It used to be that being from Baltimore gave you a certain degree of street cred. Even people from neighbouring urban death mazes like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. would nod their heads with approving respect if you said you were from Baltimore. Our streets were meaner, our hardcore punk shows were bloodier, and the general consensus in the mid-Atlantic region was that people from Baltimore were, at best, homicidal maniacs. Bands like Torque, Lumber and Iron Boss helped foster this reputation. Yeah, those were the days.
Well, I just got back from Baltimore, having spent a week there after a nearly six-year absence, and I’m here to tell you: those days are over. Baltimore – which used to be called (some thought ironically) “Charm City” – might have traded in their blood for a kinder, gentler city. Baltimore has officially turned, well, nice.
To put this change in context, let me give you an example of a typical show from about ten years ago. I went to see The Uniform play at Chambers (now defunct), a tiny, smoke-filled box downtown. After a couple rapid-fire songs, the singer for the band addressed the audience:
”Um, excuse me, but do you think you all could cut back the smoking a little bit? I have to sing, and I have asthma, so – “
“FUCK you, pussy!,” barked a voice from the crowd. End of discussion. The band played on, a furious mosh pit commenced, and I went home at the end of the night sweaty and sated with a busted lip. Another great show.
Ten years later, I headed to the Ottobar (2549 N. Howard St.), a small but enduring venue. Headlining the show that night was rock outfit Liar’s Academy, who put on a great show despite the absense of a mosh pit. But something else was missing; something I couldn’t put my finger on until I took a deep breath and noticed my lungs weren’t burning. That’s right – the Ottobar is now virtually smoke-free, with smokers coralled in a tiny area in the back, huddled together like refugees. You’d think the extra quantities of relatively cleaner air would encourage people to expend the aerobic effort to slam dance, but no. At least the band rocked.
The following night I went to Fletcher’s (701 S. Bond St.) in the fratboy quarter known as Fell’s Point. To be fair, the scene at Fletcher’s has always been mixed – everyone from techno DJs to grindcore bands have played there – and you never know what to expect. On this night I was assured by my music-starved companions that Fletcher’s was having a “punk rock” show. The first sign that things had drastically changed was when the headlining band introduced one song by announcing, “This next song goes out to all of you who’ve had a bad break-up!”
Had Baltimore gone and turned nice on me while I was away? I decided to field the audience.
“Baltimore’s music scene sucks,” Jason, 24, of New Jersey told me. “There’s not enough blood. Where is the blood?”
“Baltimore’s music scene rules,” said Baltimorean Ed, 27. “There’s a lot of activity here, a lot of new sounds. It’s kind of soft here tonight, but I usually go to the Thunderdome to see shows anyway.”
In the end, any change to Baltimore’s music scene over the past six years remain superficial: small bands are still working hard at getting heard, the clubs are still packing them in and whatever your tastes, you still have a lot to choose from. That much, at least, remains the same about my hometown. Baltimore is still the best town for music, lack of bloodshed on the dance floor be damned.