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CMJ '03: rooms on fire

BY STUART BERMAN

Death becomes CMJ. Dark clouds seem to hover over the annual New York City club crawl, and it's not just because of the encroaching cold weather.

The 2001 edition of the CMJ (College Music Journal) Music Marathon -- which attracts hundreds of bands from all the over the world each fall -- was scheduled to start on Sept. 12 and, for obvious reasons, was delayed for a month with a pared-down lineup. Last year's comeback special kicked off just as news of Jam Master Jay's murder in Queens hit the streets. At this year's fest, which took over Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Oct. 22-25, thoughts and conversations inevitably turned to Elliott Smith, the indie icon who stabbed himself to death a day before the festival began.

On opening night, Seattle popsters Death Cab for Cutie paid tribute to Smith with a cover of his signature song, "Say Yes," but in recent years CMJ (and New York City in general) has come to represent resiliency in hard times. By the time CMJ hit day two, a certain alternate universe began to take shape, where the outside world ceased to exist, newspapers go unread and certain irrational behaviours -- like, say, drinking beer for breakfast or standing on your feet for 16 hours straight -- started to feel completely natural.

While lacking the communal barbecue vibe that defines Austin's South by Southwest, CMJ's afternoon showcases and in-store performances provided an easy way to sample up 'n' comers. Best find: NYC sludge-rockers Vietnam, whose gig at Lit began in a lethargic lurch, but perked up considerably mid-set, when the Cat Stevens-lookalike singer's Dylanesque snarl emerged and elevated them to the realm of spiritual swamp blues.

However, once again, the opportunity to spend your night bouncing from club to club -- the essence of CMJ -- became more myth than reality, with many of the key spots (CBGB, The Mercury Lounges) setting a low nightly cap for badge-holders and forcing all latecomers to pay cover (even if they had already forked out US$495 for badges that were supposed to waive such charges).

For the three big label showcases at the beautiful Bowery Ballroom -- perhaps the best sightlines for a rock club in North America -- the key was to show up at 8pm and set up shop for the night, though fortunately, early birds were treated to some choice aperitifs. The 25th-anniversary party for UK indie powerhouse Rough Trade Records on Oct. 23 may have lost its headliner ("special guests" Belle and Sebastian were forced to cancel due to illness) but the soiree got started in wonderfully freaky fashion with sets by art-pop anarchists British Sea Power (see feature page 25), and Brooklyn art-blues oddballs The Fiery Furnaces, who boast a Patti Smith incarnate in singer Eleanor Freidberger, not to mention the hallmark quality of all special bands: i.e., the ability to completely polarize a crowd into lovers and loathers.

Toronto label Arts & Crafts hosted an early evening Bowery bash Oct. 24 with Jason Collett, Stars and label linchpins Broken Social Scene, whose ever-tightening group hug with New York City continued apace with a rapturously received sold-out show.

The love was still hanging thick in the air the next night at Sub Pop Records' shindig, which featured the triumphant return of New Mexico power-pop heroes The Shins and a star turn from our Constantines, who saluted NYC with a climactic cover of Lou Reed's "Temporary Thing." Though the night's most pleasant surprise came first with All Night Radio, a two-piece fronted by Beachwood Sparks' Farmer Dave that routes Big Starry-eyed pop through laptop-generated symph/synth atmospherics.

Each night, the arrival of 2am merely signified the end of chapter one, and the start of a whole 'nother search: the after-party. NYC production crew the DFA teamed up with Trevor "Playgroup" Jackson's Output Recordings for a two-floor electro-punk bash at the super-swank Tribeca Grand Hotel featuring the North American debut of France's Colder, who overcame technical glitches to work up some evil heat. And as if to solidify the DFA's rep as The Neptunes of the underground, Pharrell Williams even turned up.

Other shindigs, however, didn't fare so well, as a planned closing-night warehouse party featuring Montreal drama-rockers The Stills got shut down by the fuzz before it even started. But hey, even the city that never sleeps has to take a night off once in a while.

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