Santoni's' meat cases were scavenged as if Highlandtown were in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.
The supermarket's owner recently decided it was going out of business, which wouldn't have mattered much to Rachel Taft, except that she suddenly, seriously needed chicken. A band called Reno Divorce was coming for dinner in an hour, and even with 54 clocks on the walls in her house, she was running late and didn't have enough food. A last-minute chicken run was called for.
The 32-year-old chef cooks for a lot of bands. She runs Feed the Scene-a free bed and breakfast for musicians-out of her rented three-story stone house on Bank Street across from Hoehn's Bakery.
She founded the free operation two years ago as a way to support touring musicians who can't afford to stay in a hotel. "Touring is expensive, especially for smaller bands. Most are lucky to make enough money to pay for gas to the next gig," she says. Taft should know. When she's not cooking, she's busy as a promoter, booking bands for the Sidebar and Charm City Art Space.
"With Feed the Scene, they're not sleeping in their vans or on the floor at strangers' houses," she says. "Feed the Scene is safe and it makes Baltimore an easier city to play in. It behooves bands to come here, actually."
And the bands do come: At last count, 298 bands from 11 countries, from teens to mid-career musicians in their late 40's. Taft's 3,000-square-foot Victorian house has a "band room" with four bunk beds, plus room for more on air mattresses and pull-out sofas.
"I had 21 musicians sleeping here one night," she says. Bands also get a free dinner, when Taft can afford it. Today, she is feeling a little flush.
Out on the chicken run, Taft, who grew up in Annapolis, starts talking about Highlandtown, which she discovered on Craigslist four years ago:
"I love it. It's arty and up-and-coming and about 10 minutes from most of the city's music venues. I know at least three musicians who live within a block or two of me. It's like Station North, but a post-college version."
Taft maintains a sense of humor about the neighborhood's rough edges.
At the stop sign, a junkie crosses in front of her car.
"What is that woman on? She is chewing the air, isn't she?"
"The police are here too. That one cop is cute, though."
The local color is part of Highlandtown's charm, she says, and also what keeps it affordable. Taft, whose background is in graphic design, holds down an assortment of part-time jobs. She admits she can barely afford Feed the Scene, even with donations. (Kickstarter funds bought the bunk beds.)
Taft says one of the main reasons she works so hard to keep Feed the Scene going is because music was such a comfort to her four years ago, when her mom-one of her best friends-passed away.
"My mom and dad started taking me to concerts when I was 8. They were music people. Mom also taught me how to cook: one recipe a week, over the internet, while I was in college. Her loss was hard on me. Music helped me deal with it," she says. "And, more than that, I think we all need to help each other when we can."
Feed the Scene's hospitality is open to musicians of all stripes and all genres. Taft has hosted metal bands from Japan, guys from the BSO, rappers, nerdcore, hardcore, goth, and everything in between. Bands book accommodations on her website usually a couple of months ahead of time, but sometimes at the last minute. "I can often make room," she says.
Bands like the camaraderie of Feed the Scene, and also that it feels like less of a crash pad and more of a home away from home. Before the bands arrive, Taft-dubbed "the patron saint of punk rock"-sends out a food questionnaire so guests all get a meal they will enjoy eating. (By 7 p.m., Reno Divorce was sitting down to a chicken, asparagus, and potato dinner in front of Taft's wall of clocks, their tattooed arms hoisting glasses of milk.)
"I like taking care of people. I always have," Taft says.
Carrie Donovan, who sings and plays bass for Carrie and the Dirty Pillows, a Baltimore psychobilly band, stayed with Taft last year. "Not only did Rachel accommodate the vegans in the band, but when I complained about the weird way my corset was fitting, she gave me a better one out of her own closet," Donovan says.
Once a band stays with Feed the Scene, Taft tells them they always have a home in Baltimore. "I love people. It is rewarding for me as well as for them."
Dan Moriarty, who plays in a Troop of Echoes, a band from Rhode Island, says Feed the Scene is part of what makes coming to Baltimore interesting.
"Sure, Feed the Scene saves hotel expenses, or the possibility of couch-surfing with an ax murderer, but where else can you eat home-cooked Cornish game hens and drink Natty Boh at 3 a.m. after a packed show in a converted garage?"
Taft says that the Cornish hens and other luxe meals are likely a thing of the past. She's trying to make Feed the Scene sustainable and is taking the nonprofit route.
"That way, we'll be able to apply for grants," she says. Her plan is to rent for another year or so and then buy a house so Feed the Scene can have a permanent home, but it all depends on her bank account balance, she says.
"Ideally, it will be this house. I've been working with my landlord on a way to make that happen." The house, the neighborhood, and Taft are definitely part of Feed the Scene's draw.
Mike, from a band called the New Lows, recalls his stay:
"Rachel put us up in her beautiful house with two other touring bands, fed us, hung out with us on her porch smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, sharing stories of bands, of tours, of cool folks, of crazies, of Baltimore. And then in the morning, she sent us to that great little donut shop across the street."