CMJ Day Two: Surfer Blood And The Drums Stand Triumphant At Webster Hall
Better Than: There were how many performances yesterday? It had to be better than the vast majority.
Although last night's Webster Hall show was touted on the official CMJ schedule, the event felt almost above the festival's usual stock-market atmosphere, in which buzz and expectations often matter more than reality. Neither of the two headliners are new to this, and while this year's CMJ previews frequently invoke Surfer Blood (the consensus breakout stars of 2009), it's usually in asking who their 2010 equivalent might be. The show itself was in fact one of three going on in the Webster Hall complex, meaning that this venue alone offered at least an additional 10 acts (including, of course, that most tempting and omnipresent CMJ listing, "Special Guest") looking to become this year's festival darling. Last year's darlings were still pretty great, though.
Already past the hype stage, neither Surfer Blood nor the Drums bothered with surprises tonight, as they could easily carry the show themselves . . . along with two openers, of course. The Young Friends were enjoyable but unspectacular, a three-piece animated by their drummer's furious pounding, their success correlated fairly strongly with how involved he was in a given song. Up next, the Dewars had twice the personnel and completely eschewed the Friends' varsity-jacket-wearing innocence, casually taking on more serious themes in songs like the self-explanatory opener, "Life is Like a Merry-Go-Round Until the Burial Ground," and its anti-capitalist follow-up, "Bulls and Bears." The refrain of another song asks, "If the world was gonna end today/What would you say?" The Dewars, I'd imagine, would suggest that you just sing along while they provide the soundtrack with their indie-rock barnyard stomps.
Then came Surfer Blood, a band in control of both their sound and their audience. Lead singer John Paul Pitts strutted across the stage with the moves and swagger of someone who's been doing it for years, his cohorts backing him with confidence and poise. After all, they've become rock stars (or the CMJ equivalent), and last night they brought out fans from across the bro-hipster spectrum, as well as couples who knew all the lyrics. The set drew mainly from their debut, Astrocoast, all of which sounded as good as ever; "Swim," the song that first put the band on the map, sounded absolutely massive, its heavy drums and tight instrumentation reverberating throughout the huge space. The handful of new songs suggested that the band will continue to explore the guitar-centric, '90s Sonic Youth aspect of their sound.
Finally, the Drums took the stage one at a time under a single spotlight, as if they were the ones playing Madison Square Garden tonight, bringing arena-grade energy to their first two songs, "It Will All End in Tears" and "Best Friend." On record, their "new-wave filtered through surf pop" aesthetic can at times get mundane; live, however, the band dominated, and that admittedly over-simplified genre pairing felt much less haphazard. A tension between influences drove songs like "Let's Go Surfing," in which the refrain, "I don't care about nothing," sung in Jonathan Pierce's Morrissey-esque voice, registers as something somewhere between irony and a self-aware retreat into escapism amid the breezy, happy-go-lucky instrumentation. The performance ended with a great three-song encore, which itself ended with drummer Connor Hanwick knocking over his kit and Pierce slamming down the mic stand in one swift motion. Time to buy more stock in these guys.
Critical Bias: I've never gone surfing, but then again, how many New Yorkers have?
Overheard: Two independent debates over whether the guy from The Young Friends was wearing his varsity jacket ironically.
Notebook Dump: Bubble machines, definitely the night's non-surprise surprise.