REVIEW festival Old Subbacultcha Old Subbacultcha

Across The Pond - New York's CMJ Festival: Part 2

After a hectic first night trekking around NYC for Subba-Cultcha's CMJ coverage, Alexander Keblish had to dust off any alcohol related cobwebs, forget about any tiredness from the previous night and man-up for the next evening of multiple gigs, chatting to bands and endeavoring to get from venue to venue in record timing.  It really is a tough job!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I started Wednesday night out at the Bowery Electric in Manhattan and caught the end of Johnny Lewis’ set, who offered an updated take on the Bob Dylan-esque singer-songwriter routine but with a smoother voice which was comparable to the Eagles’ Don Henley.

I had come for Faded Paper Figures, a band with an intriguing name who were only playing one set at CMJ.  From what I read, the trio featured a professor from Yale and a doctor, and when they started playing their lead singer announced that it was their first-ever show in New York City.

After they started playing, I wished they were scheduled to play more (Wikipedia tells me they’re based out of Los Angeles).  Their driving synth-pop songs had a spacey feel with echoey, robot-like vocals similar to the French band Air (it reminded me of the vocals on Air’s seminal album “Moon Safari”, but comparisons to Postal Service would not be far off).  Some tracks definitely had an ‘80’s New Wave vibe to them, but the inclusion of an acoustic guitar helped keep the sound warm and grounded.

The crowd in the basement of Bowery Electric was near capacity and there was a collective sense that we were lucky to catch an excellent set by a band who had never tested New York waters before… I think they’ll most definitely be back.

They closed their set with their latest single, “Breathing”, which may have been one of the best songs I heard the entire festival.  While introducing the song, lead singer R. John Wiliams mentioned the kooky video which had just come out to support the single (bands still make videos?) that was a cross between “Tron” and ancient Egyptian history mixed with Phoenix mythology.

My Key Tracks:  “Breathing”, “Not the End of the World (Even as We Know It)”, “North by North”, “Polaroid Solution”

Their set ended around 9:35 PM, and I jetted out onto the Bowery and headed north to 14th Street to catch the L subway back into Brooklyn to head to the Knitting Factory on Metropolitan Avenue.

I managed to make it there just before 10 PM in time for the all-female Japanese punk trio Shonen Knife.  Although many bands are new to the scene when they play CMJ, Shonen Knife have been around for nearly as long as the CMJ festival itself.  They’ve changed their line-up through the years but they stay true to their punk rock roots.  I’m not the biggest fan of straight-ahead punk rock, but I felt that it was necessary to check out such a legendary band (I read that they had opened for Nirvana back in the day) that was only playing one set at CMJ – and it was apparently the final show of their 34-date North American tour.

While it may be true that most of the crowd on hand at the Knitting Factory was there for the novelty of such an act (while you can find indie rock all over the place in Brooklyn on any given night, a Japanese punk band that’s been around since 1981 is by no means the norm), one couldn’t help but admire their energy and showmanship in front of the crowd.  Headbanging, synchronized guitar movements, and flashy drumming, all while wearing matching Piet Mondrian-inspired dresses – these ladies did not disappoint and had even the most jaded of hipsters smiling during their performance.

My Key Tracks:  “Ramen Rock”, “Green Tea” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” (Ramones cover)

After their set ended at 10:45, I stuck around a bit for King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, an Australian psychedelic jam band that consisted of two drummers, perhaps three guitars and one bassist, if I counted correctly.  I was pretty sure they would have let an audience member come join them on stage to jam so long as you had your own instrument!  They opened with “Cellophane” and the song just kept going, and going… I wasn’t feeling their sound and had wanted to catch the Cold War Kids, one of the biggest (and perhaps most established) acts playing CMJ this year to support their new album, so I (happily) left.

I walked through Williamsburg to get to Rough Trade, the US sister to London’s legendary music stores, which is now NYC’s largest record store.  They also have a performance space and I had never seen a show there before, so I was happy to pop in on the rainy evening.

The Cold War Kids went on around 11:45 PM and I was ecstatic to see such a great band live again in a small venue which may not have even been able to hold 1,000 people (I think the last time they were in town to play a show of their own they played the Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan).  I had tried to purchase tickets for this show at Rough Trade but it sold out too quickly.

The last time I saw Cold War Kids was maybe three years ago at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, just a few blocks away from Rough Trade, and a similarly smaller venue.  Their unique bluesy-rock sound hit a chord with me ever since they came on the scene in the mid-naughts with their debut album Robbers & Cowards.  Since that time they’ve released four other albums, including their latest, Hold My Home, which was released the day before.

Along with the soaring vocals of Nathan Willett (there may not be a more unique vocalist in rock and roll today), the Cold War Kids have an amazing ability to maintain a rawness to their sound while still sounding soulful.  Since Robbers & Cowards they’ve put forth a more melodic sound (compare “Hang Me Out to Dry” with “Audience” for example) and changed some members, but they still put on a phenomenal show.

Members of the band roam throughout the stage, even if space is at a minimum, touch each other, feed off each others’ energy, and just put it all out there.  They played one of my favorite songs that I had never heard live before, “Miracle Mile” and made me forget that it was well past my bedtime on a Wednesday night, but it was only the end of night #2 of CMJ!

My Key Tracks:  “Miracle Mile”, “Hang Me Out to Dry”, “Audience”, “Hospital Beds" and “Hot Coals”

To read Part 1 of the review click here.  To read Part 3 click here.

Words and pictures by Alexander Keblish