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Originally published in the Rutland County Express on Oct. 20, 2011.

Joanna Young has written all her life. Since the age of 12, she has kept a journal and has always considered herself an “aspiring writer.” A few years ago, however, she realized that she would never be a “real writer” until she started identifying herself as one. That same year, she was published for the first time.

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Jeff, Kirstie and me at Coventry, August 2004.

Here’s a reflection on the last time Phish played in Vermont (Coventry, 2004) that didn’t make it into my recent review.

From the moment we hit the first traffic jam, several miles from the venue on that gray August afternoon, Coventry was an powerful, unrelenting three-day onslaught of physical and emotional stresses. Before the first note was played, we had been through an ordeal that could reliably stand on its own as a hell of a story.

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Vyto Starinskas photo

Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 9/8/11.

What a difference a week makes.

As I stood in line at the Rutland Food Co-op last Sunday morning waiting to buy my iced coffee, like I do every week on my way in to work, I paused for a moment to reflect. A week ago (almost to the hour) I was standing in the exact same place.

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VYTO STARINSKAS PHOTO

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 3/17/11] 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. This is the one day each year when everyone is a little Irish.

Truth be told, I actually am a little Irish; though, for obvious reasons I’ve always identified myself culturally as Italian (as you can imagine, in my family, it casts kind of a long shadow.)

A close second for me is my Scottish heritage, of which I have about 25 percent on my mother’s side. And while her family is kind of a mixed bag, I’ve been assured there’s Irish in there somewhere.

Along with New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day has earned the uncomfortable distinction as an amateur party day — a day of socially-accepted debauchery and alcoholic excess.

But behind all the Guinness-sponsored pub-crawls and Shamrock Shakes, there exists a genuine celebration and appreciation of Irish culture – a cornerstone of the American consciousness. The Irish stand out among our country’s late-19th/early-20th century immigrants in that no other’s holiday has truly risen to such ubiquitous observance.

True, Columbus Day is technically a federal holiday, but it really doesn’t approach the levels of revelry that St. Patrick’s Day does.

Sure, there are pockets of celebrations with parades here and there, but we Italians were never really able to capitalize on our day in the same way. Part of me has to wonder why.

Maybe, it’s the time of year. Columbus Day is in early October when the weather is still pleasant. Conversely, St. Patrick’s Day is in March when people — driven to near madness by the winter blues — are only too eager to throw a party.

Or perhaps, it’s Columbus’ federal holiday status, with its parenthetical “(observed)” suffixation promising its fixed occurrence on the second Monday of October, that has rendered it an innocuous excuse to sleep in and take advantage of mattress prices so low they have to be seen to be believed.

Patrick is a moving target so to speak. That’s part of the fun, I suppose. It falls on March 17 every year and, whether it be a Tuesday or a Saturday, it is observed on that day without fail. (Catholics, however, may want to note that the Church does not observe St. Patrick’s Day when it falls during Holy Week. But don’t worry; that won’t happen again until 2160.)

You see Patrick has little regard for your job, family or other life commitments. The challenge for revelers, then, is balancing their celebration with making it to work the next day.

Though, it could be the mascots that are holding us Italians back. The Irish have so many epic characters – James Joyce, any number of Kennedys, Bono (circa 1990), Conan O’Brien, leprechauns.

We Italians, on the other hand, have been on decline since the Renaissance. Just look at our role models in popular culture: the Super Mario Bros., Silvio Berlusconi (the Benny Hill of foreign leaders), the entire cast of “Jersey Shore.” The closest thing we Italians have to a leprechaun is Snooki.

Even our crime families have degraded over the years. How did we go from the romanticized nobility of the Corleone dynasty to the fat-guys-in-track-suits tackiness of the Sopranos?

Maybe, I’m being too harsh on my Italian heritage. After all, we do have the Irish on food — Grad-ma’s lasagna beats corned beef any day of the week.

Despite our small Irish claim, my family never did much for St. Patrick’s Day. Occasionally, my mother would serve up a boiled dinner of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes, but that was fairly infrequent. (Like I said, lasagna is so much better).

Of course, there is the customary wearing of the green, which my mom was always cheerfully game to do, compelling me to also take part as a child.

Going to Christ the King school, whose uniforms then were a smart, demoralizing monochromic dark blue/light blue combo, wearing green posed a challenge that my mom met by tacking a large, plastic shamrock pin onto my shirt.

And here’s the thing; I let her do this to me without protest.

In fact, I had all kinds of pins — a collection, you might say (but I wish you wouldn’t) — that I would wear to school around holidays. Halloween, Christmas, Easter, I had a pin for them all. (The Easter one was especially regretful with its cutesy bunny hunched over an array pastel of eggs.)

Despite this, I still somehow had a decent amount of friends. I was just incredibly lame until about seventh grade.

(Looking, back I wonder where my older siblings were. Why didn’t they ever intervene to tell my mother that she was making me look like an idiot with all the ridiculous pins and coddling?)

Recently, my mom was cleaning out a closet when she came across my old box (yes, a whole box) of festive pins. She presented them to me, saying, “Do you remember your pin collection?” expecting me, I think, to be overcome with sentimentality.

“Please burn them before anyone else sees this,” was all I could muster, my face going flush as all the memories of my lameness came flooding back. Casting around for other St. Patrick’s Day traditions, I came up a little short. The boiled dinner was a common response, as were the familiar whiskey-soaked festivities that I was less interested in exploring.

One tradition that popped up at least twice was a something called the “Attack of the Leprechauns.”

As one person described it: “They come in and turn everything upside down and mess (the house) all up … They make the milk green.

“The night before, when we were kids, we used to set up traps to try and catch a leprechaun. If they got away then, they left us a treat.”

I guess my family wasn’t Irish enough to do this, but it does sound like a fun little tradition for both the parents and the kids.
St. Patrick’s Day remains an opportunity for celebration and appreciation. Like I said, America is steeped in Irishness . And while many other cultures have made equally significant contributions, none can throw a party quite like the Irish.

[Originally printed in the July 2010 issue of the Rutland Business Journal] Downtown Rutland has always had a rich history of live music. From the days of Ezra Sound – the Center Street music store where local groove legends Satin & Steel would host impromptu jam sessions – to Rick Redington’s current weekly residency at Pub 42, Rutland has been home to a vibrant music scene. But, it’s more than entertainment. In Rutland, live music is increasingly becoming a major driver for the downtown economy.

“Downtown Rutland is unique because it offers a diversity of entertainment,” said Mike Coppinger, executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership (DRP), who acknowledges the importance of having a well-balanced downtown to maintain a vibrant culture, both day and night.

“Not only do we have the Paramount Theatre, but we also have a nine-screen movie theater and a number of restaurants, bars and taverns that regularly feature live music,” Coppinger said.

With over a half-dozen downtown venues that consistently feature live music and entertainment, there is never a lack of options, especially during summer when the DRP’s Friday Night Live block party takes over Center Street for eight Fridays between June and August. Voted best music festival in the Rutland Herald’s Best of the Best Readers’ Choice Awards 2009, the series returns on Friday, June 25 for its fourth season.

Every week, Friday Night Live draws several hundred people to Center Street with a mix of food and craft vendors, various performers and live music. Inevitably, once downtown, visitors spill into local shops and restaurants while opening their wallets along the way. It’s another piece of what Coppinger describes as a healthy mix of entertainment options.

Two blocks away from the DRP offices, the Paramount Theatre sits as Rutland’s largest engine for live music and entertainment. Annually, an estimated 44,000 people attend shows at the historic theater – almost three times the population of Rutland City.

“This area has its own music DNA,” said Bruce Bouchard, executive director of the Paramount. “There’s a real hunger for live music here.” Two years into his tenure, he said is thrilled with the current success of the theater.

“When I started here, we had a four-year plan of where we wanted this theater to go,” said Bouchard. “We accomplished it in two.”

Part of that plan was making the theater more accessible. “I wanted this to be the theater for everyone in the community,” he said. To that end, Bouchard, along with his staff and board of directors, has offered a wide variety of programming in both genre and ticket prices.

The Paramount has made a habit of booking popular acts mid-week. For theater and concertgoers, there is a financial benefit: performers typically cost less to book on an off night, which translates into lower ticket prices.

This coming fall season, the Paramount will feature an event every 4.1 days. Its Popular Music series, which Bouchard defines broadly as anything audiences like from rock to classical, features an average of 16 concerts per season.

That translates to approximately 9,000 people for this series alone. Assuming the typical concertgoer spends an average of $50 — including tickets, dinner and any other incidental expenses — Bouchard estimates this music series alone brings around $450,000 into the downtown business community.

The residual effect of the Paramount is felt throughout downtown Rutland, especially in the restaurants. At Table 24 on Wales Street, owner Stephen Sawyer has reaped the benefits. On the night of a show, his restaurant, like most others downtown, is packed with patrons.

A sponsor of the Paramount’s 2010-2011 Popular Music series along with Berkshire Bank, Sawyer said live music is a critical component to Rutland’s continued success and cultural growth, and he’s happy to do his part to support it.

“I feel that the bigger acts they get, the greater visibility both downtown and Rutland as a region get,”
he said.

While the Paramount may be the big dog when it comes to bringing popular national acts to the region, the downtown bars do their part to promote local musicians. At the Center Street Saloon, promotions manager Dave Hoffenberg recognizes this role.

“We book as much music as we can,” Hoffenberg said. Currently, the bar features entertainment four to five nights a week. Acts vary from acoustic singer/songwriters and full bands to DJ’s and even an open mic every Wednesday night.

Financially, live music has benefited the Center Street Saloon. A well-known local band is a draw, and
a good band keeps customers in the bar and spending money.

On the subject of cover charges, Hoffenberg, like most downtown bars, said his establishment avoids them. “For the most part, bands are affordable around here,” he said, adding that for the customer, a cover charge can often be a deterrent.

Of the Paramount’s residual effect, Hoffenberg noted it can be hit or miss, depending on the event. A rock show like Bryan Adams or Taj Mahal brings out a vastly different crowd than Russian pianist Gleb Ivanov.

Still, local bands keep customers coming though the saloon’s doors. Hoffenberg said he has witnessed strong growth in the area music scene over the last year. “There’s some real talent here.”

Back on Wales Street, Jeff Dayton, co-owner of Pub 42, has also managed to capitalize on Rutland’s thirst for live music. “Customers want quality music,” said Dayton, who books bands based on demos he receives, bands he likes and word of mouth.

A 20-year veteran of the bar business, Dayton said Rutland is fortunate to have such a good community of musicians. While not as heavy on booking music as Center Street Saloon, Pub 42 is currently the home of local singer/songwriter Rick Redington on Wednesday nights.

Despite the overall benefits of live music, Dayton is aware of the costs. He acknowledges that most bands in the area are reasonable; however, he keeps an eye on hidden costs such as additional electrical usage from band equipment; keeping the band, customers and staff satisfied and friendly; and keeping noise levels comfortable for the space.

On the other side of the equation, local musicians look to these venues as potential sources of employment. George Nostrand, a guitarist and author of “Local Spin” a weekly music column in the Rutland Herald, said he regards Rutland’s music scene positively.

“The musicians around here get along amazingly well,” he said, “There is very little in-fighting or turf issues to my knowledge,” said Nostrand.

Nostrand also characterizes musicians’ relationships with bar owners as positive: “While we gripe and moan about pay, Rutland is comparable to many places.”

However, one place for improvement, in Nostrand’s opinion, is in how venues promote – or don’t promote – their acts.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes bar and venue owners make is they expect the musicians to bring in the business,” said Nostrand. He acknowledges that it is partially the musician’s role to spread the word, but asserts that it ultimately falls to the venue. “If bars and venues don’t advertise well and then blame musicians for low turn-out, they are missing the boat.”

Another change Nostrand said he would welcome is charging a cover fee for admission. While he admits it is an unpopular opinion with some, he maintains that it is important.

“Charging anywhere from $2 to $10 for shows would take away some of the risk of bands getting paid and venues making money,” he said.

According to Nostrand, cover charges would also allow venues to book touring acts from outside the Rutland region. Bands that have to travel to a venue typically cost more; a cover charge would help defray that expense. Opening the scene up to bands from Burlington, Albany and other areas could also create an exchange for Rutland bands to connect to venues in other areas, allowing them to expand their touring areas, too.

To be sure, Rutland’s music scene may be doing many things right, but most agree that there is room for growth. As Nostrand observed, with the exception of the Paramount, there is little to no access to non-local music in Rutland. At Center Street Saloon, Hoffenberg has begun to address that concern. Recently, he has started booking musicians from as far away as Connecticut and North Carolina.
Similarly, Coppinger noted the music at Friday Night Live is typically a mix of local and regional acts.

“Music knows no borders,” he said. “It’s important expose people to new music – expand the scene and bring more in.”

As the music scene has grown and proven to be a viable economic driver downtown, there have been calls for a wider variety in the size of venues – in particular, a space larger than a typical barroom but smaller than the Paramount.

Others are thinking bigger. Dayton said he would like to see an arena-sized venue in the area. He may get his wish. After the success of March’s Snoe.down music festival, Castleton State College’s Spartan Arena may step into that role.

Looking ahead, it is clear downtown Rutland’s music scene will continue to grow. With the Paramount as a powerful and prosperous anchor, the rest of the downtown business community has found its own ways to capitalize on this success. While live music and entertainment is by no means a silver bullet for the greater economic challenges facing Rutland and most downtown areas, it plays a prominent role in keeping the community culturally and economically vibrant.