Councilman Ryan Dorsey: former DIY house show booker

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City Councilman Ryan Dorsey. Image via Facebook.

“DIRECTIONS: Ryan Dorsey’s house is located at MAYFIELD AVE.”

On the photo of the house show flyer, which dates back to 1997, the number has been blacked out. But when it was originally posted more than two decades ago, it was there in full, along with a phone number.

And yes, that would be Ryan Dorsey, city councilman for the 3rd District. The four bands scheduled to play that July night performed in the basement of his parents’ house. Before the flood of event invitations in our social media feeds, flyers like this one and word of mouth were how information about independently organized performances and shows spread around.

There’s a bit more to this morsel of local music scene lore. This obscure moment in history was thrust back into the present via an Instagram post on Wednesday by the band Animal Collective.

“Still in high school,” wrote one of the band’s members, Josh Dibb. “This was possibly the first time that Dave and noah and I played a show together. I… had been writing music with noah for a few years. And Dave and Brian had asked me to play keyboards in their band Automine. But this was maybe the first time those worlds mixed.”

There’s something uniquely and wonderfully Baltimore about a band that would go on to national and international acclaim for its avant-pop music after cutting its teeth in the basement of a guy who eventually became a member of the City Council. This confluence of creativity, among other qualities, typifies Baltimore’s embrace of the unusual that still colors a lot of the music, art, film and theater being made in its borders.

This aligning of the stars seemed worth exploring, so I called Dorsey yesterday to find out more about his history as a teenaged promoter of house shows.

First, it’s worth pointing out that this is not entirely a surprise–Dorsey has been in local bands, holds a bachelor’s degree in music composition from the Peabody Conservatory and has hosted the the fundraising event More Creative Power featuring art exhibits and musical performances.

And, well, he alluded to this very flyer in an interview with Bmore Art in 2015.

When I talked with him, he still vividly remembered sitting to make the flyer with Emma, The Superstation and The Idea Men typed out in different fonts when he got a phone call from someone he had never met asking to be put on the bill.

He had only hosted one concert before. Two hundred kids came through his basement–some taking breaks to sit on the driveway or lawn to smoke cigarettes–for a full-day lineup of 15 bands, all for free. For the second, he was charging $2 to recoup the money he had spent on supermarket-brand soda.

The person on the other end of the phone said they had heard about the show and asked if they could play.

Dorsey said he didn’t see any problem with it. He asked, “What’s your band called?”

“We’re not a band,” Dorsey recalled the other person on the phone saying, “We’re just friends and we just play music together.”

Dorsey asked for something to put on the flyer, so they gave their proper names. And that was all it took.

He’s still not sure which member called him. (An attempt to reach Dibb, the only member still living in Baltimore, by email was unsuccessful.)

“If I met Josh or David or Noah back then, it was for a minute in passing,” Dorsey said.

There was only other show in the Dorsey basement after that. But not because his parents were mad about the noise or the stream of teens going through their house. In fact, they were supportive of it all.

“They could see it was the only thing I was really interested in,” Dorsey said. They would have rather had him there instead of going out, he said, and so they supported the concerts. The only rule was no drinking or drugs.

What initially inspired the shows also led to their end: Ben Valis, another Baltimore teenager who brought bands to his mother’s basement, a small store on Harford Road called Hot Dog City and a local American Legion hall. Around this time, Valis managed to open a spot on Belair Road called the Small Intestine, a space that in its brief existence became a local underground music landmark that featured performances by notable national acts such as Joan of Arc, Songs: Ohia, Arab on Radar and Les Savy Fav. (Tom Briehan’s 2003 City Paper profile of Valis is a must-read.)

There was also, Dorsey recalled, a woman at St. Timothy’s Church in Dundalk who took note of all of the young people pursuing a creative outlet and decided to help curate shows throughout the area.

Wherever something was booked, 100 kids would show up, coming from the city and points across Baltimore County, he said. Reflecting on it now, Dorsey is still able to list off many of the bands–RhinoVirus, Oxes, Universal Order of Armageddon, Mr. Belvedere, to name a few–some of their members and what they’re doing now. Many are still pursuing the arts, be it here or somewhere else.

“There was all this stuff that was just kind of happening,” he said. “It was magical.”

When Dorsey went to college at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., nobody he met there had any experiences similar to his. That’s when he realized: “What the hell am I doing at Catholic University in D.C.? I wanna be back in Baltimore. There’s something special going on in Baltimore.”

Getting back to the flyer, the picture that made its way onto Instagram was actually taken by a mutual acquaintance in Dorsey’s home, where it hangs in his dining room. It’s not there because of its significance in the history of Animal Collective, but because it’s a reminder of what Dorsey sees as a critical, informative time in his life.

“I think about that stuff a lot, because it’s consequential,” he said. “I think about that stuff a lot, because that experience I had as a young person helped define my sense of capability as an adult ever after.”

Booking those three shows and being a part of that scene taught him about hard work, collaboration, dimensional thinking and being quick on his feet, Dorsey said.

Back in April, Dorsey said he went to Ottobar to see the Chicago experimental rock band Dead Rider. Dibb, performing under his stage moniker Deakin, was the opening act.

Having only met briefly some 21 years ago, Dorsey decided to walk up and introduce himself. The memory of their first encounter came rushing back. “I played that show in your parents’ basement back in high school!”

Brandon Weigel

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