No vocals? No problem at NOVO Instrumental Festival

From left: Danny Gouker, Darius Jones, Ben Frock and Jon Birkholz perform at the NOVO Festival.
From left: Danny Gouker, Darius Jones, Ben Frock and Jon Birkholz perform at the NOVO Festival. (Hennpict)

Not all great ideas are fueled by bourbon, but the creation of Baltimore's NOVO Instrumental Festival was.

Five years ago, Mobtown Studios' producer and co-owner Mat Leffler-Schulman shared a few drinks at the Windup Space with bar owner Russell de Ocampo. Leffler-Schulman, a recent transplant from Washington, noticed many of the instrumental bands he enjoyed recording also played the Windup Space regularly.

"Russell said, 'Hey, we have all these wonderful bands, so let's highlight them,' " said Leffler-Schulman, a 36-year-old Tuscany-Canterbury resident.

With that exchange, NOVO Instrumental Festival at the Windup Space was born. Now in its fourth year, the three-day event, which runs Friday through Sunday, will highlight a wide range of acts, mainly from (but not limited to) the East Coast.

There is no unifying theme ("We can have a surf-rock band playing NOVO and then a free jazz band playing," Leffler-Schulman said), other than no vocals allowed —hence the name "NOVO." Bands on this year's lineup include Lafayette Gilchrist & the New Volcanoes, devL and Steady Pleasure.

Both nights of last year's festival were sold out, according to Leffler-Schulman. He says he's been amazed each time by fans' positive responses to NOVO, but last year was an eye-opening, "life-changing" experience.

"After the first year, we said, 'Wow, we can really do this,' " he said. "There was a different satisfaction to last year because a lot of different people came out. Last year felt like a family, where [NOVO] had become a sort of thing."

He attributes some of the success to NOVO's setup. There are two stages, and bands are constantly setting up and breaking down in between other sets. In other words, there's no waiting for the next act to perform.

"There was no break for people to say they were bored," Leffler-Schulman said.

He was also proud attendees didn't curiously pop in and quickly move on, too.

"When people came, they stayed the whole time," he said.

Leffler-Schulman will also perform at NOVO. On Saturday, he will play drums with Neighborhood, a new cover act featuring string instruments and trumpet, along with guitar. The quintet will perform "Funeral," the 2004 debut album from the indie-rock band Arcade Fire.

Don't expect traditional renditions, he said: Neighborhood has rearranged most of the tracks. Leffler-Schulman said one song had been reworked so the strings' parts were "basically play[ing] the drums."

"We thought 'Funeral' wasn't crazy-complicated, but it's a good thing to wrap our heads around," he said.

For Leffler-Schulman and de Ocampo, a love of challenging instrumental music drives NOVO. For first-time attendees unsure what to expect, Leffler-Schulman said experiencing the music with an open mind matters most.

"It is more challenging, but you just have to open up your ears and find the story with whatever instruments are being played," he said. "As much as I'd like to see JT, it's not as easy as going to a Justin Timberlake show."

If you go

The NOVO Instrumental Festival takes place March 8-10 at the Windup Space, 12 W. North Ave. in Station North. Lafayette Gilchrist & the New Volcanoes, devL, Steady Pleasure and more will perform. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. each night. Advance tickets are available at the Windup Space. Day-of tickets are $7 and will be available at the door. Call 410-244-8855 or go to thewindupspace.com.

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