Baltimore's art scene, especially its music scene, reached a tipping point in April. That's when Rolling Stone published its "Best of Rock" issue, which included categories such as Best Live Band (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band), Festival Band (Radiohead), Producer (Danger Mouse), and Reunion (Led Zeppelin). No surprises there. But it was the Best Scene category that raised some eyebrows across the nation. It didn't go to any of the usual suspects like Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles, Athens, or that epitome of hip, Brooklyn. Instead, that honor was bestowed upon Baltimore. That's right, Baltimore was deemed the nation's new, youthful, edgy, provocative, and productive hotspot by a gatekeeper of mainstream popular culture. And that dovetailed with props for Baltimore from other publications such as Blender and Paper and Internet sites such as Pitchfork.
But the kudos aren't restricted to music. Open The New York Times and you might spot not only reviews of the latest Ponytail and Beach House CDs, but also The Wire/Generation Kill co-creator Ed Burns on the cover of the Arts & Leisure section, photos from a benefit for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum on the society page, a review of a Daniel Mark Epstein book, and a feature story about Hairspray wannabes at a high school drama camp. All of it distinctly rooted in Baltimore.
It's long overdue, but the national media and its attendant tastemakers are catching on to the fact that Baltimore is unflinchingly iconoclastic, surprisingly sophisticated, and uniquely cool. As we approach the end of the first decade of a not-so-new millennium, 50 is the new 40, green is the new black, fiction is the new nonfiction, small is the new big, and Baltimore, apparently, is the new Brooklyn.
As Paper magazine's June issue noted, Baltimore has been known, unfairly perhaps, "as a great place to be from, but not necessarily a great place to be." This seemed to be especially true for musicians. We claim the likes of David Byrne, Frank Zappa, Philip Glass, and Tori Amos, but they left town prior to making a name for themselves. Baltimore may have been in them, but they weren't really in Baltimore.
But these days, musicians are staying put and finding that Baltimore is a great place to be. The Rolling Stone piece hints at such, mentioning not only bands, but also clubs (Talking Head, Floristree), hangouts (Normal's, Sound Garden, Golden West), and a veritable art incubator (MICA). It alludes to a sense of place, an atmosphere where people meet, ideas get exchanged, projects come together, support builds, and a buzz grows.
Long before Rolling Stone weighed in, a screenwriter told us his Hollywood friends regularly perused various Baltimore magazines and newspapers. When asked why, he said simply and authoritatively, "Baltimore is cool, it's real." He associated the city with The Wire and Baltimore club music.
Baltimore, like Brooklyn, has always had a certain mystique, street level charm, and regional identity that, by its very nature, produces its own "scene." Some get it, some don't. Unlike hotspots such as L.A., Manhattan, or even Seattle, we're not particularly chic, corporate, or celebrity-oriented. Here, Anne Tyler browses the produce aisle unmolested, and John Waters drinks at a biker bar. Here, laissez-faire is an artistic sensibility, one that begets a creative liberalism that's downright refreshing and appealing—especially when coupled with our blue-collar ethic and fierce civic pride.
It makes for freewheeling, audacious, risky, and exuberant art, devoid of pretension. You see it in galleries like AREA 405 and Current Gallery and hear it at places like Floristree and The Ottobar.
As a result, the indie labels have been swarming. No less than five local acts have signed with Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records, six others are on D.C.'s Carpark label, one records for North Carolina's Merge Records, and another for 4AD.
Merge's Christina Rentz says that, from her perspective, "the Baltimore music scene appears to consist of a bunch of impossibly attractive youngsters making art and music amazingly assured and focused for their age."
Adds Carpark's Todd Hyman: "When there are one or two good bands in a city, that's great, but nothing to necessarily write home about. But in Baltimore's case, there are at least 10 high quality bands and more on the way. That constitutes a really healthy scene and something for people in and outside Baltimore to be excited about."
Of course, the music scene is actually much larger and encompasses other genres and styles. Look around, and you'll notice a similarly progressive and innovative spirit prevailing in other areas, as well. Marin Alsop retools the BSO's programming with an eye toward diversity and accessibility, Peabody's Gary Thomas establishes a forward-thinking jazz department at the old conservatory, MCs Bossman and Mullyman vie for hip-hop prominence, club DJs keep the dance floors packed, Arty Hill puts a fresh spin on roots music, Fertile Ground spreads neo-soul love, Lafayette Gilchrist injects hip-hop energy into jazz, Thank You and Double Dagger make a post-punk ruckus, The Bridge melds beatbox and classic rock rhythms, and the list goes on.
It's exciting, and locals are turning out for shows. In fact, some folks actually complain that too many people are coming to some gigs. That may be a first for Baltimore.
So read on about 10 bands you should be aware of—in large part, they're why the nation's eyes, and ears, are upon us. And check out the fall arts listings that follow. It's all part of a sprawling, fertile scene that's one of the hottest in the nation.
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If there's such a thing as a classic indie rock sound, Wye Oak embodies it. The duo's boy-girl vocals, stripped down instrumentation (guitar, bass, and drums with occasional strings and keyboards), introspective lyrics pegged to gnarled electric guitar (a la Yo La Tengo and Pavement) or minor chord strumming (a la Elliott Smith), and earnestly-thwacked drums all signal an affinity for heartfelt vulnerability over virtuosic wizardry. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack set evocative lyrics to gentle melodies or immerse them in pools of distortion. Either way, they exude a bittersweet ambiguity that makes Wye Oak's music mysterious, thoughtful, and, ultimately, profound.
If you like: Yo La Tengo, Nick Drake, Elliott Smith
Download: "Please Concrete," "Archaic Smile"
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A few years ago, MICA instructor Jeremy Sigler randomly selected five students to form a band for a semester-long project. The semester ended, but the band, called Ponytail, did not. It earned a reputation for high-octane shows, recorded a spazzy, hyperkinetic set of guitar-driven tunes for Peter Quinn's Creative Capitalism label, and followed that up with the jaunty and jagged Ice Cream Spiritual. One of the most lauded indie releases of 2008, it received rave reviews from both Pitchfork and The New York Times. Virtually unclassifiable with unintelligible lyrics, it nonetheless communicates a sense of unfettered freedom and joy. So what sort of music is it? In an iTunes library, the genre comes up as "happy."
If you like: Sonic Youth, Deerhoof
Download: "Beg Waves," " Die Allman Bruder"
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The ringing electric guitars of David Heumann and Walker David Teret (or new member Steve Strohmeier) infuse Arbouretum's music with expansive might. Stepping out from behind Heumann's brooding, dusty vocals, those guitars meander, find their way, and press forward with steely resolve, slowly building momentum and repeatedly peaking during songs like "Pale Rider Blues," a 9-minute epic that sounds like the Allman Brothers immersed in muddy water. Or make that Muddy Waters, because there's a blues and folk sensibility that roots Arbouretum's music to American traditions capable of articulating both mystical simplicity and ominous awe.
If you like: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Palace
Download: "Ghosts of Here and There," " Buffalo Ballet"
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After the first couple seasons of The Wire, it was noted that the local hip-hop scene was woefully underrepresented in the show, and the producers looked to rectify that oversight. Enter Juan Donovan Bell and Jamal Roberts of Darkroom Productions. The Baltimore duo produced many of the hard-edged and gritty tracks that proved to be a perfect match for the acclaimed HBO drama. Such long-overdue exposure served notice to the rest of the country that Baltimore does, indeed, have a flourishing hip-hop scene with lots of talent and potential. And that fact was underscored by the nationwide release of Beyond Hamsterdam, Nonesuch Records' compilation of Baltimore tracks featured in The Wire.
If you like: keepin' it real, Wu-Tang Clan
Download: Ogun's "What You Know About Baltimore," Tyree Colion's "Projects"
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Recent transplants from San Francisco, this electronic music duo may be best known for working with Bjork and Kronos Quartet, but their clever experiments trump any coattail riding. Intelligent, whimsical, and capricious, they've used the sounds of haircuts, a Bible's turning pages, rolling dice, melting ice, and various surgical procedures as source material for their music. Who knew that liposuction could be so musical? Amazingly, Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt make use of such material without being crass and actually manage to sound refined, and danceable, in the process. In fact, dance music doesn't get much smarter, or artier, than this.
If you like: hi-fi-art, Matthew Herbert, Bjork
Download: "Polychords," Bjork's "Hidden Place"
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You may know Higgs as the singer for Lungfish, the legendary and loud rock band that's forged an international reputation over the past two decades. Or you might know him as an exhibited artist at AVAM—his paintings were a highlight of last year's Home and Beast show at the museum. Or maybe you've heard that he's a renowned tattoo artist, as well as a surreal and prophetic poet. All true. And over the past few years, Higgs has established himself as a recording artist in his own right, with a series of startlingly original solo recordings that filter Lungfish's trance-like tendencies through traditional instrumentation (mostly guitar, banjo, and jaw harp) with a distorted, shamanistic bent. It's a peculiar and compelling mix of Eastern mysticism and Eastern Avenue.
If you like: Incredible String Band, Master Musicians of Jajouka, trance music
Download: "O Come and Walk Along," "Living In the Kingdom of Death"
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Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally craft hypnotic, dreamy tunes infused with an aching melancholia that evokes whispered, late night conversation. On both of the duo's discs (2006's Beach House and 2008's much-lauded Devotion), Scally's organ waltzes gracefully through the roomy mix, shadowed by Legrand's haunting voice. They occasionally fall in with the austere rhythm of a drum machine, or the fuzz tone of an electric guitar, as they glide through the night, drifting toward neo-psychedelic bliss. But happiness remains elusive, as first light breaks the nocturnal charm. Beach House offers retreat from the harsh light of day, something cool to soothe the soul's dark night.
If you like: Mazzy Star, Cat Power
Download: "Wedding Bell," "House on the Hill"
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It seems somehow fitting that the focal point of Baltimore's current musical renaissance would be a pudgy, prematurely-balding guy with thick-rimmed glasses orbiting a tangled web of sound gear. Dan Deacon certainly makes an unlikely star. Imagine Wild Bill Hagy as an aerobics instructor with a hankering for dance-fueled play dates and a flair for electronic composition, and you start to get the idea. A co-founder of the wildly creative Wham City collective, Deacon actually crafts surprisingly sophisticated music that sounds like Steve Reich jamming with Woody Woodpecker. He just might be the missing link between the burgeoning indie scene and the Meyerhoff.
If you like: Steve Reich, Carl Stallings' cartoon music
Download: "Wham City," "Big Milk"
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Wedding Prince's restless creativity and "Baby, I'm a Star" persona to Baltimore club's minimalist beats, Blaqstarr struts through the local scene with his head in the clouds and his feet in the streets. One minute he comes across as an innovative conceptualist, the next he's a beat-peddling producer. But unlike most DJs/producers, Blaqstarr can sing, and he fully exploits that skill on the fiercely catchy "Swagga Back" and "Feel It in the Air," an atmospheric, party-over, oops-out-of-time anthem. Full of fresh ideas and loaded with ambition, Blaqstarr balances club cred with supastar soul and—thanks, in part, to his memorable work on M.I.A.'s Kala CD—hints at even more fully realized artistic visions to come.
If you like: M.I.A., Prince
Download: "Feel It in the Air," M.I.A.'s "The Turn"
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Celebration sounds like no other band in indie rock. Produced by TV On the Radio's Dave Sitek (a Columbia native), their records bring to mind a shimmering carousel with percussive hooves galloping past a woozy calliope, as a fearless carny whoops and calls to an assembling tribe. It's a lush, swirling soundscape that occasionally makes room for honking horns, handclaps, or choir-like backing vocals. Singer Katrina Ford ascends, floats, and dips majestically through the songs, pulling in listeners with a magnetism that's hard to resist. It may take the mainstream a few years to catch on, but it will eventually come along for the ride.
If you like: being surprised, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Download: "Evergreen," "Tame the Savage"