Artscape '94: music to their ears


Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, kicked off Baltimore's 13th Artscape festival last night, playing to a crowd estimated at 120,000. It was the largest crowd for an opening night of the festival, organizers said.

Her performance was the centerpiece of the first night of the annual weekend of music, food, crafts, exhibitions and literary events. Organizers predicted that a record number of people would attend the three-day festival.

The crowd packed the entire main stage area in front of the old Mount Royal Station Building and spilled out into Mount Royal Avenue. People climbed trees and stood on the roofs of nearby buildings and parking garages to get a better view.

Lisa Smith, 34, of Southwest Baltimore, came with her son Raymond, 4, and her mother, Dorothy Smith, 54. She said they arrived before the concert started, but were so far back that they could see Ms. Franklin only on one of the 10-foot video screens above the stage.

"We're pretty far away, but I'm glad I'm not closer in. It's way too hot to be down in that crowd," she said. Ms. Smith helped her son up into a tree, which was the only way he could see anything.

Still, Ms. Smith said she was happy to get a chance to jam with the Queen of Soul.

"My mother brought me up with Aretha, and we were always dancing our way around the house," she said.

When Ms. Franklin started into the chorus of "Respect," the entire crowd broke into whoops and hollers.

Aside from the concert by Ms. Franklin, last night's performances included big-band music, world beat and jazz. All along blocked-off sections of Mount Royal Avenue, dozens of food booths with names such as Eula's Country Kitchen and Kathy's Fried Dough sold everything from sausages to Vietnamese food and sushi.

Artscape covers a 12-block area bounded by Lafayette Street on the north, Preston Street on the south, Howard Street on the west and Maryland Avenue on the east. Even before the concert started, organizers said they expected to break records.

"I think we'll have more people here than last year," said Jane Vallery-Davis, a spokeswoman for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, which organized the event. Then she looked up at some storm clouds.

"It just better not rain," she said.

With thousands of people expected, the popularity of the event comes as no surprise to Mack Jackson, 77, of East Baltimore.

He has come to all 13 Artscapes, and always arrives early enough to put a folding chair at the front of the crowd at the main stage. Then he waits for the concert to start.

"Every year it gets a little bigger," he said. "I'm a short man. I can't see if I'm way back in the crowd, that's why I left home at 2 [p.m.].

"If you leave early, you get there early."

Much farther back in the crowd almost on Mount Royal Avenue, Barry Miller, 34, an architect who lives in Canton, waited for his wife. Meanwhile, his pet Cockatoo, Athena, was dancing on his shoulder.

"It was all I could do to get this close. We were out here last year and it wasn't this packed," he said.

Mr. Miller looked at the bird. "Athena will probably be jamming in the car on the way home. She likes Aretha, but I don't think she cares as much for rap music," he said.

With more people expected at the concerts this year, the main stage was enlarged. Organizers installed the two 10-foot video screens so those far away could see the performers.

There were temporary panics twice yesterday afternoon when the power went out at the main stage area.

William Nelson, 25, a production assistant working for the festival, said everything eventually was straightened out. Still, this year is the most hectic he has seen, he said. He planned to keep working here through his birthday, which is tomorrow.

"It's so much to do, but it's so much fun. I love the people, and I love the work," he said.

"I'm supposed to be starting a job this summer, but I told them they'd have to wait until after Artscape."

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