Just before the fireworks set ablaze the night sky, the bandleader bellowed into the microphone the words to the hit James Brown song, "I Feel Good," and the crowd ushering in the New Year at Baltimore's Inner Harbor late last night erupted into applause.
It was the perfect song, perhaps, to pay tribute to the legendary singer who died last week, celebrate the Ravens late-afternoon win against the Buffalo Bills and begin 2007 with a sense of optimism.
"I've been coming here every year since I was, like, 14," said Jaye Jones, who also celebrated her 28th birthday yesterday with her 9-year-old daughter, Akira, at her side. "It's the best place to be in Baltimore for New Year's. It's the center of the celebration."
Even the drizzle that fell couldn't dim the spirits of the thousands who watched fireworks explode over the harbor early this morning.
"They've been rocking since I been here, really bringing the spirit," said Joselyn Hall, 51, of Northwest Baltimore, as she danced on the top tier of the Light Street Pavilion.
Earlier, it was a tailgater's paradise, as Ravens fans parked their cars with trunks open and speakers blaring, to hang out at their usual tailgating spots outside M&T; Bank Stadium.
"It is a perfect fit - Ravens and New Year's Eve," said Steve Dailey, 45, who traveled from Carroll County to join several friends for Sunday football festivities - a tradition of a decade or so.
He was one of many cold-defying men and women who assembled around grills that smoked with sizzling hot dogs and burgers, clasping bottles or cans of beer and soft drinks, in the final hours of 2006.
The tailgaters might have been the first to pop corks yesterday afternoon, but in Anne Arundel County, families preparing for 2007 were just as enthusiastic at the annual First Night Annapolis, a largely nonalcoholic event with a mix of entertainment that began with activities for children.
The two events drew early revelers on a generally cold and gray end to a month marked by unseasonably balmy weather.
Later in the day, hundreds gathered at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church on North Calvert Street for the 14th annual New Year's Eve interfaith service.
Earlier, June Thompson, 39, of Millers was one of several Ravens tailgaters who said the combination of the game with New Year's Eve was, indeed, a happy coincidence.
"I think it is just right," Thompson said. "It just gets the day started earlier."
She said that she and her family planned to greet the New Year by lighting a bonfire and setting off fireworks.
Behind her, Dailey and others tossed Ravens-themed beanbags into miniature toy football fields set up in the parking lot.
But while Dailey said the day's excitement was enough to put him to sleep by 8 p.m., several people braving the cold in purple-and-black knit hats and coats said the day was going to be one long - and welcome - party.
Gerry Phillips, 35, and Mary-Michael Wachur, 25, opted for a hotel room within walking distance of Ravens stadium instead of trying to battle traffic - leaving the stadium and coming in for New Year's Eve - to ease their transition from football frenzy to evening exuberance.
"We are going to get all dolled up tonight," said Phillips, of Oella, as he surveyed the parking lot through his purple-lens Ravens sunglasses. He and Wachur expected to hit the celebration at Power Plant Live in the Inner Harbor.
Throngs of families and friends were also lured yesterday to First Night Annapolis with the promise of Hawaiian luau music, the Screaming Puppets improvisational group, re-enactors portraying the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, and a waterfront fireworks display at midnight.
There was frolicking aplenty, but the crowds were anything but raucous. That is because - in Annapolis and cities across the country, from Austin to Boston - the imaginative First Night celebrations generally avoid liquor.
"It is so much fun to celebrate the New Year with so many people," said Sherry Peruzzi, 59, who came in from Columbia for the day with her friend, Inge Hyder, 76. "We are obviously old enough to drink, but this is much more wholesome."
The annual celebration, around for more than 15 years, featured bands, comedy performances and dancing all afternoon and evening at venues throughout the city.
During the day, performances at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts drew children and their parents.
Balloon animals and balloon hats were plentiful. Face-painted children helped the Sean A. Lane & Bay Jazz Project jam to a jazzed-up version of the Sesame Street theme song. Accompanying the band's bass and saxophone, the youngsters banged hand drums and rattled maracas and tambourines.
Nora McCann, 11, of Severna Park jigged with others from the Broesler School of Irish Dance in fast-paced acts at the creative arts hall. Owen Lubbers, 8, previously broke his foot dancing and could not join them, but his 11-year-old brother, Ian, did.
"Everybody is coming out here instead of having their own parties," Nora said.
First Night was a perfect way for Beverly Richardson to celebrate the New Year with her two sons, Tyreek and Quamonta. It was an awe-inspiring day for the boys, she said, who most wanted to see the magicians.
"It is safe and walker-friendly, and one price pays for it all," Richardson said as Tyreek, 8, and Quamonta, 7, led her toward the bus to Maryland Hall.
Probably due less to First Night's alcohol-free policy and more to New Year's Eve falling on a Sunday, Annapolis liquor stores appeared fairly quiet yesterday.
Last year, when the day fell on a Saturday night, things were much busier at Pinkey's West Street Liquors & Wine Shoppe, co-owner Bill Malley said.
"It all depends on the day of the week," Malley added. "This year, people had three days to shop."
The day was still young for restaurants and bars in the Inner Harbor as they geared up for the anticipated late-night crowds.
All was quiet at Power Plant Live yesterday afternoon, with the occasional family strolling to or from Port Discovery, where children rang in the New Year early with their own party at noon Saturday.
At Babalu Grill, the hiss of helium pierced the air as employees inflated multicolored balloons to hang throughout the restaurant. At least 300 people were expected for the fully booked night, said Chris Novashinski, the general manager.
"We are getting ready," Novashinski said, carrying around another set of balloons. "We are getting excited."
At the interfaith service in Baltimore last night, city officials - including Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon - educators, artists and health care workers led a processional.
After 30 minutes of gospel and choral music, a rabbi, an imam and a minister called the congregation to prayer.
The Arabic words, the Jewish shofar and Christian invocation all rang out in the sanctuary.
"We are really trying to pray for the city of Baltimore, the whole city," said the Rev. James Casciotti, St. Ignatius' pastor. "The government, the police, the arts - the theme is the good that religious people can do working together."
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