To go see Dan Deacon at a small club in Baltimore is a lot more complicated than it used to be.
Unlike William Cashion, a person with a gift for keeping lists, I do not know how many times I have seen Dan Deacon perform. A healthy guess would be… hundreds of times?
Of course, I go back so far as to have seen Dan play in front of an audience of less than a hundred people. You know, at the beginning.
Yeah… there will be more folks here tonight.
As of 6:50 PM, before the 8:30 doors, 259 people have indicated that they are “going” on Facebook while 750 people are “interested.” I am not sure what that means. I see 750 people raising their eyebrows, stroking their chins, and making an “interested” expression with their faces.
I often reduce shows in my calendar to things like “Dan @ Crown” to save space. I keep a small monthly grid style calendar, the size of a standard piece of paper. I have years of these. I don’t know why I do it IRL, on paper. The Internet is filled with reminders now. I guess I like the spacing out, the feeling that I am here in this square and that is there in that square. A map, and then a record, of show after show after show.
To go back to the brutal shorthand of “Dan @ Crown”, it should be noted that other performers are on the bill. It is, formally, “Dan Deacon/ :3LON / Alex Silva / Ruby Fulton / DJs Joy Postell & Book of Morrin”. Dan picks the groups he plays with at this point in his career. No more being asked to open up for a band at the Ottobar because the band thought Dan Deacon was Dan Higgs (a mix-up that could only happen in Baltimore).The above bill reflects a formal intention. People of Color, female-identifying, and queer folks on the bill, on the decks, in the mix. People he is friends with and friendly with, sure, but not just whoever the venue wants to have open for him. The bill feels thought-out, diverse, and intentional.
Sound check and tech check is a stressful time at any venue. Dan’s show is not as elaborate as it once was. At one point, he took an entire heckin’ ensemble on the road. Still, it’s got to sound good, sound correct.
April Camlin is currently engaging in the percussionist’s monotonous sound check job of beating on one drum continually while mics are checked. The wonderful girl group harmonies on the house PA are cut, as requested by Dan.
Poet and sculptor Anna K. Crooks, tending bar and engaged in her own monotony of squeezing citrus, flicks the music off and returns to her unconscious syncopation with April. Anna possesses a wonderful and varied wardrobe, but often chooses to wear simple, plain summer dresses for shifts at The Crown. This probably reflects a strategy since The Crown is a place of many spills, wild times, and little to no A/C. The one piece of flair may be her socks, depending on the evening. It is no secret that she can dress up when the occasion calls for it. Still, to prepare for a shift at the Crown must be a bit like preparing for a bout of Mixed Martial Arts: wear something safe and comfortable, know you will get dirty, sweaty, and maybe even bloody, and assume that your work outfit does not have long to live.
Tonight Anna is wearing white socks with small etched turtles on them.
Dan, in the moment, begins to stomp around the mostly empty club floor to the beat. He announces this is his whole set, dancing around like this while April hits one drum. “Thank you! Good night!”
The Wham City gang are quick witted. If you are in the mix, you best keep up and get riffin’. No cowards.
And hey… you have to keep yourself engaged during sound check somehow. When you get involved on this level with music and musical performance, a position I’ve been in since I got in the van in 1993, you learn that there is a lot of downtime and tedium that goes along with things on the performer’s side. Amps need to get lugged. You load in at dinner time, play at 10PMish and wait around till around 2AMish to get paid. If you get paid.
We have shifted to full sound check now, Al Shatz a steady hand at the soundboard as always. Dan is starting this full sound check with a new song, the chorus/mantra of which is “tonight’s the night, you’re gonna change your life”, which is a perfect reminder of why all this tedium is worth it. Tonight, someone who is not me could have their first experience going at a Dan Deacon show. Tonight, someone might receive an important moment of cathartic joy that helps them cope and keep going. Tonight, someone might get a sense of unity from being in the crowd or have a chance to stand out by leading a dance off.
And that’s all great. But… right now, the cross fader isn’t working on the vocoder. We are an hour to doors.
Wait. How am I here? Backstage pass? Guest list? Nope. The Crown opens at 6PM as a bar and restaurant. Anyone over 21 can walk in and have a beer or a meal before doors. All you need to do is trade in your most precious commodity, time, and then… no worries about a soon to be sold out surprise show with no presale tickets.
I don’t think of places like The Crown as “dive bars” and I do not think “authenticity” is the point, but, as Alex Scally commented in a recent conversation, the Baltimore underground likes places like this. Is it the low stakes, the funky bathrooms? The opportunity to rip it up and start again?
Dan is now running through a part of “America” as his full sound check continues. This multi-part musical piece is side two of his 2012 LP of the same name. It is Independence Day weekend, but I have heard the song played too often in recent sets for this to be a special occasion. It is usually the closing song. When I hear it live, I can’t help but take a sec and check that I have my keys.
April is still thumping it out with her usual “full on” power, never losing the technical finesse and grace that can be lost with that level of intensity. April’s drumming is flat-out wonderful, as always, and her addition to the song adds a great rip-roaring boost to material that I have heard live many times.
Anna checks in with me to make sure I have ear plugs, pointing to her ears, cocking her head. Thumbs up? I nod, touch my ear, and give a thumbs up back. The sound check blares on. I never leave home without earplugs, a fresh jar often in my closet. It is really getting loud in here. The section of “America” rumbles and rambles on.
The last time I saw Dan and April play together, it was in front of a sea of folks at a Baltimore festival called Light City. It was my 40th birthday.
Anna is writing out the drink specials. Featured at the Crown tonight is “Ghosted”: grapefruit sojo, vodka, fresh lime juice (hence all that syncopated percussion a bit ago), Campari, and ginger beer for $7.
The Crown has become the de facto underground club in Baltimore. Previously a karaoke bar, the owners took a chance on some weird punks, mostly white, who wanted to book shows. There are still reminders of that bar, but they fade more and more over time.
In a recent interview, I remember artist Laura Weiner asking why I use the term “underground”. Isn’t that a limitation? Well… yes and no. I like being at house shows, in punk basements. I am going to one tomorrow. The crowd will be much smaller. Dan is off to tour Europe next. I know that pals Beach House are playing two sold-out nights at the 9:30 Club later this month before heading to the Pitchfork Music festival in Chicago where Brian Wilson will be performing Pet Sounds in its entirety. These are not exactly basement shows. Self-sustaining musicians, with followings, on record labels of note, whose names are “known” nationally and internationally, have come out of Baltimore now. But I can’t forget and they definitely remember starting out in those basements and smaller venues.
In any case, my time of pre-show contemplation is rapidly coming to an end. The Crown is already filling up. Twenty minutes to “doors”! I better get up from this barstool, walk over to the person setting up the cash box, pay, get stamped, and officially get through the doors I walked though hours ago.
See you on the other side.