Yesterday, former MTV VJ Dave Holmes made a fool out of himself on his new web series, “Indie Across America,” by saying Baltimore doesn’t have much of a music scene. According to Holmes, bands from Baltimore often move to D.C. because “there is a kind of a scene in D.C. which Baltimore has tended to lack.”
“I looked into Baltimore and I couldn’t find a lot about Baltimore’s music scene,” Holmes said on the show.
After coming under fire from me (Sam Sessa), City Paper, WTMD, Dan Deacon, Beach House, Wye Oak, Lower Dens and Double Dagger on Twitter, Holmes apologized. But to keep this kind of ignorance from happening again, I wanted to offer a quick guide to Baltimore’s music scene.
The last thing we need is another stupid web series coming to town and ignoring some of the country’s best bands.
’90s and early ’00s
Back in the day, D.C. did have a better, more cohesive music scene than Baltimore. The D.C. scene centered on Dischord Records (founded by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi), which only had one Baltimore band: Lungfish (fronted by Daniel Higgs). There were great Baltimore bands, most notably R&B group Dru Hill, which gave the world Sisqo, who gave the world “Thong Song.” Liquor Bike (whose front man, David Koslowski, is now playing as Small Apartments) and Seade were both signed to Grass/BMG and Candy Machine was on Skene/Elektra. The Oranges Band, who signed to Lookout Records, was another standout. This time period also saw the rise of Baltimore Club music, which was created in the ’80s and blossomed soon after. Scottie B., Shawn Caeser and Rod Lee were among the stars, and Bmore Club is still going strong today.
This is where everything heats up. Dan Deacon, who moved to Baltimore from New York in 2004 with the folks who would become the experimental arts collective Wham City, begins to get some national attention for his off-the-chain live shows. In 2004, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally team up to become the dream pop duo Beach House, releasing a critically acclaimed self-titled album in 2006. That same year, Wham City organizes Whartscape, an alternative to Artscape, featuring live music and performance art. Many of these concerts are held in underground performance spaces, from the CopyCat Building in Station North to Floristree to G-Spot.
Around this time, you begin to get the sense that anything is possible — anything is worth trying. And with the right amount of enthusiasm, it just might work. The weirder the idea, the better. A video of a guy making, eating and vomiting a Toothbeef sandwich? A theatrical reinterpretation of “Jurassic Park? “Stab My Face?” Why not?
While the most publicized at the time, Wham City is not the only group on the Baltimore music scene. Far from it. Lake Trout, who had ruled the city’s jam scene, pass the torch to the Bridge, who have a great run of shows at The 8×10. And the Beechfields record label provides a home for songwriters including Mike Nestor and Austin Stahl.
This is where the seeds planted in 2004-2006 begin to bear fruit. Dan Deacon releases his landmark album “Spiderman of the Rings,” which has the more than 12-minute song “Wham City.” Post-punk trio Double Dagger (also known for some wild live shows) picks up steam with the release of the 2007 album “Ragged Rubble.” Wye Oak, the duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, signs to Merge Records in 2008.
That same year, the floodgates open after Rolling Stone names Baltimore the best music scene. The rest of the country starts to take notice. What many musicians and fans in Baltimore knew (or at least suspected) is legitimized by the national media. Suddenly, Baltimore is a hot spot for music and culture.
After five years, Wham City holds its final Whartscape in 2010 — saying the event had run its course. A bunch of bands sign to labels: Dan Deacon to Domino, Future Islands and several other Baltimore artists to Thrill Jockey. Beach House signs to Sub Pop and releases “Teen Dream,” one of the best albums to emerge from the Baltimore scene. In 2011, Scape Scape, a new annual festival with a huge roster of bands, picks up where Whartscape left off.
In the following years, Baltimore artists release some of their best material yet, from Beach House’s album “Bloom,” which debuted at No. 7 on Billboard, to Wye Oak’s “Civilian,” whose title track was featured on an episode of “The Walking Dead.” Friends Records becomes a strong supporter of exciting new Baltimore music, including Holy Ghost Party and Celebration. And while only one member of rockers J. Roddy Walston and the Business still lives in Baltimore, the band continues to view this city as its home base — and in 2013 releases its best album yet, “Essential Tremors.”
Years after the scene goes mainstream (in a sense), many of the artists are no longer the young, post-college kids they were circa 2004. But the creativity and sense of possibility remain.