In the growing darkness, they arrive, individuals at first and then in packs of two and three and then in a stream that seems to have no end. Down this desolate stretch of Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, in the shadow of the abandoned Domino Sugar factory, past the car repair shops and vacant lots, in the shadows created by bare streetlamps and the headlights of livery cabs, they come. Through the open door, passing the discarded cigarette butts and the shoddily put together wooden bench on the sidewalk, they file into GlassLands Gallery to see seven bands play all night.
This could be any night in Brooklyn. This could be any Friday night on Kent Avenue. These could be any bands at any show with any crowd, interchangeable in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint that see thousands of bands a year strive for some kind of fame. But this is a Friday night during the 2011 CMJ Music Marathon, and though it feels no different from any other autumn evening on Kent Avenue or Bedford Avenue or North Sixth Street, the major players—small as they are—feel something different in the air.
“If your band can’t stick out in this sea, they won’t make it,” Hunter Giles says, his band having just dipped themselves into the waters to float in the current. That band, Ava Luna, just finished the opening set of Friday night’s Yours Truly CMJ showcase inside GlassLands, pushing through a 30-minute set with a muscular combo of bass, keyboards and four vocalists. Giles is outside GlassLands, cigarette in one hand and a copy of an Ava Luna album on vinyl in the other. He wears a tweed blazer despite the falling temperatures. This is Ava Luna’s first CMJ show.
There are well over a hundred bands at CMJ, and finding exposure amidst the groups that are piling up buzz and the bigger names that suck the oxygen out of a venue can be a nightmarish proposition. But Giles, who describes himself as Ava Luna’s manager, isn’t scared.
“These are the kinds of festivals people come to looking to find new bands,” he says. “It’s not like Tuesday night shows during a regular week. [CMJ shows] are geared on new music and smaller bands. The audiences know that.”
What the audience knows at GlassLands is beer and liquor. The music plays on in the background, and Ava Luna, by virtue of being first, gets an audience that pays attention to the music before turning to the bar. The second band, a Prince-worshipping group named INC, has a harder time getting the crowd’s attention. By then, conversations have broken out in earnest. People keep flooding in, drawn by the free admission and by knowing someone who knows someone who knows that this band could be big or at least a good way to kill half an hour. The bar is a magnet despite its precarious position on a ledge hanging over the floor, a position that forces drinkers to maintain perfect balance with drinks in each hand as they are jostled and pushed by those behind and below. The crowd seems to regenerate on its own, as if every person who walks in spawns two new people just by entering.
I can’t hear the person next to me, and I suppose they can’t hear each other either. Despite the packed house, I find myself shivering. It was hot earlier but there’s a breeze coming from somewhere. It’s probably the venue door, propped open now to support the constant influx, bouncer harried by the people, girl at the ostensible ticket table no longer paying attention to anyone as they walk in. After all, it’s free. Why keep track?
Outside, in the chill of late October, there is smoking and laughing and a girl in a leopard-print jacket talking to someone on her rhinestone-encrusted iPhone, asking if they had puked this morning. Whatever response she gets elicits laughter. The bouncer, still harried, keeps urging people to move down the sidewalk and make room. Few people listen.
Back on Bedford Avenue, the main strip in Williamsburg, a smaller crowd gathers outside the smaller venue that is Spike Hill, smoking and laughing but with no questions about who has puked recently. Spike Hill’s CMJ showcase, this one hosted by Baeble Music, is also free but less crowded. Nonetheless, it takes all of ten seconds for someone to run into me bodily, shoulders first, once I step in.
The band on stage is unknown to me and probably to everyone else. This is how CMJ operates. You won’t know the band’s name right away, and maybe not even until their last song, when they remind you to come check them out at another showcase on another night at another venue. Maybe you’ll never know their name at all. I learn the band’s name—Jonquil, a four-piece out of Oxford, the English college town —thanks to a chance glance at a beat-up brown leather guitar case propped against the wall by the stage.
The case is held together by duct tape and bears the band’s name in blue masking tape on the front. Jonquil’s gear sits in ragged packs by the side of the stage, to make it that much easier for the members of the band to clear the space post-haste once their 30-to-45-minute set has come to an end. That’s the essence of CMJ: Speed. You have to clear the stage quickly, move to the next venue quickly, press the flesh as fast as you can and impress as many people as you can in just 30 minutes, about six or seven songs. The city’s rhythms perfectly match the hellish pace of the so-called music marathon.
Hugo Manuel is the affable lead singer of Jonquil, a pale man with a round face, thin beard and light blonde hair who is breaking down his keyboard about 30 seconds after thanking the audience for coming out to see them. We talk outside about an hour or so after their set, Hugo having initially left the venue to get a coffee and then to a nearby bar with the rest of his bandmates to do an interview for some music promotional group or another. This is Jonquil’s first CMJ show but they’ve been to New York before, supporting a number of bands as openers. The people who went to those shows knew what to expect, but Hugo believes that the people at this showcase had no idea what they were going to see. That’s what he loves most.
“What’s exciting is knowing that the people you’re playing shows to are people who have never heard you before,” he says.
He and Jonquil have done the festival circuit before—most notably South by Southwest, the giant Austin, Tex., showcase in the spring—but all four members prefer CMJ to SXSW.
“CMJ is like New York but with more bands,” Hugo says, a tremendously obvious statement that contains a deeper truth. Nothing separates CMJ from New York or Brooklyn. There are just more bands and more free shows and media and record label types who run around looking high and low for the next big thing. But the bands involved feel as if there’s something else there, an energy or desire that regular shows don’t quite reach.
“When CMJ’s going on, no one can think of anything else,” says Sam Scott, Jonquil’s bassist and occasional trumpet player. “It feels like everybody’s ready to give you a chance.”
Another four-person group from England follows Jonquil at Spike Hill. It’s a band that has seen their name begin to trend upward in their homeland despite at least two previous name changes. They’re called Viva Brother and are famous enough to warrant their own Wikipedia page, about seven or eight photographers in front of the stage who snap shots incessantly for the entire set, and a cheering section who may or may not know who Viva Brother is, but you get the sense that the band could care less. They have to go to Rochester in the morning for a show in the evening, according to their lead singer, Leo Newell, who fills in the crowd on their travel arrangements during a break between songs. “Rochester can suck a dick,” he says. “Unless they like us better, in which case New York City can suck a dick.”
Viva Brother is brash and bold on stage, churning out the kind of reliable British rock that has pervaded all music on the island since 1986. The supernovas of British pop—Oasis, Blur, Stone Roses, The Smiths—will all be name-checked in reference to Viva Brother. But they put the past aside, because they are young and full of energy and the occasional Pabst Blue Ribbon, and while they do nothing on the level of spitting on a photographer or head-butting an audience member, they radiate the give-it-your-all-or-screw-it mentality that most bands here could use more of.
On stage, Newell is no holds barred. When I talk to him just after his set, as he drags gear from the stage to the front of the venue, he is unflinchingly polite and soft-spoken. Viva Brother, like Ava Luna and Jonquil, has never played CMJ before. And like the foursome in Jonquil, Newell knows that CMJ and Brooklyn mean something big.
“There’s something special about New York City and in the air,” he says. “You could bump into someone you’d never meet. It’s a different experience and it means you’re being taken seriously on a different level.”
The difference is in the similarity. Nothing in Brooklyn changes during CMJ. Bedford Avenue is still a crowded mess and the bands dragging equipment down the street are a common sight on any weekend. That’s all that matters to these bands.
“These areas in Brooklyn feel like they’d be like this way all the time,” says Jonquil drummer Dom Hand. “It’s the true New York City experience.”