Phorget Phish: Burlington, Vermont's Eclectic Scene Goes Way Beyond Jam Bands and Ice Cream
The hippie home of Phish and Bernie Sanders is home to a ton of artists across different genres as well as a growing range of labels, venues, and even a vinyl manufacturing plant.
Madaila. All photos by Brittain Shorter.
It's 1987 in a small Burlington, Vermont recording studio. Coaxed by an enterprising local producer, the city's three-term mayor steps up to the microphone to record his first album. He's brought lyrics to his favorite folk songs, classics like "We Shall Overcome" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." As soon as he starts singing, though, the producer discovers a problem: The mayor can't carry a tune. He thinks quickly and asks the mayor to simply recite the lyrics, leaving the actual music part to schlocky backing tracks. The result sounds like Shatner with a Brooklyn accent. It's released on cassette as a local curiosity, then almost 30 years later becomes national news. That mayor is of course Bernie Sanders, and it's perhaps the worst album Burlington has ever produced.
Thankfully, that aural abomination is an exception. Bernie's yelling aside, Burlington has always been a music town. But for a long time it was also a one-type-of-music town: jam bands. Phish is still Burlington's best-known musical export, a local institution so big they got their own ice cream flavor from Ben & Jerry's (another local institution), and during their prime they cast a long shadow. Brent Hallenbeck has been covering local music for the Burlington Free Press for 17 years, and says that when he started, "They kind of dominated the scene, not in terms of playing a lot, because they were already a national band, but there was the expectation that every band would be a jam band. Burlington was a jam band town."
Then, in 2004, Phish called it quits (for a while at least). "When Phish broke up, I think it fractured the scene in a good way," Hallenbeck says. "It made people say, maybe we should look for other stuff. There was other stuff obviously in town, but it had been hijacked by the jam scene. Now other bands had room to break through, and people started turning their attention to them. "
Though the jam scene has not vanished—a weekly Grateful Dead tribute night still draws a healthy crowd of college students—it is now one among many. Burlington has a punk scene, an electronic scene, a metal scene, a country scene, a jazz scene. And they all really form one scene, as a city of 40,000 is small enough that you'll see a lot of the same faces at all those shows (some of the band members will overlap too). "If you ask me to describe the current music scene now, I can't," Hallenbeck says. "There's just nothing you can pin on it now except that it's diverse."
Diverse, and growing fast. When he started covering local music eight years ago for popular alt-weekly Seven Days, Dan Bolles often had to review non-Vermont albums to fill his weekly quota. Now, even reviewing 125-150 local records a year, he doesn't get to all that cross his desk. "The music scene in Burlington is far more vibrant and diverse than one might assume by looking at our size, geographical location, and/or the crunchy hippie stereotype typically associated with Vermont," he says. He went on to note some of the scene's most prominent genres; by the end he had listed just about any genre you could name, and he's not wrong (though I remain unconvinced the city is pulling its weight in hip-hop, perhaps a symptom of a broader issue: Vermont is the second whitest state in the country).
A mini-music industry has developed around these new bands. A host of new labels, studios, and even a vinyl manufacturing plant give a place as isolated as Burlington (the nearest big city, Montreal, is 90 minutes and a border crossing away) the infrastructure to support homegrown artists. Founded in 2008, cassette label NNA Tapes was one of the first of the new pack, and newer labels like Section Sign and Future Fields are helping local musicians release everything from dance pop to experimental cassette sampling. "Focusing on local music makes a ton of sense for now," says Future Fields co-founder Eric Maier. "The main focus is on giving independent artists the support they need to grow."
The number of places fans can see local music has exploded too. In addition to the standard rock clubs and bars, in recent years bands have begun taking stages in a renovated early 20th-century barn (ArtsRiot), an unmarked basement recording studio (Signal Kitchen), even a funky lamp store where a band will be lit by dozens of odd light fixtures hanging from every surface (Light Club Lamp Shop). "There used be a lot of house shows, where people had to know they were even going on to see them," says Paddy Reagan, who books shows for several local venues. "But now venues like Signal Kitchen or ArtsRiot provide spaces for more of the general public to see local bands." Reagan also co-founded Waking Windows, one of a number of new festivals that boost local artists by placing them around a few national headliners. In their fifth year, Waking Windows drew over five thousand attendees to a line-up that was two-thirds local.
Indeed, fitting for a city where you can't order a burger without hearing what family farm it came from, "local" is the watchword in music too. "[In recent years] people have become more aware of the amazing music that has been made in our city for a long time," says Maier. "People love the music scenes here and stay for that reason."
The city of Burlington supports the local scene so much that dance-pop newbies Madaila performed their album-release show not at a rock club, but at city hall. Always dressed in an amount of neon Cyndi Lauper would find tacky, the band has become one of Burlington's biggest in barely a year. Though they've begun touring nationally (someone like Passion Pit would be lucky to have them open), they don't seem likely to pull up roots anytime soon: Two of the band members also run the local Future Fields label, for which Madaila's album was the inaugural release.
Swale may be the quintessential Burlington band: They gig constantly, each member moonlights in a half dozen other local bands, and they exhibit no apparent thirst to "make it" beyond the city limits. They're also one of the most adaptable to the city's varying venues; one night they'll play a packed midnight club show, the next you'll see them at a farm picnic. Boasting two of the best singers in town, Swale actually formed back in 2002 but didn't begin releasing proper albums until a few years ago due to a band member's time in rehab. Now they've finally settled into a Vermont sort of groove, as described in a new song: "I used to break drug laws. Now I make in-laws…You would’ve hated me. So many felonies. Now I got babies. So many babies."
Burlington bands spawn side projects and solo albums like Ben & Jerry's spawns zany flavors. Wren Kitz is the guitarist for psychedelic mainstays Paper Castles, but he gets even trippier on his new solo album. Recording in a Vermont shed, he incorporated cassette samples from his large archive, including a letter recorded by his grandma's friend and a choir he taped outside by an island church. It's the fourth release by the psych/folk/experimental Section Sign Records, whose bands Vows and Pours are also worth investigating.
Despite being known as a hippie haven, Burlington has long had a vibrant punk scene, centered around 242 Main, one of the longest-standing all-ages clubs in America (founded in part by then-mayor Sanders and his future wife). Rough Francis began as a tribute to their father's band Death, the Detroit group now sometimes called the first punk band ("this is the Ramones two years earlier," Questlove said in a recent documentary) who relocated to Burlington before their recent resurgence. Now the first punk band has the first punk-sons band carrying the torch.
This is a band whose latest album has a different New Yorker-style cover for each song, who have nicknames like "The Dashing Smitten," and who produced plush dolls in each band member's image. If that twee level doesn't overwhelm you though, they're one of the catchiest bands in town, drawing heavily from the Magnetic Fields. It also speaks to Vermont's values that the only concern anyone had with their singer's gender transition is how to change their harmonies to accommodate his new, lower voice (they even refined his nickname: "The Smitten Formerly Known As Lady").
Kat Wright and the Indomitable Soul Band
Grace Potter long reigned as Vermont's soul grande dame, but locals know that Kat Wright has more recently stolen her crown. Fronting an eight-piece band that barely fits on most stages, she plays the most popular weekly residency in a city big on such things at bar/coffeehouse gem Radio Bean. She waits tables there, too, and has been known to hop on stage to sing with whatever band's playing with "Sorry to anyone waiting to pay their bill, I'll just be a minute." Kat has yet to release a full album, but local opinion says she could be Burlington's next big breakout when she does.
Burlington has a thriving electronic music scene—one that's less EDM and more ambient-experimental. Part of the reason may be NNA Tapes, which is one of the oldest labels around (comparatively a grizzled elder at seven years) and has nurtured the local scene in addition to being early on out-of-state artists like Julia Holter and Oneohtrix Point Never. Though not on that label herself, Alexandra Hall is one of Burlington's electronic-inflected standouts, though she said a recent show—at an outdoor horror movie showing no less—might be her last, at least under the tooth ache. moniker.
Perhaps because it is in a rural state, Burlington has a stronger Southern rock scene than anyone looking a map would expect. For six years, Waylon Speed has been the town's own Drive-By Truckers. And in that comparison, Kelly Ravin would be Jason Isbell, inclined down more country roads now that he's venturing out on his own (though unlike Isbell he's still in the main band, and to the best of my knowledge never had Ryan Adams stage an intervention for him).
No place is the big tent of Burlington's music scene more apparent than the fact that there is room for a half dozen surf-rock bands, and none feature Hawaiian-shirted geriatrics churning out Ventures covers on cruise lines. Barbacoa is perhaps the best, comprising hotshot players from a few other bands (including Swale—like I said, they're everywhere) and bringing in a heavy dose of Ennio Morricone spaghetti western noir.
In a city with more than its share of singer-songwriters, Maryse Smith has broken out to be the buzziest newcomer this year, despite having released her first album six years ago. But after a couple of standard-issue Americana LPs, her newest one sounds like a folkier Natalie Prass with textured, unexpected production touches by local scene vet Michael Chorney (who himself releases the occasional semi-outsider acoustic album). It's still got traces of Vermont rustic though: It was recorded in a renovated goose coop.
Alt-weekly Seven Days holds an annual vote for Best in Burlington, an honor locals care about. A lot. Just about every restaurant in town posts a sign asking for your vote, and every band's social media is littered with pleas. Inevitably though, it's a popularity contest; Grace Potter will win whatever she is nominated for, even if it were Best Chef or Best Budget Chimneysweep. So this year the paper's music department named their own, more interesting winners, and "Best Rock Artist/Group" went to Black Rabbit. Heavily indebted to the Ramones and anyone else who ever played CBGB, they'd surely win "Best Rock Influences" too.
Though there is a little too much else going on to label Burlington a college town, no one disputes that the University of Vermont has a heavy influence. UVM students and grads form a good portion of the crowd at shows, and they make up a number of the bands too. The four guys in Crater Lake met while students, and have all stuck around (one even works for the school now). Their music showcases the same psychedelic impulses that drive all the Phish wannabes but thankfully channeled towards spacey shoegazing rather than jamming.
James Kochalka Superstar
James Kochalka Superstar has the hook smarts of Ty Segall and the maturity of Mac DeMarco. In one song he just yells "Only the finest French soap now, motherfucker!" for 53 seconds. Another song is just an extended inside joke about a Burlington neighborhood and seems custom built to ensure he stays a local favorite. In his day job he's also Vermont's first official "cartoonist laureate," which seems like another joke but isn't. I guess the state doesn't have a "garage rock goofball laureate" position open.