The CMJ (College Music Journal) festival and conference kicked off Tuesday night (Oct. 19) with an especially wide-ranging lineup of shows, from indie rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo at Brooklyn Bowl and Greg Dulli at Bowery Ballroom to hip-hop veterans Pete Rock and Jean Grae at Le Poisson Rouge and underground upstarts like Homeboy Sandman at Southpaw.
There were several distractions at Mog’s inaugural CMJ showcase, held at Brooklyn Bowl and featuring headliners Yo La Tengo. While the VIPs knocked down pins at one of the venue’s 16 open bowling lanes, sports fans cringed as the Yankees got trounced by the Rangers on the bar’s big-screen TVs. Still, the majority of the badge-holders crowded into the Williamsburg venue paid most of their attention to the indie-rock that raged on the spot’s performance stage. Jersey punk trio Screaming Females and Massachusetts psychedelic surf-rockers DOM warmed up the crowd for indie godfathers Yo La Tengo, who doused the crowd with lo-fi guitar jams during their first-ever bowling alley concert.
Not even the band members stayed completely focused during their 90-minute set: during Yo La’s extended version of “Sugarcube,” guitarist Ira Kaplan left the stage mid-solo to bowl a frame on an adjacent lane. Luckily, the trio’s set of new and old classics went down with more skill and finesse than Ira’s gutter ball.
Video: Jenny and Johnny at CMJ 2010
Longtime lovebirds Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice brought their road trip-ready, California sounds to Irving Plaza for the Ground Control Touring Showcase. While both have an extensive discography behind them, Lewis and Rice only have one album together as Jenny and Johnny, so the crowd expected a brief set. But after playing through the all their Jenny and Johnny material, the Rilo Kiley frontwoman and her singer-songwriter beau surprised and delighted fans by playing several songs off Lewis’ 2008 country-folk solo album “Acid Tongue.” The duo also premiered a new song, titled “Just One of the Guys,” suggesting that, like their romance, their collaboration has staying potential. Appropriately, Rice made wise-cracks about bloggers (this is CMJ, after all), and Lewis’ voice has never sounded more angelic.
During the MTV’s Live in NYC kick-off party at the Studio at Webster Hall, Wesleyan University-bred trio Francis & the Lights showcased synthesized beats, polished style and soulful vocal melodies. Yet every aspect of the band’s performance was overshadowed by frontman Francis Farewell Starlite’s gonzo dancing, as the singer thrashed his lanky arms and wiggled his hips to the faux-R&B rhythms. While his routine may have distracted from the fine-tuned instrumentation, Starlite succeeded in getting the tightly packed crowd to enthusiastically move along with him.
Florida rockers Surfer Blood didn’t move quite as much during their set (which was also streamed live at MTV.com for the folks at home), if only because they were so many members — the five-piece looked scrunched on the tiny studio stage. Nevertheless, the group delivered a high-energy set in which singer John Paul Pitts sported a loud sweater, grazed a few impossibly high vocal notes played a killer guitar solo on “Take It Easy,” from debut album “Astro Coast.”
Video: Greg Dulli at CMJ 2010
Even a discovery-focused festival like CMJ is taking part in live music’s current ’90s revival. The Bowery Ballroom hosted a sold-out solo show for former Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, supported by Craig Wedren, who fronted pioneering DC post-hardcore group Shudder To Think. Wedren, now a prolific composer for movies and TV, turned his act into a one-man band, using live production to replicate guitar lines and harmonize with his own expressive, lithe vocals. He played a blend of Shudder To Think staples (including the aching “Red House” from 1991’s “Funeral at the Movies”), as well as solo tunes such as “Rain Diamonds,” which he originally wrote for the 2002 film “Laurel Canyon.”
For his part, the much-worshipped Dulli delivered intensity both tortured and celebratory, backed by a tightly synched ensemble of second guitar, stripped-down drums and cello. From slow-burners like “God’s Children” (from his Gutter Twins collaboration with Mark Lanegan) to sing-alongs like the Afghan Whigs’ “66,” (from 1998’s “1965”), Dulli had the audience enraptured, some even yelling “Thank you!” between songs. He joked about Daft Punk, paid tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio, was dissmissive towards the Yankees, and filled the room with his fans’ yearned-for sounds.
Video: Homeboy Sandman at CMJ 2010
Over at the Homebase NYC x Put Me On It showcase at Southpaw, underground rap upstart Homeboy Sandman impressed as usual with rapid-fire wordplay and ferocious energy, while performing mixtape cuts and tracks from his lauded debut album, “The Good Sun.” Los Angeles-based MC Blu, however, puzzled the crowd with a lackluster set of mostly new material and performed just two songs off his cult album “Below The Heavens.” Hip-Hop fans fared better at Le Poisson Rouge, where the Duck Down vs. Blacksmith lasted well into the early morning hours and featured Pete Rock deejaying for Smif-N-Wessun (the former is currently producing the duo’s next album) and new Duck Down signee Black Rob special guesting during 9th Wonder and Buckshot’s set, and Jean Grae, who helped bring the crowd back to the golden age of New York hip-hop with her infamous flow and hard hitting lyrics. The 20+ year veteran got the crowd pumped for a new record, “Cake or Death,” due in February of next year.