Spotlight: The Best Of CMJ

We’ve finally slept off the week that was CMJ 2011. The 31st annual event happened in a flash—five days of wake up and go until the going got old. The show-hopping cycle yielded a few observations. CMJ is larger than ever, somehow simultaneously more industry-centric and small-scale communal. This might have to do with the immediacy of Internet-stardom; buzz is tangible and powerful, and the sponsors and the labels have caught up to it, in real-time. This makes for almost two CMJs, one run by the big guys and one functioning more on the outskirts, often connected by the same acts, and sometimes even the same crowds. Call it a reflection of our current state in music, where the “college music journal” level is in fact passed the crossover point…in a way it is the industry. That topic is probably for another time, but let’s just say, wherever you are on that development: new music is alive and well.

Here we are with the highlights of our week, in chronological order:

[BoxTitle]Wise Blood at Cameo Gallery[/BoxTitle] [MusicVideo][/MusicVideo] [Listen][/Listen] [BuyNow][/BuyNow]

We’ve seen Wise Blood before, and we know this Christopher Laufman character is a wild card. He drinks himself in and out of rhythm, he once scaled the balcony at Glasslands only to jump down and mess up his foot, and then ask if anyone had any coke. To any unfamiliar onlooker at Cameo Gallery on Tuesday, it would have appeared the guy was having an off-night, maybe even a meltdown. He stopped a few songs, his banter was obnoxious, ranging from self-deprecating to arrogant. End of the day though, that’s kind of the appeal; and while Laufman ranted through most everything, there were these sudden 30 second stretches where grooves aligned and he simply glided over the jams (that his poor band had been providing all night despite technical difficulties, and their frontman leaving the stage for verses at a time). I’d take that roller-coaster of extremes at 9pm on Tuesday over some right-down-the-middle buzzband any day.

[BoxTitle]RxRy at The End[/BoxTitle] [MusicVideo][/MusicVideo] [Listen][/Listen]

We spent all of Wednesday at the S&S event in Greenpoint and among the many engaging performances (each with accompanied visuals), the last act takes the cake, as it lived up to the finale-like aura implied. The storyline of mysterious artist RxRy dates back over a year, having mainly spent his time in the shadows of the Internet, accumulating followers with a unique brand of textural, active-ambient electronic music crafted with cryptic flair. Excluding one daytime performance at SXSW 2010, this was his first appearance on a stage. Masked and kneeling over his equipment, he immediately dove into a non-stop meteor field of static collision, while a female counterpart stood silently to the right in a white dress, as if surveying the damage. All this while video director Nathaniel Whitcomb’s live projections vibrated above, shifting with every nuance.

[BoxTitle]Grimes at Pianos[/BoxTitle] [MusicVideo][/MusicVideo] [BuyNow][/BuyNow]

One of the most anticipated acts of the festival, Grimes drew a packed house at Pianos downstairs around 4pm during the I Guess I’m Floating blog curated Floating Fest. Her confidence has soared since SXSW performances last March, as has her profile, thanks to a spot on Lykke Li‘s tour and a whole lot of press. Bleached blonde, pinching a microphone between her shoulder and cheek, she constructed her trademark mystical beats one twist at a time, until busy enough to feather a doll-like voice on top, which she then multiplied into harmony. The set consisted of all new, unreleased material, plus current dark dance-hall standout “Oblivion” and longtime favorite “Vanessa.” Only thing missing was our camera…

[BoxTitle]Dustin Wong at 285 Kent[/BoxTitle] [MusicVideo][/MusicVideo] [Listen][/Listen] [BuyNow][/BuyNow]

We’d been trying, and for some unknown reason failing, to see a Dustin Wong set for over a year now. Finally, in a sparsely attended early night slot at 285 Kent, the guitar god of Ponytail fame played in the same room that we were standing in—amazing! His loop-heavy display is a hypnotic force to take in; Wong surrounds his chair with a spread of pedals, all with memorized purpose. Hard to decide what’s a better way to appreciate his set, with eyes closed and mind spiraling along with each strum, or by studying his intense precision like a presentation. At one rare moment, one of the pedals broke, causing an abrupt halt. He calmly troubleshot the situation, switched some wires, accepted a new guitar from the nice Woodsman guy, then located the issue, and began again with his original guitar. It was the kind of unfortunate speed-bump that could have derailed a lesser vehicle, but Wong handled it all with such endearing grace. And it was long forgotten by the final song, or rather, epic, closing with Wong on his feet, shouting his first vocals of the night, cathartic and free.

[BoxTitle]Born Gold at Bar Matchless[/BoxTitle] [Listen][/Listen] [BuyNow][/BuyNow]

A true highlight in its own right, #MEGABLAAG Part Two (the first one was at SXSW) gathered all sorts of bloggers and various music community people in one place. And there was no better fit for the bill than than Canada’s Born Gold (formerly Gobble Gobble, who also played the original #MEGABLAAG). The guys are a renowned live act, true pioneers of next-level energy management. Mastermind Cecil Frena worked the dials from an elevated booth while his two comrades worked the floor, integrating drums and mixers with tarps, shovels, stilts, vacuums, and beyond. The audience was specific, and very, very into this—such participation made for a complete sweat-fest. After being provoked by the “one-more-song” chant, Frena replied “guys you know bands aren’t supposed to do encores at showcases, but oh well…” and launched into a demented, caffeinated rendention of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”, which started what very well could have been the only recorded friendly slam circle at CMJ 2011.

*All photography by Victoria Masters except for the image of Grimes.

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