The Baltimore Round Robin Tour Goes An Extra Round At Home

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The Baltimore Round Robin Tour 2008 is one of the more brilliant ideas to come out of the Wham City collective in its past few years. Not only did the two-night traveling show give exposure to dozens of local acts while pulling respectable crowds across the midwest and East Coast with the buzz of bigger names like Beach House and Dan Deacon, but the format was so innovative and elegantly executed that it's a shock no one else thought of it first. A club show with several small makeshift stages, where each act takes turns playing just one song or piece at a time, whipping from one act to another with no breaks, the Round Robin basically shrinks down the experience of a really exciting music festival, making both the physical scale and the time frames much smaller. Instead of wandering from one stage to another every hour or so, you find yourself whipping your neck around every five minutes, as one song concludes and you hear some new confusing sound rise up behind you. On Thursday, Dec. 18, Baltimore finally got a taste of what some of the rest of the country already got to experience back in October, as the first of Round Robin's two homecoming shows landed at Sonar.

The tour's two shows in each city were divided into an "eyes night," with a focus on headier and more theatrical acts, and a "feet night," dedicated to the tour's more body-moving performances. Unfortunately, I was only able to check out one show and decided on the former, and feel a bit like I may have made the wrong choice. Although the overall lower volume and quieter pace of the first night helped the non-stop marathon nature of the concert easier to get through, it still ended up being a strange, protracted experience, and often not a pleasant one.

A pattern began to develop throughout the "eyes night," categories by which the disparate set of performers could be grouped together, both by their sound and by their physical role in the concert. There were the noisy instrumental bands, such as Teeth Mountain and Nautical Almanac, which mainly performed in a poorly lit and barely visible area toward the back of the room, but made some of the most fascinating sounds heard that night, whether you could see them or not. There were the mellow rock acts--such as Beach House, Jana Hunter, and Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez--who played on Sonar's big stage. There were oddball novelty bands Santa Dads and the Creepers, who were no louder than the likes of Beach House but more overtly humorous and rowdy in their performances. There were vocal acts, such as Ed Schrader and Lexie Mountain Boys, who mainly performed a cappella with unpredictable theatrical touches. And there were multimedia presentations, like that of Blue Leader and Show Beast, who combined oratory with preassembled video pieces shown on a screen behind them.

If that lineup sounds like a feast for the senses, it was. But the show traditionally goes for three rounds through the whole lineup, and each round takes at least an hour. So by the time it was announced that the show would go for an unusual fourth round, the feast was something like a never-ending Thanksgiving, with extra helpings of every dish whether you want it or not. One-joke bands like the Creepers--who sang boring songs with happy-go-lucky lyrics and bland keyboard-and-vocals arrangements but made weird faces and tried to force some kind of high-concept irony onto their lack of ideas--became more unbearable every time they appeared under the spotlight. Even Blue Leader, a bizarrely costumed lecturer on the topic of video games, who was a commanding and entertaining presence in the first three rounds, appeared caught unaware by the fourth round, and awkwardly read his last piece off a laptop screen.

Meanwhile, entertaining one-offs like Show Beast and an improvised two-person play that took place in the middle of the crowd kept things fresh and unpredictable, and Ed Schrader and the Lexie Mountain Boys managed to bring a new approach to each performance they gave. Still, as the show dragged into its fifth hour, we had to limp home, having enjoyed the sensory overload and been impressed by the organization of the concert, but nonetheless somehow underwhelmed by its cumulative effect.