Saturday, October 07, 2006

NEMO deconstructed

Here is a report from the NEMO Music Festival and Conference by guest blogger Peg McDonald from Cambridge MA. Thanks, Peg.

It was a surprise to find myself at NEMO last weekend, NEMO being a sprawling, chaotic, genre-crossing musical smorgasbord and me being a creature of habit sort when it comes to music and clubbing. And it was even more of a surprise to have had a good time once I rolled with the flow.

Going in, few of the 300 odd bands were familiar to me, so I hoped to narrow down my options with some up-front research. Critical material on the bands was largely lacking I found though the “Boston Globe” did make a few recommendations which I ended up disregarding because of the logistical challenges they presented.

While festival organizers apparently made an effort this year (the 10th) to concentrate the 30-some venues in Boston and Cambridge, there was no practical way to casually sample multiple venues on a given night without the ability to levitate. So my strategy became to hit a couple of proximate venues and see what transpired.

On Friday, September 29, I found myself at the Middle East downstairs, a respected club and decent Lebanese restaurant in Cambridge. Performances at each venue were loosely grouped stylistically, and this one was predominately hip hop. I went early (around 9) with Boston’s early bar curfew and my own limited stamina in mind. I had targeted the Middle East because it featured a couple of touted performers, notably the eccentric Dr. Ocatagon a/k/a Keith Kool from New York.

It soon dawned on me that the order of performers was governed by their theoretical status in the pecking order of mostly obscure performers. I caught two sets that I liked at the Middle East: Murph & Stars out of Providence, RI, and local favorites Project Move. The former duo featured mostly straight ahead, squeaky clean hip-hop tinged with R&B. These guys were likable and sincere both on-stage and off, and I found them engaging and talented if somewhat unpolished.

Project Move played next, and their growing cult following is understandable. They played an eclectic mix of hip hop and R& B infused tunes to which they put an original lyrical spin. Their message was both personal and political delivered in high energy style. I will definitely re-visit this band when they appear in local clubs. (Note that both of these bands are unsigned, although Project Move has had decent airplay of singles on college stations).

Moving up the hype food chain, the next set at the Middle East was by Kabir, a self-styled independent rapper, singer and promoter who claims to have played with the likes of the Roots and Wyclef-Jean (and maybe he has). All I know is that the set I caught was both lame and interminanable, culminating (for me, anyway) in a call and response bit of “Wha’s up Boston? Wha’s up Cambridge?” At which point I de-camped to the restaurant for falafel and free Jameson’s (a major sponsor of NEMO), hoping to return to the likes of the vaunted Dr. Octagon or the like. No such luck however as Kabir nattered on well beyond his allotted 45 minutes, while the name bands milled about half-heartedly contemplating setting up.

This led me bail for home, and to develop my theory of NEMO attendance: be open-minded, be willing to listen, but be ready to bail or move on at the drop of a hat.

Despite the downer that this last set was for me, Saturday dawned fresh, and so on Saturday the 30th I ventured out to Johnny D’s, a comfortable local spot that leans toward folk rock. I caught a set by a band who really rocked: Lomita, from Austin, TX, and The Snowleopards, a Boston band. Lomita’s set was a high point for me, and brought the value of NEMO for the casual but open-minded listener home. They played a swinging mix of SW country rock, with diverse influences such as Sonic Youth and Billy Idol, from their album “Sress Echo” (Indierect).

In a post-set chat with their manager, I asked their manager how NEMO compares with SXSW, from a performer’s POV. He said that NEMO was “much more mellow and better organized…with nicer venues.” I’ll have to attend SXSW to assess this assessment, but bringing along my unfettered spirit, openness to the new and random, and a lot of taxi fare.

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