Best of Baltimore
Arts and Entertainment
Best Director, Best Dance Company, Best Band, Best Summer Jam, Best Hip-Hop DJ, Best Improvisation, and more.
Published: September 22, 2010
Annex Theater, annextheater.x10hosting.com
Evan Moritz is always up for a theatrical challenge. He co-wrote, -directed, and -toured a four-person dramatization of the Beowulf epic and created a large-scale, stage version of the 1973 animated Fantastic Planet, Moritz bolstering local DIY theater’s ambition. This year alone, Moritz—who previously preferred acting—has directed, collaboratively and solo, five major productions at multiple venues around the city.
Moritz was one of the founding members of Annex Theatre, which started in January 2008. Since its inception he has passionately helped organize the loosely structured production company into an accomplished nonprofit venture, actively expanding both its audience and its collaborative talent pool. Working with the Transmodern Festival, Exotic Hypnotic, and Whartscape, as well as touring productions in other cities, Moritz has helped bring Annex’s DIY craft to the forefront of the local arts community. With an earnestness and enthusiasm that brings out the best in both his colleagues and his audiences, Annex took on not only a wide-reaching program, but also a community focus.
While working as an after-school theater instructor at South Baltimore’s Baybrook Elementary and Middle School, Moritz met 14-year-old student and playwright Derek Carr. Carr passed Moritz The Dark World’s Destruction, a script he had written at 12, and started attending Annex’s local productions. Moritz, along with Annex member Rick Gerriets, received a Kresge Foundation grant this year, which the company used to help Carr bring his script to the stage. Annex members held workshops in their neighboring community offering local children the opportunity to get involved in costuming, set building, and other aspects of production. Through this outreach and encouragement, Annex’s immediate neighbors have embraced the group’s presence and are regular attendees at its performances and events.
Moritz, who sits on the nonprofit theater company’s board, recently completed a Western play and is organizing a DIY performance festival in Baltimore, which will bring similarly minded groups from Philadelphia, Providence, and Minneapolis to the city. Moritz also plans to pursue more serious theater pieces, such as Matsukaze, a contemporary take on Japanese Noh theater that he co-directed with Walker Teret and Justin Durel at the LOF/t in December 2009. The story of two Japanese sisters who pine for a deceased lover was a notable break from the typically comic productions mounted by local DIY groups. It’s a dramatic ambition that Moritz would like to see more of in the future—an abandonment of sarcasm, irony, and tongue-in-cheek humor in search of something more fulfilling.
Clinton Brandhagen and Dawn Ursula
Creating onstage chemistry can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Now, imagine creating a believable love connection when the two actors almost never share the stage. This is the trick Clinton Brandhagen and Dawn Ursula pulled off in Two Rooms at Everyman Theatre, and, man, did they ever. In the play, a married couple is separated when the husband is taken hostage by terrorists. From home, the wife thinks only of him, just as he speaks to her in the dark of his cell; the audiences’ hearts shatter for them both. Beautifully one.
Single Carrot Theatre
120 W. North Ave., (443) 844-9253, singlecarrot.com
Giti Jabaily can do a great young girl—at least, she did in Single Carrot Theatre’s Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake). She offered a differently damaged young woman in Eurydice last fall. The petite actress also nailed a life-hardened thirtysomething Russian woman in Playing Dead, and joined her company in abandoning words entirely for Illuminoctem. But that’s just how this ensemble works. If you really appreciated Nathan Fulton’s keyed-up Valia in Playing Dead or Jessica Garrett gamely affecting an American non-accent for her turn as a TV news reporter in Tragedy: A Tragedy, do note: The next time you see them, they may completely reinvent their approach. They simply appear to enjoy finding out just how far they can push themselves.
Around the World in 80 Days, CenterStage
CenterStage brought a clever reworking of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel by Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company to Baltimore this season. And the sets by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod allowed the audience to join in the characters’ sense of wonder as they went from one exotic locale to another. It was inspired by British military-campaign furniture, trunks that would turn into tables or beds Transformer-style. In a similar manner, the stage transformed to reveal a boat or a sled or an elephant as needed. The set was framed by shelves with books and knickknacks, creating the sense that the play was part of a huge curio cabinet. The level of detail was astounding and added much to an already delightful night of theater.
Best Theater Company
1727 N. Charles St., (410) 752-2208, everymantheatre.org
Attending an Everyman Theatre production means never having to worry about being disappointed. You may not be the biggest fan of a production’s playwright, you may not appreciate the production’s sensibility, you might wish it took bigger risks sometimes, but season after season this company delivers the most consistently dependable professional productions in town. And this year was a real treat: From the febrile The Mystery of Irma Vep to the partnership with the Baltimore School for the Arts that created Our Town, from the emotionally heavy Two Rooms to the uncomfortable Blackbird, Everyman productions, from onstage to backstage, never fail to bring their “A” game.
Best New Theater
Glass Mind Theatre Company
Glass Mind Theatre Company launched in January with a festival of short plays based on ideas that people tweeted, Facebooked, and e-mailed to it. The troupe followed that up with a tweaked take on a Norwegian fairy tale that used basic sets and images projected onto a screen to create a thoroughly charming night at the theater. And this month, it kicks off its first full season with two world-premiere one-acts about the internet. The whole multimedia thing could come off cutesy and pointless in lesser hands, but Glass Mind’s talent makes it feel fresh and fun. We can’t wait to see what it does next.
Studio Six Theatre’s Itsy Bitsy Spider, Theatre Project
With Itsy Bitsy Spider, Studio Six dove down to the core of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and staged it as a rediscovery of a critical tipping point in the freakish transformation of a small village into a hotbed of political paranoia. Russian director Alexandre Marine’s relentlessly focused direction mined the dark humor and sexual tension in this classic that is often misread as a bleak political parable. The tight ensemble of Studio Six actors—New York-based, but most of them trained at Moscow Arts Theater School—reminded us that however bizarre, despicable, or saintlike Dostoevsky’s characters are, they are intensely human.
Best Overlooked Gem
Riff Raff, Arena Players
Despite billing itself as the oldest continuously operating African-American community theater in the country, Arena Players hasn’t been much on marketing. So, it’s easy to understand why so many people may have missed this production. It’s a pity though. Riff Raff, written by actor Laurence Fishburne, is a gritty look at the drug game and the lengths people go to to escape poverty. Arena’s cast handled the material deftly, creating an emotionally charged and deeply effecting production.
Best Freudian Wit
Hysteria, Rep Stage
What do you get when you combine a slapstick comedy about Sigmund Freud and a serious drama about Salvador Dali? When put on by Rep Stage, you get a production that is both poignant and whimsical. Terry Johnson’s Hysteria was inspired by an actual meeting between the two men, but it takes that event to imaginary extremes. Celebrated local actor Bruce Nelson makes Dali—who was cartoonish in real life, never mind in a clothes-swapping door-slamming farce—into someone you can take seriously, while co-star Jeff Baker transforms into a nuanced Freud. Director Steven Carpenter brought the play’s contradictions together in perfect harmony.
Best Dance Company
The Effervescent Collective, founded by Lily Susskind at Goucher College, has graduated and made real inroads in Baltimore arts this year. The troupe’s belief that dance should be just as much a part of the burgeoning community as visual art has materialized as weekly dance classes at 1801 Falls Road—the venue currently known only by its address but soon to be named Lumberhous that the collective shares with other companies. And nothing could have demonstrated its determination to make dance performances accessible better than its gender-bending production of Dirty Dancing. We can’t wait to see Effervescent’s next move.
Out of Your Head collective
So maybe this isn’t a band. What of it? The best music isn’t necessarily made in bands. The Out of Your Head collective is a loose group of jazz—in the most free sense you can conceive—players and thinkers that, every Tuesday night at the Windup Space, get together in a totally new grouping of local and out-of-town performers. Maybe they play pedal steel, saxophone, trumpet, turntables, double-bass, guitar, or whatever; it doesn’t matter. After well more than a year of existence, OOYH has turned into one of Baltimore’s most consistent ground-zeroes for musical revolution—and that’s in a city of musical revolution.
Best New Band
Holyfuckingshit, when Dope Body started playing sometime early last year, making blistering, inventive art-punk that is actually punk, we had no idea it would grow up to be the kind of force-of-nature the trio is now. You see this band play and it’s like a rush of something scraping all the cynicism and shit out of your veins and just leaving you smiling—because if a band can still make this kind of music, maybe things might just be alright.
Best Live Band
No disrespect to bassist Ryan Dorsey, but his decision to leave Soul Cannon a while back may have been the best thing that ever happened to the hip-hop band. Instead of replacing him, the remaining quartet tightened up and rearranged its sound, with keyboardist Jon Birkholz filling in the basslines and guitarist Matt Frazao incorporating more of his avant-garde background into the mix. The forthcoming album The Mixed Ape presents a bold, new studio sound for the band, but the stage is still where it whips up the most exciting noise, with Eze Jackson working his ass off both as a rapper and as an intensely charismatic frontman.
Labtekwon, “Black Skatepunk”
If you’re not a fan of both local underground hip-hop and 1980s hardcore, the song being rapped over here is Black Flag’s “Damaged I,” a track that lopes along drunkenly in off-time cymbals and soft rips of guitar feedback and just generally sounds not like hardcore-punk, but an LSD hallucination of it. It’s weird. And so is Labtekwon, who will go down in Baltimore history as the city’s most idiosyncratic MC. Rapping might not even be the right word for what Lab is doing on “Black Skatepunk”—again, it’s more like an acid trip version of it. “Everyone thinks I’m weird because I’m not down with the tight-ass pants,” he goes. Well, no, that’s not why.
Best Summer Jam
CJ Hilton “We Can Get it In”
When CJ Hilton dropped his first mixtape, The Package, earlier this year, it was thrilling to hear the young R&B singer, who grew up on classic soul and previously collaborated with Raphael Saadiq and Stevie Wonder, try and sound more his age with a hip-hop-influenced production. And “We Can Get It In” was an immediate standout, with a dazzlingly swirly texture of a beat by Don Cannon, the mixtape DJ best known for producing Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy.” But it wasn’t until CJ performed the song as part of a showcase of new artists at June’s BET Awards that we realized it could be his breakout hit.
Lower Dens, Twin Hand Movement
A beautiful, infinitely listenable work of music, Twin Hand Movement stands as not just the best record released in Baltimore this year, but one of the best in the country. The first from Jana Hunter’s not-so-new-anymore band Lower Dens, the record trades in gorgeous, evocative, and serene melody, via her voice, her guitar, or slippery movements in the dusty/foggy atmosphere that doesn’t cloak everything like so much indie-pop music lately. Hunter is a songwriting force, and now that she’s shown the ability to do something this amazing with a full band, there are no limits.
It’s one thing to record, market, manufacture, distribute, and promote music—which is the historic all-in record label model—but Mobtown Studios is onto something entirely different, something that might resemble a bit more closely the future of music and how we get it. The music from the micro showcase is free, first of all, via a download on Mobtown’s web site. Second, the music is recorded live, mostly at house concerts, and, even more than that, at shows that are designed to be something “new” for the band or artist. A new arrangement, perhaps, or new lineup. An acoustic set rather than plugged-in, maybe. In other words, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The whole thing winds up a curious hybrid of venue, label, and recording studio. Releases so far include sets from Secret Mountains, Dustin Wong, Yukon, and many more.
Best Solo Artist
“Solo artist” is just about the only category you can throw Reina Williams into that she won’t burst out of: the bisexual singer/rapper/producer is a headache to pigeonhole, but a fascinating musician to follow. She’s just as likely to make a crunk anthem as to show up at a boho joint such as Joe Squared or Peace and a Cup of Joe with an acoustic guitar and cover a painfully unhip song such as Blues Traveler’s “Hook.” Her recent EP, Full Circle, straddles the line between grungy guitar rock and sleazy R&B, but future releases will hopefully go in even more directions rather than settling into one cohesive sound.
Best Female MC
This has been a big year for female rappers in Baltimore, but it felt like many of them were getting attention for the wrong reasons: publicity-stunt beefs, out-of-town connections, cheesy dance beats, just about anything but how well they rap. That’s one reason why it was refreshing to watch the Gritty Gang crew’s Si-Notes quietly put in work and prove her mettle the old-fashioned way, winning this year’s Queen of the Mic battle, dropping the solid mixtape Cash on Delivery, and collaborating with peers Chyna Doll, Cash, and Shy on the hilarious femcee posse cut “Going Down.”
Best Male MC
In a way, Los represents everything stale and predictable about Baltimore hip-hop in 2010: a former battle rapper still coasting off the fame of once having had a major label deal, piggybacking on every trend he can, from AutoTune to the word “swag.” But a listen to recent mixtape Zero Gravity confirms that the undeniable talent that got him signed to Bad Boy way back when is still there, and few in the city have ever rhymed as relentlessly and wittily as he does. With killer singles like “Sexy While You Chillin’,” featuring hometown R&B star Mario on the hook, Los is still working harder and smarter at that elusive mainstream breakthrough.
Best Hip-Hop DJ
There’s a good deal of griping in hip-hop these days—much of it justified—about how mixtape DJs aren’t DJs in the classic sense. But it takes a skill set in and of itself to master the mixtape grind, and in Baltimore these days nobody does it better than DJ Jabril. With the Stash Box series and the Smash-hosted Melt Da Pyrex, Jabril has proven adept at wading through the glut of local hip-hop and picking dope tracks. And with the Block Work series, a prestigious single-artist mixtape in the mold of DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz tapes, Jabril has created a signature showcase for some of the city’s best MCs, from Bossman to Backland.
Dwayne “Headphones” Lawson and Brandon “Bealack” Lackey
Mania Music Group’s dynamic personalities make it easy to forget in-house producers Dwayne “Headphones” Lawson and Brandon “BeaLack” Lackey, but the brilliance of Mania’s debut album, Welcome to the Audience, hinges on the production duo’s sprawling approach to beatmaking. Dominated by aggressive drums and intricate guitar work (it’s nearly impossible to tell where sampling ends and live instrumentation begins), Headphones and Bealack do post-Neptunes snap on “Love Thang,” seething bitter boom-bap on “U Might Think,” and choked, jazzy weirdness on “Reagonomics.” Most importantly, though, there’s a mind-meld here between the producers and rappers, as Midas, Kane, Ron G, and Milly confidently stretch their styles to fit Headphones and BeaLack’s widening vision of hip-hop.
Best Club Music Producer
Murder Mark’s signature sound is an absolutely horrifying buzz of synthesizers—like the sound of club’s youth scene attacked by bees—rubbing up against a surprisingly traditionalist sense of sample-chopping and looping. He has a wealth of fun increasing the BPMs of the forever-classic “Think” loop (see his club take on “Pretty Boy Swag,” co-produced with DJ K-Spin) or slicing-up the seemingly unsampleable (the busy, goofy beat of “B.M.F” for his Baltimore take on the Rick Ross summer jam), and for much of Ayo Vol. 1, his most recent club mix, Mark tests out a sound that’s almost entirely electronic, informed by skittering techno and the tinny beats of Southern rap as well as traditionalist club.
Best Club Music DJ
Supa DJ Big L
Despite the frantic, oddball music coming out of their Seratos, most club DJs maintain a head-down, keep-it-moving attitude while mixing. Supa DJ Big L, though, injects a contemporary swagger to his sets, smirking, grinning, and preening from behind his turntables. Musically, he’s similarly in-your-face, leaning toward club’s most aggressive, rap-tinged sounds and bringing an impulsive approach to mixing that eschews blending for simply slamming songs into one another. Undoubtedly the result of his work with Club Kingz and Unruly, and his ubiquitous presence in the city and on the radio spinning rap and club, L’s style is a hybrid of hip-hop’s penchant for performing and club’s manic energy.
Best Free Downloads
DJ Pierre’s Summer Club Mix Series
This summer, DJ Pierre released six installments of the Summer Club Mix series via his Sound Cloud account (soundcloud.com/bmore-djpierre). Like his full-length mix CDs, these downloadable DJ sets feature Pierre’s most recent tracks (the ominous, swaggering “Watch How I Do It,” the absolutely insane “Uhh Break”) next to club’s latest and greatest—only he’s smooshed the energy and innovation into hyper-concentrated, 15-minute MP3s. More than just a placeholder between Pierre’s spring CD Vol. 8, and the imminent fall-themed follow-up Vol. 9, the Summer Club Mix series is one of Baltimore’s most youthful and urgent producers latching onto the immediacy and mile-a-minute ADD of the Internet and doing it well.
Bernard Lyons’ Creative Differences series has pushed a style of music—call it free jazz, left-field jazz, not-at-all jazz, noise with horns, or whatever—that might otherwise skip these parts. And the talent that Lyons has brought to Baltimore—Henry Grimes, David Murray, Han Bennink, Evan Parker, and many more—is just plain unmatched. These are performers that, unlike in many genres, aren’t making gracious tour stops in a smaller market, but are actually coming to the Mid-Atlantic just to come to Baltimore for Creative Differences. Respect.
Best Hometown Hero
What, the name Karizma doesn’t ring a bell? It’s probably because the house music DJ/producer is constantly touring—or, just as likely, because house doesn’t get the local love it once did. In the ’90s, Chris “Karizma” Clayton was making Baltimore club tracks for Unruly Records and churning out some of the more bizarrely long cuts in the genre. He teamed up with Basement Boy DJ Spen and put his skills into house music, consistently gaining in popularity outside of America in the past decade and, a few years ago, releasing his full-length production debut and forging collaborations from West London to Canada to New York. House music is deep in Baltimore’s DNA, and we’re just glad Karizma’s keeping it alive, even if it’s not in Baltimore.
Music videos shot on film
Don’t get us wrong: We love that digital video is so affordable and responsive that bands can shoot and edit videos themselves and have them posted online quickly. But there’s still something romantic about film, especially when it’s used in a music video. First Mary Helena Clark’s gorgeously abstract and experiential video for Future Islands’ “As I Fall” (vimeo.com/11901227) reminded us that celluloid still has textures that DV can’t always approximate. And then Matthew Porterfield’s seismic collage for Dope Body’s “Enemy Outta Me” (vimeo.com/13892510) reminded us that there still exist some underground sounds that scream for grainy film images rather than smooth and flat DV polish.
Best Music Series
The Contemporary Museum’s contemporary composition concert series has been around for a few years now, but its 2009-’10 and just-beginning 2010-’11 seasons make clear that it means serious business in a refreshingly non-serious way. That is, Mobtown curator Brian Sacawa has made a mission out of presenting solid performances of music by mid-century avant-garde titans such as Stockhausen and Scelsi in the same informal fashion and beer-in-hand context as any local jazz or indie set, while at the same time mixing in a lively line-up of emerging composers and performers that belies the notion of new music as museum piece. Nothing is off limits, from John Zorn’s impish directed-improv piece Cobra to local composer Will Redman’s challenging unconventional scores to the area premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s acclaimed song cycle Ayre to a jazz arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In short, Mobtown showcases contemporary music as diverse, engaging, interesting, and fun—because it is.
Best Rock Club
The Golden West café
1105 West 36th St., (410) 889-8891
See also: Best Completely Unlikely Place to See a Hardcore Band, Best Place to See a Cupcake Case Almost Knocked Over by a Mosh Pit, Best Psych-Rock Green Chili. Dunno really how it happened, but the rock and metal bookings that Adam Savage and company—and new promotions force Unregistered Nurse Booking—would have once upon a time brought to, say, the Talking Head, have migrated to the Golden West, which, after dinner shuts down around 10 p.m., shoves the tables out the way, sets up a PA, and rattles the Avenue like an earthquake tremor.
Best All-Ages Space to See Bands
Charm City Art Space
1729 Maryland Ave., ccspace.org
Kids like a bunch of shitty music. Do you even know what passes for punk these days for most of the 13-to-17 set? Trust us, it’s ghastly. But you’ll find no feathery hair or crabcore at the Charm City Art Space, Baltimore’s bastion not only for loud ‘n’ angry youth but for the city’s true-school punk community. In this Station North garage, you’ll also find no booze, drugs, or corporations. And shows are early, which is a very good thing for kids in school—or people with jobs.
Best Underground Music Venue
At last count there are at least four active venues in the Copycat building: the Good Son, the Soft House, the Penthouse, and the Copycat Theatre. And, in the Copycat Annex around the corner, add another three active spaces—and then there’s the Bell Foundry across the street. We’re not talking about seven-nights-a-week music/performance—not quite the shopping mall of underground music it sounds—but damned if you couldn’t find something loud and cheap going on just about any given weekend night, at least.
There is nothing else in North America like the Maryland Deathfest. Three days, three stages, 14 hours a day of death metal, black metal, hardcore, crust, thrash, and all the stuff in the gaps, with no filler whatsoever. There’s a good reason thousands of people from all over the world travel—by airplane or boxcar—yearly to Baltimore: sonic brutality in its purest forms. Maybe extreme metal isn’t your bag—just take heart that it’s certainly the genre of music with the most fervent, rabid followers. And Deathfest has made Baltimore their Mecca.
Best Radio Show for Local Music
WEAA-FM (88.9), midnight-5 a.m., Saturdays
When WEAA’s weekly hip-hop program started two decades ago, hip-hop didn’t yet rule the airwaves and a niche program on a college station was still one of the best ways to follow the budding genre. In 2010, Strictly Hip Hop is still a necessity for Baltimore’s rhyme addicts, but for a completely different reason: It serves as a hub for local artists as well as a place to debate where the music is headed, and preserves some small remaining sense of community and credibility. Staying up past midnight to listen to Ahk and Florida talk about the latest singles in the station’s crates is still a little like having that cool friend at the record store who knows about everything before you do.
Best Irish Music
J. Patrick’s Irish Pub
1371 Andre St., (410) 244-8613, home.netcom.com/~leemarsh/jpatrick.html
For years, J. Patrick’s had traditional Irish music on Sunday nights. It was a great way to wind down the weekend, sipping on Guinness just a few feet from accomplished Irish musicians effortlessly whipping off reels. Well, the pub stopped the Sunday night performances due to diminishing turnout, but you can hear great Irish music the rest of the week (except Wednesday). Monday is beginner’s night, if you want to bring your fiddle, guitar, or bodhrain and learn the chops. Tuesday and Thursday are pickup nights for more experienced musicians, and Friday and Saturdays they bring in professional acts. The Sunday night tradition may be gone for now, but the rest of the week still brims with great traditional Irish music. It’s as close to Doolin as you can get around here.
Best Music Festival
Sad to say this award is posthumous: Organizers made it very clear that 2010 would offer the final Whartscape, the over-the-top celebration of all things underground. And what a way to go out. You have our pity if you missed reunited early-’90s Annapolis hardcore legend Universal Order of Armageddon tear into a sweat-soaked Floristree, or the reunited Oxes shredding for light rail trains on Howard Street, or the subtle and gorgeous majesty of Lower Dens sounding absolutely perfect on Sonar’s big-room sound system. Word is that something might happen next year—perhaps a camping festival of some kind—but nothing like the swollen beast Whartscape became this year.
Conditions at Insubordination Fest
Festivals and expensive bottled water are a poor combination, and May’s Insubordination Fest, a two-day multi-band concert, went down as one hellish weekend at Sonar. Day one allowed re-entry, free cups of water, and bottled water for $1, but by day two, re-entry was denied, bartenders refused to provide cups of water, and bottled water jumped in price to as much as $4. Even bathroom sinks were off limits for hydration, because concertgoers needed to find a new source of water when the toilets overflowed. A commenter on punknews.org wrote: “Pretty much every awful thing people are saying is true. By the end of Saturday there were puddles of urine and feces floating into the hallways.” Post-weekend, Sonar owner Dan McIntosh and Fest co-founder Mark Enoch pointed fingers and hurled accusations via Midnight Sun, the Baltimore Sun’s nightlife blog. WTF indeed.
Best Movie Theater
The Charles Theatre
1711 N. Charles St., (410) 727-3456, thecharles.com
There are schmancier theaters and theaters with more and bigger screens, not to mention more snacks, 3D glasses, and video games in the lobby. But likely as not we go to the movies to see a good movie, and week in and week out, it’s hard to beat the Charles on that score. In addition to its typical day-to-day mix of arty hits, indie comers, and foreign and documentary titles, the Charles serves up the Cinema Sundays sneak-preview-and-a-nosh screening/discussion series and hosts the annual Maryland Film Festival, an orgy of little-seen gems and film-nerd companionship. Even the (hopefully temporary) loss of its repertory series can’t change the fact that when we’re in the mood for a film, we always check the Charles first.
Best Movie Deal
Beltway Movies 6
7660 Belair Road, (410) 882-5911
Yes, you’re right—being a semi-professional movie-writer person totally spoils you for going to the movies. Seeing almost everything for free in a theater with only a handful of critics is totally the way to see a movie. And we had no idea just how spoiled we are until we took the better half to see a movie on a Sunday afternoon. Two tickets for a 4 p.m. start time for a movie that’s been out for three weeks? $21. After picking our chins off the counter and hitting the ATM to be able to afford popcorn and soda, it suddenly hit us that next time, we need to do what we usually do: wait until the movie hits the wonderful Beltway Movies 6, where that $4 nightly ticket price ($3 before 6 p.m., and all day for seniors and children) means you can still take your girl to see a flick without dropping two Andrew Jacksons in the process.
Best Local Film
Catherine Pancake’s “bitterbittertears”
Filmmakers, like other artists, are often too quickly pegged by genre. While Catherine Pancake may still be best known for her 2006 documentary Black Diamonds, her most recent work takes its cues from the avant garde. “Bitterbittertears” might be best described as a study of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant. Pancake recreates the bedroom where almost all the activity in the Fassbinder original takes place, and her actors, including the queer performance artist Erin Markey, reproduce the performances in Fassbinder’s film. But instead of a feckless recreation, a la Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, Pancake lets you watch the actors repeat the shifting positions and speech patterns that are so essential to the film. “Bitterbittertears” is the rare remake that stays true to the vision of the original while deviating from it at the same time.
Best Next-Level Shit
Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill is a game-changer in local cinema—a deeply arresting, gorgeous indie movie that puts a spotlight on Baltimore that is neither camp nor crime. Before the beginning of the movie, a man has died. Drugs, it seems. The movie is about the dozen or so people close—or maybe not even that close—to him and how they react. And through a brave, formal, faux-documentary stylistic twist, we get a fractured snapshot of how one person can be much more than the sum of his parts. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: This is the movie Gus Van Sant wishes he could make.
Best Film Series
Contemporary Israeli Films at MICA
When Israeli documentary filmmaker Dan Geva came to MICA as the spring 2010 Schusterman Visiting Artist Resident, he and his wife Noit were also able to curate a short film series. Yishai Orian’s The Beetle, David Ofek’s No. 17, and the Gevas’ own moving and ingenious Description of a Memory provided a fascinating look at Israeli culture and people through the eyes of their own documentarians. Memory, a cinematic response to Chris Marker’s 1960 Description d’un Combat, especially clung to the brain, a pictorial essay directly confronting Israeli identity and the decisions the country has made. Haunting and beautiful.
Baltimore Museum of Art
10 Art Museum Drive, (443) 573-1700, artbma.org
Baltimore’s most forward-looking museum announced a $24 million renovation plan this summer, kick-starting yet more museum-experience upgrades under Director Doreen Bolger, the hardest-working woman in museum administration. What makes the place truly special, though, has always been its curators, and the past decade has witnessed the BMA become a crucible for nimble-minded contemporary curators, from Helen Molesworth to Darsie Alexander. And Kristen Hileman, the current curator of contemporary art, offers the first peek inside her mind’s eye with Front Room: Guyton\Walker, an installation from the New York-based collaborative team of Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker, which complements the mammoth Andy Warhol: The Last Decade opening next month.
2720 Sisson St., openspacebaltimore.com
Open Space, the one-year-old, collectively run gallery space in the rear of Sisson Street Automotive, has delivered a pleasantly inconsistent program since its September 2009 inception. Run by a fluctuating group of approximately 16 recent MICA graduates, exhibitions have ranged from comic-based works to painting and new media, from zine fairs to collaborative trash sculpture. With highlights including the smart, well-received group show The Suspended Moment, the all-women Puss Fust, and Fluorescent Brown (a salon of Kutztown, Pa., artists), Open Space is clearly not afraid to try something new, occasionally fall a little short of expectation, and, more often than not, exceed it.
Best Arts Blog
As a museum director, we love Doreen Bolger. As a blogger, we professionally wish she’d stop putting us to shame. If you do the art thing, then you know you see the Baltimore Museum of Art director everywhere, from warehouse and DIY art shows to more formal openings to playful MICA events. Over at her Art-Full Life blog, she offers her lively, enthusiastic take on everything she takes in—and, well, she takes in everything. Now, this is all fine and great, but she blogs 9,000 times more frequently than we can find the time to do, and she runs a museum. So very not fair.
Best Community Arts Series
Urban/Appalachia, Creative Alliance at the Patterson
The multi-platform Creative Alliance at the Patterson has always been good at coordinating events that reach out to the community, but with this spring’s Urban/Appalachia series—which focused on the historical feedback loop between Baltimore and Appalachian communities and populations—it really hit one out of the park. The series coordinated events and nights from the arts organization’s many tendrils—film, visual arts, music, community outreach, and advocacy—into one sprawling but focused group of programming that spotlighted what a community arts organization can achieve when it pushes itself.
Best We’re Gonna Miss You
Local artists moving on
People leave Baltimore every year, but this summer and fall feel especially poignant given the number of local artists leaving town and what they contributed to Baltimore’s cultural life. Some aren’t going too far. Kristen Anchor left her post at the Creative Alliance Moviemakers, but she’s sticking around to attend graduate school at UMBC. Animator Karen Yasinsky was awarded the 114th Rome Prize by the American Academy in Rome, meaning she and her husband John Standiford, who curated the Charles Theatre’s repertory film series, will spend the next year in the Eternal City. But others are saying goodbye proper. Visual artists Kate MacKinnon and Christine Bailey are seeing what lies beyond Baltimore—MacKinnon in New York and Bailey out west. Curator Jamillah James is also working on projects in New York. Performance artist and curator Ric Royer heads off to graduate school in Rhode Island, while filmmaker and Magic Eye Film Series founder/organizer Mary Helena Clark heads to graduate school in Chicago—which is also where local filmmaker/musician/curator Catherine Pancake, who has been a vital force in Baltimore’s experimental music/film, queer, performance, and activism communities since the early 1990s, is bound. A sincere and hearty congratulations to you all, but we’re definitely going to miss the fruits of your creative labors around these parts.
Best Goodbye Gift
Project 20, Irene Hofmann
This summer Contemporary Museum Executive Director Irene Hofmann accepted a new position as the Phillips director and chief curator of SITE Sante Fe, a nonprofit contemporary arts space whose biennials have deservedly earned international acclaim over the past decade. We couldn’t be happier for her, especially since she leaves the Contemporary after nearly five years of excellent curatorial and organizational work—and helping put together such a grand two-year celebration of the museum’s 20th anniversary. For Project 20 exhibitions, former Contemporary curators, artists, and artist collectives were invited to curate shows, turning one of the museum’s originating ideas—a museum without walls—into a pragmatic maxim that continues the institution’s tradition as a social/creative laboratory to experiment with what a contemporary art museum could and should be.
421 N. Howard St., currentspace.com
When the cooperatively run Current Gallery had to vacate its original location at 30 S. Calvert St. last fall, Baltimore visual arts lost one of its more irreverent and impish arts experiences. The Current was less a gallery than a place for young artists and emerging curators to unleash their perhaps wild ideas and see what worked and what failed. Fortunately, the collective secured a new space this summer at Howard and Franklin streets that’s large enough for the group to mount its imaginative mixed-media shows, and includes enough extra space to continue making studios available. And we can’t wait to see what the gang gets up to with the new building.
Best Shit We Totally Missed
Back in March we heard about some performance thing taking place at the Copycat Theater called Rooms Play, but the weekend it was staged we had already committed to other events. And then for the next month all we heard about was this amazing thing called Rooms Play that went down at the Copycat. And then somebody volunteered to write about it for us, and the copy was eaten when a virus wiped out both our home and work computers. And then we saw nearly an hour of video of Rooms Play posted on Vimeo (vimeo.com/10601038) that showed us that the event occupied what looked like nearly an entire floor of the Copycat building, turning the theater experience into a journey through a series of music/movement/other performances in elaborately decorated rooms. And all we can say is, you’re right: We suck for totally sleeping on this one.
Best Big Show
For his contribution to the Contemporary Museum’s Project 20 series, the museum’s founding director George Ciscle, now the curator-in-residence at MICA, suggested the undergraduate Exhibition Development Seminar that has been responsible for some of the more enervating local exhibitions in recent years. And with MICA art history, theory, and criticism faculty member Jennie Hirsh as the EDS instructor, a group of 18 undergraduates and seven professional mentors coordinated a sprawling, head-spinning exhibition of the mixed-media/installation work of husband and wife duo Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry involving five local institutions. McCallum and Tarry’s work dives straight into the heart of race, identity, and economic disparity with a deeply personal component, and spreading the work around Baltimore—no stranger to those issues—made for an acutely resonant poignancy.
Best Site-Specific Work
The Evergreen Museum and Library’s biennial outdoor sculpture exhibition consistently offers some playful fun, but the piece from Eric Leshinsky, C. Ryan Patterson, and Fred Scharmen (with the help of Michael Benevento, Gary Kachadourian, Sarah Doherty, Billy Mode, Jonathan Taube, and Services United) really delivered this year. For the cheekily titled “Evergreen Commons,” the artists created a mini urban “park”—a concrete slab with a bench surrounded by a chain-link fence, with graffiti on a brick wall, a netless basketball hoop, and an omniscient blue-light security camera—on the lovely grounds of the former home of a 19th-century railroad magnate. The reasons for class war are rarely so irreverently articulated.
Maryland Art Place
Power Plant Live, 8 Market Place, Suite 100, (410) 962-8965, mdartplace.com
In a little more than a year as the executive director of this long-running nonprofit arts center, Cathy Byrd has helped shape it into a more involved and active local arts hub. By introducing such activities as the Rush Hour evening-commute-time gallery hours and adding more community involvement to exhibitions, such as the Suz-ercise component of Losing Yourself in the 21st Century, MAP is showing that it wants to continue expanding its scope and footprint in the local arts community.
Baltimore has always boasted DIY galleries in apartments, warehouse spaces, old storefronts, wherever, but the recent activity of DIY out in plain sight has been a wonderful addition to the local landscape. Axis Alley (axisalley.wordpress.com) returned this year, mirthfully transforming the alleyway behind the 2000-2200 blocks of North Calvert Street, while Mirkwood Estates (mirkwoodestates.blogspot.com) has been using its yard space at the corner of Frisby and East 33rd streets for outdoor sculpture gardens. These areas are a little more interesting and subtle than look-at-me public art, which can sometimes seem to take over a site. The works in these areas often feel like they want to become a part of the environment, like little moments of visual glee to be stumbled across. And Baltimore has its history of that too: Who else remembers the Shrine of the Dog-Faced Girl?
Best Multipurpose Player
12 W. North Ave., (410) 244-8855, thewindupspace.com
Since opening a little more than two years ago, Russell de Ocampo’s roomy North Avenue bar has quickly emerged as a lively and versatile locale for all sorts of events. It’s the home to many a music show—in addition to the Out of Your Head Collective and Creative Differences series—but it’s also able to accommodate film series, such as Mondo Baltimore and the Maryland Morning Screen Test, and has enough wall space to house visual arts exhibitions, such as Andrew Liang’s positively transporting Double Dribble. And through such other events as the Baltimore Design Conversation, Vinyl Happy Hour, and whatever else somebody might come up with, the Windup is a go-to spot for whatever your arts venue needs.
Best DIY Hive
The Hexagon Space
1825 N. Charles St., hexagonspace.org
Consider this a plea for this collective not to go away. Last month the Hexagon sent out an e-mail saying that because its current volunteers were reaching a point in their creative endeavors that they didn’t have the ample time it takes to run the space as they have for the past two years, the future of the place was a bit in limbo. Given that it’s become an invaluable music/performance/meeting space for all stripes of underground and engagingly unconventional music/art, a Baltimore without the Hexagon is a much less interesting and inviting city.
Best Street Art
Tucked neatly into the city’s abandoned and boarded-up architecture, looking out peacefully over passersby, are the gigantic, stoic, wheat-pasted figures by local street artist Gaia. Pigeons, roosters, bears, and portraits of the artist’s grandfather watch over the city like contemporary totems and deities. An internationally prolific artist and a MICA student, Gaia has delighted Baltimore with pieces springing up in alleyways and on decrepit structures with increased fervor during the academic year. Installed all over the city, both independently and at least one piece in conjunction with Artscape, Gaia’s imagery has become an exciting component of the city’s changing facades.
We here at Baltimore’s Most Opinionated Alternative Weekly love the sound of our own voices, but at the end of the day let’s not kid ourselves about what these Best of Baltimore awards are: a very, very, very, very small group of Baltimoreans saying things in their out-loud voices. They’re intended to heap praise on the things we like and, well, sometimes toss snide comments at the things that annoy us. They come from a place of love, though, because we heart our city and, like many residents, want to see the good get better and the bad get less worse. Which is why this winter when the LOF/t went through its, uh, organizational changes, we were distressed to learn that the framed award for the 2009 Best New Theater laurel we gave to the LOF/t last year became a contended item during the performance space’s, uh, management transition. Now, we realize we have absolutely no control over these awards once we mail them out, but in light of actual possession of said framed piece of paper being turned into interpersonal leverage, we wanted to say two things right quick. 1) We believe that what makes Baltimore good are that its people band together to make Something Happen—such as creating an arts district—and that the city will become great only through the continued cooperative work of its creative thinkers and doers; and 2) Congratulations LOF/t for winning a Best of Baltimore award that is so incontrovertibly deserved.
Best New Book by a Local Author
Easter Rabbit by Joseph Young
Microfictionist Joseph Young has whittled the short story down to a few sentences—and often fewer than 50 words. What’s disarming is how effective these stories are in Easter Rabbit. You expect something so terse to feel incomplete, a mere piece of some greater whole, but the stories, moments, relationships, and feelings in these 100 pages end up saying all they need to in an artfully precise use of language.
Best Woman of Steel
Deborah Rudacille grew up in Dundalk, which was still a steel town at that point, just in time to watch the Sparrows Point millworks decline from one of the region’s primary economic forces to a skeleton crew outpost of a Russian iron company. And with the mill’s decline, so too went Dundalk and a half-century’s worth of gains in labor rights, also forged at the mill. Rudacille’s recent book Roots of Steel serves as a masterful document of the mill’s history and politics, and what it means for us now.
Best Book About Baltimore
Not in My Neighborhood: How bigotry shaped a great American city by Antero Pietila
The questions that intrigued Antero Pietila in the late 1960s when he arrived in Baltimore—such as, why is Bolton Hill white?—still illuminate his study of racial segregation by real-estate in Baltimore, especially since Pietila found many of the answers in the minds and archives of the city’s forgotten scholar-hoarders. “The . . . moment of revelation was when I was at the house of Melvin Sykes,” Pietila says. “He goes into the basement, comes out with these bulging files and says, ‘My father was a judge, and he told me never to throw anything away.’” It’s not just that Pietila’s careful research and taut, even-handed prose teaches us something important about the city’s last century. It’s that his book gets at almost everything that was important.
Best Role Model
John Waters is and always will be known for his depravity: for publicizing the previously unspeakable, for casting criminals as actors, for celebrating the campy, the lowbrow, the perverse. But his new memoir, Role Models, reminds us that Waters isn’t just motivated by cheap thrills, despite his healthy appreciation for them. His profiles of his own role models—from Tennessee Williams to an ex-Manson girl to a reclusive pornographer—reveal him to be a kind-hearted, deeply moral person. His oeuvre may be “assaultive,” as Stephen Colbert recently put it, but the world could do with a little more open-minded curiosity like his.
Best Reporter Porn
Combat Correspondents: The Baltimore Sun in World War II by Joseph R.L. Sterne
Joseph R.L Sterne’s account of The Baltimore Sun’s World War II correspondents is a fabulous, fascinating book that showcases an era when the Sun could cover a global event and be a major player in American journalism, while also considering the different nature of wartime reporting during this current era of constant media attention on America’s military actions. But for working journalists, the stories of the Sun’s reporters—such as Holbrook Bradley, Price Day, Lee McCardell, and Mark Watson—elicit a huge wallop of professional envy. Watson alone is a titan: He fought in WWI, and when WWII came rolling around he got attached to a unit that went from North Africa to Sicily and Rome, and then headed over to the Western front—when he was in his 50s.
Local writer/designer Justin Sirois and Egypt-based Iraqi refugee Haneen Alshujairy previously collaborated on the novel Falcons on the Floor. Since the beginning of this year they have been collaborating on another project, the Understanding Campaign. The goal: to get everyone in the world to read just one word of Arabic—fhm (pronounced “fuh’hem”), which means “understanding”—in hopes of getting people to consider opting for understanding over conflict. To date, a number of other artists—including Baltimore’s Post Typography and Squid Fire and Egyptian calligrapher Ahmed Kandil—have created their versions of fhm written in Arabic, and Sirois and Haneen launched their Kickstarter drive for the campaign Sept. 20, hoping to raise funds to start a nonprofit organization that promotes literary projects that bring the Arab- and English-speaking worlds closer. Shukran.