Two Bands You Shouldn’t MissOctober 21st, 2011
High Road Touring Showcase – The Bowery Ballroom – October 20, 2011
That old E. B. White line about there being three New Yorks, that of the born-and-bred, that of the commuter and that of the transplant, always feels particularly relevant during CMJ, a mixture of hardened music-industry brass, New York City bands hoping to gain national exposure and regional acts making their way to the city in hopes of the same. The 8 p.m. band, Alabama Shakes, at a uniquely focused Bowery Ballroom, represent the second, commuters playing their first New York City gig. Three hours later, UK favorites, Dry the River were making their second jaunt to the city, out-of-towners, jet-lagged and in search of that crack in the US music market. These two transients, a pair of the most compelling acts at this year’s CMJ, plied their craft with a commuters’ intensity: restless, energized and ephemeral, success to be determined by the unnamed music executives and consumers in the crowd.
Alabama Shakes looked comfortably out of place, a warm slice of rustic rock with none of the pretense of NYC bands that traffic in the same influences. There were moments that feel channeled through Otis Redding’s seminal “Try a Little Tenderness” and others where vocalist Brittany Howard—and you simply won’t hear a better voice this year—yelped and pitched with the seasick sublimity of Janis Joplin, broken and perfect and gritty. The band remains largely introverted, save for Howard’s spinning movements around the stage, even on a second-to-last roots-rock jam played for nearly seven minutes. But it’s this band’s more explosive moments that had SPIN magazine name them one of the 25 bands not to miss at this year’s CMJ. Perhaps most important, the e-mail exchange on the Blackberry of a somewhat disinterested gentleman at the upstairs bar. The addressee: Norah Jones. The subject line: Alabama Shakes.
Dry the River, a different form of New York transient, shuffled to the stage to considerably less fanfare just after 11 p.m. and with the baggage of being a major-label act overseas but a beginner to music fans here. Playing their best song, “No Rest,” first, they carried the audience, showing the scatter and wear of day three of CMJ, to the top of the room with the biggest chorus you’ll hear in 2011. Screaming “I loved you in the best way possible” has all the potential to be cloying or overwrought and yet, amazingly, never was. Another single, “Ceremony,” in a kinship relation to this broad-scope refrain, chilled the crowd with the aplomb of a tour-toughened band with a penchant for the grandiose. But it was “Bible Belt,” a song about troubling contradiction, that tied together a UK folk-rock act wistfully reflecting on the American red states and an American red-state original (yes, Alabama Shakes hung around, watching from the front row), a shared vision of having come here for a very specific reason. —Geoff Nelson