In the annals of Baltimore festivals adorned with the "-scape" suffix, DIY music has the proudest legacy.
Whartscape's five-year run (from 2005-2010) as the weekend-long premier showcase of Baltimore's underground music scene, growing to draw critically lauded national acts such as Brooklyn black metal group Liturgy, minimalist L.A. art punks No Age, and upstart meme rapper Lil B. Typically held right around the time of the city's stroller-filled celebration of the arts, the Wham City-curated festival was the weirder, more authentic counterweight.
A year after that ended, Scapescape came to fill the void, focusing strictly on Charm City bands and seemingly less concerned about serving as an answer to Artscape, avoiding Artscape's typical July date and scheduling for May its first year and late August its second. In an email, Dave Underhill, one of the Scapescape planners, says, "We've decided to take this summer off but we do have plans to return in 2015."
Then there's Ratscape, which began in 2012 at the Hour Haus as a send-off party for Kenny Sanders, one of the musicians involved with the practice-space-cum-DIY-venue-cum-recording-studio. Its first iteration was a wonderful mish-mash of bands, with a bit of a punk-metal edge, and defiantly scheduled in opposition to Artscape.
What all three serve to do is work as celebratory showcases of Baltimore's fringe music culture. Funnel cakes and safe headliner funk, rock, and blues have their place, but the real lifeblood of a music community is the people more deeply invested and willing to take risks. And now, with Scapescape up in the air and the new Fields Festival adopting the avant mantle of Whartscape and moving it to Harford County, Ratscape may end up as the sole great independent festival in the city. This year's edition, set for July 18-20, is without a doubt its best.
Ratscape's lineup cuts across genre lines and offers a large, diverse swath of the music scene, throwing it all into one sweat-soaked space. There's everything from the loaded synthscapes of Myconids to the hyper-energetic post-punk of ADVLTS to the club-hip-hop hybrid of TT the Artist. On the festival's third and final day, "Rapscape," set up with the help of the Llamadon collective, will rotate performances by MCs, beatmakers, and R&B singers as bands set up between sets. In all, it's nearly 60 bands over three days for just five bucks each day.
Joshua Schleupner, 25, and Mike Franklin, 33, Ratscape's organizers, see it as their mission to curate an eclectic, all-over-the-place lineup. What began as a party is now a bit of a party with a cause. Namely, bringing seemingly disparate parts of the Baltimore scene together. Schleupner talks about seeing attendees who might not have otherwise hung out hitting it off at last year's Ratscape. And he hopes the same thing happens again.
"It's such a small town, yet still manages to be so secular in so many little ways," he says while drinking a Boh at Liam Flynn's Ale House. "When people can actually come together, they can realize our city has a lot more potential than a lot of us think."
And the setting of Hour Haus is pretty important. Both Schleupner and Franklin note the way many of the city's DIY spaces have shut down or slowed to a trickle in recent years, and the places that have opened up to replace them —Club K, The Crown, and the already closed Gold Bar—fall in line with more traditional rock clubs. The live-entertainment licensing process that the city requires these venues to hold in order to operate, Franklin says, intrudes on the creative process.
"You're licensing or giving privilege to play music or be creative. That's the most bullshit thing you could ever do," he says. Ratscape bucks the traditional rock club model. All the money made at is divided up equally among bands, organizers, and security. No advances were given, because there was no money to give them.
Yes, these are some high-minded, Ian MacKaye-esque ideas for what a music festival can and should be, but the guys in charge of running it are mainly concerned with throwing one big fucking party: You come, you bring whatever food and booze you need, and you stand, sway, dance, or mosh in the stifling summer heat while getting increasingly fucked up during a full slate of bands.
And though it started out as a "reaction" to Artscape, the neighbor a few blocks down North Avenue, there's now sort of a partnership. Not in any formal way, but there are bands who will take the stage in Station North—where the festival makes it a point to highlight bands—before hauling their gear down to Hour Haus. There will no doubt be plenty of attendees walking the same path.
That's not a bad thing; such crossover shows the city is starting to get it.
"I think when you start to see crossover like that, you're starting to get it right. We're not trying to take a piece of anything," says Franklin. "Honestly, if more people just had shows and just did their thing, it would be better for the community."
So about that name. Other than being an obvious nod to the city's overflowing vermin population, it's also a simple flip of the a-r-t in Artscape. Most of the other suggestions were "unprintable, horrible things that you would never want to repeat in public," Franklin recalls.
But for Schleupner, there's a meaning that conveys a bit of a underdog mentality.
"We're the rats. We're the ones you step on on your way to the fucking dumpster," he says with a laugh. "You might not notice, but we are all around."