Move to revive parties where `the dancer is the star'

Redwood Trust offers ravers a place to gather

February 10, 2003|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Jen Nori is a college student with a pink knit stocking on her head. Mike Smith is a 23-year- old music fanatic who twirls glow sticks for hours on the dance floor. Mary Morris is a 51-year-old mother of two looking to relive her hippie days.

On this Saturday night, they are all part of downtown Baltimore's rave scene -- a nightclub culture that once thrived in the city before it became mired in controversy stemming from drug stings. But after five years in social limbo, Baltimore's ravers and their electronic music are making a comeback: The crowd has a regular weekly party at the Redwood Trust nightclub.

"I'm home," said Nori, 21, a Perry Hall native who was flaunting her favorite "raver hat" as she danced to the music of an artist named DJ Dara. "It all used to be in D.C. every weekend."

It may just be a party on a Saturday night, but Nori and the 1,000 or so ravers who come out to dance at the Trust are being watched by more than just the bouncers. With the rave culture being drawn into question for the past decade, other eyes are watching the scene -- including those of Congress, police and local lawmakers.

Occasional single event raves -- known as "one-offs" -- have been held around Baltimore in recent years. But the event at the Redwood Trust is the first recurring party of its kind since the late 1990s, when controversy helped bring about the end of Baltimore's rave scene.

Ravers say their reputation has been maligned and that it's just about having fun. But the dance genre's past has been marred by image problems, not the least of which are questions surrounding drug use that have hounded the rave culture since it sprang up in Baltimore and other cities more than a decade ago.

Scott Henry, the primary promoter of the party at the Trust, has been the subject of some of those questions. Henry was the promoter of two long-running raves in Baltimore and Washington, that were canceled after drug investigations.

"The electronic music scene has been singled out by government officials," said Henry, 39. "You're always going to run into some type of issues when you're doing events that also cater to people under 21. We've always tried to do everything possible to ensure that drug use is not happening in the club. ... We're keeping a watchful eye on things."

A 10-person security team hired by the club is assigned to monitor the Saturday party. The team typically expels about 15 to 20 people a night under suspicion of drug peddling, said Jason Convertino, general manager of the Trust. Baltimore police say they have made no arrests at the club.

"The biggest thing is having people [monitoring] in the right places," said Amanda Huie, promotions director for Henry's company, Buzzlife Productions.

Several clubgoers at the Trust are aware of their group's negative image. Eugene Brantley, 21, who has been going to raves for three years, said drugs were part of the scene at previous raves that he attended but are less present at the Trust, partly because of the "feel" created by the club's decor.

Traditional raves were held in abandoned warehouses and remote fields, with little publicity and invitations sent out by word-of-mouth. In contrast, the three-story building at Redwood and Calvert streets is a professional establishment, with light beams shooting into the sky, sculptures decorating the walls and scrolls outlining the ceiling.

"People bring up the drug issue, but drugs are dying," said Brantley, who attends the University of Delaware. "I've been going out for three years, and I've never taken a pill."

The main thing ravers are looking for in a club night is the defining feature of the rave culture -- electronic, machine-made music, such as progressive house, drum and bass and techno.

"The vibe is the same" of traditional raves, said Huie.

Morris, a writer for Baltimore magazine Music Monthly who is from Laurel, said she first felt that "vibe" in 1995. Having lived through the 1960s and 1970s, Morris said she was used to parties where couples danced to a band. But when she walked into her first rave, she was "enchanted" by the sight of young people dancing independently to the music of a DJ spinning records behind a booth.

"At concerts, the star is the band," said Morris, who writes an electronic music column. "At raves, the music comes from a DJ, and the star is the dancer."

Throughout most of the 1990s, Baltimore's ravers had attended a party called Fever, which ran every other week at the club Paradox in the 1300 block of Russell St. That party, also promoted by Henry, was the subject of a highly publicized drug investigation by a local television station in 1995. The party was temporarily canceled, lost steam and closed for good in 1999.

Henry's other major party, called Buzz and in Southeast Washington, had a similar fate. After running every Friday for nearly seven years, Buzz was canceled in September after the arrests of eight partygoers who were charged with distributing the drug Ecstasy.

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