Thursday night, I sat at in my apartment, poring over the notes for an upcoming exam. Friday morning, I boarded a 6:40 a.m. bus to New York City, two 7-Eleven sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches tucked under my arm. Friday night, I fingered the lace on my light blue mask aimlessly as I shook the hand of the drummer from Vampire Weekend. “Love the new album.” “Thanks, man.” Twelve hours later, I shed a tear as my face melted from a gorgeous, metallic onslaught; the guy next to me appears to be praying. Such was a smattering of my weekend covering this year’s CMJ music festival.
The highlight of the weekend, though, had to be seeing Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire has made the theme of disconnection due to technology quite clear in the marketing rollout for its new album, Reflektor. The band’s video for the title track features apparitions with mirrors for faces and oversize heads wandering about, making caricatures of the egos that are so often expanded and fed when we plug in. In line, I had to start checking myself in a mixture of anxiety and excitement as my uncertain night waiting outside the warehouse wore on. I tried to gawk and gander at the indie rock royalty who walked through the VIP line — James Murphy, Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson, The National’s Bryce Dressner — and at least thought twice before pulling out my phone and snapping pictures of the band as they strolled into the venue.
When The Reflektors arrived in a limo to the warehouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn on Friday where they played a secret show, they emerged with cameras, snapping pictures at the fans who had been waiting in line the longest. The move seemed to criticize as well, this time poking fun at our need to document every moment of our lives by making us the spectacle. The band politely mocked us as they proceeded to set up for the show we had been standing around for hours to see.
It takes a lot of moxie for a band to poke fun at its biggest fans like that, and the group was not finished doing so. After a concert introduction from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, two performers in giant heads took the “main stage” and began playing a few drones. To our left, we began to hear some clutter. and in an instant the left side of the venue opened up to reveal the actual band ripping into “Reflektor.” I can’t imagine how frustrated the people who had been waiting outside since 10 a.m. must have been to find that they had a worse look at the stage than myself, who hadn’t bought a ticket in presale and was one of the last to enter the venue.
Arcade Fire performed 10 songs, all of which were new, save for “covers” of classics “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” This was also the case when I saw the band perform at Madison Square Garden before 2010’s The Suburbs came out. The crowd’s reaction could more accurately be described as reverent than excited, as these were some of the first times the songs were being performed for an audience.
The Reflektor’s songs were groove-oriented, a trait undoubtedly influenced by James Murphy’s production. The sound fidelity was exceptional for a random warehouse — so sharp that you could tell from its lyrics that “Joan of Arc” was literally a song about Joan of Arc and that the coos that bookend “Afterlife” are strangely reminiscent of those in Lisa Loeb’s “Sixpence None the Richer.” The show was heavy on style, which was assured by the performance. The group was dressed in the same digs as their SNL performance of “Afterlife,” white suits and black make-up smudged across their eyes. They were passionate and stayed stationary, save for Regine Chassagne’s ribbon twirling in “Sprawl” and Butler’s trademark stepping onto the monitor to espouse some particularly poignant lyrics.
All of these details made for a satisfying if not dazzling performance. All the new songs had a generous thump to them, but they were not immediately epic like the highlights of Funeral or Neon Bible, with a few exceptions. “Flashbulb Eyes” has a dubby lope to it that answers the question, “How would Arcade Fire sound with kettle drums? (Answer: Pretty freaking fantastic.) “Here Comes the Night Time” began and ended with an island rave-up so euphoric, it could only be accurately described as “reggaeton-esque.” For me, The Suburbs was a grower, and, although the new songs didn’t bring the house down, mostly due to the audience’s lack of familiarity with them, they could very well serve as effective drama in concert once Reflektor has had a few months to worm its way into people’s brains (and hips).
When Win Butler came out an hour after the group had finished playing and everyone was still standing there waiting for an encore, I gave considerable thought to his invitation to “dance with us on the floor to this playlist we made.” I ultimately decided to head back to my friend’s apartment. “They probably won’t come out anyway,” I reasoned.
Oh yeah, and CMJ happened. Running well into its third decade in production, the city-wide festival is a kindred spirit to Austin’s South by Southwest, but obviously spread over a much larger area. As such, it’s hard to plan going to more than a few venues a day, and chances are your favorite bands will be playing shows in different boroughs all across the city. So, I decided to stick with the venue that had the most consistently interesting acts for my Saturday afternoon, that being Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My main draw was the last-minute addition of Arkansas traditional doom metal outfit Pallbearer to the billing, a group whose debut, Sorrow and Extinction, was my favorite metal album of last year. Deemed by a friend as “the most depressing album I’ve ever heard,” it’s a fantastic metal album for folks who are turned off by screamed vocals and aggressive textures. Its sound is more akin to a funeral procession than a book burning.
I arrived at Baby’s All Right just as Nothing was finishing its set. The aptly named group’s unmemorable Deftones-like mixture of metal and post-punk were an appropriate transition between Pallbearer and British indie rockers Yuck, who I had just managed to miss. Pallbearer then took the stage and laid into Sorrow and Extinction’s closing track “Given to the Grave.” The song’s beautiful, crushing solos between guitarists Brett Campbell and Devin Holt created the perfect setting to absorb and reflect on life, the universe and everything (maybe shed a man tear or two). The whole show could have been those four minutes stretched out to 45 and I would have loved it, but the group slugged through more fantastic Sorrow tracks and a new instrumental. Much like Arcade Fire, I did not leave the bar stunned by spectacle, but very, very content. So content, in fact, that I accidentally wandered into the venue’s in-house tattoo parlor and almost stuck around to get something done before the next act went on. When your performance is so entrancing that it makes a scrawny, sober hipster consider tattooing a giant “P” on his chest, you know you’re doing something right.
Next up was Nashville upstart Torres. Singer/songwriter Mackenzie Scott took the stage clad in all black for the decidedly metallic occasion. The singer-drummer setup has become almost a cliche in recent years and, especially considering that her brand of raw storytelling has clear similarities to Alison Crutchfield’s Alabama outfit Waxahatchee, who released the excellent Cerulean Salt this year, Torres’ music can get buried under an embarrassment of riches. Luckily, Torres’ self-titled debut is scathing and confessional, taking Crutchfield’s nostalgia-fueled romanticism and crushing it under a steel-toed boot. Her debut did not reach as many ears as its quality deserved, but she’s a talent who will get her break in due time.
Torres’ performance reflected this in a way that was — you guessed it — satisfying. The PA’s emphasis on heavy bass to accommodate the aggressive acts that came before worked tremendously in her favor, the spare drums punctuating Scott’s virulent rants like rifle shots. Throughout, she was friendly and conversational, mocking the crowd for being too drunk but thanking them after every song. She took time away from the mic to stroll along the stage to play a few solos, at times scrambling her hands across the fretboard like an agitated St. Vincent before returning to her vivid tales of lost love. The show felt like a fitting end as I shuffled out the venue and thought about where I would be sleeping that night. A weekend remembered for the wonderful experiences surrounding the music, not necessarily the music itself. From Arcade Fire cracking wise in Brooklyn to Torres just being happy to play for some fans a few yards away from tramp stamps in the making, it was promise on different scales. Solid stuff for now, great stuff for the future.