Some of the best music in the city lives in unofficial spaces
Published: August 16, 2010
From Philip Glass to Wham City, Baltimore has long been a breeding ground and birthplace for progressive musical voices. The abundance of community-run performance spaces here is the lifeblood of the scene. These spaces range from one-room apartments to massive lofts that serve as alternatives to the city’s larger venues, and although new spaces are born and others quietly shut down all the time, a recent explosion of DIY venues has stoked and been fueled by a growing national profile as a cheaper alternative to, say, Brooklyn.
While these spaces are ubiquitous, most remain technically underground. A trained eye can discover a psychedelic litany of fliers advertising these shows, and the web abounds with links to MySpace schedules. Some information about the spaces and those who run them has been withheld.
Floristree (myspace.com/floristree) is a perfect example of what is possible for community-run spaces. Charm City has many fine, more official music venues for traveling artists, but the draw of Floristree has grown to rival such above-ground locales as Sonar and the Ottobar, hosting acts ranging from local synth-driven sensation Future Islands to national indie headliner Dirty Projectors. Run in part by local noise godhead Jason Urick, Floristree has been spotlighted in Rolling Stone and boasts a sizable capacity for a loft-cum-venue.
Charm City Art Space (1729 Maryland Ave., ccspace.org) is an invaluable fixture in the city-dubbed Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Primarily an outlet for punk bands, CCAS hosts a wide variety of acts across the DIY spectrum, along with the occasional gallery installation. Offering membership for all those wishing to get involved, CCAS stretches out its arms to anyone from the community searching for a safe place and acceptance, as detailed in its manifesto: “To focus our energies as a buffer to filter out negative influences including but not limited to: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism, violence, and judgmental fundamentalism. To provide a space free from drugs and alcohol where all are welcome. All decision making shall be a collective effort with equal weight given to all.”
The Red Room at Normal’s Books and Records (425 E. 31st St., redroom.org) is a haven for free improvisation, neoclassical compositions, the outer reaches of the jazz universe, and experimental film, among other things. Operating out of venerable secondhand shop Normal’s Books and Records, this space is a verifiable Baltimore institution, in operation since 1996. Playing an integral part in the annual (and highly praised) High Zero experimental music festival, the Red Room is a critical outlet for jazz nerds and the avant-garde inclined to congregate.
Tarantula Hill (2118 W. Pratt St., heresee.com/tarantulalink.htm) is run by local artists (musical and otherwise) Twig Harper and Carly Ptak (the latter an occasional City Paper contributor). Founded in 2001, T. Hill’s longevity is a direct testament to their dedication and love of creation. Located on the city’s west side, the space has played an intrinsic role in fostering Baltimore’s rich and diverse noise scene via its monthly-ish shows, home to all things strange and bizarre, like some genetic splice of a kitschy Coney Island museum and the No Wave scene of early 1970s New York City. It also hosts the in-house Esoteric Library, where you can satisfy your interest in alternate history, shamanism, and/or metaphysics.
Ruintown (myspace.com/ruintown), whose name was born of late-night knuckled tattoo sketches, is located in an abandoned mill and has been converted into a performance space primarily for punk bands, with an appropriate mini skate ramp. Johns Hopkins grads Glenn Gentzke (of Pfisters and formerly Trash Camp), Dave Cummings, and Dan DeFrancisco started out hosting Wednesday-night skate nights for locally sponsored skaters. Now Ruintown is a refuge for all things street culture, from crust punks to upscale streetwear photo shoots, and has quickly established itself as a destination for nose rings and nose stalls in Charm City.
Ad-hoc spaces and local shows are great for the starving college student, but if you’re looking for bigger bands and can swing bigger covers, Baltimore is flush with more mainstream venues.
For more populist sounds, your best bet may be the cavernous Rams Head Live (20 Market Place,  244-1131, ramsheadlive.com) just a block or so from the Inner Harbor. Recently, Rams Head has hosted everyone from indie newcomers Passion Pit to hip-hop/pop star Timbaland. Tickets can jump above the $25 mark.
Sonar (407 E. Saratoga St.,  783-7888, sonarbaltimore.com) features a mixture of big headliners like M.I.A. on the main floor and in-vogue indie bands like the Golden Filter in the more intimate Talking Head Club. It’s also the key spot for many big hip-hop shows. The spaces are small, and summer shows get hot and sweaty. Tickets tend to range from $10-$15 and often sell out fast.
For the real Charm City college concert experience, local indie institution the Ottobar (2549 N. Howard St.,  662-0069, theottobar.com), located within walking distance of the MICA and Johns Hopkins campuses, provides the perfect potpourri of hipster ambiance and awesome, amped-up music. The space is kind of grimy, but the club attracts touring bands like Surfer Blood and Yeasayer as well as local acts, and shows are usually no more than $15.
Another convenient spot to check out popular acts is Towson’s Recher Theatre (512 York Road, Towson,  337-7178, rechertheatre.com). A few blocks from Towson University and an easy stop on the Collegetown Shuttle, the Recher has recently played host to big bands like Tea Leaf Green and Citizen Cope. Shows usually range from $10-$20. Many concerts are 21 and over, so make sure to check the age minimum before buying a ticket.
For big outdoor shows, make the journey to the legendary Merriweather Post Pavilion (10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia,  715-5550, merriweathermusic.com) in suburban Columbia. Yeah, it seems far from the city, and tickets can cost anywhere from $25 for lawn seats and up into the $100s, but if you’re into big-time acts and traveling festivals like the Vans Warped Tour, Merriweather is the place to go. Recent shows include Drake and My Morning Jacket.
Take advantage of the music that misses Baltimore and comes through nearby Washington, D.C. and head to the 9:30 Club (815 V St. NW, Washington,  265-0930, 930.com). Old-school acts like Hole might climb into the $40 price range, but you can get, say, Matt Pond PA and Metric for under $25. (Rebecca Fishbein)
For more complete info on venues and shows in the Baltimore area, your best bet is to pick up a copy of each week’s City Paper, or visit citypaper.com.