Halfway through their recent show at 2640 Space, Celebration parted the sky.
Giant white orbs already hovered over the crowd, and lightning-like flashes bathed the stage in red and purple and back to red again.
But now clouds bounced from side to side, like beach balls.
Singer Katrina Ford, in a slip of a dress, red curls cascading over her face, had just burst from backstage, microphone in hand, and flung bouquets of white balloons into the crowd.
Unlike other bands whose work might be minimalist or tortured, Celebration maximizes. They don't just get on stage and play. Their shows are multisensory experiences that invite a giddy, party atmosphere. Recently, they've been doing themed shows.
"We go to all these lengths because it's a special occasion. We don't play that often," Ford says. "The name is Celebration. We have to live up to that name."
This one wasn't taking place just on just any stage, for starters. But inside St. John's of Baltimore, the 110-year-old church on St. Paul Street.
With a team of some 10 to 15 people, they spent two days decorating the church's stripped-down interior with a cloud motif. During the show, birds were projected flying on the lofty ceiling.
There was even fluffy cotton candy for sale.
The show was in honor of their new album, "Hello Paradise," but it also marked the beginning of a new phase in the band's career, one in which shows like this one will become more important.
They produced the album over the past three years without a label's support and are releasing it on their own terms, letting music buyers choose what they want to pay, a move that essentially makes profit an afterthought.
It's their most idiosyncratic yet, and sounds it. "Hello Paradise" brims with quirks — Hindustani music motifs and a central conceit that revolves around the tarot. For the first time since they formed, it finds them entirely in control, for better or worse.
The band, in one form or another, has been around Baltimore for over a decade, so that its members are seen as elder statesmen of the scene.
The March show's 600 tickets sold out. Two younger bands, Arbouretum and Future Islands, each with relatively successful albums to their name already, opened for them.
"I think they're great role models for the younger wave of Baltimore musicians," says Caleb Moore, singer of upstart Lands & Peoples. "It's really inspiring how much energy they're pouring into their music and shows. You can tell they're pouring their hearts out."
Over the years, Celebration has had many configurations. The stable points are its two lyricists, Ford and Sean Antanaitis, who are married and have been performing together for 20 years.
She doesn't like to talk about the past — she might have actually groaned when asked — but here's the short of it:
First, they led a Goth-punk band called Jaks out of Ann Arbor, Mich., where she and Antanaitis grew up, that now actually enjoys something of a cult status. After that band broke up, they moved to Baltimore in the late '90s for, Ford says, no reason other than they had friends here and it looked as if Baltimore had few chances of gentrifying.
While working at Whole Foods, Antanaitis met drummer David Bergander and along with bassist Anthony Malat formed Love Life, which stuck together through two albums before breaking up. Ford and Antanaitis performed as duo Birdland for a bit but regrouped with Bergander in 2004 as Celebration.
For the past five years, they've been working with three other multi-instrumentalists, Tony Drummond, Walker Teret, and Tommy Rouse.
Most of them are in their early to late 30s — Drummond is 40 — and have day jobs; four work as piano movers. Ford moonlights all over town.
"I got, like four jobs," she says. "I sometimes appear in other people's records. I paint. I work at a friend's clothing store. I bartend once a week. I'm a landlord."
She sounded like she might could have gone on. When she and her band mates talk about music, they sound like jaded slackers, giving an air of friendly grifters who've been around the block.
"I know many guitar players, drummers, and singers, we all know each other here, and if I don't know you yet, I will," Teret boasts.
Ford in particular affects a charming swagger, often calling herself a hustler in conversation.
That insouciance and sense of play comes across in concert too, where they try hard to put on something that's more of an installation than a show.
"We named the band Celebration because it's what we wanted to experience, and hopefully, we wanted to share that with others," she says.
On Saturday, Ford took the stage around 10 p.m., following a manic performance by Future Islands' Sam Herring, who paced across the stage like a pentecostal preacher mid-trance.
Dressed in a loose, knee-length beige dress cinched by a saucer-sized copper buckle, Ford didn't so much move as stroll. She doesn't make big gestures save for shaking her tambourine or occasionally banging the drums.
Her vocal range is fungible. It can be aggressive (as in "Junky"), forlorn ("Shelter") or witchy ("What's this Magical"), so that she comes across as Janis Joplin as played by Stevie Nicks.
The shows can hit as many notes. The encore was a moody ballad from their last album, but just before it, "Great Pyramid" was a showstopper that made the church's vast interior feel like the inside of a jukebox.
Ford says the theatricality comes out of wanting to distinguish themselves from other bands.
"We want to build an environment so that it's not an 'everyday' kind of experience; it's more of an installation," she says.
In the past three years, instead of doing back-to-back shows as they did for their first two albums, they've slowed down to a month apart to plan elaborate themes.
That pace, along with the languorous speed at which they produced their album, is thanks to their divorce in 2008 from major indie label 4AD.
The label, which also represents crossover band TV on the Radio, had signed them up in 2005, way before other local bands like Beach House and Wye Oak got major label recognition.
But Ford says the decision to break with them was ideological. Working through the red tape and bureaucracy of a label was cumbersome, she says. There were meetings about cover art or lyrical content that for a band that appreciates their freedom as much as Celebration does was suffocating, Ford says.
A label also demanded that they go on two-month, soul-scorching tours.
"I'm 38; I don't want to do that anymore," she says. "Unless someone pays me a lot of money and they want to make it super cushy, but that doesn't happen in rock 'n' roll."
The whole episode was a setback, but as she and Antanaitis started writing new songs in the aftermath, she says they rediscovered why they got into music to begin with.
"You don't realize it when you start out, you're just making stuff for the sake of making stuff, but what you're doing is giving a voice to something you didn't know how to say," she says. "We got down to the basics of what we really enjoyed about music, and we ended up going pretty far with it."
Nine of the 22 songs they wrote became "Hello Paradise." They've been working on and off at this album since they left the label, mainly at the basement of the couple's Remington home, where they built a home studio that they dubbed Night Worm.
Ford says they wanted to take their time with the album and play with all the second-hand equipment they'd bought to pimp out their dingy studio. The upside of going at it solo is that, without a label, there was no pressure to follow a timeline.
"There's some songs that have been redone 30 times," Ford says.
To release it, they went to Friends Records, a micro label started last year by Brett Yale and Jimmy MacMillan to release mainly vinyl records.
"They wanted to be creative in their way and not have any restrictions," Yale says.
The label allowed them to release the songs as they were finished, which they started doing in early 2009.
Eventually, all of the songs were available on the website to stream or download for free before the official release date in January, an unconventional move that they say takes for granted what major labels are fighting.
"With the music industry now, things are ending up online anyway. To put it out there yourself controls that," Yale says. "This brings the fans in directly, as opposed to them finding them music on a file-sharing site."
That's a decision that comes with a risk, says Carpark Records' Todd Hyman, who represents Dan Deacon, a Baltimore musician with a national following.
Radiohead famously did it in 2008, but they're a mainstream band that could depend on legions of fans to pay full price.
"If you come out giving away your music, you are setting yourself up for a situation in which you know you won't be making much money on record sales," he says.
For a small band, the path is not as clear, but he's not counting Celebration out either. "Every band and every release is different. What works for one band may be totally wrong for another," he says. "I suppose the jury is still out, but it could be a good strategy for Celebration."
Yale wouldn't say how many albums have been downloaded or how many of them have been sold. He says sales are ultimately important only in covering the costs of production.
In addition to the pay-what-you-want album downloads, the band is also selling a $15 package that includes vinyl, a CD and original art work by Ford.
Ford plans on releasing the rest of the songs that came out after their breakup with their old label online as they're ready, part of what they're calling their Electric Tarot project.
The plan underscores their sense of experimentation, but it's also as much of a gamble as the past three years have been.
Although they have written two more records' worth of material, she still doesn't know how they're going to find the money to produce them.
"We don't exactly know how to make a dime," she says. "We don't even know how to make any money. We just do it because we love to do it."
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