Huge Artscape thrives without superstars

July 22, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Artscape always feels like a family reunion.

You spot folks you haven't seen since ... who knows when? Children run free, chasing one another, bumping into adults. Organizers try to have a little something for everybody. There's so much food: barbecue, hamburgers, gyros, kettle popcorn. Sugary confections abound.

Entertainment also is usually family-friendly and diverse. There is generally a fine mix of music at Artscape - a burgeoning alternative rock band shares the stage with a soul great; a traditional jazz musician follows a progressive rapper.

This year at Artscape, which starts tonight, the lineup is indeed diverse but the headliners on the main stage aren't particularly interesting. The biggest draws are acts who have been MIA for a while: Eighties funk relics Morris Day and the Time and '90s pop crooners Boyz II Men perform tonight. Rapper-actor Q-Tip hits the stage tomorrow, and Shaggy closes the festival Sunday.

Each headliner is long past his commercial peak.

Day and the Time haven't been hot in more than 20 years. And even then the group was overshadowed by its association with a short, flamboyant musical genius named Prince. In the early '90s, Boyz II Men, seemingly overnight, became one of the most successful R&B groups period. With the yearning ballads "End of the Road" and "I'll Make Love to You," the Philadelphia quartet owned the No. 1 spot on the pop charts for months. But just as quickly as they embraced them, pop audiences, by the end of the decade, kicked the clean-cut guys and their mushy, overblown love songs to the curb. Although their harmonies remain tight and impressive, Boyz II Men can't buy a hit these days.

Q-Tip, one of hip-hop's more intelligent, charismatic rappers, hasn't been able to establish much of an identity since leaving the classic, ground-splitting collective, A Tribe Called Quest. His 2002 sophomore album, the highly experimental and much-talked-about Kamaal the Abstract, never saw the light of CD shops.

Five years ago, Shaggy was a major crossover reggae sensation with ubiquitous, good-time smashes like "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me." But the handsome performer wasn't able to maintain the momentum and has since slipped into pop oblivion.

To headline Artscape, a heavily attended Baltimore event for the last 25 summers, acts certainly don't need a current hit. Last year, iconic Memphis soul pioneer Isaac Hayes, whose last chart smash was 1979's "Don't Let Go," closed the festival. "We try to do a variety of acts: old-school and up-and-coming," says Sheilia Goodwin, director of special events for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the nonprofit organization that has produced Artscape the past four years. "A lot of who we get is based on our budget."

The budget this year was $800,000, Goodwin says. The total annual budget for Artscape since 2002 has been between $732,000 and $800,000. Out of that amount, which comes from grants, scholarships and fundraising, BOPA has to pay not just the talent that graces the main stage but also for things like picnic tables in the food court, portable toilets and an expanded children's area. The festival, along the Mount Royal Avenue cultural corridor, is usually packed. Crowd estimates over the years have exceeded a million.

"When we're planning Artscape, I send an e-mail around the office here to see who [BOPA employees] want to see at Artscape," Goodwin says. "It's funny. I get back [suggestions like] Elton John and Prince. But it's about who we can afford and the size of the place. Artscape isn't in an arena."

If the headlining acts on the main stage this year don't seem all that thrilling, Artscape offers more vibrant, lesser-known performers on the other stages. The DJ Culture Stage at Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street will feature the Platinum Pied Pipers tomorrow afternoon. The Detroit duo, whose latest album is Triple P, deftly splices the old with the new: obscure soul grooves bolstered by snapping hip-hop beats and overlaid with organic jazz samples. Tonight on the Festival Stage at Mount Royal near Lafayette, Danielia Cotton, a talented indie rock artist with an appealing gospel edge to her vocals, will play cuts from her just-released debut, the excellent Small White Town. Local group Swingin' Swamis, a quirky, spicy stew of a band mixing jazz, worldbeat and funk, closes the University of Baltimore Stage at Oliver Street and Mount Royal Sunday night.

"We try to keep a big variety at Artscape," says Goodwin, a Baltimore native. "I always look forward to going and seeing so many people. It's always fun no matter who's on stage."

On stage

Where: Mount Royal Avenue corridor

When: Noon-10 p.m. today; noon-10 p.m. tomorrow; noon-8 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

Complete schedule: Artscape

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