CMJ Report #3: Placebo Discover America, And Vice Versa

Glam pop-metal band makes its debut in the States at CMJ fest.

(Editor's Note: SonicNet Music News has four correspondents covering this week's CMJ Music Marathon, MusicFest and FilmFest in New York City. This 18th edition of the College Music Journal-sponsored conference -- the largest annual gathering of music-industry professionals, enthusiasts, musicians and film buffs in North America -- kicked off Wednesday and will run through Nov. 7. Slated to include film screenings, performances by more than 1,000 bands and 50-plus panels on various topics, the event is expected to draw thousands of attendees. The conference tradition of showcasing up-and-coming acts and exploring new musical frontiers has earned it a reputation as one of the best predictors of what's to come in music, evidenced by such past CMJ "unknowns" as Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson. CMJ's opening-night party Wednesday showcased top turntablists and electronica acts as a tribute to the growing influence of DJ culture.)

Contributing Editor Frank Tortorici reports:

NEW YORK -- The woman onstage in the leopard-skin pants, flailing her long hair around and making faces, looked like she'd just been released from confinement.

But despite the captivating stage presence of Cia Berg, singer for the British rock/trip-hop combo Whale, and the band's compact set of loud, fast tunes, some from their latest album, All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones, the audience was fidgety.

Anticipation was high Thursday night at Manhattan's Hudson Theater for the U.S. debut of Placebo, one of Britain's hottest bands.

"Placebo are one of my favorites," said Jason, 22, a Queens writer who would not give his last name, but who said he has followed the band since its start a few years ago.

"I saw them at [the] Glastonbury [Music Festival] recently, but I'm really excited to see them here," Jason said. "I just saw [lead singer] Brian Molko and [bassist] Stefan [Olsdal] checking out Whale."

The converted Broadway theater was one of the venues for the second night of CMJ Festival concerts. The lobby was filled with music journalists, industry executives and, most conspicuously, multicolor-haired fans of the androgynous pop-metal headliners Placebo.

Berg tried hard to command attention, but despite all her efforts, some had come expecting more. "I heard [Whale's] album, so I was expecting more fun tracks," Jason said. "I thought they were over-rehearsed and uncomfortable with all their glam rock-ness."

Still, some of the night's other performers were clearly getting into the groove of Whale. Placebo drummer Steve Hewitt, who was in the audience for Whale's set and that of the other opener, Gomez, seemed happy to be standing on the other side of the stage.

"Whale was fantasic," Hewitt said, minutes before taking the stage for his band's turn. Hewitt was mingling with Placebo fans and representatives before their performance.

While Whale's tunes, such as "Into the Strobe" (RealAudio excerpt), had at least incited some dancing, the jam-oriented Gomez, also from the U.K., laid down grooves that many of the music cognoscenti seemed to have heard before. Their set included songs, such as "Get Myself Arrested," from their LP Bring It On.

Singer/guitarist Ben Ottewell's gravelly voice helped to set apart the Grateful Dead-styled band's jam sound.

But the crowd was clearly hanging on for something more. After about a half-hour wait, Placebo jumped on the stage. Without a wasted moment, Molko easily established who wears the (black leather) pants in the band.

Wearing eye makeup, a shirt with the zipper pulled down to his stomach, and black combat boots, Molko chopped at his guitar as he shook it and opened his mouth to sing, only to find nothing coming over the PA system. The mic had shorted out.

Like any great leader, he gathered the road crew with quiet authority to remedy the situation immediately.

When the trio ripped into the new "You Don't Care About Us," they defied their limited size with a boisterous and massive pop-metal sound. Molko may have the look and charisma to function solely as a frontman, but his deft guitar playing is a necessary element of Placebo's live sound. As Molko spoke the title phrase, he rolled his eyes upward upon getting to the word "us," until you could see the whites of his eyes and nothing else.

Between songs, Molko is prone to dropping coy messages and investing them with mysterious importance.

"The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return," Molko said before breaking into "My Sweet Prince," an ode to a lover, which he sang as his cigarette smoke covered his face. Coupled with Hewitt's percussive thump, the image was evocative to say the least.

On "Lady of the Flowers," Molko makes lines like "she's got magazines full of hairpies ... he spends the afternoon between your thighs" sound like classic poetry.

It seemed the perfect love potion, as many of the crowd were inspired to sing along to the tune from Placebo's eponymous debut.

The set's closers, the U.K. smash singles "Nancy Boy" (RealAudio excerpt) and the brand new "Pure Morning," were rushes of pure punk adrenalin that left the crowd bellowing for more.

The CMJ Festival lures thousands of bands from around the world to the Big Apple for the music showcase.

In part, it seemed Placebo captured the mood of the occasion perfectly, though perhaps unwittingly, through the lyrics to their new "Every Me, Every You":

"Perk up for heaven's sake/there's never been so much at stake."