thu 16/09/2021

theartsdesk in Brooklyn: The CMJ Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Brooklyn: The CMJ Festival

theartsdesk in Brooklyn: The CMJ Festival

Shoegaze, chillwave and all sounds new take over New York's secret corners

Nobody really knows what CMJ stands for, but then few of New York’s residents know of the five-day music festival’s existence either. Involving more than 1200 bands and 75 cross-borough venues, CMJ is for the real music fans - dare I say, geeks even - as the smallest, newest and most unlikely of musical acts enjoy the opportunity of a truly open platform for industry professionals, bloggers and downtown hipsters’ appreciation alike. Closest comparisons include the Edinburgh Fringe and Austin’s South By South West which happens in Texas every spring. But this is, after all, unique New York and CMJ is a truly NY event: non-stop and all night, featuring yellow cabs and mean door staff.

Those who are aware of its existence often associate CMJ with live shows. The festival’s film counter-marathon, however, is not to be overlooked. As if to reflect on the other concerns of CMJ (according to Wikipedia, it originates from College Music Journal) the films showcased are musically inspired.

CMJ_pitchfork_posterGainsbourg celebrates the French singer through the memories of his muses – Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and the pair’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg amongst them – all to a soundtrack of Gainsbourg’s music. Hardrock Havana is an 11-minute short documenting the career of Cuba’s biggest rock band (if little known elsewhere), Zeus, whose two-decade career within the communist country makes for interesting viewing. The Child Prodigy (L’Enfant Prodige) is based on the life of “Little Canadian Mozart”, six-year-old Andre Mathieu whose later trials in life demonstrated that, even in the classical world, childhood fame rarely leads to adult happiness.

Alongside this mix of international and music documentary is Love and Other Drugs. Although its most tangible note of comparison with CMJ’s music marathon may be the era in which it is set – 1996, the current hot retro decade for many of the bands’ sounds and the crowd’s ironic attire - Ed Zwick’s latest offering made its mark on the festival’s film schedule. Not least because Zwick and leading actor Jake Gyllenhaall turned up to the screening at a Chelsea cinema.

Based on Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Jamie Reidy’s real-life insight into the pharmaceutical industry, Love and Other Drugs sees Anne Hathaway give the kind of performance that prospers at the Oscars; she plays a Parkinson's patient whose relationship with Gyllenhaal has just enough sentiment to class the film as a dromedy. Plus, with the inclusion of late Dylan tracks and some from Beck in his prime, when the soundtrack wasn’t accompanying the hyped-up emotional second half of the film it was ticking the right boxes.

Gold_Panda_JackJeffriesCMJOver the East River, the extent of CMJ film screenings are fuzzy splices of cine film (faux or otherwise) projected behind the more minimalist performances by dance acts. London electronic act Gold Panda – whose acclaimed debut Lucky Shiner was released last month – was one such act, trying to take up the space on the Brooklyn Bowl stage with nothing but a MacBook Pro, a hoodie and the introverted attitude that only British dance acts appear to bring (pictured left by Jack Jeffries/CMJ). Because though CMJ’s schedule includes acts as diverse as GZA, a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan and now a successful solo hip-hop artist, and Zowie, the female soloist who has been much hyped as "New Zealand’s Lady Gaga", it is primarily an indie festival. In 2010, that means a chill wave festival.

This is especially the case in Brooklyn, where CMJ takes on a different feel. While festival badge holders – mainly armies of bloggers and the few who’ve forked out $500 for an unlimited pass -  withstand the unusually cool October winds outside Union Square’s Webster Hall in Manhattan for a slow entry after the public walk in and pay on the door, Brooklyn’s skinny-jean brigade are enjoying one of the best weeks of the year.

CMJ week in Brooklyn is a very different beast from its swish Manhattan sibling. Glossy boutique hotel receptions on the Lower East Side are replaced with free barbecues and garage bands out the back of Bushwick dive bars as people embrace the DIY spirit of the borough in putting on independent showcases. The festival shares some similarities on both sides of the Brooklyn bridge: far too many gigs to physically see everything and networking being as important a side-effect as the music itself.

However, dotted around the L Train tracks (the subway that dictates which Brooklyn neighbourhood is next fated for hipster gentrification), every venue, bar, loft apartment and re-appropriated warehouse transforms for CMJ. Posters read like shopping lists of peculiar band names and drink deals on PBR and shots lure in the crowds. No self-respecting blog didn’t have a showcase, from the antipodean Rose Quartz - whose gig at East Williamsburg’s Bruar Falls featured one of Brooklyn’s current biggest band crushes, Big Troubles - to the larger websites of Hypem and Pitchfork.

CMJ_KanyePitchfork’s three-day alternative festival at Brooklyn Bowl – a bowling alley-cum-venue and restaurant and essential Williamsburg hotspot – was the site of what was probably Kanye West’s smallest (and cheapest at 10 bucks) gig in years as he closed the festival with a surprise performance on Saturday night (pictured right, CMJ).

Official CMJ shows took place in Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg: Everything Everything, a North-East/Manchester export currently taking the UK by storm and, judging by the all-American cries from the crowd, soon to have a similar effect across the pond, and The Knitting Factory, which rearranged its normal week-night public viewings of cult TV shows for the festival.

However, shoegaze, chillwave and garage rock were far more abundant elsewhere. Glasslands, a love-hate venue under the Williamsburg Bridge, hosted a set by Dent May, whose records have been released on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, on CMJ’s opening night and a mesmerising performance from Australian electronica-drone duo The Fabulous Diamonds (think a less Mercury-friendly xx) on Thursday against a backdrop of papier-mâché clouds and haphazard balconies. Shay Stadium, the latest in many a DIY warehouse housing/event spaces, brought varying degrees of guitar to the streetsign-free rabbit warren of industrial Bushwick.

CMJ_Mexican_posterOn the closing night of the festival, it was the basement of an East Williamsburg bar called Don Pedro’s that summed up the spirit of Brooklyn’s CMJ. Epitomising the mix of the neighbourhood: where McDonald's advertisements are written in Spanish, Mexican families gather in bodega corner shops and young creatives take advantage of the affordable rent, Don Pedro’s offered a free showcase with Coasting, Cloud Nothings and [tk] on the Corona chalk board outside (poster right).

Not only was it the location of the only crowd surfing I’d seen during the week, but Don Pedro himself bought me a beer. Undercurrent, riotous and open to all: like the blogs which make it, CMJ is about far more than the stated headliners.

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Great review! It's always disappointing at festivals like this that you can't get to everything but at least I have a better idea of what I missed.

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