cmj – alive and kicking (ass)

October 21, 2013

There’s always an air of, shall I say, indifferent expectation at New York City music events. The venue opens, patrons stand in line only to wait for the show to start. The seeming murmur of unrest is a careful illusion performed by New Yorkers, unimpressed as they are with everything. The New York indie music scene is, yes, filled with insiders and “people in the know”. But, it is also filled with the friends and family of the performers, eager (and, actually) patient to see their people perform. The changes in the music industry have caused independent artists and the small venues to have a relationship that is mutually dependent on these loyal friends and family. But this is not a dire situation. The annual independent music conference, CMJ took place all over the city last week. One of its long time partner venues, S.O.B.’s, once again played host an assortment of some of these independent artists, and of course, their fans, who were there in force.

By Craig Carpenter, AFROPUNK Contributor

Jessica Weinstein, an employee of S.O.B’s, who also promotes for CMJ states that, “you can walk down the street any night and find indie music. NY is the number one place for indie music.” On this night, the event is “The Best of R.A.W.”, or “Real Art Works” — a monthly event taking place every second Wednesday. The cream of the R.A.W. crop blessed the stage and the crowd with their eclectic artistry, each bringing the self assured confidence of stars in the making. The slate of the evening included singer-songwriter, Kevin Michael, blues and soul band, The Rooks, the charismatic Toronto duo, The Unbuttoned, Lorine Chia, Denitia & Sene, Sid Sriam, and outstanding and stage ready, The Skins.

Kevin Michael, a lanky young man from Chester, Pennsylvania, a shock of afro crowning his head, speaks most ardently of the hustle of the indie artist. Having previously been signed to a major label deal, his experience and appreciation thereof, is a bit more wizened than his younger counterparts. When asked how to describe that which drives him, he responds, “Restlessness. You really have to love what you’re doing- you really have to love this shit. To be the opening act, and suffer that crucifixion. But I would have it no other way.” Michael, accompanied by a guitarist sang plaintive songs with a danceable edge to them. His falsetto voice reminds listeners of the roots of 60s and 70s soul, updated, and reassures that there is, and will be a place for this music.

And, speaking of soul music, The Rooks, a five piece ensemble with and energetic and engaging vocalist revisits the days of the dance revue band – each musician accomplished and full of chops, while playing high powered, original compositions. Aided by the punch of a complete rhythm section, and a saxophone, the crowd is convinced when lead singer, Garth Taylor shouts, “we came to party, and dance, and get down, so don’t be shy!” Singing and dancing to their song, “Baby You’re The One”, the crowd witnesses a ready-made anthem. Still, the indie spirit resides in them, as well. Says Taylor, “You have to be ready to pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, while guitarist, Graham Richman adds, “we realize that everything we have, we’re gonna have to make for ourselves.” They bring the funk, undaunted.

For the second time at R.A.W., and all the way from Toronto, The Unbuttoned, the vocal duo fronted by Kamilah Apong and Casey MQ seemed to have a polished mix of everything needed for success on today’s weird mutated musical landscape. Says Apong, “We’re the offspring of a kajillion DNA strands. There are so many people we listen to. We wanna reach everyone that appreciates hard work and good music.” In addition to their own original electro-pop numbers, the crowd was enamored by a wonderful rendition of Aaliyah’s, “One In A Million”, making this listener feel that a new pop sensation might have just been announced. And that’s good since, according to Apong, they plan to release a new album and get it into as many hands as possible, while they hope to go to Europe, and Australia, and play in all kinds of non-traditional venues. Topping the list is (beat), the YMCA. Get your tickets.

Having traveled all the way from Los Angeles, Sid Sriam would, perhaps, seem the most unlikely in this collection of performers. An Indian-American, schooled at Berklee College of Music, and steeped in classical and traditional Indian music, he was welcomed to this stage playing his hummable, infectious mix of eastern influenced, pop and R&B. He gushed between songs, expressing his joy at performing R&B for a diverse NY crowd, while himself being Indian-American. As he stated, ” (popular) music is no longer being confined to the U.S.. The market is saturated, and there are no longer divisions. People can be exposed to music outside of their demographic and, if it feels genuine, there’s a market for it. As New York has always been a melting pot, so too is the future of popular music. Sid Sriam is a prime example.

The headline act of the night was a family outfit that may be familiar to Afropunk fans: The Skins. Having played Afropunk Fest (for the second time), this writer was already familiar with the energy and simple star power this group would soon unleash. Made up of two sisters, their brother and two friends, this group of young adults have the stage presence and savvy of veteran rockers. When asked where those chops came from, they instantly replied, almost in unison, “The School of Rock”. Their curriculum surely worked, as these players bring musicianship and showmanship to such a degree that, from a distance, one would think they were listening to a mid seventies funk-rock outfit, kicking ass. Nona Hendryx would swell with pride. Lead vocalist, Bay Li says, “we’re a super live band. Super passionate. We can actually play, and we’re always trying to be better musicians.” Everything about them is so much fun – their performance (lots of jumping and hair flying), their music (high strumming rock energy) and their unbridled, youthful enthusiasm. When asked what their dreams and aspirations were, brother drummer, Reef states, “my dream is (The Skins) become the world’s seventh largest economy”, while sister bassist, Kayanico wishes for the band to headline and wow thousands at the Glastonbury Festival. Guitarist, Daisy Spencer remarked, upon seeing the packed crowd, “I looked up at one point and, like, holy crap! As a New Yorker, it feels great to be playing in front of this crowd, at this great venue. It shows that we’re evolving, and getting our name out.” Reef deadpans, “If you’re badass, come to a Skins show. We have twerkoffs”, while Kayanico playfully warned, “You better come to a show now, before tickets are online for $900.” Notice served.

Having witnessed seven powerful acts, polished and flexing their muscles, this opening night of CMJ was refreshing and rewarding in that, it showed the indie music scene is rich with talent, and support. No matter what the media now states about New York having lost it’s artistic edge and soul, this writer would have to beg to differ. It was alive and well this night at S.O.B.s.