That's the beauty of something like the CMJ/Rock Hall Music Fest. It's a musical carnival that comes town for only a few days every summer, but if you find the time to go, it's almost guaranteed that you'll see something cool.
For one thing, all the local talent comes out to play on the same weekend, offering a musical taste of Cleveland. The Jack Fords, Blush, Roué, Jami Ross, Audiblethread, and many more will bring it alongside some of the best underground rock acts in the country.
British sensations Arctic Monkeys were scheduled to appear, but the buzz from SXSW launched them into a different level of the stratosphere. Still, there are plenty of dark horses to check out. Even if they don't scale the charts, they're good enough to steal your heart.
Although the shows are open to walk-up ticket purchases, and some are free, buying a CMJ pass is the best bet for music buffs. The $50 pass will get you into all the shows -- even sold-out ones, if the venues aren't already stuffed to capacity.
Thursday, June 15
The popularity of Brandi Carlile (at the House of Blues with the Fray) means you'll only see her if you get a CMJ pass. Given the number of folky, confessional female popsmiths out there, it may be tempting to dismiss Carlile. Don't. While her self-titled debut received good press, the Acoustic EP is even better. The disc soft-pedals the pop in favor of a harmony-rich, country-folk sensibility that recalls Mindy Smith or Tift Merritt.
Atlanta's El Pus (at Peabody's, with Jacknife Powerbombs) follows in the funky ska/rock/hip-hop footsteps of Fishbone. The band's playful ganja-soaked debut, Hoodlum Rock, features cockeyed stories and clever writing that captures the goofy spirit of the Beasties, with a dose of Basehead's musical sophistication.
Friday, June 16
David Bazan (at the Grog Shop, early show) is no Leonard Cohen, but he probably wouldn't mind the comparison. He usually performs under the name Pedro the Lion, creating melancholy, slow-moving acoustic pop with strong spiritual undercurrents distinguished by a bare-wire emotionality that fuses Daniel Johnston with Raymond Carver.
Saturday, June 17
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is hosting free shows on the plaza in front of the museum from 1 to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. There are a lot of good bands on the bill (including the New Lou Reeds), but you won't want to miss the headliner, Nebula (Key Plaza, 5 p.m.), which ferments sludged-out garage-rock psychedelia. We're talking serious headbanging, riff-heavy, wah-wielding, stoner-effin'-rawk!
The Talk (at Peabody's, with Birdmonster, Audiblethread, and Elevator Action) is the opener, but it's worth showing up early. Singer-guitarist Justin Williams surveys a variety of styles, from chunky, atmospheric indie rock to buzzsaw pop-punk to nervy, organ-fueled new wave. He'd be more successful if he did only one thing, but he's better than that.
Of any young band at CMJ, the Lashes (at the Grog Shop, with Head Automatic and Damone) early show), have the best mix of the sensibilities needed to strike it big. They've got the infectious, sugar-rush bounce of power-pop, West Coast punk throttle, and tumbling keyboards to give them that fashionable retro veneer.
Sunday, June 18
While not everyone enjoys Wussy (Key Plaza, 2:30 p.m.) as much as they do singer-guitarist Chuck Cleaver's previous project, Ass Ponys, that's to be expected, in light of the stylistic left turn. While bits of the Ponys' country rock peeks out, this is a different animal, working a gentle folk-blues vibe keyed to the dreamy vocals of Lisa Walker.
Headlining Sunday's free shows are the Bellrays (Key Plaza, 5 p.m.), whose rugged garage-funk has the revolutionary groove of War if it had gotten down with the MC5. Singer Lisa Kekaula stays soulful, even as the guitars blast like nitrous funny cars on the highway to hell.