CMJ Day Four: Fuckups and Miracles
Got some fucking gratitude
Someone spent a whole lot of money to make the R Bar, on Bowery, look cool, or at least look like what someone's idea of cool might be. The walls are deep red, and huge framed black-and-white portraits of Iggy Pop and Joe Strummer and Debbie Harry hang worshipfully on the walls. The back room, where bands played during yesterday's Brooklyn Vegan daytime party, has four stripper poles, two of them on the stage where the bands were playing. "Looking forward to seeing what Yo Majesty do with the poles," said some dumbass behind me. Well, I didn't stick around to see Yo Majesty a second time, but I know what one member of the all-female herky-jerk LA postpunk band Mika Miko did with the poles: she banged a cowbell on them. Mika Miko are contemporaries of fellow LA noisepunks No Age, and like No Age they bring a sense of celebratory fun and abandon to music that's traditionally been harsh and confrontational. They're not terribly original; there's a whole lot of X-Ray Spex in there, especially when there's a saxophone involved. But they're also really fun and great. I've seen a few writers comparing them to Erase Errata, but that band always interrupted its own spazz-grooves, throwing one guitar riff into the spokes of another or letting everything descend into bedlam just as it was getting going. Mika Miko are a lot more machinelike in their chaos. For all the screeches and feedback-shrieks, they have beats and hooks and songs. And they're also a blast; when a kick-drum pedal broke and halted their show for a few minutes, they mercilessly made fun of the one guy in the audience who tried to take charge of the situation. Near the end of their set, they covered the Misfits' "Attitude," and it took me a few minutes to recognize the song. The way they played it, it could've been theirs.
Here's something I didn't know about Yeasayer, the next band on the bill and one of my few festival must-sees: they look like a grunge band, or at least half of them do. The bassist and guitarist could've been members of Alice in Chains in 1990, hiding their faces behind curtains of sweaty, stringy hair, something you just don't see in indie-bands post-Creed. Yeasayer don't sound anything remotely like grunge; their epic, cavernous sound relies too much on slippery crystalline guitar-lines and huge, thunking offbeats. More than anything else, their haunted keyboards and vague but fully integrated African influences recall Peter Gabriel by way of TV on the Radio, but their cascading thrum really doesn't sound like anything else I've heard. Still, I like the grunge parallel, if only because this band evinces the sort of all-consuming seriousness and desperation that those first-wave grunge bands had. All Hour Cymbals, their totally absorbing, arresting new album, ends in a sort of gospel chant about their devotion to friends and family, and it's the kind of sentiment that wouldn't work unless it was done with total wide-open seriousness. It's hard to strike a note of intensity at a daytime industry showcase, especially when it's something like the fifth show a band has played in three days and they've got another one coming up in a couple of hours. But Yeasayer pulled it off beautifully and effortlessly. I can't wait to see what they can do at a real show.
The Afropunk showcase, which started a couple of hours later at Irving Plaza, was a little confusing. The documentary Afropunk focused on the sort of double-removal of black kids in the punk and hardcore scenes, kids who tried to find purpose and belonging in a willfully removed subculture where their race made them outsiders twice over. But the Afropunk showcase seemed to be a weird catchall for all the groups at the festival with at least one black member, and a whole lot of those groups had absolutely nothing in common beyond that. The fashion-plate gallery-rap of Spank Rock, for instance, shares less than nothing with the retro-Zeppelin blooz-rock of Earl Greyhound, but here they were grouped under the same roof. The show also served as a pretty good indicator for how halfassed and thrown-together the festival was this year. I'd come to see Santogold, the Brooklyn sing-rapper who may or may not be the next M.I.A. but who already has a few great singles to her name. She was supposed to take the stage early in the evening, but after getting in I found out that her set would be delayed something like four hours; pity anyone who actually shelled out more than five hundred dollars for a CMJ badge and found their night thusly fucked up. I didn't wait the four hours for Santogold, but I did see the Apes, a scuzzy DC gurgle-crunch band whose inclusion on the bill confused me since they didn't actually have any black members the last couple of times I saw them. I always liked the Apes; their queasy lurch always intimidated in the small DIY spaces where I'm used to seeing them, though it's not the sort of thing that works in a club like Irving Plaza. But now they've got a new singer, and they're breaking the unwritten rule that every DC indie band has to break up or at least change their name whenever one member leaves. In this case, that's a problem; their new singer (who, yes, is black) is fucking terrible. His erratic stage mannerisms are pretty much the same as the last guy's, but his voice is a whiney fake-Ozzy yowl that wears out its welcome before the first song ends. The band's psyche-churn is still strong, but that guy was just killing me.
Next thing I knew, someone named Bomani Armah was up onstage doing cloying, simplistically sincere conscious-rap. He wasn't on the bill, and I had no idea why he was there. Confusing! A couple of songs in, though, it became clear: he's the "Read a Book" guy from BET, and unfortunately he has more than one song. "Read a Book" is a rare thing: rap satire that actually works pretty well and hits its intended targets. It's also just about the only indication that this guy has any sense of humor whatsoever. He's a technically strong rapper with zero stage presence and only slightly more personality, and beyond "Read a Book" there's no reason to pay any attention to him. So yeah, I'm really glad I got to see him instead of Santogold. Thanks, CMJ.
More annoyances: the festival website had said that Devin the Dude would take the stage uptown at BB Kings at 10 p.m. When I showed up at 10:30, doors hadn't opened yet. And when they did, the first act onstage wasn't Devin; it was the Serendipity Project, introduced by host Bukue One as a "live hip-hop funk band from Santa Cruz." Oof. I'm not sure what to say about the Serendipity Project. So many questions. Like: Why did they need seven people onstage to play watery frat-funk? Did the screechy female singer really also play a smooth-jazz saxophone solo? Can any band in 2007 actually gain anything by employing a mohawked slap-bass specialist who makes goofy faces? Did the god-awful lead-rapper really boast of being originally from New Hampshire as a way to get an East Coast crowd on his side? And did he really think it was OK to rhyme "vibe transaction" with "positive reaction"? Finally: why were they not booed offstage by a bloodthirsty crowd? I don't think I could make this band up. If, in my travels, a court of law ever requires me to explain why I could never live in California, the Serendipity Project will be my Exhibit A.
Exhibit B might be Bukue One, whose solo set was next. Bukue One is a dreadlocked cheeseball who can't rap at all, whose prewritten stuff sounds like the sort of freestyle you might hear on a fourth-grade playground. His T-shirt said "Hustlin' Like Raindrops," which doesn't even make sense. He likes to rap over reggae instrumentals, which is nice, but if you can't sound good over "Welcome to Jamrock," you should probably just not rap. When guest Brother Ali took the stage for a quick couple of songs and a monster a cappella verse afterwards, it was an enormous relief to finally hear someone good at rapping. I like the idea of Devin touring with the show's headliner, nerd-rap veteran Del the Funky Homosapien, but the idea of Devin hooking up with jokers like this is frankly terrifying.
But then, finally, blessedly: Devin. Or, rather, Devin's backup crew, who still effortlessly obliterated everyone who'd been onstage before them. Introduced by a genial, website-hyping Dana Dane, the Coughee Brothaz are a bunch of seriously hungry Southern rappers who can all seriously rap and who include Jugg Mugg and blind rapper Rob Quest, the other two members of the Odd Squad, Devin's pre-solo-career group. The various Coughee Brothaz took turns doing solo tracks, switching between warm, organic Texas funk and buzzing synthed-out Southern club-rap, all the while hyping Devin's impending arrival. But when Devin did slide onstage, he did so almost unnoticed. Devin's stage presence is as cool and unobtrusive as his voice, but when he gets going he's a joy to watch. Last night, he smoked vast quantities of weed, hit Stevie Wonder high-notes on his choruses, and did the thing where he makes his voice sound like a DJ scratching, which he's really good at. At the Knitting Factory earlier this year, Devin held the stage effortlessly with nobody but a DJ onstage. Last night, he had something like seven guys behind him, but all those guys knew that they were there in a supporting capacity, and none of them got in the way. A whole lot of work obviously went into this tour, and the Coughee Brothaz have a seamless and rehearsed show, something you don't see too often. The comedy bits were priceless: Devin and an enormous hypeman ribbing each other for their respective preferences for skinny and fat women, everyone onstage (DJ and Rob Quest included) dropping simultaneously to the ground on one chorus. Best of all, they stayed onstage for something like an hour and a half, virtually unheard of for any rap group, let alone a support act. I like Del a lot, but I couldn't imagine a better ending to the evening than the group singalong to "Anythang," so I skipped out afterward. On the train back downtown, a bunch of kids where having a loud and energetic discussion regarding the relative merits of 50 Cent and Cam'ron, and I was feeling good about rap.