make it clear that they aren’t wasting anyone’s time as they embark on their first headlining tour. — Lindsey Rhoades


Any set that begins with the frontwoman mounting a motorcycle in the center of the stage is sure to be one to remember, and Thunderbitch’s first (and potentially only) East Coast show was exactly that kind of an affair. Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes fame) is Thunderbitch; her Thunderband is made up of some of Nashville’s most rhythmically-inclined dudes from Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle. Howard donned white makeup, black leather, a wig snatched from Mia Wallace’s skull and Blues Brothers shades to show no mercy to the vintage rock sounds of their self-titled LP. By the time the set came to its deafening conclusion, Howard had sweat off the majority of the body paint, leaving streaks of it on her clothes, the microphone and her guitar. Given the intensity she exudes, it’s easy to see why that oily goo had no chance in the face of her blistering rock ‘n’ roll. — Hilary Hughes

Tobias Jesso Jr.

“If you came here to party, we just got our energized song out of the way,” exclaimed Tobias Jesso Jr. after he and his band, Duk, ripped through their show opener “Crocodile Tears.” It was a sold-out night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and one of 2015’s brightest singer/songwriter breakouts was just getting started with witty stage banter and glorious renditions of cuts from his March-released debut, Goon. His chord-heavy piano style plucks elements from the waltz-pop of Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson while maintaining a consistent vintage appeal that weirdly recalls the theme from Cheers.

Walking onstage to the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jesso was a powerhouse entertainer ribbing hecklers and filling the gap in between songs with uproarious commentary. The Canadian citizen mentioned the recent Democratic debate (“Bernie is fucking murdering ass!”) and defended his interest in another country’s politics: “If you guys go down, we go down.” After a triumphant performance of his standard “Hollywood,” Jesso was left alone onstage to perform the delicate b-side “True Love” and transfixed the audience with the song’s sparse arrangement and captivating delivery. His banner year may be on the way out, but Jesso Jr. is far from fading. – Silas Valentino 

Stealing Sheep

Playing a late afternoon set at Baby’s All Right on Saturday as part of the Brooklyn Vegan showcase, Liverpool trio Stealing Sheep made it clear they weren’t afraid to get weird. With glittery faces behind bug-eyed shades and two-toned leotards under black bodysuits, they were little more than three pairs of costume cat-ears from a Saturday morning cartoon band, but the throwback sounds that populate their latest record, Not Real, got the crowd dancing just the same. Incorporating everything from prog rock to new wave into their colorful set, seeing these ladies live evoked the kind of wonder someone might feel upon unearthing a quirky LP from the dusty record shelves of a family friend’s shag-carpeted basement, but these gals have a keen eye on the future. — Lindsey Rhoades


They’re apparently favorites of the Haim gals and other L.A. music-makers, so PARTYBABY didn’t disappoint as they slugged back numerous shots of tequila (but seriously, way to almost end a band before they make their big break, benevolent booze beneficiary) and plowed through hard-rocking, and, well, hard-partying songs suited for both the rock club and the dance floor. Berlin’s basement is a cramped, low-ceilinged space that’s far more suited for intimate conversations and background noise in the East Village, but the quartet — propelled by one of the fiercest drummers of the festival, Chelsea Davis — succeeded in taking over the bar and making it their personal rec room for an hour. They bounced around those ten square feet with the enthusiasm of teenagers playing rock star in their parents’ basements, except they weren’t so much playing the part but trying on the occupation for size. Thankfully, it seems to fit, and this will hardly be the last time PARTYBABY tries to make your heart race and ears bleed. — Hilary Hughes

Soft Fangs

Dipping beneath Avenue A into the bathhouse décor of Elvis Guesthouse, signs of the season’s gradual shift were depicted by the abundance of jackets and scarves. This skulking presence of winter was an appropriate accompaniment to Soft Fangs’s dismal-yet-delightful set that had the emo songwriter alone onstage with just an acoustic guitar and a stack of sad songs. Following an impressive performance from Brooklyn experimental punks Operator, Soft Fangs provided depth to the bill with his poignant songwriting, comparable to the gloomy math rock of Owen. At times Soft Fangs would wail into the microphone to produce ethereal vocals on par with Jeff Buckley’s live rendition of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.”

Soft Fangs is the moniker for local musician John Lutkevich, and he’s been steadily releasing lo-fi recordings online over the past year, including his somber self-titled debut EP. His set relied heavily on these songs with moments like “Point of View” and “Dead Friends” sending shivers due to the intimate setting. With so many acts throughout the CMJ marathon attacking their 30-minute bouts onstage with fervor, the composed heartbreak of Soft Fangs added a warm layer of sensitivity. – Silas Valentino

Sheer Mag

Everything you love about Eighties power ballads meets every punk strain that gets your blood rushing in a wall of death, and that’s Sheer Mag’s sound in a sentence that hardly does it justice. The band from the City of Brotherly Love isn’t into industry machinations and doesn’t really give a shit about participating in any popular contest for your musical affection — and that’s part of their appeal. Sheer Mag played several shows this CMJ, but one of their strongest sets took place at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Friday night, where they shared the stage with Shopping (arguably the most talked about and critically lauded band at the festival), Shannon and the Clams (delightful in their gold-flecked eccentricity) and PMS and the Mood Swings (that NAAAME). Each act on the bill was superb, but Sheer Mag’s positive vibes practically blew the roof off the cavernous space on N. 6th. — Hilary Hughes


At just 21 years old, Georgia Barnes, who performs under her first name alone, cut her teeth as a live percussionist for a slew of hip London artists like Kwes and Kate Tempest. Though her debut self-titled album on Domino follows in those hip-hop influenced footsteps, Georgia is absolutely brilliant at putting a shimmering pop perspective on dancehall rhythms. Behind her kit at Le Poisson Rouge on Wednesday evening, Georgia belted bangers like “Move Systems” in a voice as strong as any single-named pop siren might, be it Madonna, Beyoncé, or Adele. The difference is that with her slinky synthwork and slick production, Georgia is very much at the helm of this project, proving that a shadowy team of songwriting experts isn’t always necessary to pen smash hits. — Lindsey Rhoades

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington was warm and genuine, introducing his band members by telling the audience how long they’d been friends — drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. is Washington’s oldest friend in the world, since age three. Terrence Martin, alto saxophone, since thirteen (by which point he was already playing like Coltrane, Washington confides in the audience). Songs like “The Magnificent Seven” churned in a destabilizing 7/4 signature and drove the closeness home between the players/blood brothers. Somehow nothing unraveled, but not at all because the band plays it safe: bassist Miles Moseley blew through bowed solos on the Oscar Pettiford cut “Oscalypso,” arranged by the sunglasses­-obscured trombonist Ryan Porter. “Oscalypso” hails from his upcoming record, which Washington deemed “baby­making music.” His father Rickey Washington carried their final song “The Rhythm Changes,” braiding his sound up with the soaring, reedy voice of Patrice Quinn. “Won’t worry what happened before me/I’m here,” she sang decisively. Porter pulled his cell phone out to take a quick video of the band mid­-song, and Washington smiled around the mouth of his instrument. — Meredith Graves

Pierce Brothers

Having been in New York just a day after playing a show in Amsterdam, the lively duo showed no signs of fatigue as they completely won over the crowd at Pianos. At first the audience appeared unfazed by their acoustic folk/pop, but by the third track, the stage was crashed and listeners remained enthralled by the foot-stomping romp. Australian twin brothers Jack and Pat Pierce admitted their marvel for playing New York and showed their appreciation by hammering out thunderous folk songs with infectious spirit. Though comprised of just two people, the Pierce Brothers shook Pianos for everything it was worth.

The Pierce Brothers recalled the well-worn tweed-sporting territory of Mumford & Sons throughout their set with their sing-along choruses. They dazzled the audience with theatrical antics, hopping into the crowd for a galactic finish, intertwining their limbs as they exchanged guitars, harmonicas and a didgeridoo between them. Their showmanship amazed and appeared to reference their early days of busking in the streets of Melbourne. Their humbled beginnings match their early folk roots, and the Pierce Brothers stunned and impressed for their festival showing. – Silas Valentino