It's the same every year at the CMJ Music Marathon: Bands are checking out each other, labels are checking out bands, college radio kids are looking for new additions for their playlists, and everyone is looking for free booze.
For a small contingent of recent Atlanta ex-pats -- myself and my roommate included -- it is a chance to see bands we may have once strolled down to the Earl to check out, songwriters whose projects we've been following for years, or some upstarts from Athens who were making some forgotten noises in a forgotten place.
Wednesday night, Sept. 14, three days after New York mourned a tragedy four years removed, the town was overrun with unkempt hair, tight jeans and thrift-store T-shirts. It was as if Williamsburg -- once indie rock's neighborhood du jour -- had vomited its contents about the city. My household felt it our Southern charge to trek to the art space Galapagos to see A Fir-Ju Well play a midnight set that would rob us of a little sleep but totally rock our socks off.
In addition to "Neigh," our favorite track and the carnivalesque anthem of the four-piece, the brothers Firguele and company dazzled with their instrument-changing melange of gypsy garage, organic rock and breezy pop harmonies. Apparently, their mysticism has given way to interaction. I don't recall ever hearing the band address an audience before, but they not only introduced themselves, Pete Firguele also stumped for the ATL. "There's a lot of good music happening in Atlanta," he told a crowd of 14, many of which already knew it.
On Friday, the fledgling Athens label Hello Sir showcased at 169 Bar in Chinatown, a venue whose modest accommodations led Cinemechanica singer/guitarist and label head Bryant Williamson to say, "I don't know about this place." But by 8:15 p.m., Williamson and his bandmates were surrounded by a semicircle of about 40 people cheering on their intricate math diatribes. Feverishly noodled guitar figures slammed into lockstep bass, while drummer Mike Albanese pummeled his kit with the force he had stored from sleeping curled up on a loveseat the night before. On Sunday, Albanese's night of uncomfortable slumber took a backseat after an incident on a New Jersey road involving a broken taillight, some contraband and a three-hour detainment that may cost him his driving privileges in the state. The catch: He's from New Jersey.
After Cinemechanica, the crowd grew to a fire hazard-like 70 people at one point. Sight lines were nonexistent because the bands played on the floor in the front corner of the railroad-style bar. North Carolina bands Ahleuchatistas and Tiger Bear Wolf peppered their equationary rock -- a genre that many thought died with Don Caballero -- with free jazz and swamp rock, respectively. TBW waved the Hello Sir banner high, garnering both a picture in the official festival guide and a Village Voice write-up saying they "made tasty whine from moby grapes and voodoo chile."
From Carolina bands playing Georgia-label showcases to Georgia bands playing Carolina showcases, the Merge Records party featured a set by Chris Lopez's post-Rock*A*Teens outfit Tenement Halls. Lopez has tweaked his former band's formula to allow for a more organic sound that has just enough jangle to tap your feet to, and they tapped maniacally.
But Hello Sir provided the most gripping moment of the weekend when We Versus the Shark stormed through a 30-minute set at 169 Bar. The entrance was blocked by 10-deep bodies as the quartet exchanged vocal spurts, keyboard clangs, guitar licks and waves of rhythmic darts. The Sharks tore down their previous label as a calculator funk band by going straight for the jugular with an intensity more akin to Isis than Dismemberment Plan. And when singer/guitarist/keyboardist Sam Paulsen strokes her Rickenbacker, you wonder why they say girls don't rock as hard as boys.
All told, with a little help from the reformed and more potent Maserati, which played far away in South Brooklyn the same night and will play the Earl on Sept. 27, Hello Sir made a tiny but noticeable splash in its coming out party.
"It's a small dent," said Cinemechanica bassist Joel Hatstat, "but over the five days, it was a pretty good foot in the door."
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