+ By Rahsaan “Wordslave” Eldridge + photography by Briscoe Savoy
When James Borchelt opened Cafe Gurus in the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis in 1997, he was looking for a professional pivot from his career in advertising. At the time, he didn’t realize that the move would eventually give birth to Eastport a Rockin’ (EAR), one of the longest-running music festivals in Annapolis.
Shortly after opening the restaurant, Borchelt decided to make the space available for local bands to perform. The son of a choir director always had a deep appreciation for music. He played guitar and sang in the choir during high school and college. While his initial intention wasn’t to host a music venue, Borchelt’s love and respect for local music and musicians inspired him to open his doors, and he quickly realized that the talent shouldn’t be limited to his café setting. He wanted people to have the opportunity to experience the same great music he was witnessing several nights a week. He wanted the musicians to have the opportunity to perform on a larger stage. His solution was to start EAR. He created the opportunity that he wanted to see. He literally created a bigger stage.
This past June, the event hosted 40 bands on four stages. The first EAR had only one stage and four bands. The festival’s growth and success is due in large part to all the people who volunteer each year. Borchelt, who in recent years is not as hands-on as previously but still serves on the organization’s board, cites several people who were important to EAR’s origins: Joshua Cohen, who Borchelt remembers fondly for the “Hey, are you registered to vote?” icebreaker he was known for using in local bars and music venues, would eventually become mayor of Annapolis, and his connections were helpful for getting permits in the early years of the festival; Doug Orr, who was managing McNasby’s Seafood and Crab Deck, which is now the site of the Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park, came on as an early sponsor and gave his blessing for the event to happen in front of his business; and Erin Good (now Erin Scheffer), a local band manager in Baltimore and Annapolis, booked bands and helped promote the event.
Borchelt recalls borrowing money from local businesses to get the event off the ground. “I think I was asking for about $300 from each sponsor. We actually didn’t even break even on the first event,” he says. “The whole idea I told the sponsors was, ‘If you give me some seed money, I can pay it back from beer sales and ticket sales.’ When we got to the end, I couldn’t give them their money back or else we wouldn’t have anything to donate to charity.”
But the sponsors were generous and told Borchelt not to worry about the money, and about $800 was generated for charity. Today, he estimates proceeds between $30,000 to $40,000. The Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park and Annapolis Musicians Fund for Musicians are two of the main beneficiaries from the annual event. The Eastport Volunteer Fire Company, Eastport Elementary School, and Annapolis Middle School, among others, also receive donations.
Eastport resident Jessica Pachler currently serves as EAR’s director. In 2002, she started as a volunteer and by 2005 had worked her way into her current role. Prior to volunteering, Pachler enjoyed her time as an EAR attendee. One of the things she loves about the festival is that it’s a way to showcase local music and also an opportunity for the musicians to see their peers play and be together in one place. She knows how rare that is, as musicians are usually off playing their own gigs, which don’t necessarily afford them the opportunity to check out some of their favorite fellow musicians.
Bobbi and Pete Reichwein, longtime EAR attendees, feel fortunate to have the festival here in Annapolis. “I think the overall mood of the crowd is my favorite, and that is all based on the fact that everyone is there to enjoy the music,” says Bobbi. “It is a very uplifting day. EAR is very well organized and run, which enhances everyone’s enjoyment and will bring them back in . . . [it’s] a grand way to bring the entire music community together to celebrate their love of music.”
EAR’s music director is Christina Wilharm, who has been organizing and promoting shows since she was a teenager and has been a part of some of the biggest music events in Baltimore and Annapolis for more than two decades. With a background in theater and music—she’s a singer and a pianist—she decided early on that she would be behind the scenes, organizing and promoting instead of performing. Wilharm started working with EAR in 2018 and recalls some of her favorite moments: performances by the Kelly Bell Band and a special tribute to Jeni Parris Brady, who was the founder of Naptown Music and one of the biggest supporters of the Annapolis music scene. Wilharm booked the bands that performed this year; performances by Higher Hands, Michael McHenry Tribe, Grilled Lincolns, Skribe, Swampcandy, Dean Rosenthal, Kristi Allen, Loose Ties, Honey Sol, and Guava Jelly only scratch the surface of the type of party a line-up like this brings.
Jackie Nuñez, owner of Jackie’s Design Hair & Skin Studio in West Annapolis, attended the festival for the first time this year. She loved the performances, especially the Dan Heely Band. She also noticed the support of local businesses and is considering becoming a sponsor and vendor next year.
More than a festival, EAR is a family reunion, a gathering of respected musicians who come together to rock stages, and a fellowship with one another for a good cause. Rain or shine, you can count on a lot of beer-spilling, smiling, laughing, and dancing in the crowd. It’s a proud day for Eastport residents, and a time for all Annapolis music lovers to bring out their families and friends for a full day of music and fun. This year marked the 25th annual EAR (one year was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown), and it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Well done, Annapolis. Well done, Eastport. Keep rockin! █