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Whartscape music festival exemplifies Baltimore's indie music scene

Dan Deacon, co-organizer of Whartscape - Arianne Teeple
Dan Deacon, co-organizer of Whartscape - Arianne Teeple

It's "a burdensome amount of performances being enjoyed by smelly people": that's how co-organizer and founder Dan Deacon describes it. It is Whartscape -- and it's taking over Baltimore July 22 to 25. It's the fifth year that more than 100 musicians and other artists will perform at the volunteer-organized, corporate sponsor-free four day event.

After booking a few festivals and fundraisers in high school Deacon says he fell in love with the idea of putting them on. When he and his friends, who make up the local music and arts collective called Wham City, moved to Baltimore after college, the natural next step was starting a festival for the indie, alternative music scene.

In the beginning, Deacon says, the festival was a reaction to Artscape. It was even held on the same weekend. "Artscape didn't seem to cater to the alternative scene back then," says Deacon. "Wham City wanted to have a festival and branch out more into the scenes that weren't really a part of things. We had it during Artscape because we knew there would be a lot of people in the city and most of the people our age would be bored."

What began as "a totally illegal warehouse party," Deacon says has grown tremendously and now gets noise permits and permission from the city to close the streets. "The growth it's experienced has forced us to have a more mature view of the festival and forced us to become more responsible," adds fellow Wham City member Robby Rackleff. "As it's grown, we've been able to shape it to be more efficient, safer, and hopefully less annoying to the people who don't, and may never, understand."

Boogey nights

With Baltimore acts like Child Bride, Double Dagger, and Wye Oak along with traveling acts like Dinosaur Feathers, the festival caters to musicians who aren't normally featured on most radio stations, but they attract quite a following. In fact, nearly 1,000 people turned out for the Saturday and Sunday concerts at past Whartscapes. While they're jazzed at the success of Whartscape, Deacon says they are cautious to make sure the event doesn't become unmanageable.

"It can get too big and we won't let it get like that. We want to keep it intimate and small enough to handle without too much stress and bullshit." Basically, Deacon says he wants the festival to stay at a comfortable level where outside help isn't needed. "The festival is worked by Wham City members and a crew of volunteers. Anything larger would require a lot more infrastructure and that doesn't sound fun to me."

Deacon attributes the event's success in part to simply being in Baltimore, which he says "is the best place in the world" in terms of the indie music scene. "I don't think this festival could really happen in any other city."

It's due to the continuing migration of artists who have moved to the city in the last five years, Rackleff says. "I think Baltimore has been really lucky. It's had a steady influx of really solid artists and musicians who address just about any genre you can imagine."

World's best indie music scene

Jason Urick, who lives with several other artists and musicians in the Whole Gallery in the H&H building on the corner of Eutaw and Franklin Streets, agrees. He says the music scene has grown and is a mix of many different kinds of music, but he also points out that despite its growth the scene hasn't segregated.

"One of the great things about Baltimore is that it's small enough to not be clique-y and we don't have to divide up by genre. Things like Whartscape just further that."

Urick will perform under his own name as a solo act at Whartscape. He describes his sound as experimental electronic with a reggae influence. "It's always fun to play a big festival situation with friends from all over the country," he says. "It's just a big party in a really good way. There's everything from pop to the weirdest noise music out there."

He and his fellow building-mates will host some of the nighttime events during Whartscape in the upper four floors of their six-story warehouse. The first two floors house a camping surplus store, with a gallery-cum-performance space and studio apartments filling up the remaining floors.

"Most of the big headliners will be outside and then they'll disperse among the four floors in the H&H building for the night events. We'll open up all the floors and let people roam free," he explains.

It's all about the music

The evening events almost sound like college dorm parties with live music added to the mix. "It's pretty crazy with a lot of people hanging out. It's like a party where all your friends are there," says fellow Whartscape performer and rapper Mickey Freeland.

Parties are good, but the focus really is all about the music. "There is going to be a lot of far-out music that everyone might not like, but if you're into music and finding out new things about music then you'll think it's awesome," Freeland says.

In fact, each year, the mix of artists has changed to increase the variety of music, according to Deacon. "We started as almost all Baltimore bands with three or four out-of-town bands. Now it's like a two-to-three Baltimore to out-of-town band ratio. Each year I try to expand into more of the Baltimore subcultures. Last year we had a lot more rock and roll bands and this year we have more club acts than ever before."

From electronic to rap to singer-songwriters to acts that incorporate a lot of sound collage and sampling, the offerings might not appeal to all festival-goers, but Whartscape has every indie musical angle covered. "It's given the music scene here a real shot in the arm," says Freeland. "It's pretty much the biggest independent music festival around."

A graduate of both Towson University and University of Baltimore, Nicole Jovel lived in the Baltimore area for nine years. She writes for both corporate clients and local and regional publications.

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Dan Deacon, co-organizer of Whartscape
Local rapper Mickey Freeland is set to perform at this year's Whartscape
Local rapper Mickey Freeland is set to perform at this year's Whartscape
Dan Deacon, co-organizer of Whartscape
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