What’s up in the 05701?: On tour in Rutland’s music scene

Steve Audsley, left, and George Nostrand perform at Last Call in Rutland last year.

Originally published in the Rutland County Express on Dec. 15, 2011.

Recently, Stereogum‘s “Area Codes” feature, which profiles smaller music scenes around the country, turned its attention to the 802. And once again, we’re reminded that for everyone but the phone company, 802 means Burlington. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it certainly feels like that sometimes — especially down here in our comparatively quiet corner of the state.

In all fairness, Stereogum did give a nod to the rest of the state, acknowledging — Bennington and Brattleboro, in particular — but, ultimately, it settled on discussing Burlington, as if to imply, “Yeah, BTV is really where it’s at.”

(To its credit, the profile did do a nice job of respectfully dispelling the myth that the 802 scene is more than a hippie haven of Phish-y jambands.)

In the end, the piece shined a positive light on Burlington and, by extension, the rest of the state. So no hard feelings, Stereogum (or BTV). I’m just exercising a little RutVegas Second City pride, as it were.

Indeed, a look at what’s cooking in our neck of the woods on any given weekend proves that our local scene (the 05701?) may be small, but is every bit diverse and interesting.

Well, maybe calling what we’ve got a “scene” is too far a leap for some. And I might be inclined to agree — though perhaps, with an asterisk. A scene implies, for me at least, a critical mass of activity.

While we may be a long way off from reaching that tipping point which will put Burlington on notice, we do have some key ingredients in our local musicians.

Like I said, Stereogum did a good job squashing the notion that Vermont music is nothing but Phish wannabes. Locally, that also holds true. With the exception of Twiddle, extended instrumental compositions and improvisation is rare to find onstage. And Twiddle could hardly be called “wannabes;” these guys are talented, original players in their own right.

If anything, Rutland area music seems to be skewing more toward a laid-back blend of rock, roots and folk these days. One might call it folk-rock; though, musicologically speaking, that’s not quite right. “Folk” is a complicated word with a lot of history and definitions. For our purposes, let’s call it “organic, grass-fed” rock to describe Rut-land’s prevailing style — or just “organic,” for the sake of brevity.

By calling it organic, I think I get to the stripped-down, traditional style most groups seem to embrace. You likely won’t see many acts busting out a synthesizer or drum machine onstage around here. (That’s not to say I wouldn’t welcome a good electronic act — or hip-hop, for that matter — but it’s just seems that that style has not taken hold here.)

To get an idea of this organic sound think of local bands like George’s Back Pocket, Phil Henry or Jim Gilmour— quasi-acoustic instrumentation with folk tendencies. Even raucous rockers like Duane Carleton and Rick Redington still play with that organic sensitivity — albeit often turned up to 11 for maximum effect.

Even Dan Kowalski, guitarist and lead singer of the funk heavy DanK and The Funksticks, takes the stage most nights with an acoustic.

Bands like Split Tongue Crow, Gold Town and the Stainedglass Cowboys take it a bit further, leaning more toward American roots music, bluegrass and even some (alt-)country. (STC’s twangy cover of Modest Mouse’s “Ocean Breathes Salty” gave me a whole new appreciation for this great, but often-overplayed track.)

Similarly, having a scene implies variety, too, in the type of venues available — ones that complement each other rather than compete. In Rutland, we have some dynamite places to see live music, but we haven’t reached that crucial equilibrium between venues, bands and fans to make them all work well.

Without a doubt, the Paramount Theatre has successfully put the biggest piece of the puzzle into place. The theater has proven that it can book large, nationally touring acts. Each season brings new names and more variety.

Scaling back a ways, Merchants Hall has potential to be the area’s medium-sized venue. In the past the it has had success booking punk and louder rock acts popular with the high school demographic. Merchants Hall has also proven itself as the alternative theater space. (Anyone who saw their run of “Rocky Horror” will surely agree.)

In a lot of ways, though, Merchants Hall is still under the radar. And maybe that’s intentional; however, when I think of the great potential of that space, I want to see it in the spotlight more.

Smaller still, the bar/ club level, Rutland has always been up and down. We have a long history of bars opening with a vision of being the next go-to music venue only to squander the opportunity with poor promotion, inconsistent booking and unprofessional behavior.

The venue du jour is Center Street Alley, which through its numerous owners and incarnations, has been the most consistent place to see live music. Given Rutland bars’ uneven history with live music, it’s easy to be cynical about how long a good thing can last; however, current owner Brooke Lipman has been doing it right.

Not only has she maintained a commitment to live music — understandably tossing a DJ into the mix a couple times a month — she has also been booking good bands from around the region, which prevents the repetitiveness that some places fall into.

While some bar owners will say that live music hurts business (huh?), Lipman has proven that, if you book the right bands and cultivate the right atmosphere, live music will thrive.

In the bars and clubs is where the scene starts. If bands know Rutland has places that are friendly and accommodating, they will want to play in them. Again, it’s reaching that equilibrium where multiple venues can host bands with enough people to go around.

One final and crucial piece of any scene is the ability for musicians to build a following, get recognized and grow. To be sure, we’ve had some great exports: the aforementioned Henry and Gilmour, James Mee and the Caitlin Canty. All of them have recorded and toured widely, gaining some modest regional and national attention.

Like I said, we’re not there yet. But the pieces are, albeit in various stages of completion. Fostering vibrant local music scene requires not only quality acts (we got them) and appropriate venues (we’re getting there) but also fans. So if you really want to see local music thrive, get out there and support it.

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