Photography by Nick Karp
The evening prior to Cherrytree Records’ 10th anniversary, Sting cancelled his planned appearance due to the flu. Some in the crowd were disappointed, as if the only reason to go for the night was to see the former frontman for The Police perform, but there was far more to the night than any one star. The whole lineup proved to be more of a demo-disc than a longer game, each demo sparking in one way or another.
Label founder Martin Kierszenbaum (or “Marty,” as seemingly everyone called him) kicked off by MCing and introducing everyone who works at Cherrytree before bringing on the Last Bandoleros, who he dubbed a mixture of blues rock and early work from The Beatles. That may have set the bar too high: though they certainly mixed Tex-Mex, blues rock, and ’60s pop harmonies, the songs were more straightforward than anything that ever came out of the Lennon-McCartney machine.
The surprise of the night was the second act, Secret Someones. Fronted by three women, each controlling their instruments like it was a part of them, they traded vocals over music that sounded like the finest work from Marcy Playground, but with a touch of 2015 pop and tight-knit harmonies all the way through. (As a fan of “Poppies”, I mean this in the most complimentary and undated way.) At one point, the lead guitarist ended a solo using only her fretting hand while the keyboardist leaned over and smacked the strings, drenching the audience in feedback, and creating something that few acts can: a genuine moment. Their choir-like, angelic vocals made it clear: they were each songwriters in their own right, but together formed a greater unit. The fact that drummer Zach Jones seemed to cherish his role in the back only helped escalate their set. Secret Someones’ tour mates and recent Cherrytree signing Jukebox the Ghost then rocked out like an electro Billy Joel, garnering applause as EDM fans poured in.
Matthew Koma did only two songs after the earlier acts did four each. Considering Marty himself hyped Koma, it felt odd, but Koma’s acoustic performance helped shine a light on his vocal strength. Already known as “the voice of EDM,” his nasally pop-laced highs are well known, but he glowed most when he sang low, touching a certain luscious whisper that his songs yearn for.
The loudest moment wasn’t any beat Far East Movement dropped, nor the first ever live performance of “KTown Riot”, one of their more recent songs that toys with and samples the main beat and riff to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” (itself a re-imagined sample of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell”). Louder than any beat was the first time they got Webster Hall to cheer “New York City”; their raps and freestyles wove the venue, the town, and Cherrytree Records into their rhymes organically.
The loss of Sting didn’t only mean missing out on the songs that he would have played on his own, but also the songs he had planned to play with the final two performers. Ivy Levan sprawled across the stage like a spider, but owned it like a queen; she admitted her final song was supposed to be a duet with Sting. In his stead, Marty played bass; the label chief didn’t phone it in, enjoying his time on stage without pretending Ivy wasn’t the star.
Feist performed a few songs, enchanting the crowd in a way few others can, before openly asking if anyone was bummed Sting couldn’t make it. After conjuring the crowd to admit that yes, Sting would’ve been nice, she confessed she learned a cover the night before on YouTube and asked for everyone else to lead the way through “Every Breath You Take”. Though she commented she didn’t like being caught on camera, she didn’t seem to have all the lyrics fully memorized and played the wrong part at several bits; noticing only those things would be a gigantic disservice to Feist. Every note that came out of her was genuine and soared amazingly, and every slipup was met with a laugh and a smile rather than frustration. She looked like a proud parent after a child’s lost soccer match every time her hand slipped to the wrong chord; she egged on the crowd to lead the way through its final moments. As she walked off, she asked not to post it online, but the truth is anyone who saw it knew they caught something special. For a moment in time, Webster Hall was a group of friends in a living room watching Feist cover The Police, casually with a smile, delivering a perfect imperfection.
Some may have got a refund when Sting canceled, but the show – which doubled as a benefit to VH1’s Save the Music Foundation – did a fine job crawling out of his shadow. The showcase captured Cherrytree’s decade in existence without pushing too hard; the label is odd in that it openly claims to be a musician-friendly major label – something that will always seem borderline impossible. The outpouring last night made it clear: their artists are still happy there, and the industry side is going as strong as ever.