Marathon Man

If I can make it there – at the CMJ Music Marathon – I can make it anywhere

I'm sitting in JFK airport, hungover from four days of nonstop gallivanting, unshaven, smelly, trying to piece it all back together amid the buzz and bustle of travelers and the stink of overheated food. Blame the CMJ Music Marathon, a storm of sorts that strikes New York in the early fall, leaving a trail of bands and fans disoriented in its wake.

I got off the plane at 5:30 p.m. last Wednesday, and New York City hit me like a sweat sock full of pennies. Every city has a smell. San Francisco smells almost laundry-detergent fresh, the fog and crisp temperatures conspiring to wipe the air clean of offensive odors. Not so in NYC. Here it smells like exhaust, urine, and vomit, of machines and trash. If you bottled this scent you'd call it “Urban,” and for some reason I can't get enough of it.

After cabbing it from the airport to midtown to get my credentials, cabbing it downtown to drop off my bags, cabbing it back uptown to meet a friend, then cabbing it crosstown to a place called the Hiro Ballroom, I wound up sitting in a quiet room watching Jolie Holland, finally feeling like I had arrived. As those of you who've seen her around S.F. know, Holland plays spare, old-timey folk music that sounds as if it'd been written in a dusty attic while the artist sat on a homemade quilt — that is, until she sings the occasional “motherfucker.” Her voice is sweet like maple syrup, her strumming as gentle and lilting as a walk in the park at sunset; her guitarist and percussionist both have surgeon's hands, adding just enough accompaniment — a reverb-soaked chord, some brushed snares — to shade in the songs. I couldn't help but find it appropriate that as we hustled into the venue about five minutes late, Holland was in the middle of “Goodbye California.” This felt right. The place itself did not. “It's nice to be in Japan,” Holland joked, because the Hiro is an entirely red room filled with Chinese lanterns and Asian art of all different kinds — very Manhattan and totally absurd. I ordered a Budweiser, but the bar didn't stock it. All the spot had was Japanese beers, which cost $7 each. “Welcome to New York,” whispered my friend.

Still, you can always count on a cave to stock Bud. Downstairs at the Lit Lounge — where S.F. label Birdman Group was showcasing its artists (Modey Lemon and APES, among others) — the walls were made of jagged rock, as though the place had been constructed using dynamite. And this is where more friends of mine came to meet us, and the Budweiser flowed.

By the time we got to the Donnas' show at the Bowery Ballroom at 1:45 a.m., we were all properly pissed, which worked out well because I had an interview to do. Well, not really: The Donnas' PR flack wouldn't grant me one. But when I saw bassist Donna F. hanging out at the bar, I was just drunk enough to think that an impromptu conversation was a good idea, though too drunk to have a decent one. I tapped her shoulder and slurred my name. She was surprisingly accommodating.

“Does it feel different to be playing here in New York, at CMJ, as opposed to San Francisco?” I muttered, shoving a tape recorder in her face.

“It's more fun,” she said, only slightly annoyed. “Playing in San Francisco is usually kind of a letdown, and we're always really tired when we play there because we're always at the end of the tour. Right now we're not even on tour, it's just kind of random. Plus we're playing really late, and we just flew in from Sweden yesterday, so we're really tired.”

“How'd it go in Sweden?”

“It was good. [Note: This whole time I can be heard on the tape saying “yeah” and “cool” and “yeah,” like, every two seconds.] We did press [yeah] and we played a TV show [oh, cool] that was really weird [yeah]. The Swedish girls' [cool] soccer team [yeah] was there. And they made [yeah] a cake — there was this giant [yeah], big [cool] cake made out of Swedish meatballs.”

“Can you give people an idea of what they can expect from this new record [Gold Medal] and your upcoming shows?” I asked, apropos of nothing. (The band has a show this Tuesday, Oct. 26, the day of the record's release, at the Virgin Megastore on Market.)

“Uhhh. It's good. It's really awesome. We might play some new songs. We're gonna get, like, gold amplifiers. That's cool. We might get a cool backdrop.”

“Yeah? Cool. So what's the most frustrating thing about drunken reporters coming up to you in the middle of CMJ and asking you questions?”

“Uh, well, there's so many other people and friends to meet and I don't know where my boyfriend is and I don't know when I have to go onstage, so I'm just a bit confused.”

Not surprisingly, so was I, so I let us both off the hook and went up to the balcony. Oh, and the Donnas' show? It blew turtle farts, and it didn't start until after 3 a.m., which I guess is pretty rock 'n' roll, but there's nothing rockin' about four chicks playing three-chord punk that's about as edgy as an episode of The OC.

The next day I was up at 1 in the afternoon and had a beer in my hand by 2. I saw a bunch of mediocre acts that aren't worth mentioning, and a decent one called the Crimea from the U.K. that plays spastic, explosive post-punk. Later that night I had the pleasure of seeing Petaluma's the Velvet Teen, and the displeasure of noticing that the small club in which the band played was only half full. People, please! This band is amazing. There should be throngs of frothing hipsters ready to scrub the Velvet Teen's feet. Instead there were a few dozen Chatty Cathys there. Ever the consummate professionals, however, the group delivered a sparkling set, playing a selection of old and new songs and closing the show with its 12-minute “Chimera Obscurant,” which was even better live than on record, its climactic buildup made all the more impressive when the sound cut out momentarily and frontman Judah Nagler had to scream the lyrics.

I saw other bands over the next few days (TV on the Radio, which is playing S.F. on Nov. 9 at the Grand, was great as always), but I'm running out of space so I'm going to tell you about the one that mattered most: the Arcade Fire. This Montreal septet is coming to San Francisco in December, so I'll save the bulk of my praise for then. Suffice it to say that the group is this year's Great Discovery. Its songs — filled with accordions, violins, guitars, keyboards, boatloads of percussion, and seven sets of vocal chords — are the most earnest and exhilarating indie epics I've heard in years. When the Arcade Fire performs them live, the musicians (two of whom simply run around the room banging on anything and everything they can get their hands on, including their singer) bring so much energy to the stage that you can't help but clap, dance, and sing along. It's like watching a musical performed by Peter Pan's Lost Boys, a chaotic yet blissfully harmonious experience that left me gasping for air and desperate for another dose.

Gosh, there was more — climbing water towers on top of buildings at 4 in the morning, dinners and galas and to-dos, the Vice magazine party (at which I got to see the much-buzzed-about Dungen from Sweden, whose jangly psych-pop left me unimpressed) — but there's simply no room. CMJ is a musical snow globe that gets shaken once a year, and on the morning I left the metaphorical snow had settled once again. New York was back to its usual anything-but-normal, and as I watched the sunrise from the top-floor apartment in SoHo where I was staying and imagined the smell of “Urban” wafting up from the street, the Arcade Fire was still buzzing around in my head, and I knew that I had had enough and that it was time to go back to San Francisco. And I was happy about that.

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