It's a Friday afternoon in Manhattan, and we've been on a biodiesel coach bus for a long, long time. Twenty-four hours straight, to be exact, with only a few short stops for crappy gas-station food and bathroom breaks. After all that time spent trying to sleep sitting up, sneaking nips of carefully rationed brandy, and discussing entirely new and exciting ways to fashion a peanut-butter sandwich, you'd think the musicians from the six bands I've been riding with would be fatigued, wiped out, completely sick of one another. But there's a palpable buzz aboard the bus as we drive through the Holland Tunnel and emerge in the heart of New York City, and it only grows as we make our way through the traffic of the Meatpacking District and head toward the Ivy Brown Gallery.
For the next 12 hours, we all share a singular purpose: Unload the gear from the bottom of the bus as quickly as possible, tap the Surly keg, and get ready to put on a kick-ass show.
The bands I am travelling with—Aviette, the Glad Version, Sam Keenan, the Bill Mike Band, Kid Dakota, and Stook—are all involved, in varying degrees, with Minneapolis-based label Draw Fire Records, and tonight's showcase is part of a broader, citywide music festival run by the College Media Journal. For those unfamiliar, CMJ has become a ubiquitous force in the independent music industry. The company publishes a weekly listing of radio charts and a monthly music magazine, in addition to running the mammoth annual music festival that spreads into every corner of Manhattan and Brooklyn for four days each fall.
We pull up outside the gallery, and everyone on the bus—including a crew of videographers, two photographers, three writers, and the members of all six bands—start hauling drums, guitars, bags, and amplifiers up three flights of stairs and into a small, stark, white gallery space. For a moment, the typical preshow jitters arise from the crowd: Is there enough room for the equipment? Will people know to ring the front buzzer and climb up all those stairs? What if no one shows? But by the time the first keg is tapped and the guests start to trickle in, everyone is relaxed and it's time for Stook to kick off the show.
Using a shared drum set and bass rig, the bands quickly rotate through their sets and build off one another's anticipatory, kinetic energy. Stook starts things off with a solo acoustic set that has all the women in the room, including the cool Brooklynite hipsters, pressing toward the front of the crowd and swaying along to the music. Sam Keenan and his band follow with the tightest set of the night, with bassist Jesse Lukes and drummer Justin Korhonen playing with the infectious excitement and intensity of a headlining show at First Avenue. Lukes thrashes around the tiny makeshift stage area while Korhonen shakes his mop of long, white-blond hair, and everyone in the band beams like they are having the time of their lives.
Next up, the Glad Version add a warmth to the space with their delicate, intricately crafted pop songs. The room has filled up with artists, scenesters, and schmoozers, and the chatter from the audience rises and falls in waves as free cups of Surly are circulated through the room. Aviette lead singer and Draw Fire Records co-owner Holly Munoz looks on proudly, flitting around the crowd to greet newcomers before picking up a guitar and approaching the stage for her own band's turn at the wheel.
By the time Darren Jackson gets up to play a solo set of Kid Dakota songs, the free-flowing beer has taken hold of the room. Jackson commands the crowd with loud, aggressive interpretations of his songs, his reserved demeanor contrasting sharply with the ferocity of his playing. To everyone's surprise (including Jackson's), Justin Korhonen jumps out of the audience and plops himself down behind the drum kit again, hammering his way through an impromptu rendition of Kid Dakota's "The Winter Without You" as the whole room looks on in awe. As he plays, the members of fellow Twin Cities band One for the Team walk in the door, having just finished a couple of their own CMJ shows, and for a moment it feels like any other night at the Turf Club or Triple Rock—despite the fact that we were all over 1,200 miles from home.