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Monday, September 22, 2008

And That's What's Good

A little over a week ago — maybe even two weeks now — I received a lengthy, irate missive from a member of our little music scene who had big problems with yours truly. At this point, I'm fairly used to the occasional letter or voice mail — or anonymous blog comment — questioning anything and everything from my ability and credibility to my brain power and manhood — and no, I'm not kidding about that last one. Whatever. It comes with the territory.

But this particular diatribe was notable not because of what its writer had to say about me — there was a lot — but for what this individual had to say about the Burlington music scene. And no, I won't reveal the author's identity. And I quote:

"Burlington is a once great music mecca of the northeast that is dying into the college town mold it has fought for so long." Whoa. Now that's a serious claim. And with all due respect, I beg to differ.

Flash forward to last Thursday night at Nectar's and Club Metronome, the site of the "Bands of Burlington" showcase/Radiator benefit show. Now before I go any further, yes, Seven Days put the party together. And yes, I had a hand in its planning, especially where the lineup was concerned. But I'm not writing this to pat myself, or the paper on the back, although the evening was successful beyond anyone's expectations. But that had very little to do with me or my illustrious employers. It had to do with you.

All totaled, we raised $2400 for the Radiator, which will hopefully keep their lights on for some time to come. Divided by the $5 donation, that means 480 people showed up on a Thursday night, for an entirely local lineup. But here's the kicker: I hardly recognized a soul there.

When you spend enough time taking in the sights and sounds of the live music scene in and around Burlington, you tend to run into a lot of the same people. It's the blessing — and sometimes, the curse — of life in a small city. While many of the usual suspects were in fact in attendance, the bulk of the crowd that night appeared to be newbies. And they received quite an introduction to what Burlington has to offer.

Cannon Fodder — with the estimable Brett Hughes playing the role of Kelly Ravin on drums — kicked things off upstairs with a delightfully laid-back set of twang-tinged rock. For the uninitiated, the group is something of a revolving collective. And while they have a significant catalog of originals, they're perhaps best known for serving as the backing band for a host of local and nationally touring solo artists at The Monkey House. On this night, frequent collaborator Maryse Smith joined the band. I had never experienced Ms. Smith's music in person prior — MySpace never does an artist justice, I'm afraid. But I found myself thoroughly engrossed. She has a subtly engaging delivery and a slyly cool approach to melody. She's the sort of singer that people actually stop to listen to — that's a quality my high school chorus teacher would love: when you want people to pay attention, get softer. Make them work.

Scene stalwarts Swale followed. It had been a long time since I'd seen them — they've been a little busy starting a family and shows have been few and far between of late. I had (almost) forgotten how much I love that band. It was kind of like running into an old friend — who is now married and has a kid. Long my favorite female B-town vocalist, Amanda Gustafson sounded as brilliant and commanding as ever. Welcome back, guys.

Husbands A.K.A. — don't call them fourth wave — was up next and inspired a (semi)genuine pit near the front of the stage. The last time I saw these guys, they were a little on the ragged side. But oh, what a difference six months makes. Tight and energetic, they delivered blistering set of ska-punk that kinda makes me wish I hadn't hung up my pork pie hat and skinny ties. Their new album is hotly anticipated.

I was sort of shackled to the festivities upstairs as the de facto "stage manager." Basically, I was responsible for making sure we kept to the schedule — which of course, we didn't, really. However, I was able to sneak downstairs and catch a good chunk of The Aztext, who may have been my personal highlight of the evening. And I'm not alone — on more than one occasion during their 30-minute throwdown, I heard the following bewildered sentiment uttered: "These guys are local?" Yup. And they more than lived up to their growing reputation as the area's premier hip-hop outfit.

Zipping back upstairs — duty calls! — I caught the last half of In Memory of Pluto's set. Much like Husbands, they've seriously cleaned up their act, which was already pretty tidy to begin with. Standing next to Radiator co-founder Lee Anderson — who'd just arrived from playing a Cccome? show at Higher Ground — I remarked that IMOP might be my guiltiest local pleasure. They're sooo pop-a-licious. But so damn good at it. He seemed to agree, saying that Burlington needs a band like this. In a scene teeming with sonically challenging groups — like, for example, Cccome? — more universally accessible groups like IMOP play an important role in raising the entire scene's profile. Pop is not a four letter word, dammit.

The Vanderpolls closed out the night upstairs, taking the stage shortly after one in the morning. Unfortunately, a typically immaculate performance was wasted as much of the crowd had begun to filter out. As the guy in charge of the schedule, I'll take the blame on that one. I haven't played a show in a while and I suppose I'd forgotten than "headlining" on a Thursday in Burlington can often be a kiss of death. But crowd or no, the band exhibited admirable professionalism. And they really did rock.

Sadly, I missed most of the show downstairs. But I'm told by reliable ears that Lowell Thompson was his typically swoon-inducing self, Japhy Ryder brought some serious jazz-prog to the proceedings and Greyspoke more than filled the evening's jammy-jam quota. And Nectar's was pretty much packed from start to finish. All told, it was an excellent evening, and hopefully provided a healthy sampling for the next generation of Burlington music fans.

So no, Burlington's music scene ain't dying. Far from it. It's changing, sure. But it always does. And like it or not, this is a college town. In fact, it's a safe bet that current college students will form the next wave of Burlington bands — and music critics, for that matter. There is no "mold" that the scene is trying to break. It's just doing what any healthy scene does. Which is to say it's evolving — and on both sides of the stage, no less.    


Steven Williams

judging the music scene on one show is like judging climate change on one storm. you need to look at the big picture to see whats actually happened / happening.


Nice analogy, Steven.

But since we're on a weather kick, I'd argue that using a show like this one as a barometer is legit. Especially in defense of a supposedly "dying" scene. To me, the fact that close to 500 people came out to support local music and a local radio station says that people really do still care. Are there local shows that struggle to draw? Of course. But that has always and will always be true, regardless of the "health" of Burlington music.

The fact is, there are more venues and more bands playing a wider variety of music in the Burlington area than ever before. Is everything hunky dory? Probably not. But is it ever?

I always seem to get into trouble when I discuss the state of the scene. But again, that just means that people are passionate about it. And that only serves to prove my point — which I've been making for a year and a half. Just like judging the scene on one show is suspect, so is judging one writer's thoughts on the matter from one blog post.

Steven Williams

You will never win. We will always complain. Its the nature of us. Although, I mean, Its not like you can do much about it. Unless you have the cash to open a real rock club and are holding out on us.

Burlington music is indeed healthy. There are a ton of great people here doing great things. I think its the scene that's struggling.

We were spoiled during the toast era. We were spoiled as fans and as musicians. We got to play with, and watch, a ton of good nationally touring acts at a bunch of great clubs with great PA's and fans who cared. We had people making zines, local bands playing with touring bands, and musicians setting up sweet festivals with national acts to play here. We probably had a more vibrant scene than we really should have considering the amount of people here.

Sure, now we have shows now from national touring acts. But they are in personal studios or tiny clubs that are cramped and the PA's aren't great. Most of these shows that happen are the result of the passionate musicians you speak of cobbling shows together because they love music and have no other options.

The showcase is a great example of the way things COULD be. The fact that shows like that stick out like a sore thumb when they used to be a normal thing is the source of frustration I think. Us old timers in the scene remember when things like that used to be the standard.

If the college kids weren't scared to seek out shows in personal studios where you have to know someone to find the place. And if the sound wasn't piercing and annoying, and if there was space to stand and watch the band instead of having to shuffle around so people can walk through... things would be better. More people would go to shows and stick around like they did at the showcase.

Really, as musicians and members of the scene, we need to stop talking about the past and concentrate on fixing the present and the future. Complaining is a waste of energy.

I don't have a suggestion for how to fix it though. Unless you really are holding out on the money to start a club...

I think people will keep complaining and the kids will stay in their dorm rooms until someone opens another real rock club who will take the leap of faith to book the risky, often more expensive and more annoying rock bands to play.

Is that going to happen? Probably not. Considering the way we complain and the cost to get a band here. Until it does we just have to figure out how to pack the shows that are happening in studios and tiny spaces. Hopefully someone with some cash notices, or current clubs with the assets to book steady rock shows take notice.

I will say, though, thanks for taking part to put on this show and getting local music some good much needed exposure. The scene needs more injections like this to keep it alive.

Ben MacIntyre

Very well said, Steve.

Tyler Machado

Maybe this anonymous naysayer should consider embracing the college scene, rather than running from it.

Look, the college town part of Burlington has its negatives. Yes, there are a lot of trustafarians from New Jersey who trash the whole town. Yes, tons of people fit the stoned psuedo-hippie stereotype. But our colleges are also home to plenty of artists and musicians and just generally really awesome people who would totally be a part of the local music scene--if someone reached out to them. Most of In Memory of Pluto, and I think Maryse Smith too, just graduated St. Mike's in June. Even at the beginning of 2008 they were both playing shows in the basement of my dorm. You think THEY'RE causing the Burlington scene to die? Quite the opposite.

This Bands of Burlington shindig was really the first time in my time at St. Michael's that the Burlington music scene made a concerted effort to invite the general college community to check out local music. And, from an SMC perspective, it was a huge success. There were tons of St. Mike's kids there. Many went for IMOP, sure, but I talked with a few who thought The Aztext were the best act of the night. And if you can get St. Mike's kids involved, when we're way out in the suburbs and probably have the least music-oriented student base of the local schools, then UVM and Champlain will be no sweat.

I was talking to Jim Lockridge from Big Heavy last week, and he was saying how they're going to bring VT bands to college campuses around the state to promote the new BHW Web site. THIS IS A GREAT IDEA. A lot of college kids don't know where to start with the local scene. Just make an effort to get us involved, and you can bet that there's a healthy community who will be into it.

Okay, listen. My name should be linked to the website for WWPV, the St. Mike's radio station. My email address is on the Contact page. If you want your music played on our station, email me. I also write for the What's Good blog, and The Echo, which is St. Mike's online magazine. If you think a band deserves to be covered, or if there's just a cool local music scene thing happening, email me that too. I love writing about local music. We can make this college scene/local music relationship work. Just help us out a bit.


Agreed (mostly) on all counts, Steve (especially that I'll never win. But that's never stopped me before). However, just because things seemed, and perhaps were, better during the Toast era, doesn't mean they're not good now.

I miss Toast as much as anyone. I practically grew up there. And I was crushed when it closed — my old ska band even headlined one of the last shows during their epic final week. But as easy as it is to be nostalgic and look back with rose-colored glasses, it's not like the joint was overflowing every night. I remember numerous occasions on both sides of the stage — perhaps more than I'm allowing myself to recall — when there were maybe 20 people in attendance (including band girlfriends) for what should have been excellent shows. There's a reason the place closed, after all.

This might be a product of my age (I didn't turn 21 until six months after Toast closed . . . sorry 'bout that, Dennis), but aside from Toast, there weren't many other options. Yeah, we had Nectar's and Metronome — and, as always 242 Main. But I don't ever recall those joints exactly being bastions of local rock — aside from 242 and again, maybe the others were to some extent, but I was underage. The Last Elm was nice, but I'll take Radio Bean, The Acoustic Lounge or the Monkey any day.

One thing I really do miss — and this may have subconsciously informed the decision to throw a local showcase — was that the bigger local bands used to piggyback on each other. You could go to Toast and catch four or five bands like Invisible Jet, Envy, Construction Joe and Snowplow on one bill. And, as you pointed out, Steve, it wasn't a special occasion. I know that kind of thing does still happen from time to time. But I'd love to see it more often. And we don't need Club Toast for that. There are plenty of places it could work.

If I had the cash — music journalism isn't as lucrative as one might think — I would buy the old Battery Street Jeans building and turn it into a real deal rock club. But unless I have some dying rich uncle I'm currently unaware of, it probably ain't gonna happen.

I guess the point is that all the pieces are still here. The "scene" now isn't any better or worse than it was in 1995. It is not dying. It's just different.


Dude, what are you talking about...none of the Skamaphrodites had girlfriends!


No. No, we didn't. Sadly, I was talking about other bands and their girlfriends . . . sigh.

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