CMJ 2014: Courtney Barnett, San Fermin, and Mikhael Paskalev at Webster Hall
Courtney Barnett at CMJ 2014; All Photos by Laura Baker Finch
New York City -- Last night we headed over to the historic Webster Hall for day two of CMJ Music Marathon's round of citywide showcases, where Courtney Barnett and San Fermin took the stage with support from Mikhael Paskalev.
A co-headlining slot in Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom during CMJ is something of a coveted spot, as it's a pretty good indication a band had/is having a successful year. Sure, these acts aren't solo headliners or hitting the huge venues like Terminal 5, but those sets are really reserved for the already-established acts that give CMJ its credibility (as evidenced by Bombay Bicycle Club's appearance at T5 last night and Slowdive's stop there this weekend). A near-packed house at Webster essentially means a band hasn't necessarily hit outright fame yet, but almost assuredly will in the coming months or years.
So while last night's bill didn't make much sense in terms of genre continuity, you can definitely expect any one of these artists to break in the near future. Here's what we we mean:
It's artists like Mikhael Paskalev that make me regret all those times I've missed an opening act. While he said he usually "plays with some friends," last night, he took the stage in troubadour form with a little help from San Fermin's drummer to close the set. At their core, his songs were standard folk tunes, but Paskalev spiced them up with intricate fingerpicking and jazzy chord changes. Vocally, he's something of a higher pitched Devendra Banhart, and it's hard not to see a bit of The Tallest Man on Earth in his tunes, though, admittedly, you can find such an influence in almost any solo acoustic performer these days.
His half-honest, half-comedic on-stage persona was fairly enticing as well, introducing "Susie" with, "I wrote this for my girlfriend and gave it to her on the day I left her," and the set-closer "Jive Babe" with, "This song is about Audrey Horne from Twin Peaks." By the end of the show, Paskalev hit the crowd with his rockers, like the popular "I Spy," and solidified his music in the minds of audience-members as worth looking up post-show, which can be expected from this type of well-rounded performance.
It's evident at this point Courtney Barnett has had a hell of a year. Her first major release, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, dropped last October, after which she's held her own on the lower side of large festival lineups, at the higher side of small festival lineups, and at small- to mid-sized touring gigs. By the time she hit the stage at Webster Hall, the venue was almost full, though not quite sold out. Barnett, in turn, delivered a raucous show as though she were playing to thousands.
It's safe to say every song of the set came out far grittier than found on the record - the drums were hit harder, the guitars were more distorted, and the bassist was essentially strumming, not plucking, every note. Barnett's sound comes together as this weird hodgepodge of influences you wouldn't necessarily put together. Many of the guitar riffs, like those of the opening track "David," would sound appropriate on a Rolling Stones record, but then the audience would get smacked with a brazenly distorted yet goofy lick reminiscent of '90s alt-rock, not to mention the psychedelic tones on the ever popular "History Eraser" and "Avant Gardener." Overtop all of this is Barnett's remarkably charming, yet kind of ambivalent, sing-speak vocal style.
One particularly poignant moment in which the live show greatly differed from the album came during "Anonymous Club." Barnett and band found a way to build a grand amount of tension in a tune that doesn't variate much on record before pretty convincingly fading out live. Just when the audience began to clap, they kicked it back in at full volume on the line "Thank you for cooking for me," in a goosebumps-inducing moment of clarity. Barnett proved last night that thanks to serious songwriting chops, an impressive backing band, and an added live grittiness, she's on her way to big things.
San Fermin, the eight-piece baroque-pop project of composer/keyboardist Ellis Ludwig-Leone, closed out the show with a set divided half-and-half into tracks from their self-titled debut album and new songs. As they opened with the first track off San Fermin, "Renaissance," it was hard not to immediately think of The National as they brought together low-pitched vocals, acoustic piano, horns, and complicated drum sections. These guys shouldn't be pigeonholed, though, because some rather complex things go into this music. You can occasionally catch a weird time-signature, an unexpected harmonic counterpoint, or challenging female vocal lines reminiscent of Dirty Projectors.
For all of this band's praiseworthy catchiness and challenging musicality, they could benefit from some edginess here and there. The stage presence almost looks choreographed - like it came out of a Rock 'n Roll 101 textbook - and I'm of the opinion no one has to say, "Hello New York!" into a microphone for the rest of existence. That being said, if you thought you were going to leave Webster Hall last night without "Sonsick" stuck in your head, you'd have been dead wrong.