EVEN ON A snowy Saturday, the Sound Garden (1616 Thames St.; 410-563-9011) in Fells Point buzzes with browsers. A guy in a vintage Cro-Mags T-shirt flips through the huge heavy metal section; two older men argue about Thelonious Monk by the jazz CDs. Welcome to a sight far rarer than a 1970s Springsteen bootleg: a bustling record store in the age of iTunes.
This Fells Point audio trove, loaded with everything from Greek bouzouki music to Danish punk, seems immune to the slipping sales at other brick-and mortar music stores. “I feel it when I read the newspaper,” says owner Bryan Burkert, “but we don’t feel it as much here. One of the reasons is that there are so few really good record stores left.”
Burkert opened Sound Garden in 1993, and, now, it’s not just a really good record store — it amounts to a Baltimore institution due to its mammoth inventory (including obscure titles on — gasp! — vinyl) and knowledgeable staff. It helps that the place operates in a tunes-hungry city and an area where it faces little competition.
It’s not just listeners who make Charm City a music hub. More and more artists have been flocking here in recent years. As a result, the local indie-rock scene has become one of the most vital in the country. “One of the things that makes Baltimore Baltimore is that so many people pass it over or don’t even consider it,” says avant electronic artist Dan Deacon, one of the city’s rising stars. “It forces Baltimore to create its own culture.”
Unlike some of the better-known music scenes — think heavy metal on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip in the 1980s or grunge in Seattle in the ’90s — there is no one musical style or element linking Baltimore artists. The band Beach House plays studiously ambient folk music, Ponytail rocks noisily, Wzt Hearts pound out skuzzy punk, Spank Rock specializes in frantic hip-hop, and on and on.
“The various music communities might be diverse and drastic, but [in every band] there seems to be a common ‘member’ linking them all together,” Deacon explains. “It’s very loosely knit, but still quite connected.”
Many Baltimore bands started out playing thankless opening slots for touring acts; now they headline shows at local nightspots. Sonar is one of the city’s most popular venues, and its location under the I-83 overpass gives it both a post-apocalyptic ambiance and lots of parking. The clientele at the Ottobar are still adjusting to the club’s new, larger space in Charles Village, even though it moved from its former cramped quarters more than five years ago.
In Federal Hill, the 8×10 boasts a long local history and superb acoustics; it organizes weekly open-mic nights and five-bands-for-$5 shows of local acts. The Floristree Space also hosts up-and-coming Baltimore bands, but good luck finding it. It isn’t a club, but the managers’ living space. As such, its location is a local secret, but its reputation for DIY shows and warehouse ambiance is strong.
Despite such organic growth, one Baltimore organization is rethinking the behind-the-scenes system of promotion that supports local acts at all of these venues.
A few years back, under the organizational moniker Wham City, Adam Endres and his friends — including Deacon — began organizing shows in their warehouse living space — regular, raucous concerts that are now part of local lore.
The warehouse shows, however, were technically illegal and therefore short-lived, forcing Wham City to find a new home at Zodiac, formerly a retro-themed restaurant whose owner allows the organization to use the space rent-free as a concert venue.
Zodiac — next door to trendy Club Charles in the north midtown arts and entertainment district — now hosts a range of shows featuring local and touring acts. Until recently, the performances were free, but they now cost $3 — still a small price to pay to possibly see the next big thing.
Even if it is raising its cover charge, Wham City has taken a leadership role in growing local interest in the arts and music, hosting not just concerts but also comedy performances, lecture series, game nights, the Whartscape music festival and assorted events that can be classified only as unclassifiable.
For a guy initially reluctant to move to Baltimore, Endres says he’s found a home in the city’s lively scene. “I’m really happy to be here,” he says. “There’s this ball of energy that we’re all finding ourselves inside, bouncing around and meeting one another.”
IDEA LIST: A MUSICAL MAP
Want to hear a show — or some DJ spins — in Charm City? Here are top spots to rock and groove.
» Ottobar: This hipster hangout hosts lots of local acts such as indie-folksters Cotton Jones and metalheads Between the Shores, as well as DJs, stand-up and a rawking metal night. 2549 N. Howard St.; 410-662-0069; Theottobar.com.
» Sonar: This downtown institution features three venues: a lounge for DJs, a club for local acts and a mainstage for touring acts such as TV on the Radio. 407 E. Saratoga St.; 410-783-7888; Sonarbaltimore.com.
» The 8X10: The city’s finest singer-songwriters are found at this Federal Hill establishment, which boasts great acoustics and a laid-back vibe. 10 E. Cross St.; 410-625-2000; The8x10.com.
» Zodiac: An eccentric, retro-ish venue across the street from two downtown theaters, it keeps the cover ridiculously low for its eclectic roster of lectures, stand-up, game nights and bills packed with the hippest bands. 1726 N. Charles St.; Whamcity.com.
Written by Express contributor Stephen Deusner
Photos by Marge Ely/Express