The twenty-fifth CMJ Music Marathon kicked off Wednesday hosting hundreds of bands at some sixty-five venues around New York City throughout the weekend. Performances from the most hyped bands on the college and alternative festival circuit — such as Arcade Fire and Brooklyn indie buzz band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — and showcases by major indie labels drew lines around the corner, proving CMJ wasn’t only about the after-parties offering free Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“CMJ is a great time for all bands,” Robbers on High Street bassist Morgan King told Rolling Stone. “You get a chance to expose yourself in the biggest city in the world.”
Robbers played to a capacity crowd in one of the industry event’s most anticipated line-ups, Friday night at the downtown Mercury Lounge, alongside buzzworthy Brooklyn indie five-piece Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the shoe-gazing distortion of Ambulance LTD. Though crowded, the show had an intimacy that was felt throughout CMJ, with Robbers thanking the audience for not screaming out a “Free Bird” request, and Clap Your Hands pleasing with eccentric, melancholy pop songs like “In This Home on Ice,” off their sought-after self-released, self-titled debut.
The hottest indie label showcases, at the Bowery Ballroom, came from Sub Pop, Saddle Creek and Kemado. Sub Pop’s show at Bowery Ballroom offered up the mellow electro-pop of troubadours Wolf Parade, the garage rock of Ontario’s the Constantines and the pop-y surf rock of Seattle’s Fruit Bats; Saddle Creek presented singer-songwriters Son, Ambulance and Maria Taylor (ex-Azure Ray), and a heavy set from Omaha fourpiece Cursive; and Kemado’s featured Swedish psychedelic folk quartet Dungen. In addition, Toronto-based Arts and Crafts brought Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman’s side project Apostle of Hustle to the Maritime Hotel; and Chicago-based label Flameshovel featured the Narrator, who recalled early Fugazi, at Chinatown’s 169 Bar.
While the biggest event of the festival was Arcade Fire’s sold-out show at Central Park’s Summerstage — which included a guest appearance from the not-so-indie David Bowie — the festival also served as a chance for lesser-known indie newcomers to garner exposure: like Canada’s Sam Roberts Band who have yet to break in the States but show they have some pull — the packed crowd sang along throughout the set as the band changed it up between alt-country blues numbers, jam-band like noodling, and pure classic rock. And the End of the World — who played Brooklyn label Pretty Activity’s showcase, fresh off recording their debut LP with the team of Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins (Fiery Furnaces, the Kills) — moved the crowd at 169 Bar with their soulful New York garage rock.
Other great performances came from Americana/indie darling Laura Viers, Pinback frontman Rob Crow’s side project/freakshow Goblin Cock, hipsters’ new favorite bar band the Hold Steady and electro-jammers Particle, who played through a non-stop, two-hour set that closed at 4 a.m. Other noteworthy performances came from blues-rock vets Blues Explosion (ex-Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), Virginia Coalition, the Blue Van, haunting and heavy singer-songwriter Richard Buckner, the Willowz and blind African rock & roll duo Amadou and Mariam.
But one of the most exuberant sets came from Brooklyn heavy-rock fourpiece the Giraffes, who delivered a head-banging set that included somersaults and stage dives. Never shy or sober, frontman Aaron Lazar announced to the crowd why they bothered to play CMJ: “We’re here to win over the industry!”