I was stoked for this show. If I hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Still, there was a point early into the evening at which I stood back and had the thought, “I’m at a CMJ showcase.” It’s been years. Like a lot of the overblown hoopla in the music industry, I usually skip out on NYC’s CMJ fest — because here’s the thing no one tells you: It’s no different from NYC every other night. Oh, there are 100 shows and industry types lurking around in suit jackets and jeans? Sorry, that happens every single week. It’s a big part of why the last show I went to in Manhattan was in March.
This, however, was the Heavy Planet CMJ showcase, and if something was going to get me to drive my jaded, been-in-this-business-too-long ass across the self-proclaimed greatest city in the world, it was the chance to see Borracho, Valley of the Sun, Eggnogg and Summoner on the same bill. Shock Radar opened and the show was at Fontana’s – a place that, if I’ve ever been there, it was probably when I was in college, and then probably a CMJ show — and after being kept late at work, I got there early into Shock Radar‘s set, having parked outside at the same time Borracho arrived and seen them get into a parking altercation with another driver. They were right to not want to give up that spot. It was prime.
Much like the show itself. Here’s how it all went down:
New York natives and apparently somewhat responsible for lining up Fontana’s as the venue for the gig, it was my first experience with Shock Radar in a live setting after checking out some of the tracks from their Live Like Lions 10″ in advance. Admittedly, I didn’t catch the whole set, but I must have gotten most of it, and in any case, it was enough for the band’s post-grunge affected East Coast noise crunch to make an impression. The vocals had that kind of throaty 1995 vibe like when everyone realized they couldn’t be Layne Staley and had to think of something else to do, but they were solid — the kind of moody act you’d happen onto on one of those nights stumbling through the city, winding up in some hole with more liquor in your system than you intended. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.
I could tell right away that Boston’s own Summoner were used to playing on stages this size because every time vocalist/bassist Chris Johnson turned around, he pulled the neck of his bass in toward himself so as to avoid a collision with guitarist Joe Richner. The four-piece had impressed at SHoD, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the vitality they brought to their performance or the appealing interplay of Richner and AJ Peters‘ guitars, but their new-school crush satisfied nonetheless, and both Peters and drummer Scott Smith went out of their way to mention they’ll be recording a new album next month. Their latest, Phoenix, is still pretty fresh, but I look forward to hearing the intensity they bring to new material in the studio. In the meantime, “The Interloper” from Phoenix was a highlight and they went back to their early days as Riff Cannon to close out with the title-track to 2009′s Mercury Mountain, a last-minute burst of energy that made for a raucous finish. I could’ve done with a longer set, but Summoner made every second count, and the smoothness with which they execute their changes and the sheer joy they seem to take in playing these songs made them a pleasure to watch. Again.
My second Eggnogg gig and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back for thirds. The Brooklyn trio included two new songs in their set from their forthcoming and mostly completed new album, including the eponymous “Eggnogg,” which seems to revive the elephantine stomp of “The Gods Will Destroy the Hive” from their prior EP compilation, The Three. Their methods are simple, but their employ more than effective. They riff and groove — tonal thickness is a must — and bassist Bill O’Sullivan‘s bluesy delivery took a turn for the shoutier on the newer material. Especially seeing them right after Summoner emphasized the stark contrast between the two young acts. Both are very good at what they do and cohesive beyond their years, but Eggnogg‘s patience and relatively simplistic songwriting modus and Summoner‘s intensity and rampant dual lead-work seemed to be coming from different places entirely. I liked that, though. Eggnogg are getting their bearings as a live act, but between this gig and the show at the St. Vitus bar in August that I was lucky enough to catch, they’ve affirmed what I dug so much about their recorded material and given me something to look forward to on the next one. Time for them to start piling up amplifiers and get their tones to room-shaking volume.
Valley of the Sun
The lesson of Cincinnati’s Valley of the Sun — and this is a lesson I’m happy to learn anytime the opportunity presents itself — is “oh what a difference a great drummer makes.” You know the scene. You’ve seen those bands that seem to have it all together, and there’s just that one missing element. In my experience, what can really put a good band over the top is a killer, creative drummer, and Valley of the Sun have one in Aaron Boyer. Guitarist/vocalist Ryan Ferrier and bassist Ryan McAllister had their shit together, no doubt about it, but together with Boyer, they hit a level of professionalism that’s road-ready and completely attuned to its aesthetic. Valley of the Sun also played some new tunes, as well as a few highlights from 2011′s The Sayings of the Seers (review here), which I was stoked to be able to pick up on vinyl, and it was crisp American-style heavy rock, desert-fuzzed and in the Kyuss tradition, but fluid in its ’70s worship and presented with the utmost confidence. This being my first time seeing them, what I got was exactly what I’d hoped to get. For having just two EPs out, their sound is remarkably mature, and that speaks to Ferrier, McAllister and Boyer having a clear idea of what they want to do musically, which can only serve them well leading into their next studio outing. Good band, man. A name to watch for.
In another flashback to this year’s Stoner Hands of Doom, the three-piece incarnation of Washington D.C.’s Borracho — or, as I’ve come to call them, Borratrio — took the stage at Fontana’s with barely so much as a hello. Led by guitarist Steve Fisher (who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of classic rock t-shirts — awesome) in the absence of guitarist/vocalist Noah, who is out of the country on what I can only assume is a dangerous spy mission, they once again let the riffs do the vast majority of the talking, though vocals showed up in what would otherwise be the backing lines toward the end of “All in Play” and in “Concentric Circles,” which remains viciously catchy no matter who’s fronting it. Overall, Borracho were much tighter here than at SHoD, not only for the lack of technical difficulties, but in general on the level of chemistry between Fisher, bassist Tim Martin and drummer Mario Trubiano, who seemed only too happy to pick up the gauntlet Aaron Boyer threw down in Valley of the Sun‘s set. The two bands are reportedly headed back to D.C. tonight for another gig. They worked well together, so hopefully this isn’t the last time they join forces. Despite Noah‘s continued MIA-ness, Borratrio have new songs in progress as well.
Ultimately, I think that’s what made last night special — the fact that Borracho, Summoner, Valley of the Sun and Eggnogg all have new stuff on the horizon that hasn’t yet been released. Maybe Shock Radar too, I don’t really know, but to have everyone on board playing fresh material alongside a few familiar tracks was awesome, and in true showcase fashion, I felt like I was watching acts each in their own way poised to hit the next level in what they do. Kudos to Heavy Planet for putting together an excellent bill (I got to meet Toby at the show and he seemed like a good dude), and to the bands for kicking ass.
More pics after the jump.