The Year the Music Died

·12 min read

Apr. 22—Remember the old world?

The scent of beer and sweat in dark, crowded bars. People wild and drinking, yelling, dancing in front of stages. Bands playing at Cafe Nola, Cafe 611 and Guido's until 2 a.m., crowds of people bumming cigarettes and huddled around outside smoking.

"The moment I stopped performing," said Frederick musician Colin Shultzaberger, "there was a period of time when I was like, will I ever do this again? Am I done? Is this the end of music as we know it?"

Even before the pandemic shut down nearly all live music in March 2020, Frederick was experiencing what one might call an ebb in its music scene. Guido's, Frederick's iconic and beloved dive bar, had closed in the fall of 2019, and Area 31, the film and music venue on East Patrick Street, closed in January 2020. A one-two punch.

But who could predict the silence that would descend on Frederick when the pandemic hit?

Though Frederick has been a growing arts and music hub over the past two decades, it's still a relatively small town, and its music scene is a delicate ecosystem. Adding or subtracting a few venues, promoters or bands can be a game-changer. The scene often hinges on just a few players, and because of this fragility, it's seen many highs and lows of its iterations in recent years. A few visionaries, who book shows, start festivals, open venues and found bands or zines, can transform Frederick in a matter of months.

As spring warms the city and more people are coming into town, bands and fans alike are wondering: What will the next era of the Frederick music scene look like?

FREDERICK MUSIC HEYDAY

Just a few years prior to the pandemic, the Frederick music scene was at an all-time high. The previously elusive mid-size venue that Frederick bands and fans had desperately wanted for years suddenly came ... in spades.

In the mid-2010s, Flying Dog was hosting national acts on its lawn; the Frederick News-Post transformed its former downtown building into a concert venue, aka the 200 East Art Haus, and held shows indoors and outside in the parking lot; local artists performed on the Weinberg Center stage at the annual Frederick Music Showcase; Area 31 was booking local indie acts alongside its arthouse film screenings; and Sky Stage opened in 2016, giving local and regional bands another performance venue option.

Frederick artists came together not once but three times (2011, 2013 and 2016) to organize and host the grassroots, volunteer-run Artomatic@Frederick in what is now the YMCA Arts Center on Church Street, a multi-week, multi-floor, mega art exhibit with full lineups of live music every weekend in its open, top-floor space, a former gymnasium.

Smaller venues were bursting, too. Gravel and Grind, which closed in 2018, served as a miniature music hub, hosting shows inside and in its adjacent lot. Record stores hosted shows, New Spire Stages booked rock shows, and there were multiple options any night of the week to hear live music at bars, breweries and coffee shops in town.

The underground was humming, too. House shows were booking regional acts that drew people from surrounding towns to low-key backyard gatherings and basement shows.

An art and music zine cropped up, just to document it all. Subversive, created by Frederick artists and musicians, published monthly for two years.

When the wave peaked, circa 2014 to 2017, the size and scope of talent coming out of the local music scene seemed out of ratio with the town's size.

Silent Old Mtns. Old Indian. Heavy Lights. Time Columns. Cheshi. Stitch Early. The Fun Boys. Miss Lonelyheart. Gloop. Kai Orion. LITZ. Retro/Ricole. Kimberly. Middle Kid. The Dirty Middle. DoubleMotorcycle. Mr. Husband. New God. J Berd. Crooked Hills. Seaknuckle. Downtown Dawson. Austin & Olivia. Luna & the Lost Keys.

"We really were, as a small town, punching above our weight," said Roy Ghim, a musician who was heavily involved in the scene and helped to organize several shows. "There was one time that Cheshi played with Hexgirlfriends at Nola, and it was pretty packed, and this guy tapped me on the shoulder and was like, 'Hey, I just moved to Frederick, and this is so cool — does this happen all the time?' It's hit or miss, but when stuff happens in this town, it's like all the bands are playing the same weekend. When it's hot, it's hot."

LIGHTS OUT

When the world went dark in March 2020, cities across America began to feel like that town in "Footloose."

Nonessential businesses closed, which ruled out any chance to stroll around downtown Frederick to shop or get a bite to eat, much less catch a show.

Musicians who had packed bars and auditoriums quickly moved to teaching lessons through a computer screen and playing livestreaming shows for donations from their bedrooms, kitchens and garages.

When Frederick County permitted restaurants and bars to reopen under limited capacity, owners of these smaller venues couldn't justify paying bands when they were barely making ends meet with capacity limitations, even if they were to charge a cover.

"I normally gig two to three nights a week," said Shultzaberger, a multi-instrumentalist who plays in too many bands to list. "I have to hit 100 shows a year or I'm below my mark. From March to March, I played two."

Natalie Brooke, a keyboardist who grew up in Frederick and studied at Shenandoah Conservatory, has dedicated her life to music — teaching and performing it. When she returned to Frederick in 2019 after touring the East Coast for two years, she immediately discovered Olde Towne Tavern's weekly open jam, where, as she put, she met all of her musician friends that she still hangs out with.

"The thing I love doing the most is being onstage and making a bunch of noise," she said. "I literally had to grieve not doing it. It was just gone, in the blink of an eye, and there was no sign of it coming back. I felt like I lost a part of myself, a way of expressing things.

"My parents and friends were being really nice and positive about it, like, 'Why don't you set up a video so you can see them?'" she went on. "I was like, look, I hear you, but you know there's nothing like being elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, with sweaty people, and your ears ring afterwards, and you've just been hit in the face with sound."

Frederick mainstays such as Olde Towne Tavern, Cafe Nola and Cafe 611 haven't seen a live show in over a year, but because breweries are generally larger, some — Smoketown Creekside, Olde Mother Brewing and Idiom Brewing — were able to host live music with a limited-capacity audience. The Eagles Club, too, on East Patrick Street, has hosted a few socially distanced shows outdoors.

Meanwhile, during the pandemic, Frederick lost another beloved music hub, Vinyl Acres, and with it, the invaluable institutional knowledge of its owners, longtime musicians (punk and garage rock legends, really) Martha Hull and Bob Berberich. The record shop, which occasionally included live shows, had been a resource for anyone wanting to learn the music history of the region.

Downtown Frederick is still lucky to have two music shops, The Record Exchange and Rock & Roll Graveyard, a testament to Frederick being full of music fans.

But because the scene was already losing venues — and bands — before the pandemic, it's hard to say what direction the scene will be headed as places start opening back up at full capacity.

"If you want a real music scene," said Colin McGuire, who devoted years to giving local artists a platform, "you have to give your artists the ability to grow."

LIGHTS AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?

These next few weeks mark the start of not just a new season of live music but a new era of Frederick's music scene. How it will be defined can only be determined in retrospect, but a new shape is starting to take form.

New venues, indoor and outdoor, are rising up from the pandemic ashes, some of which are likely to become new music hubs in the city — and quickly, as people are desperate to engage with the world again and experience live music, and musicians are just as desperate to perform.

"Frederick is starting to feel like the city of Frederick again. It was a weird, sad little ghost town there for a while. It was depressing," said Shultzaberger, who's already scheduled to play a handful of spring and summer shows. "New businesses have been popping up left and right, so I'm expecting things to flourish again soon. Someone's gonna kick the door down, and there's gonna be a lot more bands. It seems to me that the bands that existed are trying to make their way back in, but there's this new influx of bands — people I've never seen before. I just have a feeling so many more are coming."

Stirrings of new life — and, in some cases, renewed life — at a handful of venues and venues-to-be include the much-touted Showtime at the Drive-In at the Frederick Fairgrounds, which opens shows this weekend when the Disco Biscuits play two nights, both of which have already sold out.

Prior to the pandemic, the Frederick company Showtime Sound, which produces the fairground shows, provided audio, lighting, video and staging services for nationally touring acts. When the pandemic closed all major venues and canceled tours, Showtime Sound vice president Shawn Hocherl and his staff turned local. They built a stage with a 40-foot LED wall and began hosting drive-in movies in September 2020, then began to book national bands at the same outdoor space through November.

"There was really no profit. We just wanted to get by and create this experience, and we did," Hocherl said. "Then over the winter, we were like, oh my gosh, we're gonna have to do this again. Everything is still shut down for us. It just became this success, I think, because people want to experience something like this so bad."

Hocherl has linked up with promoters in the area, including Tim Walther of Walther Productions, who's promoted events since the '90s, including the All Good Festivals. The fairgrounds shows in the fall of 2020 often sell out, at a capacity of 330 cars, or roughly 1,300 people.

"Right now, it's a temporary, pop-up venue," Hocherl said. "If regular venues are doing shows in the fall, it would be difficult to book acts at our drive-in at a reduced cost."

On a smaller scale, a handful of restaurants and breweries around town have indoor and outdoor shows in the works.

Benjamin Cohen, owner of Gambrill Mt. Food Co. on North East Street, is in the process of opening a second location at the former Blue Side Tavern, slated to open in June. Having enough space to host live music was a major motivator for moving to a larger space. "Music," as he put it, "is a huge part of our life."

They'll host a variety of genres — bluegrass, jam bands, country, rock — and are working out the logistics of opening an outdoor space for live music in addition to their indoor stage.

Smoketown Creekside, too, began hosting shows just prior to the pandemic, and its staff have a few projects in the works, one of which is expanding their 9,000-square-foot warehouse space next door into a full-event venue. For now, the space is being used for additional seating to allow guests to be socially distanced.

Just as exciting, Smoketown staff has been working for a couple years to prep the upstairs space of their Brunswick location, Smoketown Brewing Station, for live concerts. Located inside the town's former fire hall, the space is rich in history, with the likes of Patsy Cline and Duke Ellington, among others, performing there in the past.

"They all played upstairs," said Smoketown owner Jake Blackmon. "People come in and tell stories about acts they saw there. We want to bring back its legendary status."

They plan to host local, regional and nationally touring acts in both the Frederick and Brunswick locations.

Tenth Ward Distilling Company and Idiom Brewing Co., both in downtown Frederick, have continued to host live music through the pandemic and plan to ramp up their bookings soon. Olde Mother, also downtown and comprised of a staff of musicians, recently restarted its Artist Showcase singer-songwriter series on Tuesday evenings, held indoors, and will begin to host outdoor shows in May. In celebration of an album release, Sunniva will play the first outdoor show there on May 7.

"We try to foster the music scene as best as we can," said Olde Mother co-owner Nick Wilson.

Sky Stage opens for the season in May, with Frederick bands booked for weekend shows in the open-air venue. The Summer Concert Series at the Baker Park Band Shell kicks off in June, and fans are already clearing their schedules to catch Silent Old Mtns there on June 13.

Even as venues reemerge, live music will likely be a bit more tame in the months to come. Will we have to dance in designated, spray-painted circles? Will we be masked and asked to only sit with people who are in our "pod"? Will we need to show a vaccination card? Will spacious, outdoor venues become the norm? And who will become the next wave of artists, venues and promoters that define our local scene?

"I think things are still percolating that we can't see yet," Ghim said. "Frederick needs all the help it can get. It doesn't have the critical mass to sustain a nonwave. We're too close to Baltimore and D.C. — sometimes that sucks some of the talent from Frederick into their space, and that's understandable. But the waves still happen, despite that, and when it happens, well ... the wave I saw was pretty magical."

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