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WTMD's First Thursdays concert series continues to grow

By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

10:50 AM EDT, May 2, 2013

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Need a reminder of how lucky Baltimore music lovers are sometimes? Just pull out a calendar.

Between May and September, thousands gather in West Mount Vernon Park to see rising bands, sip local beer and generally have a good time in the sun. Add the fact that the concert is free, and it has made WTMD's First Thursdays concert series — which starts this week — an essential spring and summer activity in the city.

According to WTMD program director Scott Mullins, the planning for First Thursdays begins when we're all bundled up in heavy coats.

"I start really, really early," said Mullins, who books the bands, which reflect the station's adult-album alternative format. "I start making calls in January, or sometimes before that."

The preparation has paid off. In the past few years, attendance for First Thursdays has increased significantly, according to Mullins. In 2010, the average attendance was 2,500, and it doubled in 2011. Last year, he says, attendance reached 7,500 for a couple of the concerts.

This season, the public radio station, which is affiliated with Towson University, is prepared for even more people. Mullins says the north side of the park will now be open to attendees, and there will be an increase in portable toilets.

"It's almost more like a mini-festival atmosphere and event," he said.

Mullins attributes the increases to many factors, including a rise in WTMD listeners, the station's pursuit of more nationally known acts and the addition of a third band to the monthly lineup. (When WTMD took over First Thursdays in 2005 from Baltimore City Paper, the lineup was one national act and one local act.) Now, Mullins books a mix of buzzing, WTMD-friendly bands from outside the city and within it.

"It's an interesting balancing act," Mullins said. "We love to introduce new music to people. It's a big part of what we do at the station on a full-time basis. ... It's always nice to bring in a well-known act and then unleash a surprise."

This Thursday, the Brooklyn, N.Y., trio the Lone Bellow will headline the season's first concert. Local husband-and-wife duo the Great American Canyon Band, who might remind listeners of a stripped-down Arcade Fire, will likely perform songs from their new EP, "Lost at Sea." British singer/songwriter Bobby Long rounds out the bill. Other confirmed acts for upcoming First Thursdays concerts include Alpha Rev (June), the Wild Feathers (July), Kopecky Family Band (August) and Joseph Arthur (September).

The talent level has changed over the years, but the location has not. While Mullins says the station is open to more growth, First Thursdays would have to consider a new venue if attendance increases significantly. That could be a tough decision for WTMD because the concerts' location is a main draw, Mullins said.

"Mount Vernon Park is just a lovely place, and the neighborhood is beautiful," he said. "It's a unique, urban residential setting. You can walk off the park grounds and into a local bar or restaurant."

It's a problem others wouldn't mind having: A free concert series in the middle of Baltimore continues to grow, so now what? That decision will fall to WTMD, but Mullins says regardless of where it happens, the First Thursdays concert series is the strongest it has ever been, and it's up to the station to push it forward without losing its homegrown appeal.

"We can continue the trajectory we've been on one more year and then we're going to have to do something else — either put the brakes on the growth or re-evaluate," Mullins said. "We don't want to lose the intimacy and the unique, laid-back vibe that the location and event contribute to."

If you go

WTMD's First Thursday concert series begins Thursday at West Mount Vernon Park, 1300 Charles St. The Lone Bellow, the Great American Canyon Band and Bobby Long will perform. Concert begins at 5:30 p.m. Free. Call 410-704-8938 or go to wtmd.org.