A Day in the Life – CMJ Music Marathon 2015

A Day in the Life – CMJ Music Marathon 2015

By Debi Ellis McDonald

Every October, the CMJ Music Marathon takes New York City by storm. Now in its 35th year, the nearly weeklong event consists of conferences and workshops on today’s issues in the music industry as well as live performances, many free, throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is the place where so many hopeful artists come to show the world who they are. Some are young bands looking to get signed or get their name out there. Some are in NYC, or even the USA, for their first time ever. Others are commercially successful artists taking a step away from their band with a side project.

CMJ is like a rock and roll Disney World – vast, spread out and overwhelming. There is so much music surrounding you, and you really want to see it all. Yet the only way you can even hope to take it in is to pace yourself and have a game plan, but still leave yourself space to call an audible. Where do I want to be and when? I had a couple names on my list that had caught my eye and a couple of parties that looked interesting.

Brooklyn Vegan was hosting a free party on Saturday at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn. It started at noon, had an impressive lineup and a complimentary keg of Bell’s craft beer, so it seemed like a good place to start my day. The artist I had come to see was Martin Courtney of the band Real Estate, whose debut solo record “Many Moons” was just about to be released. The new material is strong and, similar to his band’s sound, has a melodic laid back peacefulness.

Next I found myself at The Bowery Presents party at Pianos on the Lower East Side, which has two separate performance spaces. I caught a portion of strong sets from the England pop duo Aquilo, and Los Angeles based Nico Yaryan and I could have easily hung out there the rest of the afternoon, but alas, there was somewhere else I wanted to be. I made a quick stop into Rockwood Music Hall to see what they had going on, as they are a favorite venue of mine and consistently feature quality music on all three stages year round. I was lucky enough to catch the end of a very powerful, hauntingly beautiful candlelit performance by Alice Phoebe Lou, a former street performer from South Africa.


Just a few blocks away, The Delancey was hosting The Australian BBQ, where Fraser A. Gorman, would soon be performing. It seemed like Gorman played every day and at every venue all week long and he is definitely in a position to be one of the break outs of CMJ 2015. Early this year, he released his debut album “Slow Gum” and a video featuring his country-mate and current indie darling Courtney Barnett. While that association may have put him on some people’s radar, it is his talent that will keep him there. He was thoroughly a joy to watch – great stage presence, cheeky banter, catchy lyrics and fabulous guitar playing, including taking a solo or two from on top of the monitors.

My last stop was the Bowery Electric where The Outlaw Roadshow was being held. This three day event features bands hand-picked by Ryan Spaulding and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. This showcase is a “can’t miss” for me and each year I come away thoroughly impressed and with a band or two that quickly become favorites. This year was no exception. Town Meeting, featuring three brothers, including one on harmonica and another playing a cajon, had an Americana vibe. Tyler Stenson had a contemporary folk sound and a great stage personality combined with heart wrenching lyrics. Boston based Oldjack, the rootsy rock and roll outfit that closed the show Saturday night were the full package. Lead singer Dan Nicklin had a compelling, emotional delivery of well written lyrics. Kelly Davis on backing vocals had a range that was incredible. The band was strong and when they weren’t singing, both Dan and Kelly came off stage to stand in the crowd and watch with the rest of us.

But the act who absolutely floored me with their live show, the band that I cannot wait to see again, was Rainbow Kitten Surprise (RKS), from Boone, NC. Slotted second to last Saturday night, it was clear that something very special was about to happen as the energy in the room suddenly intensified just before they took the stage. Frequently at CMJ, because it is a showcase for newer music, the audience is only vaguely familiar with the acts, if they’ve heard of them at all. Incredibly, with less than 4000 Facebook likes and making their debut appearance in New York City, this young band apparently already has a hardcore fan base that had had travelled up the east coast to see them. There were about 20 young men and women who seemed to know every word to every song. And Sam Melo, the lead singer, was more than happy to go into the audience and sing with them. The lines blurred between the crowd and the stage and it felt like one big collective. Their sound is unique and doesn’t neatly fit into any category. It was somewhere along the lines of The Revivalists meets Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros meets Kings of Leon, with a dash of Fleet Foxes thrown in. Charlie Holt, provides a funky, heavy bass line throughout. Guitarist and co-founder Darrick “Bozzy” Keller also harmonizes and isn’t afraid to step up and share center stage. They are a tight 5 piece, with Ethan Goodpaster on guitar/backing vocals and Jess Haney on drums.


You know a song is special when it grabs you on first listen. Sometimes it is that one line that seems to speak directly to you, other times it is the way the melody just resonates with your soul. When I see a band live that I’ve never even heard of, perhaps I feel that way about a song or two. With RKS, I felt that way about their entire set. Songs like “First Class”, “Devil Like Me”, “Counting Cards” and “Cocaine Jesus” had both instantly memorable lyrics and a groove which was simply impossible to stand still through. Sam’s absolute command of center stage was spellbinding. He seemed to be in constant motion, whether he was in the crowd or rolling around on the stage. There was a hypnotic intensity about him and I found myself mesmerized.

Encores simply do not happen at CMJ. Sets are short, with just enough time in between to change out equipment, and stage schedules are meticulously followed. The cheering crowd clamored for one and Sam politely told everyone that they could not and the house lights came up, even though the clapping did not stop. As they began to unplug, Dan Nicklin of Oldjack jumped on stage and said that yes, Rainbow Kitten Surprise most definitely needed to do an encore and he was more than willing to give them the extra minutes from his set which was to follow. So the house lights came back down, RKS took the stage for one last song and everyone was overjoyed to be able to bounce around for 5 more minutes.

At the end of the day, I found myself completely spent yet wishing I could come back again tomorrow to do it all over again. I’m excited to see what the year brings for all these bands. And CMJ 2016 is already on my calendar.

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