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For a second, there's a relative quiet at the Gramercy Theatre. Onstage at this swanky rock theater on Manhattan's East Side are the South Florida hometown heroes of Torche, and they've just finished ripping through one of their trademark smart, heavy jams. They've made it onto a killer bill as part of the recent CMJ Music Marathon, on the festival's last night, Saturday, kicking off a tour with legendary British post-metal act Jesu. They've apparently created multiple cases of whiplash in the audience of appreciative superfans and industry wheelers and dealers alike.
The band pauses to retune and switch instruments, and the sudden absence of noise is deafening. That's when the cry rings out.
"Hialeah!" yells an anonymous voice in the crowd near stage left. Frontman Steve Brooks starts, looking confused. Then his cherubic cheeks spread into a grin. "Hialeah!" he calls back, shouting out the city where he lived for three years. Random pockets of audience members titter as the rest look on, confused. That's when I realize that truly, no matter where you go, in the music scene South Florida people are like roaches: ubiquitous, unflappable, crumb-snatching, and happy to generally freak the hell out of everyone else. I mean that, of course, in the most loving way.
CMJ is a week of live music madness sprawling across downtown Manhattan and northern Brooklyn, akin to Winter Music Conference but focused on bands more than DJs. The official roster is carefully vetted; thousands of bands send demos for consideration, but only a couple hundred are approved. Torche was one of two South Florida groups selected. The other was the five-piece act The Mood, which actually moved to the city a couple years ago to get its hustle on. After a few member swaps, three-fifths of the band hails from the Fort Lauderdale area.
The Mood is led by 25-year-old Marco Argiro, an improbably tall and wiry, indefatigable charmer who is always neatly turned out in immaculate minimalist ensembles of early-Beatles style, almost-rockabilly clobber. His father, Mario Argiro, is the longtime proprietor of the posh Las Olas atelier Moda Mario. Besides a fastidious attention to style, the younger Argiro has doubtlessly inherited some of his father's knack for business and applied it to his band. It's impressive.
The Thursday before the Torche performance, The Mood played its first of two showcases at the subterranean club Crash Mansion, a strangely nice venue on the newly strangely nice northern stretch of Bowery. Although it was an officially sanctioned CMJ event, the lineup was a little scrappy, mostly smaller New-York bands playing every hour on the hour. Our boys (and girl) got the semi-early 9:00 p.m. slot, but from the second they took the small stage, they looked professional as hell.
Argiro is smart to consider the importance of image to his band's musical style. It's supertight, superclean, and upbeat, with a dusting of classic, retro power-pop, accented by keys and even the tinkling of a glockenspiel. Shiny and happy, the group's outfits look like its music: coordinated, high-contrast, deceptively simple, but modish and striking. Between songs, the band doesn't dither, banging into the next three-minute ditty like a slick rock machine. By the end of the set, The Mood had amassed a gleeful little bouncing clot (mostly girls) in front of the stage.
No wonder: Argiro is a tireless promoter who will talk to anyone. During the week, at a daytime party lubricated by free thick Southern Comfort-spiked punch, I point out a Devendra Banhart look-alike's impressively waxed, curling mustache. Less than 10 minutes later, Argiro has befriended not only him but also all of his nearby friends. Cards are exchanged, backs slapped. Later that day, at Fall Out guy Pete Wentz's emo-tastic East Village bar, Angels and Kings, Argiro persuades two previously bored-looking blondes to attend his show. This focus and shrewd thinking, as well as a knack for writing songs so hooky they're barbed, has paid off. The Mood now shares a manager with legends such as Earl Slick, and right before press time had snagged two licensing deals with MTV's The Real World.
Torche's musical world, meanwhile, is galaxies away. The band is anything but pop; its music is relentless, pounding, heavy, and churned out at these-go-to-11 volumes. But the songs are nuanced, smart as hell, and mind-blowingly layered. That Saturday it's clear that in the world of stonery, metally, post-whatever heavy rock — which, outside of Miami, is a big, hip world chronicled even in forward-thinking fashion magazines — Torche is minor royalty and rising.
That night the band is playing a big-deal, Blender magazine-sponsored show; it's second in the lineup, after experimental Minneapolis act Fog and right before the cultish, elusive Jesu. The Gramercy Theatre is a fancy kinda place, a former, um, actual theater now run by Live Nation. It has a puzzingly broad and upscale selection of canned beer; the most deferential, speedy bartenders; and the cleanest floors I've ever seen at a rock club at the end of a week of abuse. Half the 700ish-capacity place is an open, general-admission floor; the back half is a series of movie theater-style seats on risers.