Dan Deacon at Current (Photo: Josh Sisk)Dan Deacon at Current (Photo: Josh Sisk)

If I had half a shot of watered-down Manischewitz for every time someone insisted that Oakland is the new Brooklyn, I’d still be pretty drunk. I’ve only lived here for a year and a half, but that’s long enough to know that a fancy bagel store and an indie theater do not a Brooklyn make. In fact, the more time I spend in Oakland, the more it reminds me of a city I used to call home; another city frequently compared to Brooklyn (seemingly because you can now buy good beer there). Charm City. Baltimore.

Both cities are currently bouncing back from post-industrial woes; both gentrifying along a narrow north-south strip that ends in a tourism hub next to a body of water. Both stand in the shadow of absurdly expensive major cities (if you’ve ever, even in the slightest, felt a twinge of animosity towards SF techies, don’t even think about spending more than thirty seconds in the presence of DC’s hordes of sartorially-retarded young government sycophants). Both Oakland and Baltimore are full of people who love living in their respective cities. They’ve got one of the most important things a city can instill in its citizens: pride.

But when it comes to a coherent music scene, the two couldn’t be more different. While over the past decade, Baltimore has been an incubator, a place where strikingly dissimilar bands don’t just co-exist but thrive together, Oakland is a fractured landscape of musical microcosms. In a KQED story that aired last week, the Seshen vocalist Akasha Orr pointed out that while the city has a long history of hip-hop, hyphy and funk, there isn’t much of a dominant scene right now. With that in mind, what follows isn’t a solution, but an examination of what enabled Baltimore to create something more than just a music scene, but an eccentric community, that produced bands like Future Islands, Beach House, Wye Oak, and Dan Deacon among countless others. Are there lessons to be learned from the Greatest City in America? Who will prove to be the next bands to break out of the Bay?

My six years in Baltimore proved to me that a concert didn’t have to be performed on a conventional stage. Nor did the lineup have to feature musicians that sounded like each other. The focus didn’t even need to be on the music if the vibe was right and people felt like they were part of something special. More often than not, they were. Take the Wham City Round Robin; two consecutive nights of music, with one focusing on loud guitars and crashing drums, and the other showcasing ambient and electronic ensembles. But here’s the catch: instead of setting up on a stage, the bands spread out in a circle, a dozen per night, with the crowd in the middle. They would take turns playing songs and the crowd would rotate, churn, spastically focusing its attention first here and then there (a bit like Sauron’s eye, at that moment when he realizes that the Ring is at Mount Doom and he’s totally screwed). The set up transformed a concert into a spectacle, a weird guessing game of figuring out who was playing next. On the hard-rocking night in particular, this joyful confusion only further fueled a sense of wild, uninhibited anarchy. It was, in a word, a mess. What made it succeed? Access to a large space, definitely. A ton of bands willing to play a show with inevitably crappy sound. A bunch of PA speakers, a wild rag tag assortment of lights and cheap beer; a crowd willing to accept crummy sound, and excessive sweat. And the words Wham City.

According to local legend, Dan Deacon came up with the name Wham City when SUNY-Purchase, the university where he was studying, held a competition to choose a new name for a dorm. Alas, it was not destined to be called Wham City, but the name stuck, and when Deacon moved to Baltimore, it was the name he chose to represent the constantly-growing community of musicians and artists congregating in the city’s grubby midtown area, not far from the Maryland Institute College of Art. And the name proved to be a perfect summation of the growing scene: “Wham” hit the nail on the head. Going to a Wham City event was bound to be shocking in some manner or another; nudity, absurd theater, absurdly loud music, absurdly rowdy art school kids. The name was catchy and fun,as playful as Deacon’s songs. And it was a loose affiliation; a comedian named Blue Leader dressed in a superhero outfit, the gentle sounds of Beach House, the spastic art-punk of Ponytail all came together in Wham City. Wham City implied inclusiveness throughout the city; it wasn’t restricted to any one thing or style.

Wham City performances weren’t always as much of a free-for-all as the Round Robin. At a party aptly called “Slow Down & Grind”, musicians from all walks of Baltimore dressed for prom and belted slow jams on the gutted fifth floor of an old outerwear company warehouse on the far side of downtown called the H & H Building. You went knowing you would run into your friends and likely make new friends, too. The shows didn’t always need to take place in weird venues, but even in clubs, line ups were often eccentric. The first time I saw Future Islands, they were playing in a small club called the Ottobar; their set was sandwiched between Dan Deacon and local punk heroes Double Dagger. The three groups sound radically different from each other, but they’re all friends, all able to turn the club upside down. On that night, where else would you want to be?

Baltimore is a cheap place to live. It’s much easier to work a café job and have time to make art than in Oakland. I’m not convinced, however, that that is sufficient explanation for how one city home to tons of talented musicians has flown off the charts, while another of equally talented and driven artists has remained fractured and unable to create the momentum necessary to soar. Needless to say, being fractured means that there are always things going on under the radar; I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t communities being formed here. Between the over-the-top work of promoter Sarah Sexton, the collaborative efforts of the non-market collective, the Oakland Mind’s weekly cipher and Blackball Universe’s monthly art parties, just to name a few, things are clearly and undoubtedly happening. The overarching question, in my mind, is how Oakland can bring its myriad communities together…if it even wants to.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story inaccurately portrayed the number of available warehouses in Baltimore and Oakland.]