This is it: Five years after Whartscape debuted as a little festival put on by the Wham City collective inside the Copy Cat building, it's now a four-day festival spread over multiple venues with a few total coups in its programming. DIY godfather Ian MacKaye comes to town for a free-form question-and-answer session. Local trio Oxes make another impromptu reformation. And Annapolis' 1990s hardcore legend Universal Order of Armageddon plays its first show since its brief early 1990s run. Whartscape remains a totally volunteer-run and -organized festival, which keeps the price point low, the mood friendly, and the lineup all over the place.
Pulling that off, though, is a tremendous amount of work--which is why Whartscape 2010 is going to be the final one. "This is the last year it's going to happen," Dan Deacon says during a phone interview last week. "From an artist's perspective, it takes four months out of my life where I can't really record, tour, do anything other than promote. It's insane. It was different when it was a two-day festival, when I could just e-mail bands and tell them to show up. Now that we're coordinating flights and stuff like that, the logistical--like, talking to fence companies, talking to insurance companies, finding a tent if there's a rain location. . . .
"I think for the five years we've done it, it's been good," he continues. "I think it would be hard for us to top this one, acts wise. I think if we were to try to do the same size festival next year it would be difficult without getting larger bands, which would make it more headliner-focused than diversity-focused."
Over the festival's run, that intimate tone and diverse lineup has been part of its charm. Whartscape isn't a music festival you go to and have a cell-phone company try to sign you up. It's not an event where yellow-shirted security guards muscle people away from the stage.
It's basically a music festival that doesn't exist explicitly to separate music fans from their money. "Every year, it's broken even, and if there is any profit, that's how we pay the local bands," Deacon says of the festival's finances. "After the expenses of venue rental and insurance, all the back costs, paying the traveling acts, whatever is left over is divided up equally amongst the local acts and everyone gets the same."
That DIY element is a part of the festival's draw. "A number of the bands, that was the main selling point," Deacon says. "Ian MacKaye, that was a big selling point to him. Lightning Bolt, that was important. And I don't think we would have gotten a deal for a band like Beach House if we were sponsored by anything. They're cutting us an insane deal, because they know that we're doing it for the love of it, to put on a show like this in Baltimore. And a lot of the traveling acts understand that as well and kind of cut us a deal that they wouldn't give anyone else because they know that it's not a show generating money for anybody other than covering the costs of making it happen."
Below, City Paper writers Michael Byrne, Lee Gardner, Bret McCabe, and guest Tim Kabara cherry-pick a few bands from the more than 100 appearing this weekend. See overleaf for days and venues.
Arab on Radar One of the poles which helped raise Providence, R.I.'s mid-'90s noise big top. Corporeally insurgent (see: "Biggest Little Prick in the Union"), neurotically unsettled (see: the over-anxious percussive throb and ear-piercing guitar treble that fills the songs), and not so much politically incorrect as intentionally morally bankrupt, Arab on Radar was the band those people in Lars von Trier's The Idiots would have formed if Mars' "Helen Forsdale" and Pussy Galore's "Die Bitch" were their only musical exposure. Mannered and self-aware, yes; frequently transporting, by all means. (BM)
Burning Star Core C. Spencer Yeh has been making sound under the BSC banner since 1993, and even given his prolificness over that length of time, a surprising amount of it is worth hearing. Trained as a violinist, Yeh's yawp encompasses an ever-shifting array/accompaniment of electronics and percussion, resulting in both titanic noisy sheet-metal blowouts and the kind of simmering Geiger-counter sonics that approximate his chosen moniker--and often hits both extremes within the confines of one piece. (LG)
Chandeliers A wicked fun and intelligent party band from Chicago in the vein of !!!, locally witnessed circa late 2008 unleashing a dancefloor-giddy sneak assault on a late-night crowd at the Hexagon. The palette is centered around rhythm and synthesizers, but that description doesn't do the band justice. Chandeliers are too ecstatic to be considered within synth-pop--however, synths and pop, yes--carrying on the unpredictablility of improvised electronic music with the pure ecstatic fun of an artist like Dan Deacon. In other words, a most excellent time slot to lose yourself. (MB)
The Convocation Tonie Joy, the local post-hardcore mainstay that listeners of a certain age may remember from heavies such as Moss Icon and Universal Order of Armageddon, formed the Convocation Of . . . in the late '90s aftermath of those bands, not to carry any kind of torch but to make music that can grow and age. In other words, it's not particularly tortured nor is it freaking out--rather, the Convocation makes churning rock 'n' roll with a heavy punk presence in its DNA, shifting its sound over the years to hit the bluesy, dirge-y high water mark of a recent 7-inch, "My History Mystery," that should be worth some good money one day, if there's any justice. (MB)
Daniel Higgs Back during his most recent spate of local shows, when Daniel Higgs was mostly singing songs from his new Say God, the erstwhile Lungfish frontman and totem of Baltimore weird appeared to get more than a few bummer opening-band deals that involved a lot of hipsters either talking through or casting a leery eye at what was happening onstage. The problem is that what Higgs does--spare drone-y archminimalist songs about g-o-d that just don't do much--is to be taken with attention in full. It needs to soak into a listener, and when that happens, it becomes much clearer why what he does is actually amazing and worthwhile. (MB)
Zach Hill Zach Hill drums the way that triple black belts fight. It's as if this kind of brain has a whole extra wrinkle doing extra computations for the agility or coordination or whatever else it takes to drum with not only this kind of precision and speed, but actually make it interesting. Like a sixth-sense improv jazz soloist, it's fun to watch and awe-inspiring to listen to. He used to flex his stuff in the guitar-shred-meets-math-meets-noise band Hella--solo, he supports his drum kit skills with skronky, colorful electronics. (MB)
Koen Holtkamp Sometimes the drone forces you to come to it. Sometimes the drone comes to you. As half of the duo Mountains and as a solo artist, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Koen Holtkamp has been responsible for some of the more welcoming electro-acoustic drone humming out into the world in recent years. "Pop drone" is, perhaps, taking it a bit too far, but Mountains' 2009 Choral and Holtkamp's 2008 solo Field Rituals offer subtle melody and slowly shifting textures that beguile with their clarity and unity. (LG)
Inoculist Inoculist is the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band of Lower Dens' chief dreamer Jana Hunter's brother, John Hunter, and some things do run in the family. Inoculist, similarly, trades in drowsily paced dream-pop music, closer to the folkscape side of things. It's as placid as water dripping on leaves and the kind of surreal that can only come from a particular kind of sub-drone resonance meeting luminous atmosphere. Expect a fair amount of Inoculist buzz to come in the next few months. (MB)
Lower Dens This new-ish band of Baltimorean Jana Hunter makes radiant, tranquil rock music that feels, remarkably, as rural as a mossy log and as urban as a warehouse space. Steeped in a very natural kind of lo-fi atmosphere, gorgeous and understated guitar melody, and Hunter's still inimitable vocals, the trio's forthcoming record, Twin Hand Movement, is testament to one of the best new bands to form in Baltimore in a good minute. (MB)
Ian MacKaye The veteran Washington, D.C. punk and Dischord Records co-founder could extemporaneously lecture on an number of topics--politics, DIY music, putting asshole pit fans in their place--but tonight's Q&A allows the audience to guide the conversation. It's one of many highlights to the Thursday theater/performance night that shouldn't be slept on--including former CP columnist Mink Stole talking about her life and work, video/performance artist Shana Moulton, and the 10 Minute Play Festival. (BM)
Kaffe Matthews Kaffe Matthews is no stranger to Baltimore, having performed at the Red Room and High Zero in years past, but we suspect most musically adventurous Baltimoreans still don't have her on their radar. That needs to change. She is an uncategorizable UK-based improviser/composer/sound artist with a penchant for manipulating live samples and field recordings. (Recent work "Where are the wild ones?" is built around snatches of watery sound gleaned from a British salmon spawning route.) She may show up onstage with a laptop or maybe even a trusty old violin, but her sonic world is far more expansive. (LG)
No Age An underground heavyweight that makes for one of warehouse culture's big indie-mainstream breakouts. No Age--two dudes from Los Angeles' DIY scene node the Smell--makes an artful and daresay pretty punk racket rife with atmosphere and melody. The duo is at once deeply nostalgic for the kind of soulful rock noise that indie music once thrived on, and future-forward, in debt to the kind of ambient-noise experiments that have defined much of what underground music these days works with and builds upon. (MB)
So Percussion This contempo percussion group forages the full range of modern music, from performing Steve Reich's canonical Drumming and compositions by new music types such as David Lang and Bang on a Can's Evan Ziporyn to recording an album of its own pieces to launching a captivating 2010 collaboration with the synth/sample abusers of Baltimore's own Matmos, put down for posterity on the new Treasure State album. No idea if Matmos features in this Whartscape appearance, but it'll be well worth hearing either way. (LG)
Twin Stumps Fans of seriously bent noise pound--see also: Drunks With Guns, Brainbombs, the New Flesh, etc.--should not miss this New York quartet. Its self-titled debut on the impeccable Dais Records delivered a dreams-invading noise tumult, but the absolutely terrorizing new Seedbed on Fan Death sets the 2010 intoxicating discomfort bar really fucking high. (BM)
Universal Order of Armageddon To say that Universal Order of Armageddon is getting back together to play Whartscape is to speak of something seemingly impossible, even shocking. The band's frenzied music and chaotic stage shows were already legendary when many of today's scene elder statesmen were in short pants.
Still, there is a logic to its return. Guitarist Tonie Joy has remained active in Baltimore music and is the driving force behind the Convocation, which also performs at the festival. If you were to look at Baltimore's underground as a continuum, as opposed to a series of movements in opposition, you can hear a little UOA in Dope Body, Double Dagger, even the New Flesh. For bands that play hard but smart, respect is clearly due.
When the band returns to a hometown Baltimore stage for the first time since 1994, what will we get? There is a kind of restlessness and bristling intelligence behind the wheel when these four perform, boom-crash-thwack music, nature unchecked with original energy--so leveling you can't even mosh to it. This was not hardcore out of the "we unite to fight for right" frame, but something wholly original, wholly its own.
In the few years UOA was together, the band barnstormed across the country, releasing music on now legendary independent labels such as Gravity, Kill Rock Stars, Jade Tree, Vermiform, and the Joy-run Vermin Scum. As time wore on, the music slowed down, got longer, stranger. At the time of the band's break-up, it had composed several new songs that were only then being road-tested live. Will there be a mix of the known and unknown, the old favorites and those songs left behind? Whatever happens, those who remember will welcome it, and those who don't should watch, listen, and learn. (TK)
Dustin Wong Though he's maybe best known for his part in making the amped-up pre-verbal rock of Ponytail, guitarist Dustin Wong first made his mark in Baltimore via the frenzied dual six-string simpatico of early Ecstatic Sunshine, and that emphasis on fleet, clean picking and syncopated melody seems to be every bit as much a part of his musical identity as blaring amps. Witness Seasons, his slept-on pastoral solo musical cycle released by Wildfire Wildfire last year, as subtle and comprehensive a musical statement as heard from Baltimore of late. You get the feeling he's just getting started. (LG)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201