It looks likes an ordinary truck terminal on a city backstreet off Washington Boulevard in Morrell Park, but if you hang around awhile, you’ll see that instead of hauling crates and widgets through the loading docks, they’re moving drums and amplifiers. Welcome to Orion Sound Studios, Baltimore’s undisputed progressive rock home, international prog destination and symbol of the post-industrial city.
Do you remember the heyday of Hammerjacks, the huge rock club that once was in the industrial district, and later became the Ravens’ stadium? Well, rock-and-roll may be dead or dying as a mainstream medium, replaced by American Idol and a dozen other sub-genres, but Orion is the lean, stripped down grown-up version of Hammerjacks – where well-behaved, and largely middle-aged crowds (of maybe a hundred more or less) come to hear truly original grown-up music and not just to be seen doing something cool.
Since the mid-’90s, Orion Studios has hosted many of prog’s greatest international bands. Some of Orion’s concerts have encompassed multiple continents, such as a legendary show with Italy’s Deus ex Machina, Japan’s Ars Nova and New Jersey’s Mastermind. Some artists know they could play bigger and more lucrative venues, but crave Orion’s intimacy, reverential audience and the immaculate 24-track recordings that owner Mike Potter can give them after the concert.
One night featured Tony Levin, Bill Bruford and David Torn - prog veterans who have played in or with King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Tori Amos and others, along with then-relatively unknown trumpeter Chris Botti. (Botti has since gone on to Grammy nominations and the kind of A-list star ubiquity that comes from hanging out with Sting, Oprah, Yo Yo Ma and Burt Bacharach.)
Next Up: Uz Jsme Doma
Orion’s next show is this Saturday night, October 9th, featuring a band that looms as large as any among the prog-noscenti: Uz Jsme Doma from the Czech Republic. Formed all the way back in the 1980s, Uz Jsme Doma (sorta pronounced ooge-shmay-doma), were one of the two most famous underground rock bands in Soviet Czechoslovakia.
The other was Plastic People of the Universe, who expressed the rage of Soviet repression and named themselves for a Frank Zappa song. The Lithuanians who recently donated a Zappa sculpture to Baltimore know the role that music can play in this fight for freedom.
Uz Jsme Doma’s music is far different than Plastic People, depicting the visceral, unbridled, high-energy joy of reaching out to the world. Prog rock is a natural universal language to express this. Uz Jsme Doma is manic in its eclecticism, with sounds veering from what might hint at punk or ska one moment to heavy metal klezmer the next.
Uz Jsme Doma don’t indulge in much experimentalism or improvisation. They were originally an underground band only because they had to be, just as prog is only an underground genre because of the intensity of its focus on musical values. Like most great prog bands, everything they play has a distinct purpose to hit you in the head and/or the gut.
Philadelphia’s math-rock fusion Inzinzac opens the show.
After that: Faun Fables
Orion’s next show after UJD could hardly be more different. On October 20th, they’ll host Faun Fables from the Oakland Bay Area, sometimes described as “freak folk,” for the way it portrays simple American themes with artful theatrics. As such, it perhaps offers a postmodern parallel to the way American Gothic, Grant Wood’s iconic painting, simultaneously portrays the familiarity, intensity and exotic mystery of bucolic America.
Faun Fables is a spin-off from the legendary Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, with the soaringly clear folk voice of Dawn McCarthy rising over a bed of understated but often diabolical instrumentation supplied mostly by Nils Frykdahl, including the kind of “found” percussion that SGM is famous for – stuff that might be found laying around an old industrial site like Orion Studios.
Orion: Prog Mecca
Orion deserves to be recognized as an international musical treasure located right here in Baltimore. All ages are welcome. While many regulars tend to be middle-aged and up, you should also expose your kids to good music before it’s too late. They might know modern prog bands like Mars Volta, Mogwai or Radiohead, but might not be aware there’s a whole musical world behind them.
Shows try to start at 8 PM. It’s BYOB+C (Bring your own beverage and chair) if you wish, preferably one of those low-slung fold-ups that won’t block the view from behind you. Just take Washington Boulevard to the giant U-Haul sign at Inverness Avenue located just a quarter-mile east of Caton/Patapsco Avenue. Inverness is only a block long, so when it ends, turn left to the end of Whittington and Orion will be on the right, disguised as an old truck terminal.