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Artscape, Whartscape, and Other Scapes

July 24, 2007

Artscape is a feast for the senses, a delectable melting pot of different cultures and flavors–but enough about the food. On Saturday, as we wandered from vendor to vendor stuffing our faces with jerk chicken and souvlaki, the musical portion of the afternoon got off to a great, unexpected start when we stumbled upon a drumline in front of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The New Edition Marching Band‘s polyrhythms and chants were momentarily entrancing, and for someone who played in the drum corps in high school, it brought back many memories–not that our drum section was ever as badass as New Edition’s.

One of the most welcome additions to Artscape this year was an indoor stage, in the University of Baltimore’s Langsdale Auditorium, where some of the festival’s artier performers got to play in a cool, dark place. It turned out to be a great way to escape the heat and noise for a while, resting your feet and recharging your batteries before heading back out into the madness. And despite ostensibly playing host to more “challenging” fare, cellist Kate Porter and violinist Russell Kotcher performed the most pleasant, relaxing music we heard all weekend, while Melissa Moore’s “electro-mechanical landscapes” were a strangely soothing soup of acoustic guitar and white noise.

Between stops at the Studio Sessions Live tent, which featured an array of neo-soul and hip-hop acts like Righteous Soul and Lyrical Leviathan, we wandered over to the festival stage and caught a bit of a band called Far From Earth. The band was billed as “rock/experimental,” but the only slightly unusual thing about its standard issue alt-rock was the fact that a woman stood on the side of the stage translating the group’s lyrics into sign language. You shouldn’t describe yourself as “experimental” in this town unless you’re willing to slather yourself in turkey gravy and shriek into a megaphone.

Speaking of such antics, it was time to take a break from the main event and walk a few blocks up to the second annual Whartscape, local indie weirdo collective Wham City’s unofficial alternative to Artscape. Saturday afternoon’s show, Whartscape’s only free event, and the only one that wasn’t sold out well ahead of time, was held at Load of Fun Studios on North Avenue. Or more accurately, it was held in the graffiti-splattered alley behind Load of Fun. Although the Whartscape folks certainly did a good job of cultivating an air of chaos around the event, they ran an impressively tight ship, with two performance areas at opposite ends of the alley and a near-constant stream of performances. As soon as one band’s 30-minute set was over, sometimes within seconds of the last note ringing out, the next act would launch into its first song, and the audience’s necks would all snap in the opposite direction as they moved over to crowd around the other corner.

North Carolina’s Future Islands, a guy yelling and spazzing out over what sounded like 8-bit Nintendo backing tracks, fit in pretty well with Baltimore’s indie scene, as represented by hometown Whartscape performers like Dan Deacon. At the current rate, it’s a little scary to consider that we’re either going to be completely overrun with acts of this ilk a couple years from now, or the current practitioners of the form will have moved full-on into prop comedy. Judging from Human Host’s set, the band’s already halfway there, standing on folding chairs and bellowing completely ridiculous lyrics while occasionally holding up or toying with random household objects.

Even the rock bands at Whartscape appeared to more interested in absurdist yuks than music. Blood Baby’s frontman claimed it was the band’s first show, even though the front row seemed to know every word. The lyrics themselves, unfortunately, felt like one painful gag after another–seriously, one song was composed entirely of nonsensical knock-knock jokes–and it made us feel pretty damn old to watch the MICA kids eat it up with a spoon. Of the acts we saw that afternoon, only Yukon’s tightly wound math-rock had more to offer as music than as shtick. We would’ve stuck around to watch the sincere, self-deprecating rapper Height, but having seen him before, it felt like time to head back to bourgie old Artscape.

Back on the main stage, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s set was under way. It’s easy to forget that just a year ago, this kid was supposed to be the savior of conscious rap, before he finally got around to dropping his so-so debut album, Food and Liquor. And his set basically rose and fell depending on whether he was performing one of the album’s highlights–or one where he sang the chorus in a sub-Pharrell falsetto. Lupe also didn’t do himself any favors by bellowing “Can you dig it?” between every song in lieu of actually speaking to the crowd, like an obnoxious teenager who’d just seen The Warriors for the first itme. But you’ve never seen thousands of rap fans get so excited to see a skateboard as when Lupe busted out the accessory that everyone knew was an introduction to his breakthrough hit, “Kick, Push.”

An hour later, Saturday night’s festivities closed out with the headliner, platinum R&B belter Keyshia Cole. Cole’s records are thoroughly modern hip-hop soul in the Mary J. Blige mold. Onstage, she’s backed by an extravagant live band that refits her songs with plush, ’80s R&B arrangements like it was any other year at Artscape and Chaka Khan was suddenly rocking the stage. It was an aesthetic shift that suited Cole surprisingly well, and the thousands-strong audience howled along with every chorus, from “Love” to her Top 10 Diddy collaboration “Last Night,” which may as well have been a Keyshia Cole solo record all along. Surprisingly, even with several established radio hits, the song that Cole killed with was her just-released new single ,”Let It Go,” a breezy “Juicy Fruit”-sampling jam that scans more like Mtume than Biggie and felt on Saturday night like the perfect soundtrack for a long day in the sun that was finally coming to an end.