Rain was a mixed blessing last night at the opening of the city's Paetec Jazz Festival, as it sent crowds scattering from one outdoor venue but added moody atmospherics to performances at the Pier Six Pavilion.
Rumba Club, the 8 p.m. headliner at the Bond Street Wharf, was barely one song into its free set before the rain postponed the show.
Even so, promoters were optimistic.
"The crowd was starting to pick up, and then the rain hit," said festival spokesman Tim Richardson. "You can't control the weather. We're looking forward to two more full days of great music."
The festival, which will feature almost 30 paid and free performances in several locations, got off to a sluggish start at the Bond Street Wharf and Power Plant Live plaza.
When the Michael Thomas Quintet took the stage about 5 p.m., only a handful of people sat at the wharf in Fells Point and watched. Between songs, Thomas jokingly referred to the crowd as "the few and the proud."
In the Power Plant Live plaza, hardly any passers-by paused to listen to the ambient acoustic folk music of the Repeatos. The lead singer, a woman in a rainbow skirt with long brown hair, sarcastically said, "Thank you for your enthusiastic response."
More people trickled in as the night wore on. At the wharf, they set up folding chairs in the grass, sitting on stone benches and dining at the nearby DuClaw Brewing Co.
Sandy Fastie and her friend, Alma Thompson, traveled from Towson with folding chairs in tow, ready for some live music.
"All this free music outdoors is great," Fastie said. "We're just going to be here sitting and enjoying."
Fastie and Thompson set up their chairs next to a handful of other audience members near the stage. To their right, Rose Harris stirred a pot of curry chicken with a metal spoon at one of the food booths. The chicken would be ready in about 45 minutes, and Harris expected a solid crowd by then, she said.
"It's free tonight," she said. "They're going to come out."
And they did.
By 7:15 p.m., a police officer estimated the crowd at about 200. It was a small but lively introduction to three days of live music in locations around the waterfront.
A packed house greeted performers for the ticketed shows at the Pier Six Pavilion.
A rainstorm came through in the middle of Jonathan Butler's set, just as he had started a slowed-down version of "No Woman, No Cry." The song complemented the change in atmosphere.
Brennetta Lindsey drove from Manassas, Va., for the performance.
"I only came to see Jonathan Butler because I've been a fan forever," she said. "But this festival is great. The acts are wonderful, and I hope they will continue this."
Between Butler's set and Boney James', Mayor Sheila Dixon took the stage.
"Thank you all for coming. This is one of my favorite artists coming up," she said. "Please tell your friends to come out for the rest of the weekend."
Tomorrow's string of paid shows, which includes Al Green, Little Richard and B.B. King, was almost sold out as of last night.
"From a first-year festival standpoint," Richardson said, "we're really happy with ticket sales."
Soulive, the Boston-based funk-jazz act, did not perform last night at the Power Plant Live plaza. Richardson said the group's flight from New England had been canceled because of bad weather.
Two of the three bands on the Bond Street stage were from the area. The Michael Thomas Quintet, which plays hard bop, is from Washington, and the next act on the bill, Lafayette Gilchrist, lives in Baltimore. The free show is a chance for people to get a taste of the music Baltimore has to offer, Richardson said.
Local beatboxer Dominic Earle Shodekeh Bouma, who has jammed with Gilchrist in the past, stood and watched the set. Bouma said having a festival with a mixture of local and nationally renowned acts is great for the city and the local scene.
"I feel like it's only going to grow more as the city grows," Bouma said.
Festival producer Marc Iacona was sanguine about the rain.
"I'm feeling like a duck, but I'm feeling good," he said. "One day doesn't mean it's a washout."
Pier Six Pavilion
731 Eastern Ave.; tickets available through Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or ticketmaster.com
Earth, Wind & Fire (doors open 7 p.m.)
B.B. King, Little Richard and Al Green (doors open 5 p.m.)
The Paetec Jazz Festival also includes a number of free shows:
Bond Street Wharf Landing
Harbor East, Thames and Bond streets
Todd Butler Group (5 p.m.), TK Blue (6:30 p.m.) and Don Braden Organic Quartet (8 p.m.)
Power Plant Live Plaza
Market Place and Water Street
Skerik's Syncopated Taint Trio (6 p.m.), Shuffle Demons (8 p.m.) and the Anders Osborne Band (10 p.m.)
Eubie Blake Legacy Big Band (6 p.m.), Fertile Ground (8 p.m.) and Bonerama (10 p.m.)
Harbor East, 900 S. Caroline St.
Paradigm Shift (noon), Latin Giants of Jazz (2 p.m.), The Bridge (4 p.m.), The Fabulous Thunderbirds (6 p.m.) and Rusted Root (8 p.m.)
For complete coverage, including stories, photos and blogs, go to baltimoresun.com/jazzfest