In Baltimore, Whartscape goes out on a high note

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

BALTIMORE -- The fifth and final installment of the annual Whartscape festival here showed both why it has become the premier DIY music event in the country and why it was the proper time to pull the plug. What started as a scrappy, experimental counter-offering to the city's gigantic and mainstream Artscape has grown exponentially as the city's thriving underground music scene gained national acclaim.

This year's edition, a four-day (and -night) extravaganza that ended Sunday with a number of performances moved indoors to escape the rain and wind, featured more than 100 acts. It was the finest in noisy, art-damaged, left-field music, not just from Charm City but the entire country. It's still scrappy and completely independent ("there's no cellphone company sponsor or Scion parked out front," sneered Double Dagger singer Nolen Strals), but it's also unquestionably reached full term.

Saturday's nearly 10-hour session in a boiling, fenced-in parking lot behind Current Gallery in downtown Baltimore featured music on two makeshift stages, around 1,000 profusely sweating fans, a hose for people to refill their water bottles and no problems whatsoever. Sure, the bands ran a touch late and there were some minor technical issues, but nothing you wouldn't experience at most concerts. The crowd was exceedingly well-behaved, hardly a single troublemaker in the bunch. It was, I dare say, professional.

Three out-of-town acts served as headliners. Los Angeles noiseniks No Age played 35 minutes of crunching indie rock, an even split of spiky highlights from the group's first two albums ("Sleeper Hold," "Teen Creeps") and smoothed-out, even catchier songs from its upcoming release, "Everything in Between." As the sun went down, a pair of Providence, R.I., bands proved that their town was a hotbed of ear-shattering chaos before Baltimore. Lightning Bolt's metallic mayhem and the clanging noise-rock of reunited Arab on Radar provided a confrontational ending to the evening.

Earlier in the day, it was a trio of Baltimore bands and Whartscape veterans that provided the meat of the show. Electronic music composer Dan Deacon was both the scene's first breakout star and the mastermind of the entire festival. He spent the last three months coordinating all the details and was happy to be onstage with his 10-piece ensemble, playing jittery, hyperactive electronic anthems (and not having to stare at a spreadsheet). The summer camp counselor presentation of his past performances was still present but toned down; an organic singalong during "Wham City" was the best audience participation song of his set.

If Deacon is Whartscape's Cal Ripken, then Double Dagger is its Eddie Murray -- with perhaps a bit less everyman appeal but just as essential to the overall success. The trio delivered its usual incendiary performance -- unrelenting low-end from bassist Bruce Willen and drummer Denny Bowen combined with the madman screaming and spastic contortions of singer Strals. Another Baltimore success story, Ponytail, gave what is widely believed to be its final performance. The giddy, banshee wailing of singer Molly Siegel and the dueling guitar shredding of Dustin Wong and Ken Seeno sounded as sharp as ever, but after five years the band seems content to call it a day. "Thank you for listening, always," Wong said at the end of the set.

Strals dedicated his band's final song, "Sleeping With the TV On," to his wife. Like the rest of the group's material, it was a throbbing and dynamic slab of minimalist punk rock, perfect for moshing, stage-diving and other various forms of crashing into other people. Lyrically, it's a bit deeper, dealing with relationship issues that many of the teenagers banging around up front may have yet to encounter. Strals brought out his wife and they danced together while teens in the crowd clawed their way onstage before diving into the mass of people below.

Everyone was having a blast, but it wasn't hard to see a bit of disconnect. This batch of artists has achieved the DIY dream -- artistic excellence, professional success, complete independence -- but has grown up. Whartscape 2010 was its crowning achievement. Now it's time for some of those kids to carry on the tradition.

Or if they are truly DIY, make new ones.

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