Thursday night’s lineup was perhaps the softest of the CMJ schedule so far, and for fifteen minutes before logic set in, it seemed like going to shows might give you the Ebola virus. So, don’t ask me to explain why I started night 3 at a Gerard Way concert. Those were different times.
Let no one suggest that Gerard Way is not loved. The My Chemical Romance frontman, recently gone solo, inspired major pandemonium among a-not-quite-full Webster Hall crowd. The room would erupt in squeals every time the house music paused before he’d taken the stage. Any sign that he might soon appear was treated as if he had. When the lights went down and he finally did trot out, it was all too much to bear. The Webster floor was instantly elastic but the metal barricade at the front fared far worse. After two and a half songs, the crush of affection buckled it entirely, forcing an extended break while the venue crew unbolted it from the floor and dragged it through the exits like plane crash debris.
I dunno, man, that seems like a pretty strong piece of metal to have been taken down entirely by overexcited teens! In the time gap, fans were lifted from the crowd by stage crew, completely overwhelmed with emotion. A sobbing girl was carried out next to me, unable to walk out under her own power. Shit got intense!
For reasons that are primarily demographic, I’m honestly not that familiar with My Chemical Romance’s records. Nothing I saw at this show made me fall in love nor recoil with disgust. I get that Way’s moved past his genre-defining emo pop at this point, but he certainly seems like a guy with decent taste. The sleazy guitar sounds his band summoned for his entrance had an oily Bowie in Berlin air. The pop-punk numbers were short and punchy, the earnest ballads appropriately hammy and grandiose. His band delivered big, chunky Britpop chords all night.
An actual Sleater-Kinney cover came later in the set:
Still, Way was a little overeager. He aimed towards sophisticated pop, but bounded around the stage like a golden retriever who just heard the garage door go up. His voice was competent but not particularly transporting. There was too little glam in his glam.
But what’s he going to do? Act aloof in front of a devoted crowd who are so excited to see him they can barely stand? Ignore the handmade artwork the front row continually thrust into his hands? He treats his fans with warmth and respect, to his great credit. And it is hard to completely dismiss a guy who inspires that kind of full-body devotion.
Ballet School were best at full blast. The Berlin-based trio featured a black-cloaked and be-hatted alt-rock guitarist, a drummer who approximating the sound of big, gated studio pop drums live (while wearing his own band’s t-shirt), and ultra excitable Irish singer Rosie Blair. When a song focused too much on any one of those elements the band sounded okay, but it worked far better when all three let loose at the same time. Beaming every part of their music forth at full-watt holds the risk of a textural mess, but their best weapon might counterintuitively be an allergy to negative space.
Early in Tei Shi‘s set she produced an athletic cover of Beyoncé’s “No Angel.” It seemed like a no-win proposition for an artist making modern R&B herself. Either you live up to the vocal power, only to arrive at the original destination, or you fall far short. But the Colombian singer, now a Brooklynite, sang it with strength and feeling, her band adding just enough synth bubbles to differentiate the song without redefining it. As proof of raw talent, it was effective if slightly inert. It was a bar that she cleared.
More interesting than the Twigs-y slow jams among her original songs were the fleeting moments that drew from a wider pool of sounds. The drummer and guitarist accompanying her offered big beats or discordant noise in a few key moments that gave the nimble kick of her voice something imperfect to contrast against. For all the talk of R & B’s crossover into modern indie-rock, there are still sounds and genres that have remained entirely segregated. Moving past tasteful danceability and slick bleep-bloopery with snippets of raw abrasion could be an interesting direction if she cares to push it.
Kate Bush comparisons for eccentric female pop singers have become the new My Bloody Valentine comps for loud guitar bands, a lazy shorthand that can makes a new artist seem extra disappointing when they fall short. So I hesitate to evoke KB in praising Canadian songwriter Lydia Ainsworth, though she lives up to it far more than most. Mentioning Ainsworth as a peer to a more modern singer like Julia Holter definitely seems all wrong. The groovy high-drama of her live set barely resembles the gentle playfulness of Holter’s stuff. I’d read going in that Ainsworth had a tendency for interpretive performance choices, hiring live dancers or bringing a live-but-hard-to-startle snake onstage. She doesn’t need props to be compelling, clearly.
While she sang against her own pre-recorded backing vocals here a live drummer doubled synth beats (tricks Tei Shi also used). Having established those poles or high- and low-end, the sound was further fleshed out by a cellist and a violinist. The mingling of string section warmth and synth pad cold, the blend of live and taped performance, made it an uncanny cyborg organism. Being unable to pick out specific elements was disorienting in a pleasant way. The thudding dance beats present in a songs like “Malachite” where emphasized in larger proportion to their recorded versions, making semi-experimental compositions mistakable for pure pop. As a seamless mix of elegant bits, Ainsworth’s was the most impressive set of night.