Last month, I had the pleasure of going to Baltimore to attend a CD release show from two local artists.  One was a good friend of mine, hip hop emcee Saleem, and the other was Caleb Stine, an Americana singer/songwriter.   The CD was Outgrown These Walls, a ten-track album stripped down to poetic lyrics and Stine’s beautiful guitar playing.  Saleem has performed all over Baltimore and Washington DC, opening for classics hip hop greats like Rakim and KRS-1.   Caleb is a staple at Baltimore venues, with a huge fan base, and has performed all over the country.

What makes the music they do even better is the story behind it.  The two were coming together for a live show as the culmmination of what has been known as the Baltimore Music Project, taken on by the Baltimore radio station WTMD (check out this video for the full story behind it).  The mastermind behind it, Sam Sessa, sums it up as:

In early 2008, I had an outlandish idea: Take two Baltimore musicians who had never heard of each other, pair them up and force them to write four original songs in six weeks. And the musicians I picked, Caleb Stine and Saleem Heggins, couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Caleb was an Americana singer/songwriter; Saleem an MC who liked vintage hip-hop. But the friendship they forged and the songs they wrote in a matter of months are astounding. The first time Caleb and Saleem performed this music live, audience members teared up. Together they have far exceeded the original challenge and created something truly compelling.

So just how does it sound when a hip hop emcee and a folk singer get together?  Surprisingly amazing.  The set started with Caleb on his guitar and singing songs from his two CDs; his lyrics are touching and make you think.   His music is rolling, fun, and poignant at times — and his stage presence is just great.  He could make it as a comedian if the music thing never worked out.   Then Saleem and his band The Music Lovers performed their set — stirring up emotions with “Say Something” and getting the crowd on their feet with “The Real Hip Hop.”

Finally, with the audience on edge wondering how all these sounds could possibly come together, Caleb and Saleem took the stage, and their deep friendship and love for music was instantly apparent.   They were joking together on stage and simply and intimately sharing their craft like we were all talking around a dinner table, not watching them from the lovely 8×10 club.  They did 8 of the 10 songs on their album, just Saleem, Caleb, and the guitar (and some crowd participation of course) and weighed in on everything from life, why they write songs, Obama’s win, love for family, and everything in between.

Their hallmark song is “Baltimore,” which has become a sort of anthem on Baltimore radio, describing the city they love and how it has shaped them as people in this world.  Check out their performance of Baltimore below I capture at the show (it’s one of my favorites — so raw and beautiful):

The show closed with a set from Caleb and his band The Brakemen, who kept everyone on their feet (and loving every minute of it) until the wee hours.

What I love most about what Caleb and Saleem have accomplished is not just the novelty of it — it’s how much better than you could ever have expected what they’ve created has become.  They didn’t just do something a little out there,  pretty good, and that will collect dust in a couple years after all the hoopla.  The CD, and their shows, are just really good — the music has truly “bridged the gap.”

They only signed on to do four songs when Sam came to them with the idea, but they wrote six and decided to keep on going and do a full CD after they formed a deep friendship and a great musical partnership.   When they recorded the CD, they invited 20 people to go to the recording studio with them and be a witness to the making of the CD; some were friends and family, but but some were fans they’d met at shows, from their mailing lists and street teams, and who had been a part of making music happen.  I really like that — it adds just another layer to their warmth and intimacy they bring to their music.

Read more about the project and buy their CD Outgrown These Walls here.