Baltimore synth-wave trio Future Islands has agreed to perform at Hampdenfest on Sept. 20.
Baltimore synth-wave trio Future Islands has agreed to perform at Hampdenfest on Sept. 20. (Photo by Timothy Saccenti)

Changing dates may have been a blessing in disguise for Hampdenfest, as organizers announced Thursday that Future Islands, an up-and-coming band that is gaining national notice, will headline the free festival.

It didn't look good for Hampdenfest in July, when organizers canceled the annual neighborhood festival after the Baltimore City government said it couldn't provide support services for both Hampdenfest on Sept. 13 and the city's week-long Sailabration extravaganza at the same time.

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Organizers agreed to change the date to Sept. 20 at the urging of community leaders and city officials, but worried that the festival would lose many of its vendors and rock bands that were already booked elsewhere on the new date.

"I probably lost a half dozen bands," said co-organizer Benn Ray, who books the bands for Hampdenfest each year.

But now, Hampdenfest is back in business with most of its original vendors and a full lineup of local bands for its three separate stages, including the hottest Baltimore band of all.

Synthpop band Future Islands, which climbed to No. 40 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts with its fourth album, Singles, is booked for Hampdenfest. The band will play on The Avenue Stage, starting at 6 p.m..

"Future Islands had always wanted to play Hampdenfest," said Ray, who knows several of the band members. He said Future Islands was already booked to play a festival in Washington on the original Hampdenfest date.

"Once we changed the date, I reached out to them," Ray said. "They were super happy to help. They had heard about (the conflict with) Sailabration."

The band could not be reached for comment for this story.

Ray, who is president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, owner of Atomic Books and a Hampden neighborhood columnist for the Baltimore Messenger, said he expects the "skyrocketing" band's appearance to boost attendance at the fall festival, which takes over West 36th Street, The Avenue, as well as Chestnut Avenue for the popular Toilet Races. This  year's festival will also debutthe Hampden Fashion Show, a runway of clothes and looks by local Hampden boutiques and salons.

Ray said he tries to book Baltimore-based bands that write their own music, rather than cover bands.

"There were certain bands that we were going for," he said, including Future Islands, whose national profile jumped after an appearance earlier this year on Late Night With David Letterman, where the band made its network TV debut. The comedian was uncharacteristically enthusiastic after the band played its song "Seasons (Waiting on You)." When the song was over, Letterman exclaimed, "I'll take all of that you got! That was wonderful!"

The clip of the song and Letterman's reaction to it was posted on YouTube. The band has since played on Jimmy Kimmel's late night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Future Islands — singer Samuel Herring, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers — formed in Greenville, N.C., and moved to Baltimore in 2006. They have played with some of the local bands that have played Hampdenfest, including Double Dagger, Ray said. He said Cashion buys comics at Atomic Books and is one of many local musicians who have worked at the restaurant Holy Frijoles, on The Avenue.

Ray, who has been booking bands for Hampdenfest since 2003, said he also knows the band from his connections with the Baltimore music scene, which he said is thriving and has held steady for the past 10 years. Future Islands is one of many bands that have moved to Baltimore for its affordability and proximity to big cities like Philadelphia and New York. Other noteworthy bands that call Baltimore home include Beach House, whose singer and keyboardist, Victoria Legrand used to work at Holy Frijoles, and Wye Oak, whose singer, Jenn Wasner, worked at Golden West Cafe on The Avenue, Ray said.

He said he also tried to get Wye Oak to play this year's Hampdenfest, but they had other commitments.

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Bassist Roman Kuebler of the Oranges Band and formerly of Spoon credits Ray and Hampdenfest with helping to keep the Baltimore music scene alive.

"Without the guidance of Benn Ray, I don't think the tradition of hosting an almost exclusively local music festival would survive," Kuebler said in an email. "He is one of the very few people who have the local knowledge of the music scene as it stands at any point along with the perspective of over 20 years of dedicated involvement to the scene. I know other people manage other stages as well, but to me it's been Benn's curation that has developed the tone" for Hampdenfest.

Other bands set to play Hampdenfest this year include several bands made up of students from the School of Rock Baltimore, and the band Short Notice, whose singer, Sheila Wylie, is the daughter of Avenue merchants Dan Wylie of the men's clothing store Sixteen Tons and Lesley Jennings, of the apparel and gift boutique store Doubledutch.

"There's no shortage of great local bands willing to play," Ray said.

Ray said an official announcement about Future Islands playing Hampdenfest would be made Thursday.

"Once we make that announcement, I would expect it to go viral pretty quickly," he said. "It should make for a fun, awesome show. I think this could be our best Hampdenfest ever."

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