07 July 2007

Out Went The Lights

No three part harmony versions of the Star Spangled Banner, even though six of us ended up making the trip to Fort McHenry (in a four-seater car, just to add spice to the journey) through a typically Baltimorean morass of badly or not at all signposted backstreets. Coming back I ignored what signs there were altogether and simply traveled in the direction that seemed to make sense. The trip took less than half the time as it did going out.

Maybe it's just me growing thickheaded with age, but I've spent an awful lot of time getting lost in Baltimore, or trying to find the most basic services - like restaurants or stores that sell food. It's hard not to think that whoever's in charge around here - if anyone actually is - doesn't have much of an idea what they are doing. It's disappointing, because the place has the potential to be a beautiful city. Miles and miles of period buildings, a friendly and good-natured population, outstanding music scene, and yet Baltimore is kind of a mess.

A genial mess, true, and that has its advantages. For example, with about a hundred people hanging out on the sidewalk and spilling into the street in front of the Charm City Art Space, many of them drinking, including a few that might not have been legally old enough to do so, and a cop car comes rolling by just as the guy next to me takes an ostentatious swig of beer. Uh oh, he says, but the cop doesn't bat an eye or even slow down to see what's going on. In New York they would have called out the riot squad.

But what, you might wonder, were we doing at the Charm City Art Space when the Fest Of The Century was taking place about a mile up the road at the Ottobar? Well, funny you should ask. Although the Insubordination folks had been running a more or less perfect fest, with nearly every eventuality anticipated and prepared for, they fell victim to something they couldn't possibly have prepared for. Somewhere around 8 or 8:30, with the sun still out but sinking blood red in the western sky, the whole club suddenly went dark and quiet. Ben Weasel and I had been talking in a corner of the upstairs bar, and Dan Vapid had just joined us when the lights went out and the music stopped. "Too bad Even In Blackouts aren't here," quipped Vapid, the first of about 500 festgoers to make that joke.

We figured - well, I did, anyway - it was a blown fuse or circuit breaker, and that someone would change it or flick it back on in minute or two. But as the minutes accumulated into the better part of an hour, we started wondering if it was just the Ottobar that was blacked out or if it was the whole neighborhood or city. As it turned out, it was just one block, but unfortunately it was the block that the Ottobar sat in the middle of.

The local electricity people finally showed up around 10:15 pm with their cherry picker truck that hoisted a workman up to the top of the nearest power pole, which happened to be in the middle of an enormous overgrown tree. He spent another half hour clipping away branches and unhooking wires only to hook them back up again, but still nothing happened. Even the ice cream truck which had parked out back shortly after the blackout began and regaled the neighborhood with an hour's worth of "Turkey In The Straw" (meanwhile selling out most of its inventory to bored and famished festgoers) had cleared out, and the impromptu acoustic singalongs by the likes of the Ergs had died down, and still the electric man poked around in the branches with classic Baltimorean efficiency.

Around 11 he announced there was "no way" the power would be coming back on tonight - blown transform, apparently - beginning a mass exodus. Some went home or to their hotels, some to a local bar called the Rendezvous, and a hundred or two set off on the ten-block trek down to the Charm City Art Space, which had hastily been pressed into service as an alternative venue. Less than half of them could actually fit into the CCAS, so the rest of us stood out on the sidewalk, which you could hear perfectly well, even through locked doors, all except for the vocals, which you couldn't hear at all. It was a bit depressing to notice how alike all the bands sounded when you eliminated the singing.

About half of today's bands had already played before the blackout, but thanks to arriving late and spending so much time upstairs with Mr. Weasel and others, I only saw the Unlovables and about half of the Riptides, who finished up with a raucous audience participation version of "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg," which made me think, "Wow, thirty years after the Ramones burst upon the scene, twenty years after Gilman and Lookout came into being: who could have imagined that this kind of music would still exist, let alone be enjoying yet another renaissance?"

And now, provided the power's back on, the entire schedule will have to be chopped and changed to allow the bands who missed out on playing tonight to have their moment on stage tomorrow. By the time I'd gotten back to my hotel (lost AGAIN, thanks to some tricky business where all Baltimore streets change shape and direction after midnight), the Insubordination had done just that, and posted it on their website. All it really means is starting an hour early and cutting most of the bands' sets back to 20 or 25 minutes.Piece of cake. Well, for them, anyway. I wouldn't have wanted to touch it with a bargepople.

To my own way of thinking, shorter sets usually equal a good thing. It forces bands to concentrate on their best material and prevents the audience from getting bored. Will I be there for the 11 am start tomorrow morning? Very possibly not, but I won't be much later. Hopefully the lights will be back on and the pop-punk universe will return to its normally awesome and flawless functioning. But even if it doesn't, even if somehow not another note gets played, it's still the best fest ever. Music is great, but people are even greater, and we've got about 500 of the greatest ones hunkered down here in Baltimore for the duration.

No comments: