FreeMJ: a Guide to What’s Good & Cheap at CMJ

For everyone except the most active music listeners and show-goers, CMJ is doubtless a daunting week in New York City. It’s not unlike SXSW in the sheer number of shows you can attend – until you factor in that the shows sprawl across subway lines and then it seems nothing like the centralized Austin, TX fest. Last year, a new New Yorker and in the middle of my first semester of graduate school, I decided not to attend any CMJ shows. This year, my approach is different: try to go to as many shows as possible, but only hit up the free shows. I’m not trying to get a badge, or get passes to individual events: I just want to see as much music as I can, for cheap. I’m still a grad student, and this will be an experiment in doing CMJ the same way I’ve done SXSW in the past: without spending much money.

This guide identifies 20 artists that are playing free shows during CMJ from Wednesday to Saturday, and where to see them on what day. In some cases, you’ll have multiple opportunities (see, Caveman, pictured, who play 5 free shows and 10 in all) to see them, which is why I’ve chosen to highlight artists instead of showcases. There will be overlap from show to show. Whether you want to see one show or 10, I hope this guide will help you tackle CMJ on the cheap. There will doubtless be more shows announced, and I’ll do my best to keep tabs on those via Twitter. Lastly, I’ve not included shows where you have to RSVP, though there are plenty that are free. This is guide is intended for you to not need much pre-planning. Just show up and hear some great music. However, be aware that some shows will fill up, so don’t count on showing up for a free show at 11pm and get in to see that one band you want. Chances are, it’ll be full.

This guide wouldn’t be possible without Oh My Rockness, so you should pay money to go to their birthday party Tues. Oct 18, at Cameo Gallery. Get details here. Many thanks to them for the amazing service they provide.

Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday


Zola Jesus

The Los Angeles artist’s new album Conatus just came out after a string of solid EPs. Some years ago when Nika Danilova was still living in Wisconsin, I saw her play in Shawn Reed’s basement in Iowa City and it was like finding religion. She plays a couple shows this week, but this is her only free appearance. She’ll be at the Ace Hotel as part of KEXP’s live broadcasts. It’s not the best place to see a show acoustically, but you can get a great cup of coffee from Stumptown and you’d be surprised how few people show up for the big names. She plays at 10:30am, along with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (4:30pm), Portugal. The Man (2:30pm), and We Are Augustines (12:30pm).

Zola Jesus – Vessel from Souterrain Transmissions on Vimeo.

Country Mice

Country Mice are a Brooklyn-via-Kansas quartet that remind me of
acts like Centro-matic. Dusty trail inflected indie rock best consumed with PBR in hand. They play Bruar Falls at 4:30pm, headlining a free day party presented by Bands on the Bubble.
Country Mice – Morning Son by LAMusicBlog



This trio’s debut self-titled record (out on Captured Tracks) is on the shortlist of my favorite albums of the year, local or otherwise. One of my serendipitous finds, I happened to see them open for the Poison Control Center in February, when they were relatively unknown. I have a feeling that’s not the case anymore. They play at 4:00pm at Cake Shop as part of the Terror Bird party along with Teen Daze (6:00pm), Mux Mool (5:30pm), Cloud Nothings (3:15pm), and others. Doors open at noon.
“Gun Shy” by Widowspeak by forcefieldpr


On White Noise Bed, the debut from the Chicago quintet, the songs burn slowly and then occasionally hit you with an arena rock style payoff – the type of chorus that sneaks up on you and shakes you. They’re young and they’re a band to watch if for no other reason than the fact that they seem to write a ton of songs and tour their asses off because they love it and don’t know how to do anything else. They play today’s Paste Magazine party at the Living Room at 4:45pm, along with Lord Huron (6:15pm), The Lonely Forest (5:30pm), and Radiation City (4pm).

No other women – Santah from Slaughtermouth Productions on Vimeo.

Eleanor Friedberger

As one half of the Fiery Furnaces, Eleanor Friedberger should need little introduction to listeners of the last decade of indie rock. However, this year she branched out independently (as her brother Matthew has done) and put out one of the year’s strongest albums. Like a lot of the Furnaces’ catalog, Last Summer is definitely underrated. Despite being the biggest name on the Under the Radar Mag party today at Public Assembly, she’ll play early (3:15pm) in order to duck out and head for Philadelphia that evening. The Stepkids (5:00pm) and Still Corners (4:15pm) also play, among others.

Eleanor Friedberger – My Mistakes from Jeff Martin on Vimeo.


Radical Dads

Radical Dads

Not the first time I’ve written about the Gowanus trio, a band who I can’t resist on name only but whose debut album, Mega Rama holds up in fun-ness, bad-ass-ness, and awesome-ness; three important qualities if you’re going to give yourself a ridiculous name. Also one of the more electric live bands I’ve seen this year. They’ll play Bruar Falls again on Saturday, but check them headlining the Camper’s Rule party at 5:00pm. Also on the bill: Beat People (4:30), Backwords (4:00), Fort Lean (3:00), and more. Get there at noon for some free BBQ.
Radical Dads: “Skateboard Bulldog” (Prefix Premiere) by prefixmag

Mr. Dream

Mr. Dream

Mr. Dream make heavy, angular music in the vein of the Pixies or Fugazi. You might expect them to carry on punk’s irreverent tradition, but Trash Hit is an academic, studied record. This makes sense once you learn that two of the band’s members are music critics – Pitchfork contributors, even. They’ll headline (5:45pm) the NYC Taper party at Cake Shop as part of a stacked bill. The aforementioned Widowspeak also play (4:15pm), as well as Savoir Adore (5:00pm), White Fence (2:45pm), Hoop Dreams (2:00pm), and Prussia (1:15pm). Doors are at noon.
Unfinished Business by MRDREAMNYC

Main Attrakionz

Main Attrakionz

The Oakland duo recently made their NYC debut at the New Museum, and represent part of the young avant garde of rap – along with Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, and others. You can still get a free download of their mixtape, 808s and Dark Grapes II over at Mishka NYC . Main Attrakionz play the Yours and Gorilla vs Bear party Friday night at Shea Stadium along with Grimes, Dent May, King Krule, Gauntlet Hair, The Bins, and Bleached. Doors are at 7pm with free Tito’s vodka for the first hour.

Main Attrakionz – Perfect Skies (Produced by Friendzone) from friendzone on Vimeo.

Warm Ghost

Warm Ghost is a gloomy dance-pop duo that describes itself as a “band and multi-media duo.” Presumably this means there’s a video aspect to their performance, which you can see several times over the course of CMJ. If you like the DFA sound slowed down, you’ll dig Warm Ghost. They’ll play Pianos today (3:30pm) as part of the mammoth, two-floor I Guess I’m Floating & Tell All Your Friends party. Also recommended: High Highs (4:30pm upstairs), Caveman (5:00pm downstairs), and Beat Connection (1:00pm downstairs).


North Highlands

North Highlands

Part of the fun of researching an event as huge as CMJ is discovering gems in your own backyard, which is the primary goal of this blog to begin with. Most of the acts listed here are folks I’ve listened to or seen before, but North Highlands are brand new to me. The quintet are releasing their debut album, Wild Ones on Oct. 18. You can stream it here thanks to Solid Gold. Don’t miss “Benefits,” which is a stunner (embedded below). They headline Pianos (11:15pm) as part of the Deli Magazine’s free showcase, along with Aussie garage duo the Grates (10:30pm), and Dinosaur Bones (9:45pm).
Benefits by wearesolidgold




There’s no shortage of opportunities to see this local quintet during CMJ, least of not today, when they’ll play at the Ace Hotel (2:30pm), The Delancey (4:10pm), and Friday night at the Yours party with Active Child, Born Gold, Memoryhouse, and others. This band has impressed me with their debut, CoCo Beware, which ranks as one of my favorite albums of the year. If you’re in the mood for perfectly executed indie rock circa 2011 – think somewhere at the intersection of Real Estate, Grizzly Bear, and Local Natives – this is your thing. There is no gimmick, but there are plenty of hooks. Of the three, I’d take advantage of the KEXP show at the Ace, which also features Atlas Sound (4:30pm), EMA (12:30pm), and WATERS (10:30am). Check out the Yours video below.

Caveman “Great Life” is from Yours Truly on Vimeo.


One of the hardest working bands I’ve come across in New York also write some of the best songs and are poised with the impending release of Summer Skills (later this year) to move onto the national stage very quickly. Todd Goldstein resurfaced his ARMS project after a stint playing guitar in the Harlem Shakes and recruited a full band. Since releasing a free EP in 2010 the momentum has been gradually building. They’ll play Friday’s Baeble Music party at Spike Hill with acts like Casiokids, Jonquil, and “secret special guests.” Doors are at noon.

Janka Nabay

Taking a detour from this largely indie-rock-centric guide leads you to Janka Nabay, the Bubu King. He’s a musician from Sierra Leone who has recruited a stellar class of Brookylnites to bounce the Bubu beat with him. Seeing him live, even knowing nothing about this type of music or his culture, you cannot help but be drawn in. He has a certain charisma to him live, and the music is top notch. He’ll play Pianos (7:45pm) alongside Idiot Glee (8:30pm), Monogold, (9:15pm), and Gauntlet Hair (5:30pm). To do justice to Janka’s story far greater than I can, see this 2010 Village Voice profile.
Janka Nabay – El Congo by BirdDog Promo



The new project from former Port O’Brien frontman Van Pierszalowski saw him first embark on a soul-searching trip of sorts, first living in Oslo, Norway, and then to Alaska, California, New York, and finally back to Norway. The band’s debut album came out this summer on TBD Records and contains some anthemic, biting pop songs. If you miss them at the Ace Hotel today, catch them at the Knitting Factory later in the afternoon with Yellow Ostrich, Pujol, Radiation City, and others.

Yellow Ostrich

When I talked to Alex Schaaf of Yellow Ostich in February, we spoke about giving music away for free on the Internet, among other things. In the case of this band, the tactic appears to have worked, as Barsuk Records picked up the trio for an international reissue of The Mistress. There’s still plenty of music that pre-dates that album on Bandcamp to be had for free or for whatever you wish to pay. Highly recommended: the Fade Cave EP, which was made with just vocals and drum machine. Check out Yellow Ostrich headlining the Knitting Factory this afternoon or you can catch them at Brooklyn Bowl at night with Ted Leo [RSVP needed].


Headless Horseman

Headless Horseman

Listening to the growing collection of tracks on Headless Horseman’s Bandcamp, you get a sense of eclectic restlessness, an unwillingness to be held by any rigid notion of style. Seeing this act live reveals an even more manic approach to making music. I’ve only seen them one time, but I left feeling perhaps less equipped than before to describe what this act is about. You’re best to just see them live. They play day two of Baeble Music’s party at Spike Hill along with DOM, Emil & Friends, and French Horn Rebellion. The page indicates some “HUGE acts we can only announce closer to the date,” so stay tuned.
Headless Horseman – SH8KR by snipelondon



It’s funny how you find out about things sometimes. Just last week I was at Union Pool to see Friend Roulette and one of their members told me I should check out Hospitality, a band that shares a drummer with them. Here I am looking them up to see what I can learn only to discover that they’ll release a self-titled debut album Jan. 31 on Merge Records. Since they’ll soon be label-mates with the likes of Arcade Fire and Spoon, it would be wise to get to know them now at this intimate show presented by SPIN at Rockwood Music Hall. They play at 3:30pm.
Hospitality – Friends of Friends by MergeRecords

C-Rayz Wallz

Waleed Shabazz, or C-Rayz Wallz, is an emcee who’s been all over the NYC scene but never really broken onto the national scene, despite appearing on an episode of MTV’s “Made.” I’m not terribly familiar with his large body of solo work, but I do know that he appears on two stone-cold classic hip-hop albums: The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox and Aesop Rock‘s Labor Days. He’ll be a headlining act along with El Da Sensei at newly remodeled Sidewalk Cafe for a day party starting at 2pm.

Laura Stevenson and the Cans

Laura Stevenson & the Cans

When I saw Laura Stevenson and her magnificent band at Music Hall of Williamsburg earlier this year, it felt like watching a young artist make a transition. She had tremendous charisma, but part of that was rooted in her meekness and at being on a stage that large in front of so many people. However, she clearly has the pipes and the band to back it up and could it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see her selling out venues of the same size or larger across the country or see her songs start popping up in ads for Honda or Apple. Her album, Sit Resist is another of my favorites this year. She’ll play a free party at Xpo 929 Saturday afternoon about which details are still emerging, but I’ll update when I know more.
Laura Stevenson And The Cans – Master Of Art (LHC SXSW Showcasing Band) by Paper Garden Records

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

I’m taking a chance on this one, because I literally know nothing about this event beyond this page right here. If you haven’t seen UMO this year, and you care for this sort of thing, you might want to check them out here. I don’t care much for the other act (DOM) and a DJ set from Neon Indian does nothing to induce me, but simply checking this band out for free at a Brooklyn Brewery sponsored party could be very much worth it. They play the night before as well at the 14th Street Apple Store at 7pm, also recommended if this band is your thing.
Ffunny Ffriends by The Music

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