Three tell-tale signs that it's spring in Baltimore: The birds come back to town -- both the little chirping kind that hang out in the trees and the kind that hang out at Camden Yards.
Daffodils and tulips push their way up to the earth's surface, unfold in a glorious pageant of color -- then freeze and die from a late, freak cold snap.
And the Johns Hopkins University holds its annual spring fair.
For 27 years, Hopkins has opened up its Homewood campus to the people of Baltimore, offering three days of fun and entertainment, and almost all of it for free. This Friday, Saturday and Sunday you can enjoy live music, arts and crafts, an antique car show, plenty of kiddie rides and games and a few fun, oddball attractions like sumo wrestling. The theme of this year's event is "Odyssey," which will incorporate a little bit of Ancient Greece into the fair. So fairgoers can also participate in the Greco-Roman challenge sporting events or try some gladiator jousting.
The fair is entirely organized and run by Hopkins undergraduate students and is billed as the largest student-run festival in the country. "We expect 150,000 people to come to the fair over all three days," said sophomore Katie Rieder, publicity co-chair for the event. "For me, it's going to be so awesome to see so many people come to our campus and enjoy themselves. We have all been working hard on getting this together in between everything else like studying and classes."
"The main reason we do this is because we want to give something back to Baltimore," said Larry Liang, a senior at Hopkins who is in charge of booking musical entertainment for this year's fair. "This is our way to thank the whole community."
Although the spirit of the fair has not changed in 27 years, the music has changed a little this year, Liang said. "It's not all college, alternative pop music," he said. "I'm pretty excited about the musical lineup this year."
This year, music lovers can still hear local rock bands in the 98 Rock Beer Garden, but they can also hear swing bands, steel drum bands, ska music, blues performers and DJs spinning trip-hop sounds.
For newcomers to the fair, such as D.C.-based ska band Checkered Cabs, it's a great opportunity for new people to hear their music.
"We're more of a club band, but we attract a college-aged crowd," said Sean Hissey, drummer for the band. "Ska has a reputation of being this underground thing, but in reality, ska has been around since the '50s. It has generations and waves. It was in, out, came back and left, now it's back again and will hopefully stay around."
For bands like Mambo Combo, who have performed at the fair more times than they can remember, the spring event is sort of a homecoming, especially for guitarist and keyboardist Bob Friedman, who graduated from Hopkins in 1969 with a degree in psychology.
"They keep asking us to come back every year," Friedman said. "We're a fun group, and people like to dance to us." The group's Sunday afternoon performance outside of Shriver Hall will be a welcome change for the band, Friedman saaid. "We've been in smoky clubs all winter, this will be our first chance to play outside. . . . We're looking forward to it."
But the biggest musical act to come to the fair this year is national recording group Letters to Cleo, who kick off the fair a little bit early with a show tonight at 8 p.m. in Shriver Hall. Tickets are $10 and are available by calling TicketMaster at 410-481-SEAT. Some tickets may be available at the door if the show is not sold out.
Most know the band from its debut album, "Aurora Gory Alice," and the song "Here and Now," which was played over and over on the closing credits of the TV show "Melrose Place" during the Billy loves Allison era.
The exposure was great for the band, but it was sort of a double-edged sword, said Kay Hanley, lead singer of the Boston-based quintet. "If it wasn't for that, I'd probably still be waiting tables . . . but I have ruined any chance of having any indie credit."
The band never set out to be on "Melrose Place," but when it signed with its record label, the group asked to be on a compilation album of songs for the show. "We were like Track 9, right after Dinosaur Jr. I thought it was very cool."
While on tour, the band found out that its song was being played over the credits to the show. "I thought it was kick," Hanley said. But later, the group was criticized for supposedly orchestrating a huge self-promotion. "I assure you we went into the whole thing very innocently. . . . It's really upsetting to be constantly defending your motives."
While some people haven't heard from the band since "Here and Now," Letters to Cleo has stayed very busy. The group released a second album after "Aurora Gory Alice" and has been "touring constantly," Hanley said. "We toured for like three years straight. . . . We all got burned out. I didn't have a creative cell in my brain."