Baltimore Nights: The Hampden Evening Magic

Years from now, people will talk about Hampden, the neighborhood  where I grew up and have now returned to, the way they talk about New York’s East Village or Silver Lake in L.A., or Austin, Texas or Ashville, North Carolina or New Orleans’ Faubourg Marigny. This home of mine will be remembered fondly by the slew of artists, musicians, writers and Renaissance men who bore their original genius here. When, in the near and distant future, when they are asked about their fame and good fortune, they will look back to here, this strip of rowhouses and backstreets and music halls, where it all started, and remember a life easy and free.

My evening started at the Golden West Cafe, a Southwestern-theme restaurant on the far end of 36th St., the neighborhood’s main drag. Golden West, which has been on the Avenue in one form or another for over a decade, has etched its place as the music epicenter of the neighborhood, hosting touring bands three and four nights a week. Groups from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine have played there, but its also the stomping ground of celebrated local acts, including alt-country star (and the best voice in Baltimore IMHO), Caleb Stine. Its a also a steady employment stop for Ace of Cakes alumnus, migrant hipsters and local musicians (former El Rancho Grande owner Pete Schmader was our table hostess the other night.)

It was dark outside, and men in skinny jeans smoked cigarettes outside the Golden West’s door. I drank National Bohemian, saving the puzzle bottle caps, and ate tater-tots served in a paper cone with two dipping sauces, followed by fresh chicken quesadillas with salsa and cilantro. My dinner date ordered the Apple Brie burger with garlic fries, and a hot cider with a shot of spiced rum.

Behind us, a film crew blocked scenes for what appeared to be an independent travel show. The host bubbled with an amplified frivolity about the iconic Moose head that hung over our table and the laminated album covers in the bathroom.

Our waitress looked familiar, and as I paid the bill I asked her name. She introduced herself as Jenn Wasner, one half of Baltimore-based indie music favs Wye Oak. Wasner, along with band partner Andy Stack, made a mini-ripple with their debut album ‘If Children‘ and the critically acclaimed followup ‘The Knot’. Its haunting music, buried deep in punk, electric, Americana and roots sounds.

Wye Oak’s biggest hit, at least in my household, has been their cover of Baltimore Club Music legend Rod Lee’s “Dance My Pain Away.” Their version was able to capture the tears behind the joy, taking the songs in a unique direction thanks to Wasner’s shadowy vocal turn.

We talked to Wasner for a bit, who told us how much she enjoyed living in Hampden since she was 17, how the band was gearing up for a new spring tour, including a first stop at the G-Spot off of Clipper Mill Rd. and Old Falls Rd., as well as some new studio sessions. Think she enjoyed being recognized by random fans, but it was pleasant talk otherwise. As I’ve never been to the G-Spot, believe I may go check out that concert.

After dinner, I made my way over to the Hon Bar, at the corner of Roland Ave. and 36th St. Not my favorite establishment on the Avenue (I haven’t eaten at Cafe Hon proper in over 15 years, and their latest bar renovation created mishmash decor of foo-foo girlie frills mixed with old timey barstop that just doesn’t flow), they do host jazz and serve a wide selection of beers.

My friend Ben Frock, an old Boy Scouts and high school stomping buddy, was fronting a jazz quartet (Frock on the trumpet accompanied by sax, drums and keyboard) that evening. Interesting setup, as you have to walk through the band to get to a bar stool, making for a chaotic, back alley New York club vibe. The group bounced their sound with a smooth and smokey flare, the musicians eyes glazed dim with alcohol and who knows what else. Their sound served as a perfect compliment to my tall glass of Resurrection, a local Belgium style brew that’s risen in both profile and legend. I let the beer’s 7 percent alcohol buzz kick in, hoping to tap the blaze and darkness and beauty the jazz men were adhering to.

There are moments when I miss the neighborhood’s old ways, the closeness and familiarity, the leeway one gave to their neighbors because they were kin. Not to say that’s all gone, but its definitely been muted to a whisper.

Still, give me a night like this and I’ll be content for many years ahead.

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