Live Concert Review: The Best and Worst of New Music Seminar New Music Nights Festival 2015, by Natalie Hamingson
The first time I attended New Music Seminar in 2012, it
was a grand affair. The long running industry showcase of new artists started off in the main
ballroom of Webster Hall with an elaborate show, full of fire breathers,
hula-hoop dancers, snake handlers, and most importantly, a solid lineup of up
and coming musical talent.
My second go at NMS in 2015 did not quite live up to my past
expectations. For an event with such a prestigious reputation for displaying
what’s the latest and greatest in music, the quality of the lineup this year
gave me re were quite a few moments where I thought, “this is why the music
business is failing.”
That’s not to say the entire three-day festival from June
21-23, 2015 was a complete bust, though. But it would be dishonest to ignore
the fact that there were some serious flaws with this year’s production, so first
let’s get the bad news out of the way.
Opening night at Webster Hall was staged in two smaller rooms,
The Marlin Room and The Studio, each on separate floors. Each time the next act
came on, the entire audience had to relocate either up or downstairs for their
set. The inconvenience might have been less of a nuisance had the actual music
been more impressive.
Unfortunately, much of the opening lineup just rubbed me the
wrong way. Audience favorites Fictionist definitely had a dynamic stage
presence, and while their 80s style rock instrumentation was fun, I just
couldn’t get past the high pitched vocals. Same thing with Bad Veins–the
energy was good, but I found the vocals way too grating….and somewhat
reminiscent of Dashboard Confessional. Soft rockers Belmont Lights struck me as
unnatural, and a little pretentious in their stage presence. Jay Stolar’s
attempts at soul just missed the mark for me, and closing act Melanie Martinez’s
subversive pop tried just a little too hard to be weird.
(Ficionist at The Studio at Webster Hall)
(Bad Veins at The Studio at Webster Hall)
(Belmont Lights at The Studio at Webster Hall)
(Jay Stolar at The Marlin Room at Webster Hall)
(Melanie Martinez at The Marlin Room at Webster Hall)
And now on to the good stuff! Again, not all of opening
night was a total drag. The show started with pop singer-songwriter Alessia
Cara. Though she was visibly nervous, her
under-developed stage presence didn’t take away from Cara’s talent. It was
somewhat like watching an American Idol contestant, when the musical ability is
there, but it’s clear they have some dues left to pay on the road. With a sweet
voice, her efforts to engage the audience were completely sincere as she told
the stories behind each of her songs. Cara may have some maturing to do, but for
this night, she was entirely endearing.
(Alessia Cara at The Marlin Room at Webster Hall)
Grace Weber also
delivered a refreshingly enjoyable performance. This soul singer hit the bulls-eye
with a mix of gospel, funk, and a smooth, sultry voice. The mix could have been
a little better, but Weber clearly knew how to get a crowd grooving, and is
definitely someone I’d recommend seeing if she hits your city. Not
surprisingly, Weber later won New Music Seminar’s Artist on the Verge.
(Grace Weber at The Studio at Webster Hall)
Night two was drastically different from the first, with
sets that varied in musical style, but were all equally enjoyable. I opted to
start out at The Delancey for Lovebettie after a quick listen of their song “Red Roses.” The Pittsburgh based act describes
their sound as “swagger rock,” which in practice includes elements of
rockabilly and 80s rock. (I realize that sounds like a contradiction, but it
totally works.) The focal point, though, was frontwoman Alexandra Naples’
belting vibrato. Her voice boomed from start to finish on autobiographical
tracks, each of which she charmingly introduced with a back-story. (“This song
is about love….just kidding, it’s about sex!”) Although Naples briefly
commented on the noticeable space in the room, since nearly the entire audience
sat on the benches lining the tiny venue, the band’s spirit never faltered.
Next up was Brooklyn based Animal Years.
I had listened to a couple of tracks from the band on Spotify before the show,
and honestly I didn’t really have an opinion one way or the other on what I
heard. But some fellow attendees said they put on a good show, so I figured I
would stay for a couple of songs. And damnit, they totally won me over. Their
Americana tinged garage/indie rock had that audience dancing with such joy, it
was impossible to not love their performance.
(Animal Years at The Delancey. Photo Credit: Natalie Hamingson)
I had every intention to go home after that, but a friend
insisted I check out metal band SYKA just
a few short blocks away at Cake Shop. I was already out at that point, and said
“why the hell not?” And I was glad I did.
I had actually been in line at Webster Hall in front of SYKA
the night before, and overheard frontwoman Jesyka describe their sound as “Nine
Inch Nails meets Lady Gaga.” While the description works for the band’s image,
I have to disagree on the music, as SYKA is way less industrial and more of a heavy
version of Sunset Strip hair metal, a la Motley Crue. However you want to
describe them, SYKA is a total blast, powering out head-banging anthems laden
with theatrically raspy vocals, and encouraging the audience to embrace their
(SYKA at Cake Shop. Photo Credit: Natalie Hamingson)
The only full set I caught on night three was at Piano’s for
Summer Heart , a mellow pop duo clearly influenced by the Summer of Love with just the right amount of synth thrown in. Though they were delivering an
already proven sound, their set was no less delightful, as they doled out
cheerfully catchy tracks like “Beat of Your Heart.”
(Summer Heart at Piano’s)
It would be easy to focus on everything that was wrong with
NMS this year, but as you can tell, I’d rather not take away from the fact that
I did see some really great sets. But after attending a festival like
the week before, I know that there are many more talented bands in today’s
musical landscape than the NMS lineup would suggest. So let’s hope that next
year the NMS folks manage to pick more bands that get it right than wrong.
For more photos, check out the following links:
New Music Seminar, New Music Nights Festival, Opening Night at The Marlin Room at Webster Hall and The Studio at Webster Hall featuring Alessia Cara, Bad Veins, Jay Stolar, Melanie Martinez and the NMS Artists on the Verge Class of 2015 Top 3 Belmont Lights, Fictionist, and Grace Weber: https://flic.kr/s/aHskfESo4y
New Music Seminar, New Music Nights, Night Three: Summer Heart at Piano’s: https://flic.kr/s/aHskfFjgSm
Natalie Hamingson’s bio: I am a freelance writer with over nine years of experience writing for online media, primarily journalistic. My expertise is in music journalism, especially feature artist interviews. (Outlets published on include: Music for America, LA2DAY, Covers, Chicks with Guns, my own blog, http://nataliejill.wordpress.com, and BlvdCentral.com.) I am, however, very flexible in my ability to write about multiple subjects.
My second most covered topics are political and social issues. Those issues frequently appear in my music related articles, as I often cover artists with social justice focused messages.In addition, my background includes freelance marketing work, such as social media/viral marketing, blog and website content, and press releases for artists and non-profits. I also have extensive editing and proofreading experience.