When hype meets history

The Baltimore Sun

Step aside, New York City. These days, Baltimore is a hotbed for new bands.

This city has some of the most exciting and innovative performers in the country, according to a slew of music magazines such as Rolling Stone and Blender. Rolling Stone even gave the city the Best Scene award for 2008.

Though much of the attention is focused on the experimental arts and music collective Wham City and hip-hop beat makers Darkroom Productions, performers from all corners of the city's scene are getting national exposure. Music lovers around the nation are buzzing and blogging about ambient pop duo Beach House, fierce female hip-hop twosome the Get 'Em Mamis and the contagiously energetic electronica artist Dan Deacon.

But as the scene gets more and more attention, local artists and musicians are looking to add some history to the hype. They're drawing inspiration from the clubs and bands of the '90s, and documenting the recent past through photo exhibits, books and Web sites. Their goal is to give the past its due and also potentially influence the newest wave of Baltimore musicians.

"A lot of people in the national press are saying, 'Oh, what's happening in Baltimore is a new thing,' but it's not new at all," said Roman Kuebler, the 36-year-old front man for the veteran indie rock group the Oranges Band. "Keep in mind - we've been doing this for 20 years."

Back in the '90s, Candy Machine was one of the city's biggest punk rock bands. They signed to a label and regularly played at local clubs before disbanding later in the decade. But Kuebler recently realized the band was largely unknown to a new generation of music fans.

Kuebler was stunned. All kinds of questions popped into his head. Could Candy Machine really have just faded into obscurity so quickly? And were all of the clubs and bands from the '90s lost on the new wave of Baltimore musicians? The idea shocked him.

"It's surprising," Kuebler said. "It occurred to me that the history of Baltimore music doesn't pass down in a way that it might in other places."

Kuebler began drawing from the old Baltimore scene for his new album. One of the first songs he wrote was "Do You Remember Memory Lane," a track about the now shuttered rock club in Southwest Baltimore. Kuebler wove in lines from other bands' songs and the names of venues such as the Rev, which is now Gordon's Nightclub.

"You want to be passionate about your subject," he said. "This is a subject I'm really quite involved in, and I was happy to present to people and excited for people to react to. It was a really good subject to inspire some music."

Around the same time Kuebler started writing the new record, Elena Johnston began compiling old and new concert posters. Last month, the Maryland Institute College of Art graduate published Paper Kingdom, a collection of about 150 Baltimore concert posters from 1993-2008 and interviews with local musicians. Most of the posters are from the past five years, but about a third are from the early- to mid-90s.

Paper Kingdom documents the shift from older photocopied posters (some even with directions to the club) to intricate new screen-printed posters. Johnston also noted the shift from pre-Internet days to the current generation of MySpace-obsessed musicians. The Internet helps preserve bands' legacies even after they've broken up.

But for many of these older bands without MySpace sites, posters like the ones in Paper Kingdom are among the only remaining documentation of their existence. Including older posters was a no-brainer, Johnston said.

"That makes the printed poster so much more valuable," Johnston said. "If I'd only had posters of bands from the past five years, it would have made people angry and it would have been misrepresenting Baltimore music."

The Internet drastically changed how bands marketed themselves and their shows, said David Koslowski. From 1991 to 1996, he was the singer and guitarist for the Baltimore-based rock band Liquor Bike. The four-piece is playing a reunion show at the Ottobar late next month. Recently, Koslowski has been reflecting on the differences between the '90s and today.

"We were playing with all kinds of bands," Koslowski said. "It was like a good mix tape. It would be a mix CD or an iPod shuffle now."

A decade or two ago, a handful of local bands such as Lungfish and Liquor Bike were signed to labels. But the scene here was always overshadowed by Washington's punk community and the grunge music coming out of Seattle, said photographer Sam Holden. He started seriously snapping photos of Baltimore bands in the '90s - including Liquor Bike - and played in a band of his own.

Now, Holden makes a living photographing local and national musicians. He has shot Deacon, and still goes to see local bands from time to time.

When Koslowski was planning the Liquor Bike reunion, he asked Holden to dig through his archives and put up some of the old photos at the Ottobar. Sifting through the boxes brought back thoughts of Memory Lane's roadhouse vibe, unpretentious hard rock and lost friends.

"There's some craziness, and there are some dead people," Holden said. "Some people didn't make it, but they're documented."

Some that did make it have helped shepherd the scene as it later grew. Michael Bowen moved to Baltimore in 1994 with his band Butt Steak. They broke up shortly after, and Bowen helped found the Ottobar on Davis Street in 1997. He still helps run the club, which moved to bigger digs on Howard Street several years ago.

The Ottobar was one of the city's few legitimate, long-standing music clubs and is still a hub for local music. It has been both a platform for nationally touring bands and an outlet for local bands to test their material.

"If we did anything special, we kept interesting people coming to Baltimore," Bowen said. "Some of the bands that are playing now were affected by seeing some of the more interesting acts coming through."

For every Ottobar, there are a dozen DIY clubs and warehouses that sprang up and dissolved in a matter of months or years. That's one of the reasons why Matt Selander created deadvenues.com. Selander, who works for the Baltimore music label and distributor Morphius Records, is currently gathering information on all of Baltimore's clubs from the '80s and '90s and hopes to list them on the site in the coming months.

"We're getting all this hype - and it's deserved," he said. "But there's very little mention of the people who laid the groundwork for the last 20 years."

online Read more about the top Baltimore bands of the ' 90s and listen to some of their songs at baltimoresun.com/bands

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