CMJ Weekend Roundup: Best Year Ever?

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Another year of CMJ draws to a close and the smelly, tight-jean-wearing kid that's been crashing on your couch for a week heads back to college in Arkansas. Check out the highlights of the weekend's shows :

Friday 11.3

At the Canal Room, L.A. up-and-comers The Little Ones delivered cheery indie-pop with enough tambourine-shake to make Stevie Nicks jealous. Displaying a quirky, sunny sound sandwiched somewhere between Belle and Sebastian and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the group showed off tunes from their debut, Sing Song EP, literally drawing the audience forward with their infectious enthusiasm and surf-rock melodies. And considering they just formed earlier this year, the Little Ones may just take the indie-rock title of band who has the most fun onstage. In other words, there's nothing little about them. [CHARLEY ROGULEWSKI]

Until we saw the Hold Steady at the Annex in NYC on Friday, we had never attended a secret show that managed to stay a secret. This one did. Ushered inside the mostly-full-but-still-comfortable room, we were able to order a drink, find a spot, and totally see without any hassle. The band tore through a handful of mostly new tunes (including our official favorite song of 2006 "Massive Nights" and the always awesome "Stevie Nix") while passing around a bottle of Jack, sweating and singing most of the lyrics vaguely near a microphone. How does a band this loose stay this tight? No idea, but every time we see them it's like a casual visit from God, if God were a chubby thirties-ish glasses-wearing Twins fan with an inexplicable thing for Soul Asylum. [ELIZABETH GOODMAN]

It was a rock & roll shitshow where the CMJ badged were getting turned away left and right for Albert Hammond, Jr.'s first solo show at the Mercury Lounge, a.k.a. the joint where Hammond Jr.'s guitar career took off with a little band called the Strokes several years back. Who didn't get turned away? Hammond's Strokes bandmates Fabrizio Moretti and Julian Casablancas, the Shins' Dave Hernandez, former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and even Hammond's legendary pop singer-songwriter dad, Albert Hammond, Sr. From the evening's first song, "In Transit," to the close of the nine-song set, just about every tune sounded like it could have, been well, err, umm on a Strokes set list. Even "101," the catchiest track on Hammond's just-released solo album Yours To Keep sounded like it would be a great cover for Casablancas and Co. The rocker "Holiday" and closer "Hard to Live in the City" best displayed the main difference between Hammond's solo work and the Strokes' -- Hammond's hoarse, unpolished vocals, which gave the familiar (and stellar) songs a down-and-out charm. [CHARLEY ROGULEWSKI]

We felt lucky to catch My Brightest Diamond's set at teensy club Rebel and we're pretty sure everyone else in the crowd felt the same. The band was conceived as a quasi-solo side project by Shara Worden, a classically trained opera singer and erstwhile member of Sufjian Steven's backing band. In other words, from an indie-rocker's perspecitve, Worden's resume preceded her. Her haunting voice and quirky stage antics captivated the full room, and the accompanying string quartet further contributed to the show's enchanting mood. Resembling a mix of Regina Spektor and Karen O, Worden alternated between frenetically strumming her guitar and bouncing around behind her mic stand, enticing the audience to do the same: "You gotta get random on this one LadySovereign style," she joked. [ERICA FUTTERMAN]

A modest crowd of Brooklyn hipsters turned out early for Los Angeles based singer-songwriter Ferraby Lionheart, and those lucky few caught one of the unknown gems of CMJ. Taking the stage without a word, Lionheart and his band dove right into the charming folk of his self-titled six-song EP, which the singer later informed the crowd "would normally be for sale, but I forgot them." Clever and heartfelt, Lionheart's songs are about what you'd expect from an L.A. folkster, but better. Lines like "If you find a crack in time / call me up and we can just be friends this time / you'll think I'm in a rock band / and I'll wonder if you're too smart for me" along with tasteful harmonica, poppy piano riffs and catchy melodies make Ferraby Lionheart a name to remember. After Lionheart closed out the set with a cover of "Pure Imagination" from the Willy Wonka soundtrack, a faceless audience member screamed, "Who are you?" "Who are you?" Lionheart was quick to return. "I'm Ferraby Lionheart. Maybe you've heard of me." [DANE SMITH]

Hoards of indie-rockers and CMJ devotees descended to the dingy basement of the Lower East Side's Cake Shop as The Black Hollies played a raucous set to a booze-swilling bunch. Poised under a blanket of twinkling white Christmas lights, the Jersey City foursome kicked out the jams with minimal blather between tunes. Their sound, a mashup of British Invasion blues, guitar heroics and psychedelia that would bring a smile to Brian Jones' face, the Black Hollies performed a mix of tunes relying heavily on tracks from their latest release, Crimson Reflections. Half way through the set, frontman Justin Morey dispersed maracas and tambourines to the headbanging crowd. The stage, no larger than a few arm lengths in each direction, provided an ideal and explosive environment for a potent show. [WILLIAM GOODMAN]

Saturday 11.4

When the Clipse came on just before 1 a.m. Saturday night, the Knitting Factory was packed for one of the few CMJ shows featuring a major-label hip-hop act. The Virginia siblings played only two songs from their forthcoming, Neptunes-produced sophomore album Hell Hath No Fury. But that didn't matter: It was a treat to see guys who'd spent quality time on Pharrell's yacht play a small venue during an indie-rock festival. Even better, hot rhymes, stellar old songs and mixtape cuts made the show feel like a gift to diehard fans. The set: Eleven songs in forty-five minutes, featuring trick flows and enthusiasm to spare. The Clipse principals Malice and Pusha T are two guys who love to rhyme like fat kids love cake, dropping witty wordplay and insistent needling that sounded simultaneously acrobatic and laid-back. The set was short, but in a leave-em'-wanting-more rather than a what-the-fuck? way. Here's hoping we can watch them blow up all over again, but won't have to watch them the Clipse for T.I. (or whoever) at the Garden next time they come through town. [CHRISTIAN HOARD]

There were skinny jeans and heavy eyeliner as far as the eye could see when Brooklyn's The Honorary Title took to the Lower East Side's Annex for a short and sweet set of honeyed emo. That much-contested moniker is apt here: Jarrod Gorbel's gorgeous pipes, mixed with heart-rending melodies and lyrics crammed with unbridled pain provided some of the truest emotion we witnessed on the CMJ circuit. And even though choruses on some songs — "stay away from me," or "I think you know" — sounded a bit formulaic at times, the quartet succeeded in transcending the less appealing stereotypes of the genre. Bassist Aaron Kamstra multi-tasked with some fancy diddling on keys, sugaring things up with a little bright pop punch in the Dashboard Confessional vein. [GAVIN PAUL]

Garage rock band The Willowz should have felt right at home in their CMJ venue Saturday night. Rebel's bare concrete walls and narrow space felt like someone's expanded garage, smartened up with ear-busting amps and primitive multi-colored lighting. Richie James Follin and his fellow bandmates thrashed around, long hair flying in their faces. The Willowz tested out some new tunes from their forthcoming album, but Follin's falsetto stood out best on the more familiar "Making Certain", which had even the slightly off-put hipsters in the back tapping a toe. Meanwhile, a completely different crowd filtered in for the short set that followed from up-and-coming indie band Margot & the Nuclear So and So's. If lack of name recognition cast any doubt on their popularity, the packed-in fans — a mix of shaggy-haired indie rockers and high school girls in tube tops — made it clear that word is spreading. By the time the endless parade of instruments was brought on stage, it was a miracle all eight band members fit too. (This band is used to small spaces: all the members live together in the same three-bedroom Indianapolis house.) Despite the rash of activity onstage, the sound was surprisingly cohesive. Nursing a beer, Edwards sang bittersweet tunes filled with pleasing harmonies (thanks to keyboardist Emily Watkins' backup vocals), while Hubert Glover's trumpet provided the perfect accent to tunes like "Vampires in Blue Dresses." When the set reached its close, Edwards tried to appease the crowd's groans of frustration by plugging their Sunday night show at the Knitting Factory — to which one of the younger girls responded, "But I have school the next day!" Ain't life a bitch? [AMANDA TRIMBLE]

New York's hipster-heshers showed up in force for Canadian metal outfit Priestess's show at Bowery Ballroom. Insane drum solo's, whiplash-grade headbanging and the sweet, Sabbath-informed guitar grind of frontmen Mikey Heppner and Dan Watchorn got the crowd into an uncharacteristically unbridled lather. The audience thinned out a bit when hard-rocking New York band Diamond Nights took the stage at midnight, and the folks who departed the venue early can rest assured they missed out. Swirling together the strut and pomposity of Led Zeppelin, the histrionic snarl of early Billy Idol and the cheeky pop sensibility of the Cars, the band blazed through instantly addictive tunes like the gunning glam number, "The Girl's Attractive." Singer Morgan Phalen added new meaning to the phrase "crack problem," poured as he was into skintight jeans that left little to the imagination. Perhaps that's why each time he jumped off the stage to serenade the assembled fans, a googly-eyed phalanx of girls surrounded him. Like similarly over-the-top rockers the Darkness and Wolfmother, Diamond Nights does a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek rock posturing and an interlude involving dancers bedecked in sparkly tops and blindfolds brought the cheesiness index to splendidly ridiculous heights. We're glad we stayed for one more whiskey to watch. [LAUREN GITLIN]