After enduring three hours of errant subway navigation, I emerge from New York City’s underworld only to be greeted with a sideways shower of wet hail. It is 32 degrees and I am wearing open-toed high heels. With five more blocks to walk … a New Yorker I am not.
Five blocks — no problem. “Walk fast.” As I near my first destination, my toes begin to go numb. I hum Lovin’ Spoonful songs to myself. It doesn’t help.
Making my way out of the cold and into the could-be-anywhere rock ’n’ roll bar, Tobacco Road, I shuffle through the idiotic credential rigmarole and feel immediately ready to get on with it. As late as I am for the Witches show in Brooklyn (I miss it), I am that early to see the Fags. I want whiskey.
Sitting alone, I think quietly. So far, New York feels like a macrocosm of home. I drink Bushmill’s and kick myself for wearing these completely impractical shoes. Impractical shoes: How Detroit of me.
As I sit through a few sets of ignorable music, save a certain Police meets Missing Persons band called [DARYL], the need to see the Fags increases. This is the CMJ, one of the most well-attended showcases for new bands in the country, and I am ready to pay attention — this is what I came for … they take the stage.
True to form, the Fags (John Speck, Tim Patalan and Jimmy Paluzzi) have completely changed the caliber of the lineup. What before felt awkward and small, now has the feel of a bona fide rock show.
Smart, in an ironic schoolboy-gone-wrong way, their simple white shirts and thin black ties shift the emphasis back to the music. The stage setup has been modified and the room looks different. The lighting is stark. Gone are the low-budget red, green and blue flashing stage lights — the band is back-lit. Blinding white lights that pour from the rear of the stage transform the three men into solitary dark silhouettes. And as if anomalous rock premonitions, the shock of loud music starts and the once-barren room fills up. A veritable aural one-night stand, the Fags get in, rock hard and get out.
At a time when the omnipresent imprinted “new” definition of rock ’n’ roll has already dangerously neared an unoriginal amalgamation of unbathed male longhairs and stripped-down music, the Fags remain pure and exhilarating. Full rock harmonies, raw vocals and unabashedly catchy tunes, they sound like Detroit.
Day 2: The big show
The Bowery sold out forever ago. The smatterings of FYI’s have been buzzing around my head since I first checked into CMJ. I get there early on this Halloween night to ensure a place in the room and to catch the opening, mostly Detroit showcase. It is Electric 6, recently signed to X-L. At first glance, one might not know what to make of the dichotomous group. There is an element of disco in the E6’s music that daringly refuses the classic reverence to rhythm and blues as the lone backbone of rock, and lead singer Dick Valentine bears a disconcerting resemblance to a 10th grade math assistant. But when the music starts, the peculiar equation begins to solve itself. Unassumingly idiosyncratic, frontman Valentine’s body quivers, his eyes sear and his common appearance fairly pubesces into sexy. From behind sunglasses, drum kits and keyboards, the band’s quiet sexuality begs the voyeur to look more closely. Posing a musical question, rather than shouting an answer, the Electric 6 start the night off right. Dig.
After an incident with a security guard whose neckless physical intimidation relegated me to a bathroom stall to sit down, I take a seat on my porcelain squab, listen to the chatter and rest my still-weary feet. The bathroom mirror pontification is lousy with Dirtbombs/VonBondies/Datsuns speak. From behind the refuge of my stall door, I listen to British-accented story swapping and soak in the doling of pithy VonBondie gossip: “I hear Jack White is married to one of them.” I cannot help but laugh. Realizing that I have become a faceless, shoeless, turgid Detroit rock giggler who passes judgment from the inside of a ’loo, the moment begins to feel surreal. Upstairs, the girl whose Halloween costume is a zaftig rendition of Meg White is clueless. The British lip-liner harlots have realized that the “real” Meg White is standing 10 feet away. The “real Meg White.”
I go back upstairs to watch the deservedly loved Datsuns. The Bowery is charged, and I begin to feel the New York-ness of it all. Then come the VonBondies. Touring relentlessly has paid off for these young rockers. The once-toddler version of the band has metamorphosed into a foursome of full-on rock stars, and the command they have harnessed over their instruments and stage personalities is a result of an accelerated touring matriculation. Naked of makeup but femininely alluring, bassist Carrie VonBondie exudes matriarchal dominion, and Jason VonBondie has become a crowd-pleasing frontman. The performance is fabulous, though the set list has become incredibly redundant. Rumor has it that the VonBondie’s will be taking some time off to write new songs and record. This … can only be a good thing.
Preceded by their own reputations, the Dirtbombs come next. A favorite among New Yorkers and fronted by the living indie legend Mick Collins, the band is a spot-on recipe for garage-rock madness. Almost perfect, to be honest. Though charismatic and completely cool, it seems as though CMJers (who are becoming more suspect by the minute) have bought into something without having truly experienced it, and the adoration feels a bit contrived. Though the band doesn’t seem to have bought into the hard sell, the minions just may have. Out of curiosity, I ask my bathroom buddies who they are here to see. Many say the Dirtbombs, though through further investigation, I discover that very few of them have ever seen them before or even own a record. I make a promise to make a tape for one obsessed New Zealander but deflate ever so slightly when I realize the hype of it all.
The show goes off without a hitch. It can’t be denied that the cats of CMJ love ’em, even if it is ever so predictable to do so. Maybe because it is.
The last night
Brendan Benson at Irving Plaza. Though it is an insanely early show (7:30 p.m.), the venue has filled up. Surrounded by a quieter but captivated audience, the room is full of Brendan Benson and his Wellfed Boys’ cheerleaders. A serenely soulful songwriter, Benson performs melodic gems such as “You’re Quiet” and old favorites like “Sittin’ Pretty” to an audience of new and old fans. And as an enchanted Japanese enthusiast (rendering a bad translation of “I love you!”) screams, “I like-ah yoos!” the room can’t help but agree. Framed on either side by the rock-star workmanship of lead guitarist Zach Shipps and the bubbly maraca-wielding Chris Plumb, Benson’s stage shyness is a circumstantial feature of the band. There are moments when his singing becomes timid and momentum is lost, but being not even remotely the kind of performer who feeds off crowd approval ... it completely works. Very rarely can a performer pull off a disposition like that, but the genuine humbleness of Benson’s demeanor and the sheer loveliness of his songs make you glad that he will even sing for you at all. The far-too-brief set felt harsh as it ended — it could have gone on for another hour, seamlessly.
Last stop, Arlene’s Grocery. Still giddy from the Wellfed Boys, I entered Arlene’s Grocery on a good note. Annoyingly … the show was an hour behind schedule, and the wait for Outrageous Cherry came for naught. There are only two appealing aspects of this band: Aran Ruth and Deb Agoli. Beautiful and enthusiastic, it feels more like the youthful sirens are an accoutrement rather than full-fledged members. Embar-rassingly obvious, singer-songwriter Matthew Smith is going for a Velvet Underground vibe, and one cannot help but wonder if the women in the band are his gratuitous Nicos. The odd juxtaposition of older men and young women could have an avant-garde appeal if the music was not so bereft of soul, and whereas the VU was droll and lulling, Outrageous Cherry is simply a bore. Though it would be ambitious to try to harness originality completely, authenticity is the foundation to good music. Outrageous Cherry is more a forgery than a well-executed appreciation of lo-fi rock ’n’ roll.
Although rock ’n’ roll is fabulous and uniformly precious at times, the purpose of CMJ is still a good one. It certainly worked for Detroit this year. The garnered attention and excitement over our town was a beautiful thing, and one can only hope that the fickle lemmings of modern rock don’t let us burn out too quickly.Eve Doster is Metro Times' listings editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org