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The Death Set at Whartscape

If you asked me two weeks ago what the worst piece of journalism I’d ever read was, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with a clear winner. Fortunately, about a week and a half ago, the dearly loved/hated website Pitchfork Media posted a review of Baltimore’s Whartscape festival that may just be the most awful piece of writing of all time.

The writer, Mike Powell, seems to consider a trip to Baltimore as a truly daring venture, perhaps on par with doing humanitarian aid in Darfur or going to Russia to write about Chechan politics. The author describes Baltimore as a place “where someone may, statistically speaking, have been killed the night before.” Like me, Powell lives in New York, where 539 people were murdered in 2006. Of course, the Big Apple has a much larger population than Charm City but the fact remains that, “statistically speaking,” it’s fair to say that 1-2 people are sure to have been killed on any given day within the five boroughs. While describing a performance by Wham City collective band Santa Dads, the intrepid journalist marvels, “Everyone is having fun! and no one is scared.” This seems to surprise him, despite the fact that the set took place during the day, in a relatively safe part of the city. I guess everyone who lives anywhere in Baltimore is supposed to be scared 24 hours a day. How exhausting.

In a jaw-dropping attempt at anthropology, Powell attempts to describe the people of Baltimore, who are apparently all archetypal noble savages or idiot savants. I could point out a number of memorable moments, but the following paragraph reflects the height of hilarity:

I meet a Baltimorean named, I think, Brian, who gushes breathlessly about a show he played in Atlanta and how he got hit in the head with a plate and was bleeding everywhere and a redneck convinced him he had to cauterize his head with a hot knife, but Brian passed, opting instead to make out with a girl, blood all over their collective face. He stares off for a second. “It was the best night of my life.” Brian’s gutter Zen feels like the rule in Baltimore, not the exception. If there’s any overall impression from the folks in the city, it’s that they very much mean it, that this is their lives, that they have enough conviction in what they’re playing, making, breathing to squat in an abandoned building if they have to. And some of them do.

Let’s bypass the generalizations here and get right to the essence of Powell’s observations. I guess he means that everyone in Baltimore is a pseudo-mystic that lives in a cardboard box and pounds out some rudimentary, but heartfelt, music on found instruments. Uh, I lived in Baltimore for four years and still return often to visit, and I can’t think of anyone who fits that deeply insulting description. And as for “Brian”? He has, of course, already responded via his MySpace blog. Turns out he’s not even from Baltimore and was talking to some other guy about his bloody night in Atlanta while the writer eavesdropped. Great fact-checking, Pitchfork!

The writing becomes so awful, so presumptuous and condescending, that I even briefly forgot to be upset that this so-called “Live Review” barely said anything about Whartscape’s actual performances!

Throughout the piece, Powell compares New York’s music scene and Baltimore’s. Marveling at the mysterious, DIY nature of Mobtown’s venues, he describes warehouses as “burgeoning fire hazards with crappy ventilation” and writes, “The building hosting the festival’s evening shows doesn’t have a fixed name and almost never prints their address on their fliers.” One wonders whether the writer confines his New York-based concert attendance to established venues like Webster Hall and Irving Plaza, or if he’s conveniently forgotten about venues like Silent Barn (a.k.a. Raven’s Den, a.k.a. Club Krib), a warehouse space in the heart of Ridgewood where the residents host shows in their massive kitchen. This is not to say that there aren’t differences between the two cities that perhaps bear mention (though one wonders why everything must ultimately be compared to New York), but he pretty much boils it down to the observation that people in Baltimore are enthusiastic and wild, while people in New York are jaded and restrained. As someone who’s lived in both places, as well as someone who was in Whartscape’s Saturday night audience, I feel like I can shed a bit more light on what Powell seems to have missed completely. Here’s the thing: Baltimore is a major city, but its creative community, and music scene in particular, is small. When you go to an event like Whartscape, which showcases and celebrates the achievements of these talented people, it’s going to be a jubilant event because everyone knows each other. The line between band and audience is blurred, as everyone becomes a participant in the performances of their friends, neighbors, and collaborators. Because New York is a big place with an appropriately large independent music scene, it’s possible to go to a local band’s show and not see anyone that you recognize. It’s harder to party with strangers than with friends, isn’t it?

Photo: The Death Set perform at Whartscape, as Rjyan Kidwell (a.k.a. Cex), Nolen Strals (of Double Dagger), and others crowd the stage. More Whartscape photos by Sean.

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Marnie Stern at SXSW

Marnie Stern is pretty much my favorite musician right now. Her debut album, In Advance of the Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars), is a serious contender for my favorite of 2007, and her virtuosic live performances are even better. If you know anyone who can rock an electric guitar half as well as Marnie Stern, I want to hear about it.

New Jersey-based duo Rocket Surgery put on a great opening act.* Drummer Mark Ludas and guitar/keyboard player Joel Kennedy invoke prog-rock, metal, hardcore, and horror movie soundtracks to create some enormous, intense songs. Some of it’s instrumental, some finds the band members sharing vocals, which occasionally evolve into spontaneous-sounding monologue. I’m hard pressed to think of a drummer who moves faster, hits harder, or approaches his performance with such zeal as Ludas, and with he and Kennedy running at full steam, Sunday night’s set certainly won over some new converts. After the band left the stage, a guy next to me, visibly impressed, asked if I knew their name. He appeared to be text messaging someone about them… so let the well-deserved buzz begin!

Then came Puttin’ on the Ritz, another duo that couldn’t have been more different from Rocket Surgery (or Marnie Stern, for that matter). They do sarcastic, half-assed covers of oldies like “Earth Angel,” embellished with dumb skits, most of which involve the band members fighting and standing up on the drum kit. I’m not devoid of a sense of humor, I promise, but this shit was just not funny. The jokes were flat, the covers were pointless, and this ironic, hipster, kitschy bullshit got old years ago.

Thankfully, Marnie Stern reinvigorated the evening with a fantastic homecoming set. Now accompanied by Robby Moncrieff of The Advantage on guitar and drummer Zach Hill of Hella, her sound is bigger and better than ever. Up until recently, Stern’s only tourmates were her guitar and iPod, and even then she was blowing audiences’ minds. At first I was a bit nostalgic for those good, old days, as they sure did showcase her unparalleled guitar chops, but I was quickly won over by her new band’s skills and the way they filled out her sound. Standout tracks from In Advance of the Broken Arm, like “Every Line Means Something” and “Grapefruit,” drove everyone wild, and Stern’s chatty, onstage banter was seriously endearing. We were even treated to a visit from her tiny dog (who’s been with her throughout the tour), while Moncrieff recovered from a guitar mishap.

Two of these bands are going places, and one has probably already gone farther than it ever should have. Hey, two outta three ain’t bad!

*Full disclosure: I know these guys. But here’s the deal: I won’t lie. If I have any personal connection to a band and I think they suck, I just won’t write about them. I don’t feel any pressure to talk up bands I don’t like, whether I know them or not.