(From Newsday, New York City-based newspaper, 24 October 2003.)

Teaming With Possibilities

by Rafer Guzman

They don't call it the CMJ Music Marathon for nothing.

The opening night of the annual College Music Journal conference was a marathon in itself - the evening began at 8 and lasted more than 7 hours - and this was only day one of the four-day festival.

The night served as a miniature version of CMJ, which is geared toward bands that are under the radar, or off it entirely. Imagine a radio with a free-spinning dial that cuts across genres, continents and even eras, and you'll have some idea of what Wednesday's six-band lineup achieved. One fact that bodes well for the independent music scene: Each act, no matter what its style, got its share of enthusiastic applause.

New York's new school of old punk was represented by a five-piece called The Fever. While many of the city's retro-rockers are content to reach back to the 1970s for inspiration, The Fever also borrowed from the energetic sounds of the 1950s and 1960s. The band's catchy choruses and youthful rhythms worked well, even if its off-kilter guitar riffs were sometimes too tweaked for its own good.

Harking back to a different decade was Black Box Recorder, one of the evening's nicest surprises. The British trio, led by singer Sarah Nixey, played decadent, chilly synth-pop circa 1983. The band, however, relies not on keyboard players - they used backing tracks for that - but on two guitarists, John Moore and Luke Haines. Haines, formerly of the excellent band The Auteurs, is likely a larger force in the band than he lets on: The cynical lyrics and canny pop tunes bore his stamp.

Another surprise: VHS or Beta, whose frivolous name does no justice to its brilliant music. Essentially, its members have absorbed the tempos and tropes of DJ-created dance music, but want to play it live. The result is a powerful, guitar-based rock band that segues in and out of its own songs: Crescendos build, rhythms change, drums fade and then kick in again. In the process, VHS or Beta may be creating an entirely new musical genre.

All this braininess was wiped away by Killing Joke, one of England's fiercest punk bands. Twenty-five years into its career, Killing Joke's tribal rhythms and relentless guitars sound like a challenge to every metal act currently growling on the radio. Singer Jaz Coleman, his face painted like a zombie, seemed positively unhinged: During "Blood on Your Hands," from the band's new, self-titled album, Coleman grimaced at the crowd and raised his arms as if hoping God would smite us all. By the end of the show, it felt as if He had.

The evening's most anticipated act, My Morning Jacket, didn't disappoint. On record, these shaggy country-rockers often drone rather than rock. Onstage, however, they channeled the energy of Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, shaking their impossibly long hair and virtually attacking their instruments. The players used their impressive chops to expand songs into wide landscapes. The tunes sounded sometimes pastoral and sunny, sometimes as dark as the inside of an old honky-tonk.

There was even something for the ravers: At about 2:30, a Canadian trio called The New Deal took the stage and played jazzy, clubby dance music, pushing the revved-up crowd further and further toward last call.