Not By The Numbers

Scenes from the High Zero festival, Stanstock in Parkville, and Baltimore Bicycle Works.

Not By The Numbers

Preston Street
September 16

“I know the next performer  because he’s staying at my house—we’re volunteer-run,” host M.C. Schmidt tells the packed house at the 19th-annual High Zero festival before introducing improvisational guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui. “He’s from Beirut and so today, I explained Juggalos,” Schmidt continues, referencing fans of the rap group Insane Clown Posse, who had recently made headlines.

One of the largest experimental music festivals in the U.S., High Zero was launched by John Berndt and a cadre of enthusiasts who began hosting shows at Normal’s Books and Records in the ’90s. As in the past, the four-day festival attracts some of the world’s finest experimental musicians, including Sehnaoui, who doesn’t pick his guitar—which sits across his legs—but taps it, like a percussion instrument, with small metal mallets to build shimmering vibrations.

Sehnaoui’s set is followed by a five-person improvisational effort, featuring nationally acclaimed Baltimore composer Dan Deacon, who has reconfigured a piano to play robotically from his laptop. Joining Deacon are a Maine-based voice artist (not a singer) with the nom de guerre Id M Theft Able, Japanese guitar player Kazuhisa Uchhashi, New York drummer Eli Keszler, and Baltimore dancer Lynn Price. Their strange sounds, along with Able’s disquieting vocals and Price’s, at times, fraught movement, create something that resonates like an aurally dark dream. 

“I feel like my unconscious is going to be messed up for a week,” an audience member whispers afterward. 

Following a brief intermission, Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid and London pianist Tania Chen produce some of the most beautiful and weighted music of the evening, albeit with Chen occasionally banging away at her instrument in frenetic passion with different parts of her body.

Not every set clicks, acknowledges saxophonist Andrew Bernstein. When it does, however, the result can be revelatory. “I can’t describe it,” Bernstein says. “Experimental music doesn’t really translate into language. I guess the best way to put it is that it gives sound to things we don’t have words for.”

Get It Together

Putty Hill Avenue
September 10

The giant inflatable guitar at the entrance to the Putty Hill Shopping Center is hard to miss, as is the sea of baby boomers, in a mix of Ravens gear and throwback concert T-shirts, dancing in the parking lot to a cover of “Something in the Air” by 1969 one-hit wonder Thunderclap Newman.

We’ve got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution’s here, and you
know it’s right.

Welcome to Parkville’s fifth-annual Stanstock, the brainchild of 62-year-old former saxophone player Stan Gibson, whose previous claim to fame was sharing a stage with John Denver in 1971 on WBAL’s Kerby Scott Show. For the past two days and nights, hundreds of middle-aged Baltimore rockers have been partying and reminiscing inside McAvoy’s Sports Bar & Grill—and outside in the lot-turned-concert-venue—to tunes from popular local bands of decades past.

“Stan could play the sax like you never heard before in your life,” says former bandmate Ronnie Malvaso, standing next to Gibson during a break. “When he kicked in, we wanted to stop and listen.”

Because of a neurological birth defect that eventually forced him into a wheelchair, Gibson had to give up playing as a relatively young man. Struggling in recent years simply to attend live music events and nearly paralyzed today, Gibson started a Facebook page—Baltimore Bands from the 70’s 80’s 90’s—to keep in touch with his musician pals and friends. That effort morphed into Stanstock, which has hosted, among others, old-school Baltimore favorites such as Crack the Sky, Face Dancer, and the Rayvns.

Not that everyone here was a hard-rock fan back in the day. “We were disco queens,” laughs Debbie Mowry, swaying alongside 60-something girlfriends.

The groups play for free, Gibson notes, with net proceeds—more than $55,000 over the first four years—going to charity.  

“My family told me doing this would kill me,” says Gibson, strugglng to speak audibly. “But it’s what keeps me going.”

One-Track Mind

Falls Road
September 11

Two years after graduating from the Maryland Institute of College of Art in 2011, Cary Gray hopped on a unicycle and took off for South America, attempting to break the world record for the longest trip ever on a single-wheel, pedal machine.

“I did, too,” Gray recalls before his talk this afternoon at Baltimore Bicycle Works. “I’d broken the record when I got to Columbia [with the help of a kayak] and was going to double it by reaching Argentina when my bag—with my GoPro, GPS, passport, and witness signatures to prove to Guinness I’d set a new record—were stolen. I couldn’t document what I’d done.

“I flew home. I had to let it go.”

Along the way, he tells the small crowd of bike-camping soon-to-bes that the Mexican people, in particular, were hospitable. “So friendly, I was overwhelmed. Aggressively friendly.” He adds, however, he did briefly fear for his life once in Mexico when an armed farmer approached him while he was camping. “He was protecting his property; it was an area with a lot of drug trafficking,” he says. “The unicycle diffused a couple of situations.”

Since those initial 11,000-plus miles, he’s ridden an additional 10,000 miles through 30 states and 11 countries, planning to tackle other unicycling records now. At 28, he admits his parents wonder when he will begin a “real” career. Gray insists he already has, self-publishing a children’s book, Luno!, which he illustrated with his feet for fun, and a non-fiction e-book for adults called The Naked Unicyclist, which chronicles his tire punctures, bouts of extreme dehydration, and food poisoning, along with other mishaps and joys. “The title is a metaphor,” Gray says, with a smile. “It’s about being vulnerable and open to the world.”

Someone asks if he felt like quitting. 

“Yeah. And I did. Several times.” Gray responds. “Usually when I was cold, wet, tired, and hungry in the middle of nowhere. The problem was that I still had to get somewhere dry, get somewhere to eat. Then I’d feel better and forget I had quit.”