Filthy snow chunks crowd the sidewalk outside a Federal Hill bar. Scaldis is today's guest beer at Sisson's. Seven guests face the bar's mirror, where a "Save the Ales" bumper sticker is stuck. A Zydeco CD is playing perfect.
The bartender reloads the chips and salsa plates. She of black jeans, black T-shirt, black belt and Durango boots, black. She of some new Baltimore band.
"Oh, you saw our flier?"
She has been discovered.
"Our first show is Jan. 25," Ariana Patterson says, pouring a headless glass of Stockade Ale. "We do a cover that will surprise you."
A man busts in to report an attempted robbery at a nearby dry cleaning store. Broken glass and cops everywhere, man. The man is out of breath. He asks for matches, as the CD skips a beat. As the bartender was saying, her new band will play at the Eight By Ten just down a few doors. Check us out, Ariana says.
"We're called Spit Shine."
No answer. Try again. Ariana is supposed to be at her apartment on W. Hamburg Street. Supposed to follow her to the band's usual 8:30-11 p.m. rehearsal. That's the plan. But nothing is happening except the lousy rain. Then, a light voice: "Did you bring your ear plugs? It would be a good idea." Turns out to be Chris Mulloney, a 28-year-old bass player and a cook at Sisson's.
Chris keeps knocking on Ariana's back door. No answer. Try again. Then, a heavy voice: "You all been waiting long?" Ariana strides up with her Labrador -- a Parvo survivor named Dakota. She drops the dog off and picks up Chris. Half of Spit Shine is now in a Celica heading for the home of the other half. Their first show is in nine days.
Love Riot...The Shame Idols....Stuck Mojo...Jelly Finger...Like other towns, Baltimore produces wads of basement bands forever disbanding and re-forming under novel names. "Every time I have an idea of how many bands there are, I get a new tape in the mail," says Lee Gardner, music editor for City Paper -- Baltimore's alternative weekly and keeper of the lists...Jah Works...Sorry About Your Daughter...Roaches Lane...
The basement bands play at the usual suspects -- clubs such as Eight By Ten, Club Midnite, Memory Lane, Graffiti's, Hammerjacks. The bands scrounge money to buy studio time to pass along three-song demo tapes to radio stations and club owners. They haul their equipment around. They wear the same jeans for a week. They want you on their mailing lists. They want a moment of the media's time. They want to be liked.
They knew each other when -- when they were in another band (what was it called again?), when everyone was playing three-chord pop tunes then Southern rock then Seattle grunge then retro -- the latest trend in ever-cyclical music. Men and women unable to stop their descent toward age 30 and the great beyond.
They find each other through a friend-of-a-friend. They find each other by home auditions or checking under the BAND MEMBERS WANTED ads in City Paper: Beatles Tribute Group! Looking for )) bass player w/vocal ability; Drummer Wanted for Original Rock/Alt Band; Lead Singer/Frontman needed ASAP; Pink Floyd Band seeks musicians!
The bands play before boyfriends or wives balancing on bar stools or leaning against a club's wall with a Rolling Rock in hand. The bands play for a split of the club's take or, if they are "established," the house pays them.
They play hard in the calloused hope of getting over the hump.
"I don't know how a band breaks out of the pack," Mr. Gardner says. "If I did, I'd go into band management."
Joe and Rose Manfre hate their day jobs. Well, as mom said, "hate" is a strong word. Like most us, they have jobs to survive. Joe drives a UPS truck. Rosalie works for a life insurance company as a customer relations rep. They don't have children. She has a grizzled Marshall amplifier that sometimes picks up religious radio programs while she's practicing. Joe has a blue drum kit that he could set up blind-folded.
They own a home in Morrell Park in southwest Baltimore, where the neighbors can expect very loud music to gush from the upstairs. The neighborhood kids love the sound of Spit Shine, Joe says. "One kid said we should call ourselves 'The Cool Grown-ups.'" Rehearsals are never on Sundays and never run past 11 p.m.
After work, Joe and Rose come home beat and bored. They order a pizza, have a beer, feed the cat. Then, they climb upstairs to play rock 'n roll to wash the day off them.
"Can I bum a smoke?" Ariana says in Joe's living room. Neil Diamond albums are members of the Manfre record collection. An Elton John songbook is open at their piano. The band makes a startling confession: They all love Peter Frampton's classic live album from 200 years ago. And with that, they have aged and endeared themselves. Joe is 36. He doesn't have long hair or an earring stabbed through the bridge of his nose. Rose is 33 and looks Michelle Pfeiffer-ish.