NEW YORK — As the 2009 CMJ Music Marathon drew to a close Saturday night, there was a palpable sense of giddy relief among festival-goers in Lower Manhattan. After five days of organized chaos, it was clear by Saturday afternoon that the artists and their management crews were focused solely on having a good time, like kids on the last day of school.
Kicking off the afternoon was the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at Piano’s, which featured a slew of bands (as well as free Miller and bloody marys until about 3 p.m.). The standout act was Canada’s Still Life Still, who’s hook-laden indie repertoire contains as much distortion as possible to still be called pop. It might be considered shoegaze, but more than likely your feet would be tapping so fast you wouldn’t be able to focus. The tiny performance space completely absorbed their fuzz-rock wall of sound, particularly drummer Aaron Romaniuk’s Animal-like pounding, that surely left plenty of ears ringing at the end of the set.
As evening fell and a monsoon drenched the city, Blast headed over to the Village Underground to catch Lisa Bianco. The local singer/songwriter, unlike many CMJ acts who brought out the bells and whistles, played straightforward Sheryl Crowe-esque rock backed by a full band.
On the opposite end of the musical spectrum, next up was Spleen United, an electro-rock outfit from Denmark who created their own four-person mosh pit on the downstairs stage of Santos Party House. Their pulsating, industrial sound is reminiscent of early Depeche Mode, but they were followed by Lemonade, whose psychedelia-inspired noise rock was a little too avant garde for our tastes.
Not avant garde AT ALL was our final stop of the festival, the Tribute Wars showcase at Le Poisson Rouge, which featured heavy metal tributes to the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson (yes, you read that right) and an all-female Metallica cover band called Misstallica.
The Bee Gees act, known as Tragedy (tagline: “The Number One Heavy Metal Bee Gees Tribute Band in the Tri-State Area”), employs shlock in the best way imaginable, with a stage setup that featured female backup dancers (one donning feathery angel wings) and an abundance of glitter. The band members exploited basically every ’80s hair metal stereotype, down to the ostentatious screens in the background that blared “TRAGEDY” in flaming typeface. Heartfelt interpretations of classics like “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Night Fever” had the crowd in stitches, with singer “Robin Gibbens,” clad only in pink feather boots and white boxer briefs, gyrating around the stage with a not insignificant beer gut unabashedly on display. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, they brought out a cowbell for closing number “Stayin’ Alive.”
After a quick costume change, some of Tragedy’s members teamed with other musicians for “Dangerous,” a heavy metal tribute to Michael Jackson whose members include “Neverland Raunch” and “Blanket Peterson.” Formed before Jackson’s death in June, the band seamlessly incorporated snippets of metal classics like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Sister Christian” into the end of songs like “Smooth Criminal” and “Billie Jean.” They finished with “We Are the World,” which featured what can only be described as the opposite of an all-star cast, including several audience members, up on stage. As crowd members looked on with a mix of amusement, confusion and horror, it’s fair to say that the rendition may have had a unifying effect equal to that of the original’s.
Less comical but equally mind-blowing was the final act of the evening, Philadelphia quartet Misstallica. Recently named one of the top five all-female tribute acts in the country by Gibson.com, they offered note-by-note replications of early Metallica classics like “Seek and Destroy” and “Master of Puppets.” Singer/guitarist Gina Randazzo offered a spot-on imitation of James Hetfield, even mimicking his distinctive hunch over the microphone, and lead guitarist Gigi Gleason made Kirk Hammet’s brain-melting guitar solos look effortless. For anyone who can’t afford a high-priced stadium ticket to see Metallica nowadays, these girls are a worthy substitute.
It’s been an exhausting week, but we loved every minute of it. Finally, here’s a wrap-up of the marathon overall:
Best Acts: Casxio, Still Life Still
Worst Acts: Hunter Valentine, Lemonade (sorry)
Pleasant Surprise: Via Tania
Biggest Disappointment: The Fire and Reason
Best New Discovery: Dangerous: A Heavy Metal Tribute to Michael Jackson, the banh mi at Santos Party House
Best Venues: Le Poisson Rouge, Santos Party House
Photography by Sarah Be for Blast