Music note: Draw Fire bands rock Manhattan

The Bill Mike Band. Photo by Joe Johnson, courtesy Draw Fire Records.

NEW YORK CITY—It’s Friday night at the CMJ music festival, and there are over 350 bands playing official showcases at 61 different venues. With the city at the live music saturation point, six bands from Minneapolis manage to pack the 4th floor walk-up gallery off 14th Street, while bands like Dungen, Jay Reatard, Crystal Antlers, and hundreds of other bands play in some of New York’s most famous venues. This is an accomplishment in itself, for any band, but even better for a relatively new label like Draw Fire Records to come into town with an olio of bands exclusively from Minnesota in the midst of one of the world’s biggest live music showcases.

If this is beginning to sound ambitious, understand that this is the standard operating procedure at Draw Fire. As a new label out of the Twin Cities, they managed to pull together tour sponsors, a bio-diesel bus, and land a showcase at CMJ—something many established labels only manage to talk about doing.

The Ivy Brown Gallery proved to be the perfect venue for the event. An odd space with walls on wheels dividing the room into sections, decorated in strangely appropriate sepia-tinted photos of what could have been any sleepy town in the Midwest: deciduous trees, open fields, brokedown pick-ups. The Draw Fire Records showcase (complete with kegs of Surly, to remind the TC expats what home tastes like) was nothing if not a success for the artists and label. If the turnout alone didn’t catch fest-goers attention, the intriguing variety of acts surely did. From the solo folk performance from Stook! to the lush indie-pop of Aviette and Kid Dakota, or the rocking Sam Keenan and The Glad Version, Draw Fire asserted their existence in what was one of the weekend’s most surprising showcases. There were New-York-based acts that didn’t get this kind of turnout with free shows at larger venues.

One of the biggest surprises of the night was the Bill Mike Band, who are the kind of live act that continues to sound better with every performance. Even in the slightly cramped gallery, with its roll-out walls and odd acoustics, the band sounded crisp and tight. They gave the impression that they have the versatility to play anywhere: they would have rocked in your grandmother’s living room, that grimy basement apartment you had in college, First Ave, or Madison Square Garden.

What was working for the Bill Mike Band was typical of what was working for Draw Fire generally. The bands don’t have a simple thread tying them together. Instead they seem to work together perfectly in live succession because the sense of community is tangible. The bands' passion for music and the desire to help each other succeed was apparent in the between-song banter and the general air of community in the room that is more often than not missing at live shows during CMJ. Draw Fire managed to keep everyone there for every band's half hour set, which is something of a miracle at an event where badge holders typically go to a showcase to see one act and then leave for another venue half an hour later. Draw Fire’s first CMJ evinced that Minneapolis/St. Paul is still one the most vibrant music markets in the country, and that Draw Fire may be a big part of the future of music in the Twin Cities.

Dustin Luke Nelson (dlukenelson [at] gmail [dot] com) is a founding editor of InDigest Magazine and a filmmaker. His writing and interviews have appeared in InDigest, Guernica, Tiny Mix Tapes, Favorite10, Intentionally Urban, and other places. You may have seen him at the grocery store.

Also in the Daily Planet, read Jason Ericson on Kid Dakota's performance at the MMAA.

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