Bangers and Thrash: On the Charm City Art Space and A389 Recordings

City Paper

Since last column, I’ve been reminded about both the importance and the precarious position that the Charm City Art Space plays in the Baltimore music and arts scene. In the unlikely case that someone interested in this column is unfamiliar, this 12-year-old venue has been run by “the kids” since 2002, giving local bands a place to play and serving as a punk community center, as well as hosting national acts, art shows, and more. Many crusty old music scene barnacles, including this columnist, got their start as members, learning how to book shows, promote events and run a sound board at 1731 Maryland Ave. (or the original location, next door at 1729). It also, and perhaps more importantly, provides a 100 percent independent, community-run environment for music that is free from drugs and alcohol—something that can’t be said about almost any other venue in this city.

Recently CCAS launched a (successful) crowd-funding campaign via GoFundMe to raise $4,000, without which they would have had trouble keeping the doors open through the tough winter months. Included in the request was the fact that they had only $125 in the bank. It made me think about what an important resource “the Space” really is, and how much old folks like myself take it for granted. The space feels like it has always been there, and will always be there, but that isn’t actually true. It takes the coordination of an all-volunteer staff, the interest of the local scene, as well as a modest amount money to keep it going. I spoke to Chris Belkas, a CCAS member, about the campaign, the reason for the need, and how the space could be down to its last $125: “It is unfortunately all too typical, but usually going into the winter we have a little more financial padding from the summer for the slower months. Being a loosely organized DIY venue run by volunteers, we really only need to worry about having enough money to cover rent at the end of the month, so the majority of the money we pay for rent is made in the same month from shows.” A particularly soft run of shows resulted, then, in the bank account being almost dry.

They met their goal, so there is no danger of the space closing (at the moment), but with the ever-changing environment of Station North, where they are located, it’s hard not to worry—it’s easy to imagine walking by one day and seeing some sort of artisanal business standing in its place, which would be a blow to the city. One of the most important things about CCAS, something that few other legal venues offer, is that it’s a place where you can try things out without a huge overhead or risk. Speaking as someone who booked a few (poorly attended) shows there as a younger person, it was great to have a spot where 20 people could show up and it wasn’t the end of the world. As Nolen Strals, former space volunteer (and occasional CP contributor) whose old band Double Dagger played countless shows there, says, “CCAS gives bands a chance to cut their teeth and grow, without concern for how many bodies they bring in the door that night.” Bands, as well as show bookers, need a place to stretch their legs and learn their chops. For years CCAS has been that place for many people. Belkas adds, “bands like Pianos Become the Teeth and Touché Amoré, who played to almost no one, can now fill a venue like Ottobar.” It’s also been the place where a show by a classic band like Cro-Mags or Earth Crisis can pop up unexpectedly and blow everyone away—the space has been home to a surprising number of shows in recent years that you would expect to go to the “more professional” venues.

“I think it’s really important for places like CCAS to exist, to provide an alternative for folks in recovery, for young people who don’t want to be pressured into risky or illegal behavior, to see a cheap, sweaty, and intimate show,” says Shawna Potter of political punk band War on Women, highlighting the fact that most shows in 2014 tend to happen at bars and clubs—which is great for the 21+ set, but not always for the younger crowd, or those that just don’t want to be around alcohol. The club’s strict no-drinking, no-drugs, no-smoking policy has always been refreshing difference between it and most, if not all, of the other places one can see a punk show in the city, and so it remains, timeless. It’s this policy that contributes to the community vibe of the place—getting fucked up isn’t even on the menu so young and old alike can be there and feel safe in the moment.

After almost 13 years, CCAS is still standing and still providing a vital service to the city’s music scene. Even though I don’t go there enough, I’ve always felt like the space will always be there, no matter what I do—that’s not true, though. It, and other institutions like it, last only as long as the community stays involved and interested. Here’s to everyone, including myself, in the Baltimore music scene staying involved with this important resource for a long time to come.

  • Local extreme music label A389 Recordings has been releasing music at an unbelievably high volume (and consistent level of quality) for almost 11 years now. Recently, it also has been throwing a yearly anniversary show, the A389 Bash, that grows in scale and ambition year after year. This year founder Dom Romeo says he needed a change of pace after “a new child, moving homes, and an advancement in my professional career” (not to mention the 20-plus releases on the label in 2014), so the Bash is going a little more intimate. Instead of a two-day run in a 1,000+ capacity venue, there will be four shows over three days in smaller rooms like the Sidebar, the Metro Gallery and, of course, the Charm City Art Space. Highlights include Weekend Nachos, MagruderGrind, In Cold Blood, Haymaker, Ilsa, and Noisem. It all goes down Jan. 15-17.
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