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Big Music Feature

Oddfellows Local

Don’t call it a scene—some Baltimore indie rockers just want to sing rather than scream

Sam Holden
Up in Folk: Baltimore quiet rioters (Left to Right) Walker and Jay’s Justin Durel, Drew Nelson and Long Live Death’s Justin Eckland Levy (sitting), James Saarsgaarde, and Dan Janssen.

Big Music Issue 2004

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By Tom Breihan | Posted 7/21/2004

About 200 people crammed into Golden West Café for the first Quiet Music night back in January. It was primarily an indie-rock crowd, but it wasn’t an indie-rock vibe. No smoke wafted through the air, no constant conversation emanated from the back of the room—smokers and cell-phone chatters huddled frigidly outside—and amplifiers were absent. Onstage, the acoustic quartet Madagascar worked through circular, Eastern-inspired instrumentals. Afterward, Drew Nelson played soft, fragile music backed only by an acoustic guitar and Madagascar leader Mike Lambright’s accordion. The mood was self-consciously hushed and attentive.

Singer/songwriter Nelson, who performs as the Big Huge, says he started these monthly shows at Golden West (where he works) because he wanted a low-key venue where like-minded bands could play to attentive audiences. “There wasn’t a space in Baltimore that I felt was set up for [these] shows,” he says. “I’m into rock shows. It’s just that I don’t think this sort of show makes sense in a club.”

Musically, quiet is where Nelson’s head is at now. “I always feel like there’s this natural progression in music where people come out being punk rock, and then they get burned out on that, and then they move on to a different kind of music, and they get burned out on that,” he says. “They move, not necessarily from genre to genre, but kind of a natural progression of different music to play.”

As former bass player in apocalyptic hardcore band Torn Apart and the low-key indie-rock band Sonna, it’s certainly the arc Nelson carved. When he started playing as the Big Huge last year, he looked around and found himself surrounded by like-minded musicians.

“Baltimore’s always been a really rock town,” says the tall, soft-spoken Nelson. “[Playing in Sonna] was always really hard. It got easier, but it’s hard to start playing music like that because it’s not always welcomed with open arms. But now it’s nice because there’s a new generation of people with open minds that are willing to check anything out.”

This new generation encompasses a cadre of local bands more inspired by British folk and traditional American music rather than rock and punk. These bands sound nothing alike—Nelson’s wispy songs differ from both Long Live Death’s gothic psychedelia and the Walker and Jay Show’s jug-band revivalism—but it’s coming from a similar place. “It’s like this weird neo-folk movement that’s happening in general,” Nelson says. “I don’t even know where that came from.”

 

It’s not exclusively a local
phenomenon. Since late 2002, performers such as New York’s Devendra Banhart, Philadelphia’s Espers, and Providence, R.I.’s Eyesores have emerged and garnered national attention with their own fractured folk forms. Last August, British music magazine The Wire branded this band crop the “New Weird America,” even though it isn’t unified.

Similarly amorphous, Baltimore’s neo-folk blossoming—Nelson, Madagascar, Long Live Death, the Walker and Jay Show, the Anomoanon, Entrance, Arbouretum, etc.—marks a distinct move from recently dominant ironic math rock and screamy post-hardcore. Most of these bands appeared in local clubs and loft parties about a year and a half ago. Only a few—Long Live Death, Arbouretum, and the Anomoanon—have released albums. And though some of the bands dispute it, the musicians have formed a loose community, often collaborating, sharing members, or playing shows together.

It didn’t happen in a vacuum. Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie “Prince” Billy) squired his spare indie-folk balladry in Baltimore from 2001 to ’03; his brother Ned (a CP contributor) has based his Anomoanon here since 2001. And the Pupils, a Lungfish side-project of ecstatic folk, released its excellent stripped-down self-titled album in 2002. This sound’s seeds, however scattered, were planted by former Buttsteak/Lee Harvey Keitel Band member Ron Spencer in 1997 when he started a monthly Anti-Folk Night showcase of acoustic music at the old Ottobar; John Woodstock took it over shortly thereafter. In 1999, Rob Wilson and Dave Heumann took it over. (Anti-Folk Nights ceased in 2002.)

“Some of the people [in these bands] weren’t even around when Anti-Folk was going on, but some of them were,” says Heumann, who plays in the Anomoanon and leads the warm, hazily expansive psychedelic Arbouretum, whose dusky, homespun Long Live the Well-Doer album resembles Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York or Tom Petty at his most introspective. Now 32, Heumann has played in bands for 18 years, and he’s seen his share of rock/punk as a bartender at the Talking Head. “I’m bored with indie rock myself,” he says. “I think screaming has lost its impact—it’s lost the exciting quality it had before. Nowadays there’s a lot of people that are more interested in trying to sing well, and you can’t really do that with a loud rock band blasting 120 decibels behind you.

“It’s a move toward more feeling-oriented music,” Heumann continues. “Maybe people want to reassure themselves of their inner qualities.”

It’s that internal element into which Walker and Jay Show member Walker Teret taps. “My favorite thing when I was a little kid was when there was a power outage, because that’s when we’d break out the acoustic guitars and sit around the house and sing songs,” he says. “I’ll be damned if I’m not going to do the same thing with my kids, because I don’t want people to let go of that.”

Teret is the literal nexus of this incestuous musician web. He plays in the Walker and Jay Show, the Anomoanon, Arbouretum, and Madagascar, and lives with Heumann and Justin Durel, a Walker and Jay band mate. “This whole scene is pretty much six degrees of Walker,” says Justin Lucas, who plays musical saw, accordion, and melodica alongside Teret in Madagascar.

Teret has played traditional music with his friend Jay Dilisio for the past eight years, and they co-founded the Walker and Jay Show. The band plays exclusively old-time folk and country music; with his dusty, keening warble and wispy beard, Teret looks and sounds more like a character in The Grapes of Wrath than a 24-year-old musician.

“I came to traditional music from my mother, listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and stuff like that,” Teret says. “Eventually, I realized that the songs they played had roots that could be traced further back. I just started following the path.”

And for Teret, this musical roots maneuver is an important response to 21st-century foibles. “We’re living in scarier times now than we were in the ’90s,” he says. “It’s a time when artists need to take on a new role of grounding society, getting people more in touch with their roots, and just sane again. I like playing old-time country music because it encourages people to have fun, to dance or sing along if they want, to get drunk and to laugh and to be with their friends. I can’t think of a better political message to send.”

 

Not every local band shares Teret’s utopian ideal. “Should we say it?” Long Live Death percussionist Chris Freeland giggles. “Let’s just say it: Just fuck all those guys. Fuck ’em! Fuck Entrance! Fuck Walker and Jay!”

“They think they got Hacky Sack skills,” LLD vocalist Dan Jansen affirms as the band sits around the living room of its Arbutus practice space. “They really do not.”

Freeland and Jansen may be joking, but the members of Long Live Death are genuinely uncomfortable with being linked to any “scene.” They don’t think one exists.

“When I think of a community, I think of bands getting together and talking about music,” says James Saarsgaarde, LLD’s saw and melodica player. “I’ve never had a conversation with any of those bands about music. I’ve never talked with any of those bands about the scene or where it’s going or what this music is all about. For me, it’s about the people in this room.”

Among Baltimore’s new set of bands, the terms “quiet music” and “neo-folk” sit most uncomfortably with Long Live Death. For one thing, LLD sounds best when loud. And LLD’s live show is far too theatrical for trad folk. The septet layers sound until its songs become a drone-swirl of drums, cello, and flute, with Jansen ‘s chanted vocals adding a hallucinatory menace. Onstage, the frequently robe-clad members look like a hippie cult. LLD has no desire to distance itself from indie rock; Freeland and LLD accordionist Nat Fowler remain two-thirds of the local whatever-rock band Oxes. And with lyrics about unicorns and quantum physics, LLD isn’t exactly sincere. But the band often shares the stage with the Big Huge and Walker and Jay—it’s even played Quiet Music Night—and its music contains a rustic, backward-looking tone.

Away from his band mates, LLD guitarist Justin Eckland Levy admits that some local bands may be walking on related paths. “We’ve played with a lot of really awesome bands that are doing something that’s kind of similar in some way, even though the sound might be really different,” he says. “With Long Live Death, we usually play with bands that are completely different because, who sounds like us?”

Eckland Levy touches on the burgeoning scene’s tacit nature, which may be its biggest strength: It’s elastic enough to accommodate LLD’s apocalyptic theatrics and the Big Huge’s delicate ballads. Some of these musicians are consciously moving away from punk/rock and some are simply coloring outside the lines, but they all share a grass-roots openness of, yes, community, mining the past, but living and playing in the here and now.

“People involved in all spectrums of independent music all started by getting into punk music,” Eckland Levy says. “Everyone starts with that background, and people are diversifying their tastes. But in Baltimore, people influencing each other? I don’t know.”

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