Small is the new big. That's the premise behind the inaugural Main Street Music Fest on Saturday, Sept. 29, in downtown Ellicott City. Organizers say the event aims to shine a light on the area's independent music scene.
"A lot of people are exposed to new music on the radio, but airplay is so limited. It's the same popular songs over and over," said festival co-founder Brandon Ruth.
That's too bad, seeing as the region is a hotspot for homegrown talent.
"We are motivated by a desire to support and promote local unsigned musicians," said Ruth's cohort Andy Hall.
On Saturday, 53 emerging artists will perform on four outdoor stages and four indoor venues in the town's historic district as part of the Ellicott City Fall Festival. Organizers say the festival is the largest of its kind in the mid-Atlantic.
"We want to show that Ellicott City is a little hipper than people might think," Hall said.
He should know. Hall and Ruth have both lived and worked in Ellicott City's historic district for years.
Ruth is the manager of the popular downtown eatery Cacao Lane, and Hall is a lawyer with an office on Main Street. The two men are also both veterans of the regional live music scene. Hall plays guitar in the rock band Dropping Sully, and Ruth is the lead singer for the hard rock outfit, Sin 4 Sin. The group was named one of the area's top bands by WBAL-TV in Baltimore and is one of the acts featured at the festival. They occasionally tour, and it was at a show in Texas where the idea for the Main Street Music Fest was born.
"I had the opportunity to check out South by Southwest," Ruth said of the popular music festival held annually in Austin. The event draws hundreds of bands and thousands of music fans to the Texas capital each year.
"I was so impressed with how organized it was and how they managed to cram all those people into such a small area," says Ruth. "I came back from the experience thinking that we could do something like it in Ellicott City."
When Ruth mentioned the idea to his friend Andy Hall, the duo began planning in earnest.
"They approached me with their proposal about five months ago," said Jeni Porter, event manager for the Ellicott City Business Association. Porter, who helps plan the town's annual Fall Festival, thought the two events might make for a good pairing.
"A lot of our Fall Festival is outside, so I felt like this would be a great way to draw people into the restaurants, bars and shops," she notes.
There was initial concern whether the different types of crowds the coinciding events might draw would be harmonious, but Porter said the city has measures in place to make sure the environment is safe and family friendly. After all, Ellicott City is due for some merriment.
"Our community has been through so much this year," Porter said.
That's no small statement considering the number of ordeals residents have endured in the past 12 months. The town has experienced a train derailment that resulted in the death of two local teenagers, an extended power outage and even a manure spill on Main Street. Not to mention the flash flood that brought a torrent of water to downtown a year ago, destroying homes and damaging businesses.
"That point in time is such a blur," musician Kelly Secret said of the natural disaster that flooded her Main Street apartment. "We lost all of our musical equipment."
Even so, the musician wasn't about to pull up stakes.
"I've lived a lot of places," said the lead singer for the blues-based rock band Dirty Secret. "But there is a sense of community here that I haven't experienced anywhere else."
These days, Dirty Secret, a popular Howard County favorite, is back to gigging regularly and working on putting out an album of original material. And, while Secret says she's excited to perform with her band at the Main Street Music Fest, she's just as eager to be a spectator.
'Source of inspiration'
"I'm really looking forward to going around and listening to some of these other artists," she said. "We're usually all doing gigs at night so we don't often get the chance to hear one another. I want to hop around and network with people. It will be a really cool source of inspiration."
It's a sentiment echoed by Jason Anderson, guitarist and singer for the Soul Island Rebels.
"I was blown away when I first heard about the festival," he said. "There's going to be such an eclectic mix of all kinds of music. People are going to be able to sample a little bit of everything."
Indeed, the bands featured at the Main Street Music Fest run the gamut from Baltimore-based rockers Sons of the Radio to the Golden Guns, a Howard County jazz-influenced jam band.
The Soul Island Rebels integrate a wide variety of genres in their own music, from rock to reggae, blues to funk. The outfit is composed of some of the more accomplished musicians in the region, thanks in part to Anderson's gig as the host of a popular open mic night at the Judges Bench in downtown Ellicott City.
The Mount Hebron High School graduate assembled his all star crew in the fall of 2010, and the band is currently recording an EP slated for release in November. Fans can hear some of the group's new songs when they perform at the festival.
"I've been telling everyone I know that they have to come," Anderson said. "There's never been anything like this before."
And, if organizers have their way, the Main Street Music Fest will become an annual event.
"There are so many talented musicians in our area," Ruth said. "I think we can really turn this into something even bigger. This event is going to turn a lot of heads and get a lot of people talking."