For the second year in a row I attended a bunch of live rock shows during the annual CMJ Music Marathon, Oct. 16-20, going to hear live music at a handful of different Lower East Side venues.
Wednesday night, for the showcase mounted by Canadian Blast at Arlene’s Grocery, I heard Two Hours Traffic from Prince Edward Island, a place that produces great musicians, belying its status as Canada’s smallest province. This 4-piece played an infectious chord-driven guitar rock with bright pop vocals by frontman Liam Corcoran, who looked like he could be the brother of actor Toby Maguire. Next up was Elephant Stone, an exciting psychedelic quartet from Montreal with Rishi Dhir’s thumping bass and sitar at the center of their often mind-blowing sound collage. They’re about to release a new self-titled album, their third, on Hidden Pony Records. Foam Lake of Saskatoon played next, leading off with “True Hearts,” which has a rousing chorus I recognized from hearing it on CBC Radio 3, the hub of indie rock in Canada. Later, in front of Arlene’s, on Stanton Street, I met a musician I recognized from earlier as Two Hours Traffic’s bassist. Nathan Gill’s his name. Late though it was, he was planning to be up in a few hours for a morning for a flight to Nova Scotia, where he’d be playing the Halifax Pop Explosion with another band of which he’s a member.
Thanks to Cara Wodnicki of BMF Media Group, who accommodated me and the guest I’d invited to join me this night, Torontonian Peter Evans, CEO of Speakerfile, the company I consult for that connects conference organizers with authors and other experts who do public speaking. Like me, Peter really enjoyed Two Hours Traffic’s efficient, tuneful set.
Before closing out my Canadian Blast evening, I also ran into members of Rah Rah, a band I have blogged about before, and of which I’m a big fan. They weren’t performing on this bill, but would be playing four times over the next few days, including Thursday evening at Bowery Electric, a gig I would be attending, not far from where legendary punk venue CBGB’s operated until 2006. Rah Rah’s new album, “The Poet’s Dead” has just been released and it’s terrific, with a great lead song, “Art and a Wife.” I recommend you listen to it at their website. It’s one of their best set of lyrics yet, striking themes about what a maturing artist wants from life and music. Rah Rah played a pleasantly raucous and spontaneous live show in the basement room at Bowery Electric, with players swapping instruments with one another, and grabbing drum sticks to make percussion sounds on any available hard surface, from amp cases to brick walls. The anarchic vibe encompassed Rah Rah’s Jeffrey Romanyk, who alternated between acoustic guitar on some songs, and drums on others–he weathered a broken string on one song and a toppling drum kit on another. But no mishap could snap the spell of the band’s great performance, with its fun, uninhibited vibe. The finale included inflated mylar letters spelling out R-A-H, bouncing over the heads of the audience, and an exploding confetti cannon. Low-tech fun. Afterward, I spent time visiting with Romanyk, as well as his bandmate Leif Thorsen, and Leif’s wife, photographic scholar, Alison Dean. Out in front of the club, lead singer Marshall Burns showed me their big touring van, with its Saskatchewan license plates, and huge lock on the back door protecting their instruments and equipment from thieves, a potential bane for all touring bands.
Friday offered a rare afternoon opportunity to hear live music, like a day baseball game. A showcase from noon-6 at Pianos on Ludlow Street was put on by music marketing and radio promotion outfit Planetary Group, featuring shows by Hot Panda and The Orwells, as well as Australian bands Sun Cisco and Twerps, and again, Elephant Stone and Rah Rah. Just as Rah Rah was sliding into place on Pianos’ raised stage, a friendly fellow sat on the stool next to me. This was Wilson Lemieux, who works as music director at KWTS radio station in Canyon, Texas. They have “Art and a Wife” in heavy rotation, he told me, but he’d never heard them live, until today. I assured him he was in for a treat. It was great hearing Rah Rah again, as they played a largely different set of songs than the night before. During this relaxed afternoon I met Planetary Group’s Greg Khaikin and Oscar Zubia, and their boss, Chris, all very welcoming and articulate about the bands they were promoting. During a break between sets I had a chance for pleasant chats with Hidden Pony’s Mike Renaud, his wife Natasha, and Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir, and bandmates Gabriel, Steven, and Miles, nice guys all. It’s always fun talking with Canadians in NYC, who are so appreciative of Gotham’s charms. Out on the sidewalk dodging the cigarette smoke, I also met the members of Kiven, a 4-piece outfit from Los Angeles whose music I’m now eager to hear via their bandcamp page.
I really enjoy music from the rich francophone scene in Quebec, so I was excited that the last showcase of Friday, back at Arlene’s Grocery, was to be put on by M for Montreal, hosted by their ebullient programming director, Mikey Rishwain Bernard. Before the music got underway, he invited us to enjoy a dish of poutine, the Quebecois speciality of french fries, gravy, and melted cheese curds. It really hit the spot at that point in the late afternoon–hot, salty, and savory, a mix of smooth and crunchy textures. Mikey, who I heard do the same MC duties last year, introduced each band briefly, a small but key act of curation that I really appreciate even though it’s become infrequent these days, with acts just appearing on stage unannounced. (I don’t think this nonchalance is good for indie music, and I’ll have more to say about it in a post I’m preparing.) First up was dynamic female artist, Ariane Moffat, who fronts her band singing in French and English, playing keys, and beating on a stand-up drum. Moffat’s music featured intense vocals, on such songs as “Walls of the World,” amid a swirl of electro-pop that was easy to like on first hearing. Next, Mikey introduced Senegalese-born singer and guitarist Karim Ouellet, now living in Quebec City, who formed a tight duo with his drummer. I was glad to discover Ouellet and listen to his music for the first time.
While the stage was being re-set for Plaster, a trio from Montreal, I met some great folks in the audience, most of whom work in music, also in Montreal. These were Kelly Belfo, world music director, and Brian Joseph, program director, at radio station CJLO 1690 AM, at Concordia University; Julien Bindar, in charge of licensing for Editions Avalanche/Sound Publishing; Etienne Roy, coordinator of web radio for AudioGram, an outfit that works with Ariane Moffat and Peter Peter, a solo francophone artist I enjoyed at M for Montreal’s CMJ showcase last year; and Jonas Edvinsson, a publicist also working with Moffat.
One of the bands I had hoped to hear during CMJ was Bend Sinister, but I somehow missed their shows. Fortuitously, while in the Arlene’s Grocery basement, waiting to use the men’s room, I fell into conversation with a fellow who introduced himself as a member of Bend Sinister. This was keyboardist Dan Moxon. I told him about The Great Gray Bridge and he handed me a card with their web info and a complimentary download so I can listen to their latest album “Small Fame.” When I got back upstairs, Plaster had just hit the stage. I was impressed by this keyboard-heavy instrumental trio. They played a propulsive, head-banging electronica. Looking at the lead keyboard player’s rig, and taking a picture of it, I was struck by how technologically savvy some musicians have to be nowadays. Mikey next introduced Royal Canoe, a six-piece whose catchy song “Kasparov” I always enjoy hearing on CBC Radio 3. They didn’t play the hit on this night, sticking with more recent repertoire, which wove a cool wall of sound around the attentive audience.
I was glad to see that the New York Times covered CMJ throughout last week, and again in this wrap-up yesterday. Below is a selection of photos I took at all of the CMJ shows I attended last week. I look forward to more of the CMJ Music Marathon next year.