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Garage Days Revisited

The Charm City Art Space looks forward to a move and a milestone

Jefferson Jackson Steele
CCAS organizers (from left) Dan Bress, Patrick Matanle, and Mike Riley celebrate 1000 shows.

By Al Shipley | Posted 10/7/2009

Charm City Art Space's 1,000th show.

Oct. 9, Charm City Art Space

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"When we opened up, we were like, 'Yeah, this'll work for the summertime,' like that'd be it," says Mike Riley, one of the founding members of the Charm City Art Space. "That was in July 2002."

The past decade has seen several waves of DIY rock venues in Baltimore, some having a big local impact in just a short time, but few lasting long. The seven years that have passed since co-founder Mike Wolf found a Maryland Avenue rowhouse for rent, a former wig shop, have made for a nearly unprecedented run.

"We've all had spaces like this in the past," says the tattooed, affable Riley, 33, on a quiet Thursday afternoon during a blackout that's cut off power to the Charm City Art Space and the rest of the block. "So we knew how to come at it to keep it going."

It's hard to host regular musical performances outside of a licensed bar in any city, especially Baltimore, without running afoul of noise ordinances and liquor laws. But by strictly prohibiting alcohol on the premises, ending most shows by 10 p.m., and taking donations instead of charging at the door, CCAS has stayed off the law's radar, just about. "I got called over to a cop car once, like 'Hey you, what's going on in there?'" says Rob Sullivan, 26, one of more than a dozen CCAS members who book shows at the space.

True to its name, CCAS is more than a basement room where bands perform several nights a week, hosting art gallery events and even a zine library upstairs. "We wanted it to be more of a community center where shows are how we pay the rent," Riley says. "The meetings are advertised on the web site so that any prospective new members can come in. Being so close to MICA, we get new kids involved pretty much every year this time of year. Some will stick around and some won't."

Although things have been going just fine in its original incarnation, CCAS is undertaking a big move in the next few weeks to its new location: next door. "We got the opportunity to move to the garage right next door, it's the same landlord," Riley says. "I asked him one day, because I knew the people that had been renting that hadn't been active for years, they were doing audio installation."

The new room that CCAS begins renting in November is significantly larger than its current digs, and Riley looks forward to booking bigger shows in a cleaner space. "We're trying to move forward--we know what people's complaints are about this place, we're not ignorant to that," he says, noting that many audience members end up listening to the more crowded shows from the staircase or the sidewalk, and that the basement sometimes floods during heavy rains. "The drain at the bottom clogs up, and we get water coming in.

"This time of year, it tends to slow down with the fall and winter, so actually it's perfect timing" for the move, he continues. "We know we're gonna start renting on November 1st, but we don't know when we'll actually be able to start doing shows." The garage still needs some cleaning up before it's ready for the public, but Riley has big plans for the new location's first show.

"The summers are so busy that we save enough money to help us get through the winters that are much slower," Riley says, proudly noting that the members of the space have never had to come out of pocket to keep the place running. Unfortunately, the ambition to upgrade to a bigger room does come at a price: "Since our rent and expenses are pretty much gonna double, we've gotta come up with a new way of making our rent. So we've been working out ways, how much money to take from the shows."

One reason CCAS isn't moving too far is that it's already in one of the best parts of the city for a venue. It's been here before many of its contemporaries sprang up and the neighborhood got a new name. "Even before it was Station North, I think we've always been aware that we're not in a bad neighborhood," Riley says. "The Metro Gallery people are super supportive, the Hexagon, we're friends with a lot of those people."

And as its surroundings have grown and diversified, so have Charm City's bookings. "There were never black-metal shows here before, and now there's a lot more noise and avant-garde stuff," Riley says. "I think in the beginning it was more straight punk rock."

Beyond longevity, CCAS has excelled beyond its contemporaries in another significant respect: its sheer volume of shows. Where other DIY venues might book a concert once every week or two, CCAS averages 15 shows a month in the summer.

That high level of activity has presented CCAS with a momentous occasion: This Friday it presents its 1,000th show. The show will be just one of many benefits for CCAS moving forward as it raises funds to finance the move and accommodate the higher rent, but Riley promises something special. "We're trying to get some bands that have played the space when they were smaller that got bigger to come back, so we're still finalizing all that," he says. "We're keeping the lineup secret."

Sullivan dryly adds, "Just in case we don't pull through, we're not letting anyone down."

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