New York Clubs Overrun By Femi Kuti And A Guitar-Rock Army

Handsome Boy Modeling School, Guided by Voices, Sparklehorse, Wheat also play CMJ's opening night.

NEW YORK — Guitars and turntables filled Manhattan as the

CMJ Music Marathon got under way Wednesday night, but it took a

saxophone-playing bandleader from Nigeria to really get the four-day

party going.

At the festival's official kickoff party at the Roxy, club-goers stood

around and swayed to the electronic creations of Aphrodite, the

Wiseguys and Cut Chemist and to the old-school hip-hop of the Jungle

Brothers and Jurassic 5. It took 70 minutes of frenetic African rhythms

to crack the room's relative reserve.

Femi Kuti, the energetic, muscular sax-playing son of the late

Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, stole the show with his 12-piece band,

winning a two-minute-long ovation after he was done. The set was

filled with choreographed dance moves and music that seemed to trace

an evolution of American funk and jazz from James Brown to Kool and

the Gang and even to Kenny G. Kuti played light, breezy saxophone

solos over tight, relentless funk beats.

"Femi Kuti's bringing a new beat, and that beat is one of the best

there is out there," CMJ attendee Benjamin Kelly, from Brooklyn, N.Y.,

said. Kelly, 28, produces an Internet world-music radio show called

"Reaction Sound System."

At the Wetlands Preserve in Tribeca, the night was more about flash

than skill. There, Prince Paul and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura,

creators of the trip-hoppy Handsome Boy Modeling School album

So ... How's Your Girl? (1999), tested the audience for what

Prince Paul called its "inner handsomeness."

Wearing suits, the two DJs, who took the roles of their album alter

egos Chest Rockwell (Prince Paul) and Nathaniel Merriweather

(Nakamura), led audience members through interactive skits designed to

show them how to have sex without actually asking for it. Example:

Compliment your target on how her pink bandana matches her bag.

While it was much more of a listening party than a show, the Handsome

Boy Modeling School did feature live moments. Singer Roison Murphy of

the group Moloko and rapper J-Live shared the microphone for

"The Truth," a spooky lounge number in the tradition of Portishead.

Later, J-Live, El-P of the rap group Company Flow and San Francisco

rapper Big Merc took the stage for 10 minutes of freestyling about

their abilities, how the others weren't so hot, about the audience

and anything else that came to mind. All from folks that Prince Paul

and Nakamura both introduced as "Handsome Boy graduates."

"I call it true school," J-Live (born Justice Law), 23, said of the

performance and of his album The Best Part, due in January.

"I came here for the fun and the business."

Nearby at the Knitting Factory, the only electronic beat in evidence

was from a lazy-sounding drum machine that gothic pop band

Sparklehorse used. The Virginia band topped a bill at the avant-garde

jazz/rock club that also included a DJ set from Belle and Sebastian

member Richard Colburn and horn-accented, Beatles-esque guitar rock

from San Francisco's Beulah.

Boston band Wheat took the stage before Sparklehorse's night-closing

set with nearly an hour of swirling, guitar-driven songs that featured

intricate interplay between singer/guitarists Steve Levesque and Ricky

Brennan. They previewed their second album, Hope and Adams

(Oct. 12), with a number of songs that stretched out into fluid,

chiming guitar jams accented by Levesque's high, fragile vocals.

Sparklehorse's hour-long set of dark, distorted rock matched the

humid, drizzly sound of the streets outside the club. Leader Mark

Linkous conjured a bleak mood to match that of a city under a

hurricane watch as Floyd churned its way north.

Linkous and his four-piece band used everything from staticky

short-wave radio sounds to violins, upright bass, drum machine,

xylophones and fuzzed-out guitars to drive home the creeping ballads

"Waiting for Nothing," "All Night Home" and the Pixies-like

distorto-punk of "Tears on Fresh Fruit" and the cathartic set-ender

"Pig" (RealAudio excerpt).

At Roseland, a cavernous midtown club, pop-rockers old and new —

Cheap Trick and Guided by Voices — played a double bill of

guitar-fueled hookery. GBV have made a bid for commercial success

with the Ric Ocasek–produced Do the Collapse, but they

filled their set with a host of unfamiliar tunes and left out the

album's single, "Teenage FBI," according to David Cavalier, a

guitarist for the New York band Moneyshot, who was in the audience.

Still, they sounded "like the best club band in the world," Cavalier

said.

GBV frontman Robert Pollard then joined Cheap Trick, whose biggest

hits came in the '70s and '80s, to sing "Surrender"

(RealAudio excerpt).

At Acme Underground in Greenwich Village, Bikeride, from California,

and Poole, a Maryland quartet led by ex-Lilys drummer Harry Evans,

bashed out buzzy, harmony-laden guitar pop along the same lines to an

audience of no more than 40 people.

With Moog synthesizer lines, falsetto choruses, twin rhythm guitars

and the occasional trumpet blast, Bikeride songs such as "Erik & Angie"

and "Blue Jeans" were nearly bubblegum. Poole were literally fronted by

their drummer: Evans set up his drum kit at the edge of the stage, in

the spotlight, and sang infectious pop-rock buttressed by raggedy

guitars and clean harmonies.

(Associate Editor Matty Karas contributed to this report.)