Breaking the Fourth Wall in the Baltimore Music Scene

serpentwithfeet; photo by Ian Power

Baltimore native serpentwithfeet played the Ottobar in October (2018) after the release of his album soil. serpentwithfeet is a crooning, Berlioz-sampling, half-ANOHNI half-:3lON but the better singer, whose favorite Brandy songs are “Dig This,” “When You Touch Me,” “After the Flood,” and “Should I Go.” The opener was a hidden gem, R&B singer Lee Mo, whose songs were solid and whose voice was perfect. Mo’s set ended with a lot of energy, so when serpentwithfeet came out there was a mellowness at the beginning, not unwelcome. He performed both moving around with a laptop backing track, and standing solo at a synth. It was well-attended but not crowded; you could bunch up or move around on the floor level, and there were a few stragglers on the bar level. Watching the stage, one could barely tell whether serpentwithfeet knew there was anyone in the room at all, such was the ease with which he moved between instruments, microphones, and songs. When he arrived at the song “messy” off of soil, standing at the synth, he explained that he would like us to sing its not uncomplicated refrain, and he sang that refrain many, many times to get it in our ears:

Each time you deny my mess
You’ll find yourself closer to me
Closer to me

On the album, the synth sounds like a pump organ, and I can’t remember if that was the sound used at the show but it’s an apt metaphor for how he seemed to be playing, pumping, coaxing the chords out of the synth while also willing the audience to sing for him. He encouraged us as he demonstrated. I grew up hearing folk singers do exactly this, but they didn’t have as big a smile on their face, or have their eyes closed.

The experience was not unlike coalescing around the people’s microphone at an Occupy Wall Street event (7 years ago! Good lord). Rather than the smattering of voices that would arise from the first “MIC CHECK” that seemed to hit you in the face and partially scare you so that you might recover to get a measly “…check!” out if you’re shy like me — rather than that, serpentwithfeet instructed everyone to sing quietly. The melody has audible signposts on “de-NY,” “mess,” “find,” and most people got “closer to me” pretty quickly. So at first what arose from the floor level was a ghostly “…nyy…mess….fiiiind your…. clooser to meee, closer to mee….” With each iteration the melismatic syllables between would get filled in. The audience’s voice was revealed, kind of high pitched — to me it sounded like it was betraying the early-mid 20s age of most, but that might have just been me hearing my own anxieties. The melody strengthened and gelled, but did not get louder. And so we were each singing to only ourselves but hearing everyone else. serpentwithfeet began to harmonize. Nerds like me began to cautiously harmonize the last “mee.” And eventually the song faded away. I don’t remember if he sang a word of the verses. He was quickly on to the next song. It felt warm. It may have been the beer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yogOf9CI1Nc

*

In February 2017, Peabody bass student Yoshiaki Horiguchi stood silently on stage for 11 minutes, which has been well-documented. I sat in the back of Griswold Hall thinking of how low the long-term risk of a gesture like this is in such a precious space, but how high the short-term risk is in institutions where ANY act that is out of the ordinary is not seen as a threat so much as it is just incomprehensible. In precious spaces like that, incomprehension is more intimidating than anger.

*

My wife was in Turkey so I went to a show at Springsteen Gallery in September 2017. Is it still there? It was right across from the H&H on Franklin. Is it named after Springsteen? White sheeting lined the walls, and mobiles of umbrellas and pvc-pipe men twirled slowly above our heads. I went to hear my old fave Odwalla88, refashioned as Odwalla1221 since their move West, and I arrived about an hour after showtime, thinking that even in Baltimore this would be long enough that I wouldn’t be standing around too long. It wasn’t; I was one of the first ones there. The opener, who I had heard of but never seen live, was TRANSGENDER/VHS, and a while after I got there they started their sound check. I stood around for a long time; I didn’t know anyone at the show (which surprised me slightly) and I split my time between my phone, 15-second spurts of pretending I was done with my phone, and looking at the art for the 10th time.

From there the show began with a series of small, halting steps. After fiddling with their setup against a vaporwavy background, and an introduction by-way-of mentioning that their last Baltimore show was a disaster, T/V said they were going to do something that people were not expecting, and discuss political issues in lieu of performing. I don’t remember if they asked people to sit down, but, slowly, people did, finding a few square feet of space on the floor. I’m old enough that sitting cross-legged on the floor in jeans is a challenge, but I managed, hands gripping my knees firmly to prevent the unthinkable.

T/V prefaced by talking about american individualism and its connection to white supremacy. In an effort to turn us back toward community, they asked a question: what is this art scene (they differentiated scene and community) doing to help the communities it takes place in? They put a rule in place; collective pronouns only. They began calling out: if you are going to be running venues, spaces, etc., if you’re going to be in positions of authority, you need to be able to answer this question. If you have a college education or another adjacent privilege, you need to be able to answer this question.

If this sounds awkward, it was. It was unexpected and people were reluctant to talk. T/V waited for answers with the look that those of us who have run lackluster discussion sections know quite well.

One person answered, they quickly gave the landlord line: artists are chess pieces for landlords, artists are placed in communities as lab rats to see if regular white people will take to it in 5–10 years. You are all being used but are on a “receiving heavy” plan of being used. In 20 years, are you going to be raising families here? This was more than one person saying these things, but it was halting, still some awkward pauses — vaporwave still cruising through the background — and I’m going off of notes that I haven’t looked at since that month.

T/V pointed out the whiteness of the room, and compared it to the demo of the people answering questions — they estimated that 40% of the answerers were PoC, not true of the room. After that the answers came mostly from white people.

T/V kept pushing the issue of community. Answers and questions started coming from the audience. We can’t raise families here. Do late-night shows, or nightlife in general, exclude working people and people with children? Is this a scene or a class? We need to acknowledge privilege. We need to go to community meetings. The answers were often just rephrasings of the question, or adding nuance to the issues. My notes say “solo performer (question dodged subject changed)”; I don’t remember if that implicates T/V or the audience. The last comment was one that has become common (though probably not enough): no more all white, all white-male shows.

No one brought up the category of art itself, what good it does or role it has in a community, apart from the role artists have in being community members. No one asked if the art is sought out by “the community”; no one asked what *would* benefit the community. What does it need? Where does it (do they) go when it needs something, where does it get it, why isn’t it getting it from us? It made me think of how common this kind of conversation is in the new music scene that is my home, and, if it is something common to all or most artists, what does that say about art? Is art, in its utopianism, a cul-de-sac, a certain praxis where a better world can only be imagined but never gained? Is art something we do so we can meet each other and then go somewhere else to work on a better world?

All told this lasted some 45 minutes. I mentioned the awkwardness before, but it hit me at the end that this was realllllly an artwork I had just witnessed. Yes, the synth pads were there the whole time, slightly mollifying awkward silences, but only very slightly. But the music became essential. The awkwardness and physical discomfort I felt lessened little by little as more people spoke, introduced themselves, gave themselves over to our trust and us to theirs. The music/conversation became, at a certain point, thrilling. There was drama and then a swell. Although it started almost eye-rollingly, TRANSGENDER/VHS ended up with a powerful performance that trod familiar territory in a way that felt brand new.

As is often the case when I’m drinking at a show, it all became too much for me. My head was concentrated on taking notes about the phenomenon. I left before Odwalla1221 came on and went home to an empty house.

*

I don’t know if there’s a Baltimorey reason that I feel like performers take these fourth-wall risks here. Baltimore is quite small, even the “famous” artists are around all the time. Maybe when you’re up on stage you feel like you’re talking to people you understand and you want to take advantage of this time you have their ear. We all laugh and have jokes about DIY shows and MICA kids, recently codified in TT the Artist’s “Art Party.” We all recognize the abuses detailed in some of City Paper’s last, best reporting. I don’t know if anyone else got a thrill watching Dan Deacon on the Safe Arts Space Task Force, happy that “one of us” was wielding our shared experiences with such proximity to power — even though Dan Deacon is orders of magnitude more famous than anyone in Baltimore government, and he was mostly arguing with the fire department, lol. Maybe the closeness makes us feel closer to profundity if we step outside and preach a little bit (maybe that’s why I’m writing this). I tell out-of-towners that if you spend 45 minutes outside of your house in Baltimore, you’re going to see something weird. Maybe if you go to, like, three shows in Baltimore, one of the performers is going to lecture to you. And maybe the economic and social conditions that create the distance between me and a lot of Baltimore residents that leads me to find their behavior “weird” when it’s probably often just survival, maybe those conditions are what lead to more lectures at shows.

*

In October 2017, my friend David Dominique was playing on a show put on by the people of Mind on Fire, also my friends, at the Crown Backbar. Dominique is mostly known as a composer and flugelhorn-wielding bandleader, but he was debuting a new project, performing solo on synth and vox as Furniture Daniel. I had an experience before the show where, even though I knew a lot of people there, had shared bills with people there, it felt like pulling teeth to get them to maintain eye contact and say hi, to acknowledge that we knew each other. So milling around in a pre-show crowd of acquaintances felt awfully similar to my phone/no-phone dance among strangers at Springsteen Gallery the month before.

It was the Crown Backbar. Whatever was going on in the red room above was telegraphing bass through the floor, and people were talking at the bar throughout the music. Dave did his set, and what I saw in a flurry at the end was him grabbing a guitar to play some more songs, being approached by one of the organizers, and deciding to end his set. What had happened, which he explained to me over a cigarette in the empty lot at 21st & Charles afterwards, was that he had said “thanks to the Crown, thanks to Mind on Fire, thanks to the subwoofer upstairs, thanks to the rude motherfuckers in the back… you know what, why don’t I come play back there!” Intending to stride up to the bar patrons and play guitar, big smile on his face, he was intercepted by James who told him to maybe just call it a night. Other organizers were visibly upset. It was kind of a classic clash of personalities.

Part of it is just a difference in scenes. Literally two nights earlier, David and I had been at a show at the now-defunct Richmond, VA venue Black Iris, which had a classical music-esque “no talking” policy during music, except more strict than classical music because it was enforced explicitly instead of implicitly (I was told to keep it down by the owner himself). David obviously expected the same at the Crown; that is obviously not the function the Backbar serves for the patrons at the bar.

This whole thing, plus my experience before the show left me with a feeling of disquiet; I stopped at my corner bar on the way home and posted to Facebook that even after four years in Baltimore I still sometimes found the scene alienating and unwelcoming. The thread lit up, mostly with people telling me I was wrong — a kind of hilarious response to someone saying they feel unwelcome — and the show organizers thought I was implicating them which I really wasn’t, so I ended up deleting it.

Abdu Ali wrote that this is just how millennials are and I should kinda deal with it, which is almost certainly part of it: my social capital as The Affable White Guy makes me feel comfortable with “put er there” (not literally) as the way to approach people I know, and that’s not true for many, especially those who may seek out an arty scene to get away from all the normies. I also thought about M.C. Schmidt telling me that Baltimore shows started so long (SO long) after their posted time because they were more of a social event, a place to hang, and the show was almost secondary.

I think formality is underrated. Scenes and shows rebel against societal rules because those rules tend to be unjust. But part of what makes them unjust is that they both apply differently to different groups of people, and the stated rules are often not the ones actually enforced. So when I moved here and showed up half an hour late, and hour late, for shows, only to find the stage not even set up yet and everyone acting normal, I found that anti-social because it seemed like everyone knew something I didn’t. I also accept the fact that I’m just old.

*

The artists I’m describing were either embracing or subverting Baltimore informality to move in and out of show convention, I’m not sure which. It might be easier to engage with people via the formality of the proscenium, even if you’re going to break it. But then! they treated everyone in the audience equally, laid out rules, and enforced them explicitly. Just as I tend to seek out music that disciplines me, these shows, though starting in total awkwardness, became meta-aesthetic events that dragged me through time like a Mozart symphony, and left me similarly affected.