For thirty-odd years prior to last Autumn, for one week in October, CMJ Music Marathon - roughly speaking, a New York cousin of Austin’s SXSW - would take over much of the city’s music venues. Along its way, it’d play host to breakthrough shows from the likes of Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamar alongside the requisite panels and industry shindigs. Now in its second year - and also taking place in October, not entirely coincidentally - comes Mondo.NYC. It’s the brainchild of CMJ’s founding team, who’ve swapped big-name underplays and buzzy branded ‘experiences’ to, on the live music side at least, focus on a handful of small venues around the Lower East Side - an area of south-east Manhattan that’s long been famed for its arts scene - and largely underground artists.
It’s at Pianos - a cosy bar still boasting its previous tenant’s signage above the door (it sold pianos, fyi) that we start our festival. It’s on Ludlow Street - a (relatively) small road where most of the Velvet Underground once lived and which appears on the cover of Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’. Downstairs, there’s more than a touch of the theatrical to Holy Golden, whose vocalist Leslie Schott is dressed somewhere between a prairie-dwelling bride and the twins in The Shining. Her vocals come from the Kate Bush school of soaring high notes, while musically it’s very ‘90s grunge.
In the lounge upstairs, meanwhile, New Yorker Chloe Lilac might be troubled by a failing voice - her set is cut short, we’re told, due to illness - and there’s enough chatter in the room to drown out the quieter moments, but when it’s just her and her keyboard (rather than the numbers she performs with a backing track), she shows a knack for an emotional gut-punch, especially with newie ‘Jesus Couldn’t Love Me’.
She’s followed by Miranda, who displays more stage presence in her set than should be possible in a cleared area of a bar while stood in front of her tech-heavy set up. She’s clearly listened to much of Chvrches’ ‘80s influences - her vocal effects take her from Jimmy Somerville to Bon Iver in consecutive songs - and by the end she’s got even industry types bopping along.
Back downstairs to the Showroom, and Birthday Club are slacker rocking it out with their surf-rock inflected grunge numbers, with last year’s ‘Fortune Favors’ a stand-out in the Houston collective’s set.
A short walk away, one which passes the shell of what was once CBGB’s no less (sob), is The Bowery Electric, where there’s a giant dinosaur balloon dancing to another local act, Strange Loops, as we arrive, who are also this evening introducing new keyboardist, Ellen. They’re followed in the brick-walled basement by Floridian blues rockers Chase The Jaguar - think the mellow side of Kings of Leon.
Swedish singer-songwriter Adée, tonight accompanied by a lone keyboardist at the second stage at Rockwood Music Hall (a group of three small bars, rather than what its name conjures up), is explaining how she came to record her first cover. It’s Anderson .Paak’s ‘Miss Right’, her favourite track from the Californian, and it slots in neatly among her own laid back electro.
Back again at Pianos, and it’s a busy crowd for locals Supercel and their ‘80s take on rock ’n’ roll, while downstairs British punks Austerity and their chants of “buy something, feel better” show them as from the Idles - Slaves - Sleaford Mods line.
Back at Rockwood Music Hall, and South African-born Tuelo Minah is captivating hearts and minds, as she chats away between songs - visiting Jewish pals for Passover, disapproving African mothers - and is utterly spellbinding during them, with a vocal that’s unrivalled all festival, ‘Saint Margaret’ and ‘Here We Are’ - the first song, we’re told, she wrote after moving to the city - both standouts.
Another visit to Bowery Electric comes next, where late set times have us expecting rock ’n’ rollers Robbing Johnny, but instead catch Brooklyn duo Meridian Lights, complete with some serious guitar noodling and the frankly epic ‘Rodeo’.
It’s then down to The Delancey, a plush basement on (predictably) Delancey Street, a short walk from the iconic Bowery Ballroom, where things are also behind schedule. So rather than Dublin trio Sleep Thieves, we’re treated to lush layers of sound courtesy of Londoners Mt Wolf, who drop in a cover of Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’, just because.
It’s up to Alphabet City for Saturday’s first couple of acts, beginning with Brooklyn-based Freddie Nunez at Berlin. On the indie side of alt country - he’s decked out perfectly for an appearance on a Third Man Records ‘Blue’ series 7” - there’s also more than a smidgen of the Pavement about his acoustic-led jams.
A few doors along at Drom is Russell Elliot, with another killer vocal. Channelling James Blake at his most intimate one second, then white boy rapping like Macklemore the next, through interpolating Cher’s ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’. It’s easy enough to get lost in the music before a cutting lyric acts as a jolt back to earth.
A final visit to The Delancey, before one last late-night visit to the sweltering heat of the subway, has us catching the end of smokey-voiced Louisiana native Merci Raines, before Austin dual-vocalled blues rockers Chill Russell are, well, anything but. Their psych-inflected sound might owe nods to The Beach Boys and The Strokes, but in truth, they’re not a million miles away from chart-bothering beasts The Black Keys.
Photos: Emma Swann