A Place To Play

The artists of Wham City helped put Baltimore's music scene on the map . Now all they need is an address.

December 14, 2008|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Before the show began, lines of eager concertgoers snaked down the sidewalk outside the club.

The crowd of more than 1,000 well-dressed hipsters poured into the space until there was barely room to move - let alone dance. The sold-out concert was the last stop of the hugely successful Baltimore Round Robin Tour, which generated a landslide of glowing press. Dozens of Baltimore musicians banded together and hit the road to showcase different corners of the city's music scene. And fans responded in force: From the stage, Baltimore musician Connor Kizer couldn't see the end of the crowd.

"It was an insane amount of people," Kizer said. "I just saw a sea of faces. ... There was so much energy."

But it wasn't a triumphant homecoming - they were almost 200 miles away, in New York. For members of Baltimore's burgeoning arts scene, therein lies the problem - this city's music scene seems more popular on the road than it is at home.

This Thursday and Friday, the 30-some acts on the Round Robin Tour will finally bring the show to Baltimore, which is a step in the right direction. But members of Wham City, the local experimental arts and music collective which helped organize the tour, feel there is still a long way to go.

"It's a shame," said Dan Deacon, one of Wham City's most successful members. "There's so much attention coming into Baltimore right now on an international level. We get interview requests from all over Asia and Europe and South America. But the scene has been squashed by a lack of space."

Though Wham City's popularity has grown on the national and international stages, it has stagnated here, some collective members say. One of the biggest reasons? For more than a year, they have tried - and failed - to find a large-scale Baltimore venue to call their own.

This week's Baltimore Round Robin Show at Sonar will be one of the larger legitimate performances that Wham City has helped stage in their hometown. Shows like these are one way to raise the visibility of Wham City performers and other Baltimore bands, Deacon said. But they're not a long-term solution to help grow the scene.

"It's about a community - that's the most important thing," Deacon said. "But it's hard to have a community without a community center."

As a group, Wham City has become too large and popular to be considered underground. But they're not big enough to be considered mainstream, either. In their mind, they need a dedicated home base where they can organize large-scale art, music and film shows a couple of times a month. Without that, Wham City - and, in turn, other branches of the city's experimental arts scene - appears at an impasse, Deacon said.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "There's very few places in Baltimore that could have shows on a regular basis that don't get shut down, that don't infringe upon a neighborhood."

This wasn't always an issue for Wham City. The collective started when a group of five fledgling artists and musicians moved to Baltimore in May 2004 after graduating from Purchase College in New York. They took up residence in the Copy Cat Building on Guilford Avenue - a long-time hub for artists - and started hosting off-kilter events such as a musical revue of Beauty and the Beast.

Soon after moving here, Deacon and a number of other Wham City members started touring the country, performing wherever they could, from college dormitories to house parties. That's where the idea for Round Robin shows first formed.

Deacon and three other Baltimore acts were on tour when they met up in Tallahassee, Fla., and shared a bill. Deacon had all of the groups set up at the same time around the room, and each took turns playing a song. Unlike a traditional show lineup, there was no headliner or opening act.

"It's recontextualizing space and changing the whole way you look at a band or look at a show," Deacon said. "We're breaking down the regular confines and traditions that the presentation of pop and experimental music have."

The more shows Wham City put on at the Copy Cat, the bigger their community grew. In 2006, they founded Whartscape, an annual festival which takes place the same weekend as Artscape. That same year, they took the Round Robin Tour on the road.

While some experimental arts groups can seem condescending and inclusive about their scene, that's not the case with Wham City, according to Evan Serpick, a former associate editor for Rolling Stone magazine who is now a senior editor at Baltimore Magazine.

"They have the uniquely Baltimore sense of openness and friendliness," Serpick said. "That's part of what's so appealing about them -- besides the art itself."

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