Last I left off on my adventures, I had run off in a stranger’s car to the Steam Punk World’s Fair, only to quickly kidnap myself again down to Baltimore with another new friend. My wanderlust was apparently quite unsatisfied with a one week tour, so short and traveling to many lovely places I too rarely visit, so I was adamant about not returning to NYC any sooner than necessary. So, in some sort of bizarre relay race, I was passed off and shuttled further South.
I really couldn’t have found a better person to meet in such a state. I’ve joked for years that my ideal companion would be a well-spoken and festively adorned vagabond accordion player who lives in a van. You’d be surprised how often this flies right back in my face. Well, unless you know me well, in which case you’re laughing already. Needless to say, I have every intention to work on a project with this fellow sometime in the future, ideally on the road whenever my schedule allows for that. It’s rare I meet someone whose lifestyle and interests are so similar to mine and who is open to future collaboration. That said, the problem and the beauty of meeting someone akin to oneself is that we both immediately split town in opposite directions. I lose track of more new friends this way…
In the meantime, we had a really fun time getting to know each other. Sometimes roadtrips are the only way to get quality one-on-one time, especially in my case, and I always seem to make deeper connections in vehicles than standing still. As soon as we headed out, I felt like I’d gone the right direction. It was a treat to decompress from the SPWF with someone who has such a similar outlook on the scene, but who also knows a lot more about its history than I do. The most brilliant assessment he made was that steampunk conventions are where nerds pay crusty punks to entertain them, which works out beautifully because they all generally like each other. It was also reassuring to hear more about how radical politics are not just complimentary to, but in some ways inherent in the steampunk movement.
His brother rode with us most of the way to Baltimore. I’d warned them I might sleep quite a bit of the way, as I was still exhausted from the night before and nearly no sleep, but I got so involved in conversations with them that I barely even closed my eyes. His brother and I quickly became aware of our shared knowledge of musical theatre and sang through much of Sondheim’s Assassins. The conversation in the van remained similarly nerdy, highbrow, and artistic for the whole trip. After we dropped off his brother, it was a gradually sleepier chat, but still a good one.
and Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse. I only saw the waterfall that one time, and I’m not sure I could find it again on my own, but that coffeehouse became like a second home to me this time around. As we walked to the cafe, we shared our delight in the other being fairly unfamiliar with our creative work, something I’d never expected to find so appealing until recently. Five minutes later, I realized there used to be a copy of one of his comics in the bathroom at the DIY show space where I sublet in 2009. He admitted he’d crashed my band’s show years before as a surprise opening act, so I guess we’re still even. He also knew half the people in the cafe, something which is usually my schtick. Like a charm, though, every time I went in after he left town, I knew someone there. We ended our time hanging out, at this point clocking in at nearly a solid 24 hours, with a jam session in a lovely little park nearby. There was no way I was letting an accordion player get away without swapping a few tunes. I imagined we were in a square somewhere in Europe playing, the apartment buildings and churches around us were so old and charming.
Another friend met up with us in the park, watched the end of the jam session, and the baton was passed once more. He and I checked out Ted’s Musicians Shop at the insistence of my marching band friend from Honk Fest. Spot on recommendation; the place was full of gorgeous old instruments, some of which are so old or exotic I’d never even seen them in person. The store had closed about twenty minutes earlier, but the guy let us come in and have a look around. He and I had a very nerdy conversation about vintage saxes, of which they had several. When I told him proudly that I’d found a metal clarinet, he deflated my enthusiasm slightly by showing me the pile he had laying around. Even so, he assured me he could find a case for mine if I came back again when they were open. Of course, I was back there several more times than expected.
The rest of the evening might have been the tipping point in my growing affection for Baltimore. I had first heard about the city when I was in high school and a handsome artist passing through Chicago with an art carousel, who caught my eye on senior ditch day, would tell me stories about his home city. He told me many nice things, I’ve just only recently been able to believe the ones about Baltimore firsthand. In college, everyone I knew from Baltimore seemed odd and wonderful, and likewise obsessed with being from the home of Poe and Waters. Around the same time, a branch of Chicago’s own independent silly toy and knickknack emporium Uncle Fun opened up at the Visionary Art Museum. Later, when I lived above Goodbye Blue Monday, I adopted the members of Baltimore’s Wham City for a night. They were doing a live action musical version of Jurassic Park down the street and derailed me en route to another circus show with their giant white school bus full of cardboard props. Finally, within the past year, I’ve managed to randomly visit this city with increasing regularity.
My exposure to Wham City a couple years ago had given me an inkling that Baltimore had a lot to offer in the way of independent and ambitious DIY performance. My visit to my friend from Honk last fall reaffirmed this when we went to Ottobar to see local burlesque including Trixie and Monkey. Then, this past week, within a single hour, I got a look behind the scenes at both the Fluid Movement space (home of the water ballet and roller skating spectacles) and the revamped old theatre housing the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s ambitious new double feature. I had to admit that Baltimore was doing a fine job of wooing me.
What a big day! No wonder I spent most of the following daylight hours laying around on a futon in my friend’s living room in a daze, catching up on phone and computer whatnot. Fortunately, I was right next to Charmington’s, a cafe which my Honk friend’s girlfriend part-owns, so it was easy for him to scoop me up there and steal me away to the other end of town where they live in a gingerbread house. We got to watch bellydancers rehearse in the living room, drink gin and tonics, and eat poutine. Even I’m a little jealous reading this… and I was there. No wonder I like Baltimore so much. We finished up the night with some Balkan jamming and then quieter geeking out to footage of ourselves playing in Emperor Norton’s at the SPWF.
When we’d parted ways on Monday, the vagabond accordion player and I both imagined we would be travelling even further in opposite directions by the next day. Well, two days later we were both basically still in Baltimore. We got one more good hang out and visit to Red Emma’s before going our separate ways. He drove straight South to North Carolina just as I was heading to the cheap NYC bus. I sat across from two very sweet traveler girls and was so sure we knew a lot of the same people around the country that I didn’t even feel the need to pry further into our overlapping circles. They said they’d ridden out from the West with a band called the Homeless People, who sounded like folks I would know, yet I’d never heard of them. Strange moment of foreshadowing there, as will be made clear later. I did a lot of productive writing on that ride, but by the time I reached NYC I felt an utter fool for leaving Baltimore so soon. I came up with all sorts of reasons for myself to have been anywhere but NYC at that moment. I spent Thursday doing necessary, although arguably postponeable, errands and chores – doctor’s office, laundry, moving my bags to a new place. I woke up the next morning and got myself right back on a bus to Baltimore.
There are a variety of reasons I turned right back around, but the clincher was getting to play with Barrage Band Orchestra, even though I’d never been to a rehearsal. I’m a real sucker for sitting in with renegade brass bands. The only bus I was able to find space on, due to an apparently epic weekend of activities in humble Baltimore, left me off at a far away mall outside of the city. Inevitably, my Honk Fest friend got lost on the way there, and I marveled for a while at the strange culture of the suburbs. Somehow, I managed to find free outdoor music while I waited. We swung by his house and loaded our arms with instruments, then made it just in time for their show. It was a modest fundraiser in a backyard and we got rained inside, but it was a ton of fun.
The highlight of the show was, of course, the gratuitous jamming afterwards. A few of us went over to their band’s accordion player’s apartment to have a drink and didn’t leave for an hour or two. My brass cohort in Seattle called and, as he does sometimes, played Klezmer tunes on his trumpet for me over the phone. I already had my instrument out, so I joined in. I was borrowing my friend’s alto sax for the gig, in order to bring my newly acquired metal clarinet from NYC instead, and this was my first time really playing it. Their accordion player grabbed his instrument, followed by their clarinet player, my friend on a borrowed cornet, and soon their euphonium player heard all the commotion and came over. There was much banging on pots and pans, as it was a kitchen, but the highlight was the squeaky mouthpiece-only version of Mescecina. My heart glowed over the fact that the jam session had been started via telephone from the West Coast. Someone else’s phone rang and that person was then set on the table as a hostage audience member. We all eventually made our way back to the dwindling party and played until we were asked to stop. Their nine year old neighbor was accompanying us on tambourine, and playing it with more subtlety than most adults could even attempt. I tried to teach her how to play in 7/8, which was equally amusing and educational for both of us. Finally, our ragtag band, fueled by liquid courage, found our way to another party and played a short set in their backyard. It’s been far too long since I was set loose on a relatively unfamiliar brass band and as a result inspired such spontaneity. My friend and I returned home somewhat late and continued sharing music on our computers as though it was still my “last night in town” a few days ago.
The next day I helped out a bit with chores around the gingerbread house. He and his girlfriend have taken to calling me their “house elf” and even said I was entitled to pick the color of the guest room since I’m in it the most often. Eventually, we readied ourselves for the evening and swung by the wine store and Ted’s for last minute supplies. I had picked up that metal clarinet case before I’d caught my bus out of town the last time, and now I got to prove to the guy that I really had gotten a bargain on a fully functioning instrument. My friend got a new pad for his flugel horn for fifty cents.
We were playing at a cute little festival called “Folk You” in a warehouse space near downtown. All the proceeds went to the Baltimore Free School, and I’m glad to be in a place in my life where I can afford to spend a weekend playing benefit shows. This show was extra special for me because I was going to be playing bass drum with the band. None of their usual drummers could make the show, so it seemed the logical thing to do. I’ve definitely had some experience with hand percussion, washboards, and even bass drums, but this is the first time I’ve ever been the only drummer for an entire set. It felt awesome. I’d really wanted a cymbal for the top of the drum, but the tambourine worked nicely by itself for quieter parts. I also opted for a wooden spoon in my right hand instead of the usual switch-style stick. I rocked out pretty hard with my bootleg tupan, and the band seemed pretty pleased with my work and asked me to come back and be their drummer. That’s a big compliment for a horn player indeed!
After we played, we were all still pretty amped up, so I talked everyone into marching over to Death Fest and playing Balkan brass band music for the metal fans and traveler kids in the parking lot. This seemed like a good idea, even despite the long walk there with our instruments and two bass drums (double bass!), but when we got there everyone outside the festival seemed more intent on having fist fights than listening to an anachronistic band. So, we wandered a couple blocks down and played in a park. We managed to play our horns while walking and carrying our cases and two extra drums. I have a huge bruise in a line across my left thigh from the drum banging into it. We marched past Red Emma’s just as we were playing Bella Ciao and did a very quiet version along their storefront, totally confusing the people at the book lecture inside. A little ways down the street, someone way up in an apartment applauded out their open window, so we stopped and launched a full version of Rue de Paname. By the end, we had people leaning out windows in all directions applauding, it was lovely.
We made it back to Folk You just as the band Homeless People was finishing. Small world that it is, they were the group that the traveler girls on my bus to NYC had caught a ride with from the West Coast. I had really wanted to see them, with their promises of raucous Balkan-influenced street music, but had to settle for a CD and plans to meet up with them in NYC and/or Boston as they made their way along their tour. I had been surprised on the bus that I hadn’t heard of a band made up of so many traveler kids, but of course I knew more than half the band after all. One remembered me from busking in New Orleans a couple Mardi Gras ago and another used to work pedicab with me in Portland, Oregon. It was good to reunite with more traveling buskers. We’d started partying early, so it was an early night for my friend and I, and we retired to the gingerbread house early and swapped more music.
The next day I made it to the Sowebohemian Arts and Music Festival, a sweet little street fair in a somewhat “dodgy” part of Baltimore. It was really nice actually. The band Neutron Bomb, which had opened for us in Baltimore when we played there, was playing. It was good to get to see their whole set, since inevitably that almost never happens at shared shows. Somehow my bag was taken back to where I was staying and I was lent a bicycle and wound up outside of Death Fest again. I then stopped in at Red Emma’s, where a member of Barrage Band was working and a girl I knew through mutual friends in Indiana six years ago was sitting at the counter, and grabbed a bite to eat. I headed to my next destination, and when I stopped to ask directions out front of a little bookstore, was fed again at their barbecue. Again, win for Baltimore and its friendliness. As I was biking down a busy street from there, I ran into a traveler kid I knew, sitting outside a bohemian cafe with his dog just as the girl from New Orleans had been in Burlington. It was then that I got a phone number for the kids in Homeless People, a detail I had overlooked the night before.
My final destination for the night was the aforementioned rock opera. It was as ridiculous, technically messy, and wonderful as I had imagined. It was actually quite well done for an original and independent production. It’s not their fault that wireless mics are such a pain to deal with, and that was really the only glaring problem. Sure, all new works have their glitches, but the overall ambition of their production made up for anything lacking. It was a double feature, so the whole event clocked in at nearly four hours. The first show was somewhat historical, while the second was an outlandish outer space tale. That one was my favourite for sure. I went back with my friends who had worked on the show and ate lots of vegan ice cream before falling asleep in their guest room.
The next day I woke slowly and got ready to leave that evening for NYC again. Deja vu, I went to a park with an accordion player and taught him Amara Terra Mia and Oche Chornia. A mutual friend of me and both accordion players found this hilarious. We found a group of his friends to entertain in the park, which was pretty fun. Next, it was off to a barbecue at an old Victorian mansion with a hula hooper. My friends convinced me it was worth sticking around town for the afternoon, and indeed it was. It’s incredible the quality of life that can be attained so much more easily by creative types in Baltimore than in most other cities I’ve visited.
I fled NYC this weekend for peace of mind but also because no big plans had been proposed to me, which was strange and refreshing. Of course, as soon as I left, I got invited to two shows and offered work at an underground party. Apparently half a dozen of my friends were all within blocks of each other all over North Carolina over the weekend. I also missed Seattle Folklife, which is one of my favourite festivals in North America, especially for busking. Ah well, there’s always something I’m missing somewhere. Also, for all my downplaying of NYC and everything about it, I was welcomed back to the big city by fresh cotton candy, a dark and stormy, and water pistol battles on a rooftop in Union Square.