Baltimore’s band scene is booming. From punk, indie, soul, to “social” music, local performers are rocking Charm City across all genres.
“Seeing the music and arts of Baltimore continue to flourish against the rising tides of the pandemic and ongoing citywide challenges is something incredibly humbling. But that’s Baltimore to a T,” said Kim Te of Natural Velvet.
As the leaves begin to change colors, Baltimore artists and venues are gearing up for releases and shows. Check out some bands to listen out for as you sip your pumpkin spice and apple cider.
Brandon Woody’s Upendo
When trumpet player and band director Brandon Woody was in elementary school, he’d get “butterflies 10 minutes before every band rehearsal.”
“Early on I knew that was a sign that I’d stick with this instrument for the rest of my life,” Woody said.
Seventeen years since first picking up the instrument, Woody plays on other artists tracks, scores films and performs all manner of music. However, since childhood, Black music has always been a priority for the Baltimore native.
“Me and my friends made this group called Just Friends in high school in an effort to play Black music because we didn’t have any chances to. It was something fun that I did with my friends around the 10th grade. Every month it got more serious and we started working professionally in high school,” Woody, 24, said. “When I left Baltimore to go to college in California, I began to compose a lot more and knew that I wanted to form this band.”
Upendo, meaning “love,” in Swahili, was born.
Woody collaborates with pianist, Troy Long, who he’s known since middle school.
“He’s my right-hand man on most things concerning the music and motion for this group. When I dropped out of college and moved back to Baltimore, [we] lived right next to each other and we locked in and the group kept ascending,” Woody said.
In addition to his close friend, Woody said the band encompasses ”a big family that has rotating members for different opportunities. I have multiple drummers, bassists, guitarists, singers and saxophonists.”
Staying true to the name of the group, Woody emphasizes the power of love through his tunes.
“My biggest message in music is love. It’s my intention to bring folks together from all walks of life with this music and to show folks that love is many different things and that all parts of love should be honored,” he said.
And Black music is still at the forefront of his love for sound.
“This music is Black music and social music. It is not ‘jazz,’” said Woody, adding that he doesn’t identify with the word and sees it as a label that was created to package Black music for the masses.
“Our music is all of my experiences growing up in Baltimore past and present,” he said. “This music is not new. I am simply being a vessel so that my ancestors can shine through me.”
Check out Brandon Woody’s Upendo every other Sunday at Art of Noire at 6:30 p.m. and throughout the area in September: Sept. 22 at Eubie Blake from 6 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. and 8:15 to 9 p.m., and Sept. 29 in concert at the University of Maryland College Park Clarice Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
After a decade in Baltimore’s music scene, Natural Velvet’s dark-sided post punk, indie rock, shoegaze, grunge sound is still ever evolving.
“We really allowed ourselves to stretch to fit whatever we wanted to create. The only rules are to never try to write the same song over and over, to grow and evolve, oh, and be good to one’s band mates — all marks of a sustainable, long-term music project, ultimately, at least, we certainly hope so,” said the band’s bassist and vocalist Corynne Osterman, 31.
Taking in their catalog over the years, listeners get a taste of everything. The band’s 2014 album “Shame” really plays up on that post-punk, rock sound with a touch of youthful grunge. By their 2016 single “Love is Love,” the band’s sound had taken a more mature sonic shift, with prominent vocals and a new drummer — Greg Hatem. He joined the group in 2014, the only change in the group’s 10-year history. The 2017 creative cover of Britney Spears’ classic “Gimme More,” is also worth a listen.
As a group of artists who met while in college at MICA, the band’s visual entertainment is just as important as its audio performance.
“A lot of what we do definitely comes from most of us being visual artists and always thinking about visuals with the music. I pull a lot of ideas from how certain music videos feel from the 80s to 2000s and video games from the same eras that I grew up with,” said the group’s founder and guitarist, Spike Arreaga.
The music video for the 2017 song “It’s All Mine,” features a fashion gumbo — camp, fitness pinup and queer punk — to create an aesthetically entertaining experience alongside a catchy tune. Think femme glam, men in short shorts and lots of water and glitter.
During the pandemic, Hatem, 35, and Arreaga, 31, pulled songs to reimagine. Collaborating with artists such as Drew Scott, Mateyo and Micah E. Wood, Natural Velvet released an album of five remixed songs called “Emblemata” in 2021.
The band continues to be inspired by Baltimore’s arts scene.
“There seems to be inspiration everywhere, especially recently,” said Hatem. “This city is just full of really talented and creative individuals. It’s kind of magic when everyone is working together as a community of artists to put on fabulous shows or release really fresh records.”
Growing up in Nigeria, the sounds of traditional Yoruba songs fostered Janelia McNair Sanya into the music loving performer she is today. Now, having discovered other genres such as soul and jazz, her seven-piece band Janeliasoul fuses Afrobeats with an expressive and sometimes sexy air, creating catchy songs for audiences to enjoy.
“The inspiration behind the group is to spread positive vibes through African rhythms and sounds,” said Sanya, 47. “We hope audiences will be moved to get up and dance and be free when they see our band perform live. If we can bring just one person joy during our show then we have done our job.”
The Janeliasoul Band has been performing professionally for about 10 years and Baltimore has been part of the beat that keeps them going, having appeared at such events as Artscape, AFRAM, and Light City Festival.
“Despite the fact that our music is not pop or mainstream or popular, Baltimore has made us feel at home and has shown us that music is truly a universal language,” the Nigerian-American singer said.
Janeliasoul’s sound and vibe has somewhat shifted throughout the years.
Check out some of Sanya’s early footage, such as a YouTube video posted in 2014 where she’s singing a reggae tune with Afrobeats flair at North Caroline Street and East Lafayette Avenue. By 2016 there’s a video of the Janeliasoul Band embracing Afrobeats full on, featuring hip dipping, rump shaking moves and images of the singer in a sparkly crop-top, tight leather pants and heels.
By Valentine’s Day 2022, the singer was giving full Afrobeats sex appeal in her song and video “Bedroom Magician,” featuring husband of 20 years Femi Sanya, with whom she shares two sons.
The singer said the band’s music also incorporates lyrics in English and Yoruba and works to include empowering lyrics such as in the 2018 song, “I Am Bold,” which the song and video declare as a “self-affirmation project.”
The singer said new music is coming this fall in the form of a new single titled “CoCoa.”
“It’s about a farmer who plants cocoa and reaps cocoa,” Sanya says. “So, the message of the song is that in life you reap what you sow. Whatever you put into the universe is what you get back.”
Cue Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” because that’s exactly the occasion when the Mac brothers hit the stage.
Born and raised in Baltimore County, the brothers — Derek, 30, Keenan, 29, Mitchell, 27, and Spencer, 26 — blend several genres to create the indie, pop, rock-leaning band Pretty O.P.
“We’re always trying to incorporate different sounds to keep the music fresh and exciting,” said Derek. “I’m a sucker for a good saxophone solo, and we’ve worked with some great horn players and other instrumentalists for these sessions.”
Even before oldest brother Derek formed the group with friends, the siblings had been creating songs after school.
Once Derek formed Pretty O.P., Keenan began joining in on the sessions, then Spencer and soon the brothers’ band was created.
“We released our first self-titled album in 2017. Since its release Keen, Spence, and I decided to continue the group and record songs we’d written while growing up together,” Derek explained.
Derek leads the group as primary singer and songwriter and shares production and composition credits with Keenan. They produce music in their home studio and collaborate with other artists to perform on tracks.
The brothers recently released a new song, “Look Who’s Laughing Now,” an upbeat clap back tune, with a super relatable, catchy chorus.
“You found me beaten and bruised, kicked me when I was down.
“What were you trying to prove, look who’s laughing now.
“How the tables have turned.
“It all comes back around, there’s nothing you can do, look who’s laughing now.
“You got what you deserve, there could be no doubt, look who’s laughing now.
“Now the joke’s on you, look who’s laughing now.”
The brothers have some pro tips for listening to the track.
“Listen for the evolution of the drums throughout the song. They were crafted to get the listener to feel the earnestness of the lyrics as the song progresses,” Keenan said.
Mitchell said to listen for the bridge after the song’s chorus. “The guitars and sleigh bells in the middle section make for a striking transition that really contrasts from the build up directly prior,” he added.
This fall, the group is focusing on the release of their next album “Wash and Dry.” One of the album’s singles, “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” dropped on Sept. 9.
“Any fan of Beach Boys harmonies will want to give this one a listen,” Derek said.