13 May Baltimore’s Literary Cabaret

Last Saturday, Baltimore writers and musicians gathered at the G-Spot Audio-Visual Playground for the city’s second Literary Cabaret. The Literary Cabaret isn’t exactly an official annual event; it’s just something I cooked up to gather writers together and raise a little money for AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I was the president of that organization for two years and am still on its board. Last year’s Literary Cabaret went well enough that I figured I’d try it again this year, only do it better.

Better meant asking the twenty-two readers this year to limit their time at the microphone. Now, this is a touchy topic because once you get a writer in front of a mic, anything can happen. The worst that can happen is that the writer will not leave the microphone. Last year, I must confess, we did have some problems with time limits. Said one reader (last year) when another reader kept on and on, “What’s so complicated about the concept of five minutes?” This year, I limited readers to two double-spaced pages and, happily, they took this seriously. As a result, the readings were fast and punchy–just enough to give us a taste of the writer’s work and leave us wanting more. It made for a heady mix. I recall hearing about sex and chickens and war and marriage and killing a dog and breasts and growing old and growing up and fist fights and sex and everything except flying to the moon. Local presses and publishers — like Smartish Pace , Shattered Wig Press, and the Potomac Review — picked the readers.

These readings were interspersed with music by writers who are musicians, as well as professional musicians. There was internationally renown novelist Madison Smartt Bell performing some of his music (he has two albums produced by famous indie songwriter-producer Don Dixon). Flannery O’Connor winner Geoff Becker — whose latest novel, Hot Springs, was a recent NYT editor’s pick — performed his rocking version of a few standards. Geoff used to be a pro and he plays his Stratocaster with the kind of authority that makes listeners say, “Holy shit!” (Pardon moi.) Speaking of which, we also had Kevin Robinson, who may be Baltimore’s reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix. Good god, the man holds forth. My own Jazz Caravan showcased one of the city’s musical treasures: Atlay Washington. She is one of the best performers I’ve seen in any genre. When she sings, she brings joy to the room. Dave Hughes, from Jazz Caravan and Oblivion Sun, was the house bass player and anchored the stage all night. You just can’t do a show like this without an outstanding bassist.

Our music headliners were the incomporable Victoria Vox, who has just released her third album, Exact Change. Vox plays pop-powered ukulele. She has a clear, sweet voice to match a sweet, mischievous stage persona. You may have caught her recently on a Jay Leno spot playing her mouth trumpet: she can mimic the music of trumpet beatifully (look for this on YouTube). If you don’t have her in your I-pod, you’re missing someting special. Our other headliner, Greg Holden, I brought down from NYC because I thought Baltimore needed to hear him. He’s very talented singer-song writer in the acoustic indie tradition. Greg and his manager stayed in an apartment at the G-spot, thanks to a generous loan of space from Heather Rounds. When you bring in musicians you haven’t met — for an overnight stay — you never know what might happen. I’ve been at gigs where the lead singer shows up two hours late or doesn’t show up at all. When I married Jill, I enlisted my own band to perform and our bass player at the time never showed up (we called another at the last minute and, remarkably, he was available and did a great job and became the bass player we now have.) In short, I’ve been around a lot of musicians and seen a lot of quirk and weirdness — because musicians are, well, just out there — but Greg was sweet and thoroughly professional. I wish I could have spent more time with him and his manager, David Margolis. Greg puts on a great show, very personable and humorous. He’s got an outstanding voice and well-developed melodic sensibility. He sold lots of albums. Check him out.

One of our participating editors, Clarinda Harris, had a little trouble finding the event site, because it’s off the beaten path, in the Mill Center area of Hampden. She said, “Now I know why they call it the G-Spot: you hear about it and you’re eager to get to it, but you look and look for it and can’t find it, though you’re pretty sure you’re in the right vicinity. When you DO find it, you’re not sure you’re really there. And then, when we’re you’re pretty sure you’re there at last, that this is indeed the spot, you’re not sure you’ll ever find it again!”

A few words about planning an event. If you’ve ever built a house of cards or played Jenga (stacking little small blocks of wood in tall precarious piles), you have some idea of what it’s like to put on an event with 22 readers, ten magazines, 6 bands, 6 volunteers, a caterer, and so on. You can read about my getting a liquor license in an earlier blog. Two days before the event, the septic pump at the G-spot went out — which meant we had no toilets and no water. Ruben Kroiz, who runs the G-Spot, assured me that it’d be fixed. But, man of the world that he is, he couldn’t promise that it’d be fixed in time. Twenty-four hours before show time, the septic-system pump was working again, thankfully. The day of the event, my watch stopped, the battery dead, apparently. I tried not to be superstitious about it. The night of the event, we had a little electrical fire, probably because I overloaded an outlet with lights. But Ruben came to the rescue here too. And everything went off very well, the readers were fabulous, the music marvelous, and we made a little money for a good cause too. Special thanks to Ruben Kroiz, Joe Bradley, Heather Rounds, Tim Finnegan, and Rosalia Scalia for their help.