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Baltimore Music Scene

Lauren Wells | February 10, 2014

The History

With a rich musical history dating back to the 1780’s, Baltimore is an iconic American music capital.  Baltimore’s opera and theatrical music genres got their start during the Colonial Era, which led to formal singing schools being founded throughout the city.  Baltimore’s streets were peppered with live music advertisements, sheet music publishing companies, and piano/woodwind instrument manufacturers, putting it on the map as a hub for musical progress.  During the early 20th century, artists like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle made ragtime a popular style while Billie Holiday, Chick Webb, and Cab Calloway began the legendary jazz movement that is still currently prominent in Baltimore.  The Orioles helped introduce doo-wop before the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s saw New Wave musicians like Frank Zappa, Ric Ocasek, and David Byrne.  Rock and punk thrived throughout the 90’s with bands like Crack the Sky, the Ravyns, Kix, Law and Order, Bollocks and OTR emerging from Baltimore.  Modern bands to come out of the city include Animal Collective, Rye Rye, Beach House, and Spank Rock, among others.  A musical melting pot, Baltimore has a little bit of something for everyone.

The Venues

Baltimore natives Animal Collective named their eighth studio album Merriweather Post Pavilion after the impressive venue of the same name.  Located in Symphony Woods, the outdoor amphitheater is the perfect place to catch the biggest names in music.  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Grateful Dead have previously claimed the stage, making Merriweather one of the most iconic venues in the U.S.  Merriweather is always aiming to please: to prepare for Green Day’s American Idiot Tour, the venue ripped out the first 15 rows of seats in order to build a mosh pit!  Influenced by musician and environmentalist Jack Johnson, Merriweather installed solar panels to power the house lights and has since implemented other eco-conscious composting and building maitenance systems.  World-class music, magnificent sculptures, a pinball arcade, and delicious food are all perks to checking out the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

If an intimate venue is more your style, look no further than the 8×10 venue in Federal Hill.  The loud, divey bar is on the small side, but it has a superb sound system and features great jam bands.  Have a beer, enjoy reasonably priced gigs, and people-watch the night away in one of Baltimore’s favorite local spots.

Opening in 1997, the Ottobar was originally located in downtown Baltimore in the former Chambers nightclub.  The White Stripes, Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Eat World, Spoon and Queens of the Stone Age played at the original East Davis St. location.  Closing this location in 2001, Ottobar reopened in the Lower Charles Village neighborhood with a performance by Daniel Johnston.  The much larger, cleaner venue has seen the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Maroon 5, Quiet Riot, Coheed and Cambria, Animal Collective, and many more.  Local artists such as Lake Trout, Fishnet Stalkers, Celebration, Ponytail, and Glenmont Popes have also regularly played at this location.  A great venue for established as well as up-and-coming artists, Ottobar has become a prominent name in Baltimore’s low-key indie rock scene.

Jay-Z, Third Eye Blind, John Legend, and Elvis Costello have played to crowded rooms at Rams Head Live. Established in 2004, the rock and roll establishment is built to please music lovers.  Rams Head runs two other venues as well: Rams Head On Stage (in Annapolis) and Pier Six Pavilion (an outdoor, tensile-roofed venue in Baltimore.)  Pier Six Pavilion offers panoramic views of Inner Harbor while you listen to rock, jazz, R&B, and classical genres.  You can’t go wrong at any of the Rams Head venues throughout Maryland.

If you’d like to check out some art while you listen to live music, the Metro Gallery in the Station North Arts District fits the bill.  A multipurpose performance space, art gallery, and bar, the Metro Gallery promotes emerging artists and musicians such as Sea Wolf, the Dismemberment Plan, the Dirty Projectors, Fanfarlo, We Are Scientists, Dan Deacon, and more.  In addition to live gigs, the gallery hosts film screenings, art shows, and record release parties.  Prepare yourself for an art overload!

Established in 1775, the Horse You Came In On Saloon is the oldest saloon in America.  With comprehensive Jack Daniels options (they have eight different kinds of smooth infused Jack Daniels: think cherry flavored!), the saloon is full of history and hosts live music on a regular basis.  The Horse, as the locals call it, was the last place writer Edgar Allen Poe had a drink before his mysterious death.  Because of its rich past, the Horse tends to draw in tourists, but a solid local crowd regularly shows up to check out the bands coming through.  Saddle style bar stools help bring a country theme to the iconic saloon, so saddle up and enjoy the show.

The Sidebar Tavern in downtown Baltimore is a graffiti-laden punk-rock haven.  Bands like the Attack, the Business, Boom Boom Kid, and Nude Massacre jam out here, amping up hardcore punk enthusiasts.  Don’t expect pristine chandeliers, champagne, and red velvet carpets: this venue is grungy in the best way possible.  Two hot dogs and a beer for $6? Yes please! Enjoy a night of sweaty fun at Sidebar.

If you’re looking to catch a gig from a nationally touring or local act, head to Baltimore Soundstage.  Located in the Inner Harbor area, you can catch musicians from almost every genre imaginable.  Big Boi, the Motet, Sophistafunk, Crossfade, and Wale have performed here.  With elevated areas for VIP and bars galore, you will always find a place to enjoy the show.

The 14,000 capacity Baltimore Arena is Baltimore’s largest indoor sports and entertainment facility.  Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, George Strait, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, U2, and Fleetwood Mac have performed at the arena.  The wooden proscenium stage looks out onto 3 levels of horseshoe shaped seating, and in 2009 and 2011 Billboard Magazine and Venues Today named the Baltimore Arena the #1 arena in the U.S.  Be on the lookout for your favorite A-lister coming to town.

Located in Charles Village, 2640 Space is run by Red Emma’s, a self-managed collective of political activists and artists.  2640 hosts concerts, conferences, craft fairs, community dinners, fundraisers, films, and lectures.  Neutral Milk Hotel, Beach House, Explosions in the Sky, and Jeff Magnum have played at 2640.  The venue is inside St. John’s United Methodist Church and admittedly tends to get hot, so leave your jacket at home and enjoy the show.

If you’re a jazz enthusiast, Club 347 is the place to be.  With two pool tables, two bars, two dance floors and a great, classic atmosphere, this hidden spot takes you back to the good ol’ days.  Enjoy the house band and make sure your dancing shoes are on!

Craving a Celtic jam session and some good beer? Look no further than Liam Flynn’s Ale House in the Charles North Neighborhood.  Liam’s is a great place to catch some live music while still being able to chat with your date.  Traditional Irish and Scottish music is played every Wednesday, so enjoy the free show.  Liam’s also hosts Ol’ Time Music, a free jam session open to the public.  Roughly 30 musicians come to play old-time Appalachian music, relax, and have a couple drinks with the locals.  Definitely don’t miss out on this one of a kind experience!

The Lyric Opera House, opened in 1894, is home to the Lyric Opera Baltimore company.  From 1916-1982, the opera house was home to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  With regular appearances from various touring orchestras, the Lyric hosts varied programming throughout the year, making it a beautiful place to take in some classical music or a play.

The Festivals

The Sowebo Arts and Music Festival features bands, arts & crafts vendors, food booths, an art show, and an art auction.  Held every May, the casual bohemian festival has three different stages and has featured acts like the Solicitors, the Hot Link Project, Thrillshow, Freedom Enterprise, and Telesma, among others.  While the Charm City Music Festival will no longer be returning to Baltimore this year, the same promoters are bringing the Shindig Festival to the city’s Carroll Park.  It’s 2014 festival will be held in September with the line up including Dropkick Murphys, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Clutch, the Gaslight Anthem, the Hold Steady, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.  Have more hardcore music needs?  Maryland Deathfest, held in May, has over eleven years of experience bringing metal bands to Baltimore.  MDF utilizes local venues like Rams Head Live and Baltimore Soundstage for its grind/hardcore punk needs.  The 2014 lineup will include a range of bands from all over the U.S. and Canada: At the Gates, Bolzer, Crowbar, Entrails, Left for Dead, and Whitehorse will be among the many bands performing.  For a less screamo experience, Baltimore also hosts the African American Festival every June to celebrate life, music, and culture.  Last year musical powerhouses Patti Labelle and Fantasia gave memorable headlining performances, and the festival hosted celebrity seminars, family activities, and over 500,000 attendees.