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With First Thursdays in Baltimore canceled this year, Rufus Roundtree to take pirate ship stage Saturday

Coronavirus shuttered WTMD's First Thursdays concert series. Rufus Roundtree (pictured in 2017) and Da B’More Brass Factory are bringing it back on a pirate ship.
Coronavirus shuttered WTMD's First Thursdays concert series. Rufus Roundtree (pictured in 2017) and Da B’More Brass Factory are bringing it back on a pirate ship. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Rufus Roundtree has performed for revelers at the Preakness, serenaded Baltimoreans from the sidewalk amid the ongoing pandemic, and even once played his trombone from the back of a dump truck in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

On Saturday, the popular Baltimore-based funk artist and his New Orleans-style brass band, Da B’More Brass Factory, will board the Urban Pirates ship and sail around the harbor, performing a series of 15- to 20-minute sets that will be audible in Canton, Fells Point, the Inner Harbor, Federal Hill and Locust Point.

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“As long as I can keep my balance, I’m good to go,” said Roundtree, who also performs with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. “They say I wear a pirate hat anyway. Now I’ll have a ship to go with it.”

The floating mini-concerts are scheduled in waterfront neighborhoods at the following times:

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6 p.m. – Canton Waterfront Park

6:30 p.m. – Fells Point

7 p.m. – Inner Harbor

7:20 p.m. – Federal Hill Park

7:40 p.m. – Locust Point

The “Pirate Radio Cruise,” presented by WTMD and Stages Music Arts, is temporarily replacing the popular summertime First Thursdays live music series in Canton Waterfront Park, which was canceled this year along with all other large public gatherings due to the coronavirus.

Having to call off First Thursdays was a “gut punch” to the Towson University radio station, said Sam Sessa, the station’s Baltimore music coordinator.

“It’s our love letter to Baltimore City: a giant, free festival that happens five times every summer,” he said. “Since we made the call to cancel the series, we’ve been thinking about ways we could bring live music back to Baltimore. Live music brings people together in a way that few other things can.”

WTMD officials considered various, socially distant alternatives, including rooftop concerts in different city neighborhoods and at the radio station in Towson, before deciding on the pirate ship, Sessa said.

Instead of performing on a roof above a limited audience that likely wouldn’t be able to see the musicians, they reasoned, “you could just cruise around, make a bunch of stops, and give five free concerts in an evening instead of one,” Sessa said.

The Urban Pirates quickly agreed to provide the ship, crew and two generators for free, and Stages Music Arts donated the use of a large public-address system to amplify the songs from the ship’s starboard side, he said. Boaters can enjoy the music from their vessels.

The Urban Pirates have an onboard stereo system for the limbo and other games. But it’ll be their first time staging a full-blown concert, said Cara Joyce, the president and owner of the Baltimore cruise company. She also operates Urban Pirates National Harbor near Washington, D.C.

“We’re crossing our fingers that everything goes off without a hitch,” Joyce said. “If it goes well, we can do them all through the fall. Why not? We’re happy to do it. As soon as they called me, I said, ‘We’re in. I think it’d be great for Baltimore.‘”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Urban Pirates’ cruises for children and adults have been reduced to weekends-only from six days a week. To allow for social distancing, each ship now sails with 25 people aboard, rather than the usual 49.

While logistical issues will prevent WTMD from broadcasting the performance live the way it typically does with others, the concerts will be recorded and released in some way or another, Sessa said.

Roundtree, who recently wrapped up a series of eight back-to-back “Sidewalk Serenades” in Baltimore with the Creative Alliance, is looking forward to performing more regularly. Due to all the canceled gigs, he’s had to pick up an office job, working remotely from home during the pandemic, he said.

“It’ll be good to get back to playing,” he said.

Instead of a tip jar, the band plans to hang a banner off the side of the ship directing listeners to their Cash App ($rufusbmore) and Venmo (@rufusbmore) accounts.

The roving, short sets are intended to encourage social distancing and limit the crowds who gather in any one place, Sessa said. He hopes the event is a pleasant surprise to those who aren’t expecting it.

“A lot of people who end up seeing this concert are going to have no idea it’s coming,” he said.

Roundtree urged anyone who comes out to listen to “take care of themselves” and exercise proper social distancing. He promised an energetic show.

“We try to ride it till the wheels fall off, but we have no wheels on this one,” he said.

Roundtree and his band play funk “better than just about anybody else in Baltimore” and “lit up Baltimore’s neighborhoods” with their Sidewalk Serenades, the WTMD music coordinator said.

“We’re all hungry for some live music in Baltimore right now, and this is going to be the way we’re gonna bring it back,” Sessa said.

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