Having missed out on a couple of desired events over the past few days, I hesitated to risk it again. Erika M. Anderson’s name (in initials form) has been the one I had circled in red, metaphorical ink from the minute initial CMJ lineups started trickling out. Her rad debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints has been on heavy rotation all year. Last time she was in town, I wasn’t. So, taking no chances, I took it upon myself to chat up the Bowery Ballroom bouncer ahead of time, to try to get a read on when I needed to be in the room to assure badge-holder entry. It may surprise you to learn that this gentleman was not super friendly in his counsel. He spooked me. I was spooked.
There was still a while before any bands would even start playing there. Bowery is isolated to the point of being kind of problematic as a big-ticket venue for a free-wheeling festival. I’ll be very curious to see how Pitchfork structures theirs next year, and if it’ll just be a case of picking a room and camping out for the duration. I eyed the closest point on the map and walked briskly over to the Mercury Lounge to catch an early glimpse of the sprawling Sub Pop/Hardly Art extravaganza that had started there. Brooklyn’s X-Ray Eyeballs were up first. They played fairly standard garage rock with a gloomy stylish flair. I had thought the band might be darker and wilder from various sound clips and press materials I’d been exposed to, but it might have just been the thankless opening slot. They don’t have the melodic component of a better band like Veronica Falls, but their songs occasionally sounded like a shout personified, waving it’s shout fist in the air as it rumbles towards you. I would think of them often in the long hours to come.
Deciding to head back over to Bowery to stick it out for the duration, no re-entry allowed, I justified it in the grand “hey, don’t be close-minded, this stuff could be good!” tradition. This stuff was not good. For fairness’ sake I should stratify. Athens, Georgia’s Alabama Shakes weren’t bad at all, just not my cup of tea. Confident, competent soul-rock bands are not what we usually get around these parts. Powerful singer Brittany Howard had a full-on Janis wail going that couldn’t be ignored. (Anderson herself popped out to check the pipes, beamed up at the stage for a sec.) But while her voice was undeniable, her band’s music didn’t have much of one. I missed them dearly as Marques Tolliver warbled on. A ridiculous ham in a dumb hat, Tolliver played the violin through some snoozy R&B that he was puffed with pride about. He actually announced at one point that he found out that he was eligible for the “Best New Artist” Grammy ballot, comparing the news to Beyonce’s baby bump in a way I didn’t quite follow. Every few minutes he’d say “you are watching The Marques Tolliver Show” prompting desires for the real-life remote from that terrible Adam Sandler movie, so you could click him the fuck off. After that we got some pseudo-sensitive mook rock from Lydia, bombastic and whiny at the same time, seemingly made specifically for college girls of suspect taste. London five-piece Dry the River, who had a lot of genuinely pleasant fans in the room eager to ask you, “But have you seen them live?” came next, with a folky power-wuss sound whose forebears are probably obvious, but I couldn’t place at all. They had a superfluous-seeming violin player who contributed to the bland melodic rush of every song. They bopped their heads around energetically. Time moved very slowly.
Now, this showcase was put together by a touring agency, who presumably wanted to showcase the diverse array of artists they have in their roster. (I don’t want this to be a hit-piece on them, but they’ve actually got a puzzlingly long list of high-quality acts that would have made more sense here.) It was really a case where someone at CMJ should have stepped to make sure one of their most-heavily touted artists playing at one of their spotlight venues was protected a bit better. By the time EMA took the stage, the room was nothing like full. Which is sort of crazy. You can’t blame people for looking elsewhere for a bit more consistency, especially factoring in the lack freedom to come and go.
But then Anderson came on with her three-piece band, and all was right in the world. She’d later say from the stage, maybe or maybe not in reference to what had preceded her, “I think rock should be about danger, personally.” Its a philosophy well-evident in opening song “Marked” which couches some really intense desperation into quite a pretty little sing-song. I was already on board, but hearing her rip through The Violent Femmes’ “Add it Up”, a song I can’t remember hearing since it played while driving around aimlessly in the cool girls’ car at age 16, gets at the messy nostalgia she so ably taps. I wouldn’t call her music a reverent throwback, though. There are a lot of things going on. “Milk Man” sounds to me like The Knife doing punk rock. Yes, please!
In terms of stage presence, Erika A does borrow a few moves from Karen O, though she’s lower-fashion and less high-theatrical. Pulling extra mic wire to wrap around her head during a sloppy, then beautiful version of “Anteroom” put me in the mind of YYYs circa-2003 right away. The Twitter-verse claimed she was wasted (which would only cement that comparison) but if true, it certainly didn’t hurt. “Why are you so sexy?” a girl in the crowd called out. “It’s an accident. I was Charles Bukowski in a previous life.” As intense as these songs get, she was always affably quick with a smile or quip. You leave her performance uplifted rather than bummed out. She closed, maybe predictably with “California,” a song I still don’t love. She sold it, though, with Michael Jackson crotch grabs over sweat-pant cut-offs. This was clearly the best set I’ve seen so far at CMJ 2011.