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Low Temperatures at the Local Highrise

November 19, 2007
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Earlier this year, we caught wind of a bare-bones web site for an upcoming new local venue called the Local Highrise, which was full of intriguing promises of a big room, low ticket prices ($5 or lower), 6 p.m. shows every night, and a band-friendly booking policy that assures “you will never have to pay to play”–that is, provided you sell enough tickets to make up the venue’s “production costs;” otherwise, yes, you’re paying to play in every literal sense. After checking back at the site every couple months and seeing small signs of progress, we weren’t sure when, if ever, the Local Highrise would be up and running, until the venue’s first dates were announced a few weeks ago.

Looking at the first month’s calendar on venue’s MySpace page, we barely recognized a single band name–and we say that as supposed local-music experts–besides Jade Fox and the Unstoppable Nuklehidz on the opening weekend’s hip-hop bill, and we’d already seen both acts less than two weeks ago at the Turntable Club. So when we traveled out to the venue’s Pulaski Highway address last Sunday night to check things out, it was more with the intention of reviewing the location than the show itself.

The Local Highrise is a nondescript warehouse in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of McElderry Park, and we could just barely hear music from outside the front door, and saw no other outward indications that this was a live-music venue. A few 20-ish kids with mohawks and/or facial piercings were running sound and working the door, and an older couple–presumably someone’s parents–were manning a refreshments table with chips and soda. The venue is all-ages and ostensibly allows no alcoholic beverages, but that didn’t stop at least a few people from sneaking a little something in from the liquor store across the street.

The room itself is huge for a DIY venue, comparable to the main stage at Sonar, if not bigger. In fact, as admirable as the owners’ low ticket price policy is, it’s a shame that it also means that they’ll probably never be able to book a band that would fill the room even halfway (unless Fugazi starts playing shows again). On Sunday, when there were at least a couple dozen audience members–a respectable turnout at your average hole-in-the-wall club–the Local Highrise still looked cavernous and empty. The front of the extremely wide stage is covered in a black and white tile pattern that looked like a kitchen floor. Couches and chairs dotted the long walls on either side of the room, one of which was brick and the other covered in an expansive grafitti mural. Half the artists in the room that night were so taken with the look of the Local Highrise that they immediately discussed the possibility of shooting videos there. Depending on what kind of crowd the place catches on with, the Local Highrise could become the nonhipster equivalent to the Copycat Building.

And then there was the cold. The temperature difference inside and outside the warehouse was negligible, and while that wasn’t so bad on a moderate November night if you kept your coat on, we’re not so sure it will be a tolerable environment come February, or August for that matter. Pikesvillain, the rapper who fronts a band of the same name, headlined Sunday’s show and was one of the only musicians brave enough to perform in a T-shirt, and at the end of the band’s set he joked, “We’re going to do a benefit to get this place some heat.”

Still, the chilly conditions had to have contributed to the fervent, if small audience, which clapped, yelled, and danced more than at almost any other show we’ve seen lately, no doubt in part just to keep warm. Just as David Letterman deliberately keeps his studio cold to encourage laughter, the Local Highrise may have inadvertently stumbled upon a way to increase crowd participation at its shows.

The show itself was an interesting mix of rap-rock and, well, rock-rap, with the exception of the straight-up hip-hop of opening act ESQ Locution. ESQ is a true-school rapper who takes the jazz samples in his beats seriously, building one song’s lyrics around references to jazz musicians and instruments, rapping over a complex 5/4 bebop sample on another, and proudly displaying a Roy Ayers LP in front of his DJ’s mixer. But pretty much every other act on the bill combined its rap with live instrumentation or, in most cases, entire live rock bands.

Jade Fox, who performed last month at Fletcher’s with a live guitarist, has further beefed up her live show with a full rock trio, including a drummer and bassist/keyboardist. Performing half the songs from her 2007 album Ashes Of Another Life, some with dramatically different arrangements, had mixed results, but the only disappointment of the set was that Fox neglected one of her album’s best songs, “Get Up,” seeing as it’s already pretty guitar-driven. Another act we’d seen pretty recently, the Unstoppable Nuklehidz, also changed up their stage show with a live drummer. One of the group’s two MCs, Taz Jones, was so inebriated by the time he went onstage that he remembered more dance moves than lyrics, although not to the detriment of the set’s entertainment value.

The one band on the bill that was more rock than rap, Mind, made up for the straight-up alt-rock jamming of the first half of its set when it invited two friends onstage to drop some rhymes. That those MCs were very white, and that one sounded like he learned how to rap from Zack de la Rocha, only aided the balls-out, shamelessly, awesomely dorky vibe of Mind’s performance. By the time Pikesvillain closed the show, it was getting colder, and the already small audience had shrunk down to a single digit number. But the band, which mined a vein of emo-rap not unlike Gym Class Heroes, put on an energetic show and genuinely felt like headliners, even if there weren’t many there to witness it. Maybe if Pikesvillain makes good on its promise to help the Local Highrise get a heating unit, more people will be willing to stick around and see the whole show.