Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

CMJ: The Eulogy

On the last night of CMJ, it seemed fitting to close the marathon at a long-running venue that may not still be in business when CMJ 2006 rolls around next fall. CBGB is currently appealing the non-renewal of its lease by the buildings owners, a non-profit organization devoted to the homeless called the Bowery Residents' Committee (BRC). The owners have clearly wanted CBGB out of its famously dilapidated space since the hubbub around the venue began about a year ago. Despite high-profile benefit concerts (that now seem a little trite given the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) to help the club's fees, pleas for landmark status from music-industry and other cultural bigwigs, and popular sentiment, it seems like the days are numbered for the Bowery's most famous shithole.

And it is a shithole: filthy, covered in stickers, a decrepit ceiling (cheapest beer: $4.50 PBR bottles). But that's part of the charm. On Saturday night, the inside of the club isn't as crowded as you'd think, considering doormen told people looking to buy tickets that they probably wouldn't get in. Of course, when you're pleading with the city to save you, it's a good idea not to sell the club out beyond its capacity. Tonight is the French Kiss Records showcase, headlined by buzz-band The Hold Steady.

When I arrive, Minneapolis' The Plastic Constellations take the stage, playing aggressive post-punk, full of shouted vocals and strident lyrics. Their guitars had been stolen out of their van the day before, but they made do with guitars provided by a Gibson distributor. Over the course of their set, they repeatedly expressed their excitement to be playing at CBGB, which is a Holy Land of sorts for bands, particularly punk. And The Plastic Constellations were pretty punk; they had just enough noise and angular song structures to qualify as for the "post-" prefix, but their hearts (which one guitarist repeatedly pointed to as he sung, emphasizing just how meaningful they were) clearly belong to punk rock. They bounced around the stage, clearly enjoying every minute of it, but the band seemed to be missing something to make the whole package engrossing. More hooks? Better vocals? It's hard to say, but maybe their new album will have it when French Kiss releases it this January.

Up next was Tangiers an agit-pop band with staccato rhythms and a bounciness that recalls late '70s/early '80s power pop. They had catchy songs, but primary singer Josh Reichmann's voice both detracted from them and matched the music. That sounds ridiculous, but Reichmann's wavering vibrato sounded like vocals from similar bands, but it was nevertheless a little weak.

CB's definitely filled up more by the time instrumental band Turing Machine took the stage around 11 p.m. The Brooklyn trio had a mesmerizing intensity and mostly avoided instrumental theatrics (like techy guitar solos or bass lines) that are the bread and butter of vocal-free bands. Turing Machine knew when to be noodly and when to keep it simple, and that changing dynamic kept their performance engrossing, an impressive feat among instrumental bands, who generally already have one strike against them with an audience. Maybe it's because they were local, but Turing Machine also had the most enthusiastic reception from the audience (at least until The Hold Steady played).

By the time The Hold Steady took the stage around midnight, people packed in the area around the stage and back to the bar. The band plays power-pop that mines the same late '70s/early '80s territory as Tangiers, but with a significantly different sound. The Hold Steady's pop bristles with Craig Finn's incisive lyrics (that seem heavily influenced by Elvis Costello) somewhat raspy voice. Taking the stage in a Minnesota Twins T-shirt, Finn prefaced a song with a few digs at the hometown Yankees, which a many people cheering him in defiant unity. The band, of course, goes over huge with the audience, which enthusiastically hoops and hollers before, during, and after the songs.

Who knows if CBGB will stick around long enough to participate in CMJ 2006. The city certainly has enough venues to support the event, but it's safe to say none could fill CB's shoes exactly–not that they'd necessarily want to. Anyone who's unfortunate enough to need to use the toilet in the men's bathroom–which sits, completely exposed, on a cement shelf next to the urinals–would quickly trade their nostalgia for a bathroom where he could crap without the whole world observing. But again, that's part of the charm.