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Born From The Pandemic, Baltimore Porch Concerts Are Here To Stay

Musicians play at a Charm City Porch Concert in Roland Park on Wednesday.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Musicians play at a Charm City Porch Concert in Roland Park on Wednesday.

It’s been a long year and change for Baltimore musicians, who’ve dealt with cancelled gigs and lost income since the pandemic hit. Some adapted their performances to suit the times, including Ed Hrybyk of the Charm City Porch Concert series.

Pre-pandemic, Hrybyk, who plays upright bass, had a steady string of gigs at restaurants and bars. Last spring, those income streams faded fast.

So, he decided to start hosting duets with different city musicians on the porch of his former Charles Village home. On the porch railing, he hung a bedsheet that displayed his Venmo username, hoping for tips from passersby and people watching via livestream.

In a matter of weeks, the Charles Village Porch Concerts took off. They allowed people to spread out, unwind, close their eyes and take their minds off the pandemic, which was then in its early days. But then, Hrybyk moved.

“I don't really have a nice porch to do it on anymore,” he said. “And I thought about ending it. And there was such positive feedback from the community that I really struggled to do that.”

So he cobbled together a business plan and turned the Charles Village Porch Concerts into the Charm City Porch Concerts. Now, people with porches across the city can pay $200 to book him and a rotating roster of other city musicians for an hour-long performance on Wednesday nights. The musicians divvy up that money and tips from concertgoers.

In the muggy heat of Wednesday night Hrybyk and three other musicians posted up on a Roland Park porch, playing for a crowd that spilled into the street. Trumpeter and singer Nico Sarbanes, son of Congressman John Sarbanes, was the featured act.

“So please be generous when you tip the band,” Hrybyk told the Roland Park crowd. “It goes directly to the artists.”

Hrybek won a grant of $3,500 from the Maryland State Art Council for his summer shows; he spreads it out among performances. He also created the Baltimore Pop-Up Jazz Jam, a recurring Tuesday night performance where small businesses pay to host him and other musicians at parks across the city.

As vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases drop, the shows have become less about escaping the times and more about celebrating a creep toward normalcy. Louis Borgenicht funded this week's concert. On her lawn, neighbors hugged and choruses of “it’s so nice to see you” floated amid the music.

“It's really thrilling to see people and not be afraid to shake hands,” Borgenicht said. “There’s a little trepidation but it’s OK!”

Hrybyk's pandemic business model has kept him and other city musicians fed, on top of spiritually sustaining Baltimoreans, said Alanah Nichole Davis, an artist and arts advocate known as the godmother of the city arts community.

“The artists here really keep things together, they're like the cement in these bricks,” she said. “And when we had all the cancellations and postponements, we kind of lost that cement and things got really wobbly for a really long time.”

Davis helped administer the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts grant program for struggling artists last year — and ran her own microgrant program, which distributed $5,000 across the city. But the limited funds haven’t been enough for the entire community. Some artists were forced to move out of Baltimore or abandon their work, Davis said, putting grassroots artists like Hrybyk and the joy they bring Baltimoreans at risk.

“You don't want to lose that kind of a thing,” she said. “I think we need to cherish that as a city.”

As COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, Baltimoreans should support the arts community in the ways they can, Davis said, be it pushing your workplace to sponsor an arts event, donating spare dollars to street performers or promoting arts events.

“When you invite a friend to a porch concert, you get a chance to feel something that I think a lot of people haven't felt in a long time. I know people who haven't been to a concert since 2019,” she said. “This is the perfect time to invite people to participate in something that's much bigger than them.”

And if you’ve sharpened any artistic talents or developed an itch to start putting your work out there, now is the time to put it out there, she said, pointing to her open mic night at Dovecote Café in Reservoir Hill on the third Thursday of every month.

“If there's an artist that you want to collaborate with, shout out to them, DM them, email them, talk to them, go grab a drink at a bar and talk that idea through because it's going to be worth it in the end,” she said.

Hrybyk agrees. He’s got a steady stream of porch concerts booked into the fall, but hopes to see city residents help the arts community rebound.

“In Baltimore, there's so much such a wealth of talent and diverse talent, like in terms of genres and backgrounds and all sorts of people doing all sorts of cool music,” he said. “My point is, there's just so many artists out there that you can go and support.”

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.
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