If a Lower East Side merchant of yore had fallen into a time portal that plopped him down onto his street—Ludlow, Stanton, Rivington, et al.—any time October 16-20, 2007, he'd likely conclude that a totalitarian government whose primary agenda consisted of forcing Chuck Taylors onto the feet of its subjects ran America. It's not fascism, folks, it's just the annual CMJ Music Marathon, where Taylor toters from all over the country, including a handful from the Twin Cities, converged for a few days to play "emerging" music, rub elbows, and drink a lot of costly cocktails.
Minnesota bands may not have been the festival's most talked-about acts (from my vantage point, those seemed to be Black Kids or Jay Reatard), but Brother Ali came damn close, and teenaged girls nearly burst from the seams of the Highline Ballroom during his Saturday-night superstar turn.
Offering "We're from Minneapolis!" shout-outs and making their marks amidst so many kids and their guitars, other local acts hit various stages. The lovely Haley Bonar, who every day looks more like Dolly Parton should have but didn't, met squeals of delight when she announced the song "Car Wreck" during her show at the Living Room; the young ladies of Sick of Sarah, on their first trip to New York, recruited strangers from the subway to attend their show; Mark Mallman, at CMJ with his side project Ruby Isle, netted a lengthy interview with Public Radio International. And then, on the fourth day, there was Thunder in the Valley.
It may or may not be important that the smashing 30-odd-minute set by Thunder in the Valley, a five-man-band from Minneapolis, was not officially part of CMJ. Either way, on the tail end of a six-week tour with Vampire Hands, they played the shit out of the Green Room Music Source day party.
In the early afternoon on a rainy day, in the dank basement of Fat Baby, audience members (and, unfortunately, the bartender) were scarce. Vampire Hands took the stage, unleashing a compelling amalgamation of psychedelic jangles and formidable beats. The show was good—and loud, and in a club the size of an Edina bathroom. My lack of earplugs caused me momentary panic, but I managed to MacGyver my cocktail napkin into a decent substitute. If one takes Vampire Hands as an indicator, every band could benefit vastly from the dynamite combination of two drummers plus a pair of good old-fashioned maracas.
Thunder in the Valley came next, employing such wisdom—they put tour-mate Colin Johnson to work on drums and placed their own set of maracas in the hands of multitalented keyboardist/sometime vocalist/all-the-time floor stomper Jake Luck. Percussion instruments in hand, Luck resembles a more wiry Levon Helm; in fact, the band recalls the Band in several ways, and it's not just their preponderance of facial hair or their dynamite mix of masculine gentility. Boasting everything from ragtime syncopation to raucous, rat-a-tat shouting to gypsy song tangles, Thunder in the Valley evoke (both musically and lyrically) that mythic, nebulous realm of Americana that breathed life into rock 'n' roll classics like Rag Mama Rag without sounding in any way tired or secondhand. It was tense and enthralling to watch lead guitarist Nick Ryan—he'd attack, back off, pluck out a handful of singular, resonant notes, then attack again, his frenetic, furious guitar work fusing with the down-home reveries that emerged from the rest of the band.
At the end of the following set, by the Alarmists, Eric Lovold announced that it was the bands' first time in the city. "New York is all right," he said, a little awe in his voice. On that wet afternoon in a dirty Lower East Side basement, Thunder in the Valley proved there's something all right about Minneapolis, too.