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Whartscape 2008 Kicks Off at the Charles: Whartscape, Charles Theatre, July 17

Wham City's alternative to Artscape is only in its third year, but already it's starting to feel like an institution. So much attention, in the indie press and online, was lavished on last year's festival and the advance hype for this year's installment that you get the feeling there are a good number of people across the country now who have heard of Whartscape but have no idea there was something called Artscape first. And that rapid growth was further demonstrated on Thursday night, when Whartscape got started a night earlier than its parent festival for its first four-night run, taking over the Charles Theatre, just like the High Zero Festival used to do back in the day.

Wham City has always had a heavy performance-art element beyond the mere musicians among the collective's numbers, and Thursday night's bill looked almost deliberately put together to reflect that Whartscape is not just a rock concert. Perhaps it was just a logistical decision, given that this was the only night that the festival would be held in a room with seats and a movie screen, but the first four sets all mixed music with some form of theatrics or oratory, and only one of them actually featured anyone playing a musical instrument. That set was the first, by Missoula Oblongata, which put on a full-on play with occasional folk-song interludes. The play was somewhat abstract and intellectual, touching on mathematics, marriage, and fortune cookies, with playfully disorienting dialogue and amusingly low-budget set design. But what could've been impenetrably pretentious turned out to be charming and even somewhat profound, thanks to the strength of the songs and the inventiveness of the writing.

Ric Royer took the night even further away from simple musical recital, with a brief solo performance piece consisting of nothing but him at a microphone, not quite singing or reciting poetry. Dressed in a shirt and tie and speaking softly in a strange, stilted manner, Royer strongly brought to mind the stage presence of David Byrne. At the end of his performance, he proposed an experiment to the audience, wherein everyone would cheer wildly for anything he said, as if he was a candidate at a political rally. And it went down beautifully, with Royer bringing down the house with nonsensical exclamations like "blow jobs!" and "Mr. McGillicutty, mow your lawn!" as if they were inspiring campaign promises.

The nadir of the night was the next act, Ben Heresey, which were three guys who ran onstage chanting "C&C Music Factory" and proceeded to perform silly interpretive dance routines to an ironic backdrop of cheese-ball pop music while dressed in ridiculous outfits. At one point, two of the men wore ALF masks while shooting suction-cup arrows at the other one, who was wearing an Incredible Hulk costume, while "Easy Lover" and "What Is Love" played in the background. They occasionally pulled a gag that was hard not to chuckle at, but overall it was the kind of smirky meta bullshit that occasionally makes the whole Wham City attitude pretty unbearable. They could've just taken off their clothes and rolled around in their own feces onstage and accomplished pretty much the same thing, but then they wouldn't have gotten to show off their knowledge of campy 1980s pop.

The theme of pop-culture regurgitation continued, for the better, with Blue Leader, a guy in a blue jumpsuit who put on a much more impressive presentation about the history of video games, waxing rhapsodic about the psychological appeal of first-person shooters and fatality moves in fighting games. And then, finally, just before the intermission, a fucking band came onstage. It was called Teeth Mountain, and its triple-drummer instrumental assault was cool, but would've been better if any of the three drummers could play more than the most rudimentary rhythms. After the intermission, the night took an about face into full-on music, with a great, short set of squirrelly improvisation noise from Leprechaun Catering, a great example of a Baltimore band that preceded the rise of Wham City but fits perfectly into its aesthetic.

But there was one more mixed-media performance left, from Mark Hosler of the pioneering sound collage group Negativland. Hosler, who has been touring the college lecture circuit with his presentation about the history of the group, is a likable and self-effacing speaker, and he had some entertaining stories about Negativland's misadventures in pulling media hoaxes and getting sued by U2, with numerous audiovisual aids. Hosler also made a great case for how Negativland's mischievous art of appropriation precedented the cut-and-paste YouTube mash-up aesthetic that pervades so much of both indie and mainstream culture today. The fact that someone like Hosler has been making such art for nearly 30 years, and now has some thoughtful things to say about it, makes the more puerile spot-the-reference doodles of Ben Heresey and some of the jokier Wham City acts look much less interesting or transgressive than they're seemingly meant to be.

The night closed with a trio of great, weird instrumental acts that incorporated visuals into their performances but kept the emphasis on the wild sounds they made. A rare live performance of Ultimate Reality, Jimmy Joe Roche and Dan Deacon's psychedelic mash-up of various Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, could've come off as more empty pop-culture appropriation. But the arresting treatment of the visuals, combined with some live musicians totally rocking the fuck out, made it feel more like some bizarrely awesome new version of Laser Floyd. After that sensory overload, the more esoteric noise of Nautical Almanac was a bit anticlimactic. But the night ended on a high note with Matmos, the veteran electronic duo that relocated from San Francisco to Baltimore last year. The subtle, cerebral approach of its synthesizer-driven set may have sounded like an odd fit for the spastic enthusiasm that defines Whartscape. But the Baltimore music community appears to have welcomed Matmos with open arms, and for its part the duo appeared happy to be caught up in its madness.

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