Devon Howard grew up soaking in the sort of music featured each year at the Stone Soul Picnic, the annual celebration of funk, soul and R&B; music that has been a staple of the Baltimore music scene since 1991.
But Howard, a Baltimore-born singer with a smoothly passionate voice and an emerging hit single, has never been to the festival, which has routinely drawn more than 100,000 fans while featuring national acts such as Toni Braxton, the Ohio Players and Dru Hill.
"I'm just not a crowd person," says Howard, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts whose newest song, "The Other Side of the Bed" -- a tear-jerker about the end of a relationship -- has been getting prime airplay on urban contemporary stations around the nation. "If you ever see me at an event that size, I'll probably be onstage singing."
That's exactly what will happen in Druid Hill Park on Saturday, when the thoughtful, soft-spoken singer-songwriter takes his place on the eight-hour bill alongside nationally known artists including Jagged Edge; Carl Thomas; fellow Baltimore native Mario; and this year's headline act, the legendary "p-funk" outfit Parliament-Funkadelic.
Backed by three singers and four dancers who also live in Baltimore, Howard will perform two versions of his tune and other urban-contemporary love songs from his debut CD (also called The Other Side of the Bed), slated for release next month on the Global Entertainment label.
"Baltimore has heard the single," says Howard, 28, who lives and works in a sprawling home he bought in Windsor Mill last winter. "Now it's time they see me perform it. Stone Soul is my opportunity to show the town I'm here."
He'll have listeners aplenty. The free event drew 125,000 last year, and city officials expect a comparable crowd for the 16th version, which starts at noon and lasts until 8 p.m. As always, it will feature an ethnic marketplace, a bazaar for cultural foods and children's activities, in addition to the slate of big names and emerging local acts.
Radio One, a nationwide chain of radio stations targeted at African-American audiences, began sponsoring the event a decade and a half ago as a way of thanking listeners and it has grown steadily since. The picnic offers the same family-friendly mix of R&B;, "old-school soul" and gospel the stations do.
"The closest to anything [profane] people will hear," says Tim Watts, station manager at Magic 95.9, an event organizer, "is when Parliament-Funkadelic sings, 'Tear the roof off the sucker.' You don't want to miss that.
"But I'm the gatekeeper, and this is and has always been a family-centered event first."
A few hundred fans arrive by 8 a.m. the day of the show, using blankets and lawn chairs to stake out territory near the stage. Others sit a long way off to listen, relax and people-watch. Many families, Watts says, hold reunions at the festival.
That's all fine with Howard, who found his calling growing up in a music-mad family. His father, a factory worker, was a guitarist and songwriter who once got a song on local radio. His brothers and sisters exposed Howard to a wide range of music, from church gospel to Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan.
Howard caught the performing bug at 5, when he sang and danced at church events. By his teens, he was spending hours studying the art of such vocalists as Stevie Wonder, Babyface and El Debarge -- "real singers," he calls them.
"Those are artists who have a genuine feel," says Howard, who enjoys working in solitude in his house's basement studio. "I've learned from that. I don't want to be a quick-hit singer. I'm after a unique sound -- and longevity."
For years, he made music for the Japanese and European markets. "The Other Side of the Bed," his first U.S. release, has struck a chord with R&B; radio listeners from Alabama to New York, and he recently completed a video for the song with Chris Robinson, the famed director who has worked with Beyonce and Alicia Keys. It will start airing on MTV and BET next month.
"Things seem to be coming together," says Howard, who says he hopes to always live in Baltimore to be near his family -- and whose idea of getting away from it all is counseling foster children in the city. "It has been a lot of hard work."
As Howard exposes U.S. audiences to his silken vocals, his collection of original songs, and a style that nods to tradition while weaving in elements of the new, he might reflect as well as any artist the spirit of Stone Soul Picnic 2007. "Soul, R&B;, gospel -- they're all strains in what I do," he says. "And home's where the heart is. You can make great music in Baltimore, Maryland."
The 16th annual Stone Soul Picnic is at Druid Hill Park noon-8 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. Featured acts include B5, Carl Thomas, Devon Howard, Emily King, J. Holiday, Jagged Edge, Parliament-Funkadelic and 7 Sons of Soul. Most of the acts, including Howard, do not have a set performance time, but Parliament-Funkadelic will begin at 6:30 p.m. and close the event. For more information go to magic959baltimore.com.