The Showcase Showdown

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:11

    The Showcase Showdown CMJ’s only as bad as you want it to be

    IHEARD AN annual and commonplace complaint yet again this year: “Worst CMJ yet.”These naysayers were referring to the CMJ Music Marathon, the (sort of) indie music industry event that takes over the Manhattan and Brooklyn rock scene every autumn and spanned from Tuesday to Saturday of last week. The comment most often came from

    those who weren’t, just as they were offering it, actually watching a show. If your good intentions derailed into drinking and schmoozing, as mine unfortunately did once or twice as the festival wore on, you might’ve heard something similar from the industry folks chugging free booze at a RSVP-only party that was curiously slotted against a chunk of prime time on the Marathon’s closing night. Or

    Ruby Sun during this year’s CMJ.

    maybe you even heard it from those perched against the Knitting Factory’s upstairs bar—a separate space from the main stage, it should be noted—for a blog showcase.

    A blog showcase? Those out in the trenches, carefully walking through a minefield of discarded earplugs and hastily removed wristbands, probably attended a couple of these somewhat newfangled things.

    Brooklyn Vegan took over the Music Hall Of Williamsburg on Tuesday, and a coalition of music bloggers aggregated into an entity called After The Jump to put together a Wednesday night showcase on all three stages of The Knit. In notable contrast, indie label mainstays rather curiously had their showcases at smaller clubs: Sub Pop did its thing at Pianos, and Merge organized a night at Mercury Lounge.

    So yeah: the Wordpress Army was out in full force this year, but was there actually music worth seeing? Two words: Crystal Antlers.The Long Beach, Calif.-based quintet scheduled a heap of dates, and I often wandered into rooms the band was playing, in each instance giddily overwhelmed by its shape shifting, swelling and stomping psych rock. And as much as rock bands today are thought of more for the guys in the front lines, Crystal Antlers secret weapon is the combined might of drummer Kevin Stuart and percussionist Damian Edwards.

    Rhythm, in fact, ruled this year’s Marathon in a way that foretells a very percussive future for the next few years of indie rock. New Zealand’s Ruby Suns was another undeniable standout; utilizing the same strengths as the Antlers crew despite being half a world away.The duo of Ryan McPhun and Amee Robinson concoct a compelling alternative take on “world” music.The set I witnessed at The Delancey had McPhun dialing up Afro-pop-ish samples and then piling percussive loops or live drumming on top. Robinson, who shifted from guitar to keyboard to bass as the songs required, sometimes joined her cohort to create a blissful drum circle of two, the duo singing sunshine harmonies together while pounding on the skins.

    Though auxiliary percussion was a mainstay at this year’s Marathon, the other trend

    that made itself abundantly clear was the musical innovation that was so briefly imported from Europe’s Nordic regions.

    I caught halves of two different sets from Denmark’s Kirsten Ketsjer, and I’d be a fool to try and wrap the guitar/bass/drums trio in too neat of a package. From the little I heard, the band could easily make (if it hasn’t already) an avant-garde indie update of The Beatles’ White Album. KK can’t keep to the same genre from verse to chorus (if the songs even have verses or choruses). A jazzy-chorded thing it let loose at Fat Baby on Saturday night would get violent for mere seconds at a time, then instantly regain its composure.The group also took odd delight in kicking a large foam skull into the audience, which a chick in the front row, when not slow motion head banging or punching the air, was game to kick back. The real weirdness award goes, however, to a Norwegian sextet called Real Ones, which gave a jaw-dropping performance at a

    South Street Seaport daytime show on Friday. It seemed at first be a harmonically inclined, tall and handsome troupe of country rockers.Then the band busted out a sitar.

    Then it sang a love song to Slovakian capital Bratislava.Then it slowly let the instruments fade away during a pretty little tune, lead the audience in a brief call-and-response vocal blues, shifted the song up a step to a new key and continued to lead the audience in an back and forth a capella chant.

    It was a challenge, but there was something extra in it for anyone who tried to sing along: the Music Marathon, as it is every year, is a user-defined experience.Those who continually make the wrong choices will find themselves getting less and less out of it, indeed having the “worst CMJ ever.” As Real Ones sang, quoting “Moon River” during the breezy number “Lonesome Town”: “There is such a lot of world to see.”There was a follow-up lyric, however: “Not of all it,” the band sang, “is worth it.”