It's physically impossible to see all 1,200 bands at the CMJ Music Marathon. The 2010 festival, which ended its four-day run Oct. 23, spanned 80 venues across New York City (even spilling over into New Jersey) and that doesn't include the unofficial after-parties. To have a successful CMJ experience, you must scour the schedule and pick and choose the bands you most want to see. But how many shows can you really squeeze into one night? In the name of journalism, I decided to find out.
Show 1: Glasser
The venue: Fader magazine's "Fader Fort" party at what appears to be an empty office space they rented
The time: 6:30 p.m.
The audience: 30-somethings typing on their BlackBerrys. Most people here seem to be at least tangentially related to the music industry. Everyone is wearing black. One man has a mustache so curly it would put a 19th century gold prospector to shame.
The music: I've never heard Los Angeles' Glasser before, but a friend swore they were "awesome." Glasser is actually just one woman, Cameron Mesirow, who slinks around onstage in red lipstick and a bright red jumper as two men accompany her: one mixing tracks on a laptop, the other playing what appears to be a xylophone although I can't be sure, because an excessively tall person is standing in front of me and I can't really see. Mesirow's singing style is so light and ethereal that it's hard to make out the lyrics. At one point, the entire stage lights, microphone, laptop goes dark, and she is forced to finish her set a cappella. She nails it. The BlackBerrys click approvingly.
Show 2: Freddie Gibbs
The venue: Same as before
The time: 7 p.m.
The audience: The BlackBerry crowd has expanded to include drunk college kids, hip-hop fans and one 50-year-old white dude who won't stop dancing.
The music: Freddie Gibbs is an up-and-coming rapper, but he has been up and coming for several years now, and it's unclear if he'll ever make it big. He signed with Interscope records in 2008 but was dropped from the label before he could release an album. Now he's riding high on Internet mix tapes and tons of positive reviews, some of which call him "the next big thing." And it's no wonder Gibbs was on nearly every "must see" CMJ concert list I found: this guy knows how to rap. Listening to him, I am instantly reminded of Tupac Shakur. Gibbs is from what he calls the "raw" section of Gary, Ind., and his gangsta rap deals with stuff he's seen. "In the ghetto, the barrio, the hood, the slums/ Government funds fill my city up with drugs and guns," he raps. One of the guys in his crew is wearing a conical Asian hat.
Show 3: Lia Ices
The venue: Bowery Ballroom
The time: 8:30 p.m.
The audience: Long-haired girls and their boyfriends. One of the boyfriends has a curly mustache. I hope this isn't a new trend.
The music: Lia Ices sings beautiful songs about nature, wind and love. Her feminine voice sounds a bit familiar why am I suddenly thinking about Beth Orton? but it's actually quite unique. (On second thought, she doesn't really sound like Beth Orton at all.) Ices wears a long, flowing gown and stops midperformance to ask that the lights be dimmed so we can't see her face. "What's your name?" shouts someone in the audience. "Where are you from?" cries another. Nobody seems to know who she is. Ices doesn't do much to change that.
Show 4: Devotchka
The venue: A circus tent at Lincoln Center
The time: 10:15 p.m. (scheduled); 11 p.m. (actual)
The audience: This is a ticketed, sit-down performance, so the crowd skews older most people here are pushing 40 and isn't so much hip as artistic. The couple next to me look like they might own an art gallery.
The music: Devotchka has been around for a while, most notably on the Little Miss Sunshine sound track. Its members hail from Colorado, but everything from their name (the Russian word for girl) to their music gives off a distinctly East European vibe. The four play so many instruments I can't keep track: guitar, drums, piano, tambourine, trumpet, violin, accordion, theramin and what I think might be an electric mandolin but find out later is a bouzouki. Oh, and a tuba. That's right, I'm sitting in a circus tent watching a young woman play a tuba.
During one song, a very tall, very muscular man performs a gymnastic routine that involves handstands on raised wooden blocks. This is by far the best show I've seen so far, and not just because it involves muscular men.
Show 5: Marnie Stern
The venue: A tiny, cramped basement at the Delancey, a club on the Lower East Side
The time: 12:30 a.m.
The audience: Everyone here is young and drunk.
The music: I'd wanted to see Montreal pop-rock band the High Dials, but Devotchka's delayed showtime ruined my plans. Then I tried to get back to the Bowery to see indie buzz band Surfer Blood, but the venue was so packed that even my press pass and adorable, pleading smile couldn't get me in the door. Never mind, I thought, I'll just go see the dirty, grungy, rock 'n' roller Marnie Stern.
There's something refreshing about a young blond girl who tells dirty jokes and plays her guitar too loud. Stern and her band cap off their seventh CMJ show by openly requesting drinks from the bar in the middle of their set. Because of her name and the fact that she drinks bourbon and wears plaid shirts with the sleeves ripped off, I keep thinking that Stern is Southern. But she's not she's from New York City. Her music is rough and shrill. I like her.
Conclusion: It took me 6½ hours, but I saw five different CMJ shows or 0.4% of the entire festival. My feet hurt, my ears are ringing, and a drunk guy at the Marnie Stern show spilled beer on my shoe. But thanks to Freddie Gibbs, Devotchka and two excellent mustache sightings, it was worth it.