Since this first part of the festival, held outside of the Baltimore Museum of Art, was open and free to all, busloads of schoolchildren in transit mixed in with the onlookers. The crowd at the onset of the afternoon was healthy but not huge, people slowly mixing in throughout, each shift from Stage A to Stage B reflecting growth.
The weather and the atmosphere somehow seemed to fit each act, from the invigorating “Awesome! A new angle on this!” indie-rock of Lonnie Walker when I arrived on the scene to the avant-play of Living Things and Lexie Mountain Boys later on. The gentle lilt of the American roots music of Small Sur and the solo acoustic strumming of Noble Lake filled the air as people ate their lunches and said hello.
By the time of Black Vatican’s rhythmic scree and weedle-weedle "hell yes!", it was clear that the crowd was gaining density and form, and that these people were specifically here for Whartscape and not just jogging or walking their dog, not just the familiar friendly throng which makes up this segment of the Baltimore underground.
The diversity of the artists performing on this afternoon offered an opportunity, a chance to understand and appreciate why Wye Oak are about to release their second album on Merge, why Black Vatican was listed as a “must see” somewhere in the data mining done to prepare for the event. This afternoon was the beginning of three days filled to the brim with opportunities, if one is open and willing to be engaged.
A family obligation took me away from the BMA just as the outside free portion was concluding. Jana Hunter’s beautifully fragile loops faded as I walked towards my car. My thoughts turned to four years ago.
I attended the first Whartscape in the summer of 2006. It was a whirlwind of heat and flash. Throughout that summer, after being epically turned on by the first Round Robin show, the last show at the original Wham City space, I wound up attending shows and events at the second kinda-unofficial Wham City space as often as I could, having a lot of fun despite not knowing anyone very well. I saw Ed Schrader’s first Baltimore show, caught the Coughs, and would be just on the verge of heading home when April Camlin would come downstairs to where I was sitting with Charlotte “the lady at the door” Benedetto and other fresh-air-seeking types and announce that Awesome Color was about to perform upstairs. How could I go home?
When I first saw fliers for it, Whartscape seemed like a fun goof on Artscape, Batimore’s behemoth of a free arts festival that ruins parking in my neighborhood each year, an excuse to do two big shows two nights in a row. To look at the line-up of the first Whartscape now and to imagine groups like Matt and Kim and Japanther and Dan Deacon playing the Wham City that was that studio/apartment today is hard to imagine. In general, to imagine what this event would become would have been clearly out of my reach four years ago.
It is that sort of beginning, filled with promise and potential, that is always easy to romanticize. The problem with these moments in time is that they don’t seem that important when occurring. To those involved, it may have just been another sweaty night in the Copy Cat building, the long standing low-rent Station North artist’s haven. So many things can get in the way on these nights. Did you bring enough water to stay hydrated? Did you have other things on your mind? What did you talk to people about? Better question (for me): did you talk to anyone at the show, or did you do that thing where you are real quiet and don’t talk to anyone that you don’t realize is really intimidating? Were you on a beer run when that band that was about to become important was playing their excellent set at the small show, your last chance to see them without some degree of big club/corporate mediation? Did you go home early because you were tired?
But the truth is that we are beginning all the time. What, for me, in 2009 is a weekend of seeing a whole huge bunch of my friends make music and perform in a sort of ultimate review of the last year underground is, for someone else, the first time they have ever seen anything like that, the first time that they realized that something like this is possible. They weren’t there in 2006, but they shouldn’t feel bad about that. They are here now, and, if they pay attention, they might just have their minds blown.
When I return to Whartscape, having missed approximately twenty-four bands, videos, and/or plays, A Funny Clown is performing his brand of Brechtian improv comedy (with the assistance of Dan Deacon and a member of the audience). I am quickly tuned back in, happy to be there. As Celebration takes the stage in sextet form to show off some new material, I know that Jimmy Joe Roche and Blue Leader and Meredith Moore and Showbeast and Dan Higgs and so many others have graced the stage and screen with their work in my absence. I can’t help but be proud. I can't help but look forward to tomorrow.