The July night was hot and as the sun slowly set, a crowd of cars filed into a storage facility behind Trout Liquors on Old National Pike in Frederick.
Their passengers had been instructed to text a phone number listed on Facebook for the entrance code to the parking lot. Around 70 people ended up behind the black metal gate, said Ryan Knight, a local musician with the band My Friday Anthem.
The facility has an official name — Fort Knox Self Storage — but that night, it had been dubbed the “Junk Drawer” by event organizer Max Detrich and the crowd of attendees. They were all there for a concert with three original bands, including local groups Gloop and Cheshi and Empty Vessels, an out-of-town band based in New London, Connecticut.
Detrich was renting a unit there, but he hadn’t asked permission to hold the concert. “Just went for it,” he admitted over text. Perhaps as a direct result, the performance lasted about a single set.
“It was ridiculous,” said Zach Willis, a singer and guitarist for the Frederick band Middle Kid. “The management of the storage unit drives up in a white car, honking their horn really loudly, being like, ‘You need to leave. You can’t be here.’”
Detrich was promptly evicted from his rental unit, and the crowd dispersed. As they were driving away, Willis said, everyone was notified that the show had been moved to a house near Braddock Heights. It was Knight’s house, who stepped in to host so the last two bands could play their sets.
“I called up my wife at the time and was like, ‘Hey, the show got shut down. Would you mind if they played off our deck?’” Knight said. He owned about an acre of land, and said he asked his neighbors for permission to hold the concert.
Still, when Empty Vessels took the stage — or the deck — the two-person band was loud. So loud that the police were called almost immediately, Willis said. The cops were cool about the noise complaint, Knight said, but he still moved the final band, Cheshi, to the basement. It got so crowded that at one point Willis watched the drummer wipe his face and completely soak through a hand towel.
Welcome to the world of DIY shows in Frederick, where living rooms are stages and neighbors regularly complain to the police. Plenty of people, including Knight, say the scene fosters a sense of intimacy and passion among musicians and their fans. But in Frederick at least, DIY concerts are also borne out of a sense of necessity. Thanks to a tangle of local laws and zoning restrictions, it’s nearly impossible to open a designated music venue — think clubs like Ottobar in Baltimore or Black Cat in Washington, D.C., where the profits come from ticket and alcohol sales.
The need for an official venue is an “age-old conversation,” Willis said. But it’s one that still gets a lot of traction, largely because bands see the same patterns play out over and over again. Makeshift venues come and go, from the Mudd Puddle — a now-closed coffee shop where punk bands played twice a month — to The Squat, a house venue run by former resident and Hood alumnus Alexa Johnson. Meanwhile, the local restrictions fuel a sense among some local musicians that Frederick is an “arts town” that only supports the creative community when it’s convenient.
“Frederick prides itself on being an arts district, but all they want is Bon Jovi cover bands,” Knight said. “And I think some musicians are leaving because of that.”
The trouble with liquor laws
One of the biggest barriers to establishing a concert venue in Frederick starts with local liquor laws.
Cities like Baltimore and D.C. and neighboring counties like Montgomery and Anne Arundel can accommodate music clubs thanks to what’s commonly known as a Class D or tavern license — one that allows the sale of alcohol with limited or no food.
That type of license doesn’t exist in Frederick County, said liquor board coordinator Penny Bussard. Historically, there’s also been strong opposition to tavern licenses from the Frederick County delegation.
“Our delegation has always taken a firm stand that they don’t like taverns in Frederick County,” Bussard said.
There is, technically, a “club license” that allows venues to sell alcohol for a short window during performances, but most of the “clubs” in question are either fraternal organizations like the VFW or nonprofit theaters like the Weinberg or New Spire Stages.
“It’s not intended for, say, a music club — it’s intended for nonprofits to help them raise money,” Bussard said.
With a few narrow exceptions specifically tailored to specific businesses — art galleries, for instance, or barber shops more recently — most permanent liquor licensees in Frederick County are required to follow a strict food/drink ratio to maintain their licenses. Specifically, at least 40 percent of sales have to come from food until 10 p.m., and restaurants are required to maintain at least 28 seats at all times, not including chairs at a counter or bar.
In the city of Frederick, the land management code also plays a role. Joe Adkins, the city’s deputy director of planning, said there’s no definition or established zoning for a tavern or music club, which would make it difficult for any aspiring owner to apply for a building permit. As a result of those combined restrictions — liquor and land management — some of the only businesses in the downtown arts and entertainment district that can reliably host local bands are “restaurants with entertainment”: an official zoning designation that only emerged in April of 1993 after a vote from the city’s Board of Aldermen to allow live acts in the downtown commercial district.
There are some good faith efforts to accommodate local musicians by the performance arts venues downtown. In warmer months and good weather, Sky Stage is known as an outlet for Frederick-based bands (this season, the venue extended its reach with a weekly concert series featuring mostly local artists). The Weinberg Center used to host the Frederick Music Showcase, an event coordinated by The Frederick News-Post that explicitly highlighted local talent. And since its grand opening in January, New Spire Stages has made room for a handful of Frederick musicians, including rapper Stitch Early and the pop-punk band WVNDER.
Some of the most eager hosts for local musicians, and music in general, are the ever-growing legions of breweries and distilleries in Frederick. But right now, those businesses aren’t allowed to host entertainment, based again on local liquor and zoning laws. Bussard said that breweries and now distilleries in Frederick County are only allowed to host entertainment up to four times a year for special events. Those requests have to be approved not only through local agencies like the liquor board and health department, but through the Comptroller of Maryland. It’s one reason why breweries like Flying Dog — a multi-million dollar company that’s hosted big-name musicians including Naughty by Nature and Matt and Kim — only has a few concerts a year.
In the city of Frederick, “restaurants with entertainment” are the only businesses zoned to host live music. That’s an added barrier for breweries and distilleries, whose tasting rooms or warehouses often have more space for bands than some of the downtown restaurants. Monica Pearce, the owner of Tenth Ward Distilling Company, said she initially planned to host music at her newly-renovated tasting bar on East Patrick Street. But she gave up on the idea after she learned about the local regulations.
“To overcome that, we’d have to submit an application to the planning department for a special event permit, which comes with a $150 fee,” Pearce said. “And that permit has to be signed off by, like, 10 different people. The liquor board. The health department. Planning and zoning. The fire marshal would have to walk through our space. We’d have to do that every time we wanted to host music at the distillery. I think it’s just that right now, we’re new. And the city hasn’t passed laws to reflect how our industry has changed.”
The trouble with restaurants
For local musicians, the restrictions leave two main options for regularly scheduled performances. There are the DIY shows, sometimes squeezed into makeshift spaces but with the decided advantage of attracting audiences who come specifically for the music.
Then, there are the restaurants with entertainment. Venues like Guido’s and Cafe Nola are valued resources for local bands, but they also have their own unique drawbacks.
Frederick County liquor laws strictly forbid alcohol establishments from admitting customers under the age of 21, so the shows can’t be all ages. Restaurants are required to maintain 28 seats at all times, so the spaces often get crowded, fast. At Cafe Nola, where the maximum occupancy is 70, at least a third of the space is taken up by the bar on the eastern wall. Some bartenders carry earplugs in their pockets for customers who complain about the noise.
The complaints are another problem. Almost every local musician interviewed for this article had at least one horror story of playing to an audience that just did not want them there. Kyle Wheatley and Robbie Jones, musicians with the local band Although, said they’ve even been heckled at Guido’s — a dive bar that’s possibly most well-known for punk performances and chicken wings. The restaurants that do host music are constantly striking a balance between performers and their fans and the customers who came out for dinner and drinks.
“The musicians have to learn how to play a room,” said Forrest Coleman, the general manager for Cafe Nola. “We give out earplugs at the door, but we also have a lot of regulars who just want to sit down and enjoy their cocktails.”
It’s a difficult chord to strike, and it’s led some restaurants to limit the type of music they allow. For every venue that hosts original acts, there’s at least two more that only want cover bands. It comes down to a business decision. Amber DeMorett has owned Bushwaller’s for almost 10 years, and said she quickly learned that the genres she enjoyed didn’t necessarily draw a crowd.
“On a Friday or Saturday night, people just want to go out and have a good time,” DeMorett said. “They want to dance with the cover songs. They want stuff they can sing to. There’s just some music that doesn’t mesh with mainstream people.”
But several decisions by city and county officials have also led to a sense, among business owners and musicians alike, that downtown Frederick is antipathetic to music in general.
In 2014, the liquor board passed a new entertainment policy that Bussard said was in direct response to a slew of makeshift “clubs” opening downtown. Spots like the former Greene Turtle on Citizen’s Way and Reina, a now-shuttered fusion restaurant, were bringing in DJs and shifting chairs to the side to create de facto dance floors.
The Frederick Police Department hated it. Capt. Dwight Sommers, the deputy chief of police, said the weekends were flooded with early morning calls for drunk and disorderly conduct, DUIs, and, occasionally, violence. The new policy was drafted to establish some control, Bussard said. It required any business with live entertainment, including DJs, to seek approval from the liquor board. Even today, restaurants are required to fill out an application stipulating the type of entertainment, the date and time, specific details, a diagram of the modified floor plan, and an alcohol plan to maintain compliance with local laws. They also have to go through the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which has the power to approve or veto requests for live entertainment.
The current liquor board policy only requires restaurants with recurring entertainment to file an application once a year, Bussard said. But according to several sources, including DeMorett and Kara Norman, the executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, businesses were initially told they would have to file an application every time they wanted to host a local band.
“It became this heated conversation that went on for about three years,” Norman said. “I think we’ve only just reached the point where people are generally OK with what they have, but they wouldn’t want it to be more difficult than it is today.”
The trouble with noise
Sommers said that the city of Frederick also changed local noise ordinances in 2002 as a direct response to Xhale, a nightclub on South Jefferson Street that closed in 2003. The club so traumatized the community, Norman said, that it still comes up in conversations about live music downtown.
Most noise ordinances are largely based on decibel readings, Sommers said. But that didn’t work for Xhale, where most of the problems stemmed from pulsing bass. In response, the city passed a caveat specifically for alcohol establishments. Now, any bar or restaurant with noise that’s “plainly audible” within 100 feet of a residential property is technically in violation of the city’s noise ordinance. It’s become a headache for police officers, largely based on how downtown Frederick is configured. Zoning maps make it clear that the city is an inextricable labyrinth of downtown commercial and downtown residential districts, often within feet of one another.
Nowhere is that more clear than in a recent mixed-income housing development constructed on Lord Nickens Street and several adjoining blocks. Almost all of the homes, funded in part through the Maryland Housing Authority, are in earshot of either Guido’s or Cafe 611, a long-running restaurant and venue that’s been hosting live music for decades, Sommers said. One of the houses — owned by Geordie Wilson, the publisher of The Frederick News-Post — was built well within 100 feet of Cafe 611.
“The odd thing about all of this is they built that housing development knowing it would be in violation of the noise ordinance,” Sommers said. “So, there’s really no way to rectify that.”
Over the last seven years, Cafe 611 has accumulated 120 complaints — almost four times as many as Guido’s and more than double the number of Olde Towne Tavern, the next highest offender. Sommers said that the majority of the complaints come from the homes closest to the restaurant.
It’s put the police department in an odd catch-22. Technically, through no fault of its own, Cafe 611 is always in violation of the city’s noise ordinance, Sommers said. As a result, the department has an internal policy to calculate noise at the restaurant with decibel readers instead using the “plainly audible” criteria.
“It’s a very delicate balance between promoting commercial business and preserving residents’ quality of life,” Sommers said. “But 611 was built long before those houses, so you’d think that should have been taken into consideration from a planning or engineering side.”
Both Wilson’s wife, Pilar Olivo, and David and Betsy Quinn, the owners of a house across the street, said they had no idea the restaurant hosted live music before they moved in. Both families have frequently called the police with noise complaints, but also said they only call at times when the volume becomes truly extreme. Patrons from the restaurant loiter in the neighborhood after concerts, they said, littering the streets with trash or, at more than one point, urinating in Olivo’s backyard.
“Sometimes I have trouble sleeping or my kids have trouble sleeping and I worry about them,” Olivo said. “My daughter is taking the SAT on June 1 and I worry if she’s going to be able to sleep that night.”
For Cafe 611 owner Randell Jones, though, the noise ordinance is a source of constant frustration. Both he and Sommers said the restaurant has invested thousands of dollars in soundproofing. And as as a business owner, he prides himself on running one of the only places in Frederick where local musicians can reliably find a place to perform.
“It’s downtown Frederick, which is the arts and entertainment district,” Jones said. “We are doing arts and entertainment, and we’re getting noise complaints. I just feel like we have a hard time when we’re trying to do something for the city. We’re doing stuff that helps the city of Frederick, and I want that to be recognized.”
He’s not the only owner that’s fielded noise complaints. From the beginning of 2012 to April 2019, venues in Frederick accumulated a combined 320 noise complaints. In April, someone called the police at 8 p.m. over an Afro-fusion concert at New Spire Stages. It was the theater’s second noise complaint since its grand opening in January, according to data from the Frederick Police Department. And it’s the type of complaint that leaves musicians in Frederick feeling frustrated.
“We’re not that rural,” said Matt Full, a member of the local band Blue Heaven. “We’re a large city and we could support a venue if one opened downtown.”
The lack of opportunities in Frederick is part of the reason why he and his bandmates are relocating to Austin, Texas this summer. It’s a more central location for a band signed with No Sleep Records, an independent label in California, but it’s also ripe with local venues and new opportunities to perform. Frederick just doesn’t have the space to keep them.
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters