She wore a tambourine on her wrist and a dress two sizes too small, and she looked pissed. "If you don't like it, say you don't like it. Don't stand there all passive," growled Lisa Kekaula, lead singer of the Bellrays, as she wiped the sweat from her gleaming brow.
She was doing her damnedest to enliven the crowd on the opening night of the CMJ Rock Hall Music Fest. It was a moment emblematic of the event, which occasionally needed a jump start and suffered from a so-so draw at times, but managed to win out in the end through sheer force of will.
The Bellrays led the way early, with guitar-driven soul as untamed as Kekaula's wild Afro. The Pixies followed, rebounding from a perfunctory, somewhat sleepy set at the Rock Hall two hours earlier with a more invigorated showing. Backed by a kaleidoscopic light show, the band's loud-soft dynamics gained resonance in the open-air venue, where their tunes took on a near-epic heft.
The next day, fest attendees confronted the biggest hurdle of the event: the commute between clubs. Unlike Austin, New York, or Toronto, which all hold big annual music fests, Cleveland's clubs are mostly spread out. The whole point of music fests is that fans are supposed to be able to bounce from club to club, catching as many shows as the night allows. This is tougher to do here, where it takes half an hour to get from the Odeon to the Grog Shop.
Fest organizers established a bus route between the nine venues, but that didn't cut down on travel times. Moreover, there was no precise breakdown of when bands were playing. On multi-act bills, it was hard to gauge when a particular group would take the stage, which made catching particular bands all the more difficult.
Still, there was plenty to take in. At the Odeon, the Honorary Title, whose frontman looked like a punk-rock Pete Yorn, got teen girls to lock arms and sway along to its yearning, alternately acoustic and electric emo. Grandmaster Flash led a packed Agora Ballroom in shouting out the refrains to rap favorites from Jay-Z to Melle Mel, though one might have expected more originality from such a seminal figure in hip-hop.
The highlight of the night was the Brazilian Girls' set at the House of Blues. Led by Sabina Sciubba, an Italian-born chanteuse in a glittery, skintight gold jumpsuit, the Girls navigated sprightly disco sung in French and Spanish. Audience members shook their hips to the band's sensual bossa nova, while Sciubba seemed to be sporting a shiny blindfold. "Whatever you're doing, don't stop doing it," she purred between songs.
Friday opened with a slew of promising bands at the Festival Village stages, located in the parking lot adjacent to Scene Pavilion, next to giant inflatable beer bottles and a rock-climbing wall. Too bad no one bothered to show up; at times, bands played in front of fewer than a dozen people. Not many got to see the cheeky Americana of Chicago's Big Buildings, the bristling, antiwar punk of Dayton's Murder Your Darlings, or the raw rock swing of Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Marat.
Later that evening, at the Grog, Detroit's the Fags awakened the kids with Cheap Trick-leaning power pop meant to be blasted out of Camaros on Saturday night. At the Beachland Ballroom, Spoon drew so many people that there was a line out the door half a block long. It certainly did better than Orgy, which attracted only a middling crowd and disappointed it with a largely inert set, parts of which sounded pre-recorded. Even old favorites like "Dissention" and "Suckerface" were surprisingly toothless.
The final day of the fest belonged to the locals. Rambler 454's country cut-ups pogoed and poured on the heartache at the MGD Stage at Festival Village, proving themselves to be among the more tireless performers of the weekend.
At the same time, Exit Stencil Recordings kicked off a barbecue at the Beachland Ballroom that was among the best events of the fest. "What are we doing here at two in the afternoon?" New Lou Reeds frontman Stephe DK wondered aloud before his band charged into a set of equally sarcastic and sentimental rock and roll that somehow raised the temperature in the already sweltering tavern. New York's Japanese rock superheroes Peelander-Z followed, its members dressed up as giant bananas, among other things. Inviting fans from the crowd onstage to join them in hammering out hooky punk rock, the band members concluded their set by throwing themselves at bowling pins lined up on the Beachland floor. Roué ended the show with a sweeping, dramatic set of curled-lip rock and roll.
Later that night, Mushroomhead drew the biggest crowd of the entire fest at Scene Pavilion, easily outdrawing the Pixies with a near-capacity crowd. It was loud, ugly, sweaty, grating, and worthwile -- much like the Rock Fest itself.
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