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Despite rain, last Whartscape barely misses a beat

Shirtless and dripping sweat, the lead singer from Little Howlin' Wolf had just shuffled off stage with his saxophone and bird call when a strong wind gusted across the dusty parking lot.

Then with a sharp crack, the edges of the tarp covering the stage flew upward, lifting high it above the Whartscape music festival like a blue sail.

Dozens of people — girls in boxy dresses and sandals, men in striped shirts and scuffed canvas sneakers — ran forward and grabbed the edges. The wind spit hot dust into their faces and fat drops of rain began to fall.

The crowd parted and a vaguely avuncular man with a bushy, red beard and thick, blue-rimmed glasses hurried past.

"If anyone lives in the nearby area and has a tarp, please bring it," said Dan Deacon, one of Baltimore's best-known experimental musicians and one of Whartscape's founders.

Deacon has said that the festival, which spanned three days and several venues this year, will not be held next year. First organized five years ago as an offbeat response to Artscape, the festival has grown large and the planning unwieldy, he said.

The rain poured down in sheets. People hustled instruments into a shed and wrapped sheets of plastic around speakers.

Musicians and fans pulled down the edges of the tarp and reflected on Whartscape, a festival that draws some of the city's best bands as well as national acts.

As wind rippled the tarp, Tate James, 22, said he had moved from Oklahoma six months ago because he was drawn by the city's music scene.

"It's beautiful that there are no corporate sponsors," said James, who played with the Dan Deacon Ensemble earlier in the weekend. "It's wonderful to go to a music festival without banks throwing beach balls at you."

Patrick Rife, 30, of Hamilton, said he had seen a major shift in the city's music scene in recent years. "There's a large body of kids that appreciate more left-field music. The good music used to be in D.C. Now all the good stuff comes here."

When the rain lessened, a group of people spun in a circle, shaking their hands and chanting, "Sunshine come." A man beat time on a broken foam cooler.

Inside the Current Gallery, Deacon shepherded musicians and those he called "head Whartspeople" into a room littered with drums, maracas and cow bells. Should the bands chance playing outside again? Where else could they play? Could they squeeze more stages in the H&H building, a gallery, studio and living space for artists?

Outside, the sun reappeared and steam rose from the lot. A long line snaked out from the "Dragon Wraps" stand for burritos made with tomatoes and zucchini from nearby One Straw Farm.

Madeline Peters, 21, a senior at Maryland Institute College of Art, sat barefoot on a stained backseat of a car propped against the outside wall of the gallery.

"I think the way everyone pitches in just goes to show we have a beautiful thing going on," she said. "I think [the arts scene] gets labeled as 'too cool for school.' But if you're willing to participate, people are willing to include you."

Andy Stack, half the duo behind Wye Oak's lush sounds, noted how the same bands had played the festival each year, but drew much larger crowds as their reputations grew.

"I have a feeling that even if the this doesn't happen next year, there will be something else," Stack said.

Just then, Deacon reappeared and the crowd grew silent, save for sneakers scuffing across the gravel.

"I wrote a couple jokes about the rain. Here's the first one: We put up these tarps to stop the rain," he said, then paused as everyone laughed.

But, in less than an hour, Deacon and company had worked out a plan. Some bands, including Wye Oak, Beach House and Celebration, would play at Sonar. Others would double up at H&H. A few would play in the lot.

"We will have everything as horribly figured as we had everything else figured out," Deacon said to cheers and applause.

Julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/juliemore

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