NEW YORK — The CMJ Music Marathon is always a magical confluence of several hundred bands; scores of odd-size venues scattered all about the boroughs of NYC (and New Jersey too); air-tight, no-room-for-encores scheduling; clueless, map-clutching out-of-towners; and perilous, late-night subway rides deep into the heart of Lord-knows-where.
That this goes on for four never-say-die days and nights is a testament to the veracity of the fest's name: CMJ is not a sprint. It is 26.2 grueling, bloody miles of music. Nothing is easy. Tough choices need to be made. The wounded are left behind. That people actually seem to enjoy all of this is a testament not just to the will of the human spirit, but to the boundless energy of the pure-hearted, unspoiled music fan.
Because unlike South By Southwest — the Marathon's bratty, down-South brother (which, in the minds of many, has surpassed the elder as the premier fest in the States) — CMJ is a musical festival for people who actually like music festivals and all the headaches and heartbreaks that come along with them. There is no Sixth Street (the Austin thoroughfare that hosts the majority of SXSW's action) to speak of, no label-sponsored cocktail hours at swank Texas hotels, no delicious Bar-be-que to demolish. SXSW is easy, sort of like an industry-wide booze cruise with bands playing on the pool deck. CMJ is complicated, a sometimes-miserable mess, with bands playing in apartments in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
But despite all that — or, perhaps, because of it — CMJ also offers rewards beyond your wildest dreams. If you're willing to put in the work, then the Marathon will deliver the goods, and the battles you fight along the way make the end results that much sweeter. Bands feel like tiny pearls, discovered only after hours of prying, swearing, sweating and bleeding. And for that fact alone, it's pretty great.
In that regard, CMJ 2007 was probably the pearliest in recent memory, though perhaps not for the reasons you'd expect. After all, the concept of "discovering" a band at any music fest is about as antiquated as the concept of fests themselves, thanks in no small part to the rise of taste-making blogs, yet there was something incredibly satisfying about witnessing acts like Black Kids and Yeasayer deliver sets that more than lived up to the hype surrounding them.
The former — a quintet from Jacksonville, Florida, that currently does not have a record (though it does have a record label: Almost Gold, the home of Peter Bjorn and John) — overcame an overly chatty crowd and a malfunctioning amp at the Annex on Thursday to deliver a herky-jerky set that sounded like the Cure on DFA Records. The latter, a bunch of Brooklyn weirdos with a predilection for droning electronics and delicate African melodies, owned Saturday night, washing through the borough's Glasslands art space like some sort of mythic flood, leaving the beards-and-glasses crowd soaked and awed in their wake.
Deerhunter, No Age and Dan Deacon — a trio of acts also not unfamiliar with blog love — kicked off the Marathon Wednesday night at the Bowery Ballroom with sets that were, in order: bizarre-yet-impactful; scarily spazzy; and, well, sweat-drenched. Earlier that day, Vampire Weekend shuffled their way through an afternoon set at the tiny Cake Shop, debuting a new track or two from their upcoming debut. And Los Angeles' Health howled, chanted and flailed their way to the top of a w-a-a-y packed noise-core bill (Japanther! AIDS Wolf! Sightings!) on Friday at the Knitting Factory.
But it wasn't all up-and-comers delivering the goods. There were also pearls to be found if you managed to brave the lines to see established acts like Spoon, Band of Horses and M.I.A. French DJ duo Justice had the crowd at newish venue Terminal 5 swaying and pumping, and the Meat Puppets — yeah, the Meat Puppets — were way too excited to be playing the tiny club Pianos. There was also a fair amount of hip-hop on display — truly one area in which CMJ trumps SXSW — from a feisty Wednesday night party at the sleek Hiro ballroom that featured Kanye West's DJ A-Trak and Chicagoans Kid Sister and the Cool Kids, to a fiery Saturday set by Brother Ali.
In the end, attempting to recap something as chaotic and hydra-headed as CMJ is nearly impossible. There is no unifying theme, ever, and the 2007 edition was even more fractious than any previous year. But, as we've tried to encompass in our on-air coverage, that's part of what makes the Marathon great: it's the searching, the scheduling, the "Holy sh--, I almost died, but I made it to Simian Mobile Disco's set!" that makes this unlike any music festival in the world. There's real danger here.
And will any of the bands we mentioned above even matter in a few years' time? Probably not, but that's nearly beside the point. You don't come to the Marathon to get discovered anymore — you come here to build upon a fleeting legend, to tough out roughly 47 different shows, to traverse shadowy alleyways, to party until the sun comes up and to wear yourself down. And perhaps the most amazing thing about CMJ is that the previous sentence applies to both the bands and the fans.
Check out our complete CMJ 2007 coverage, including reports, video and photos, in the You R Here blog.