Beer and Baseball Hats in the Berkshires: Solid Sound 2017

On a muggy Friday evening in the rolling hills of the western Massachusetts Berkshires, a crowd of L.L. Bean-clad festival goers descended slowly on the sleepy town of North Adams. Though its main street is spare and some of its sidewalks are old and wearing, the town is home to one of New England’s most beloved music festivals: Solid Sound.

Hosted by the much-praised Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCa, for short), the festival was birthed in 2010 as the brainchild of the ever-prolific Chicago-based rock band, Wilco. Over the past seven years, Solid Sound has attracted musicians, comedians and artists from across the country. Levon Helm, Hannibal Burress, Yo La Tengo, Jen Kirkman and Mac DeMarco have made up the festival’s diverse lineups since its inception.

This year, the festival boasted an eclectic mix of artists from all ends of the musical spectrum, from jazz to funk to indie rock. As patriarchs of the festival, Wilco was the centerpiece, playing sets every day of the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Solid Sound Festival at MassMoCa.

Drawn more to the spectacle of festival life than the music, we decided to head down for the weekend. The promise of camping, a good museum, quality people-watching and a chance to get out of town was enough for us to make the trip. So we packed up the car with an excess of snacks, sunscreen and bug spray to see what Solid Sound was all about.

The trip from Burlington to North Adams is reason enough to make it down to the festival, with Route 7’s gentle curves snaking past small Vermont towns littered with antique shops and flea markets set against the spine of the Green Mountains. The road winds down through verdant river valleys freckled with wildflowers among the tall grass wetlands this time of year, and deep woods hiding trails to mountain peaks alongside dilapidated barns filled with rusting relics of other eras.

When we crossed the state border, taller mountains fell away, yielding rolling hills and eventually the polished landscape of Williams College grounds before we reached North Adams. There, country roads turned into narrow streets lined with clapboard duplexes, crooked power lines and dive bars. In the midst of the small town skyline made of church steeples and steel bridges was the crisp helvetica MassMoca sign, assuring us we were in the right place.

Since the festival takes place in the middle of New England’s most balmy months, camping is a highly popular choice for those who spring for weekend passes and make the trek to North Adams from all over the Northeast. As we pulled in to camp, we began to get a sense of the festival’s flavor as families loaded out of RVs, and groups of middle-aged friends and fathers cracked open Coors Lites to kick off the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. The hats of Solid Sound Festival 2017.

Inside the festival grounds, the scene looked much the same: a sea of Teva sandals, cargo pants and the occasional fedora. Graphic tees featuring corny dad humor abounded, with messages ranging from “Baltimore: there’s more than murder here!” to “I am listening to Ryan Adams because I am very emotional right now.” The amply sized MassMoCa compound had been transformed into a wonderland of craft beer carts, hipster taco trucks and designer hot dogs all under countless strings of Christmas lights. Stages were set against the white-washed brick facade of the museum, and the first notes of whispy folk music echoed through courtyards as the evening began.

Known for its whimsical and laid-back character, Solid Sound attracts a different set of characters than the rowdy, drunken bunch of flower-crowned hippies you might expect from a summer music festival. Here, gone is the scent of pot wafting through humid air and foreign is the sight of neon face paint around the glazed-over eyes of 16-year-olds. Here, you’re more likely to walk past a mom sipping a mimosa in a flowy top or a toddler dressed in a “Raised on Wilco” shirt his dad bought for him in preparation for the weekend.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. A dad naps between sets at Solid Sound.

Friday night was a warmup, and after a night of heavy rain soaking our tent, Saturday sun beat down on the festival in full force. When we returned to MassMoCa, the crowds were warmed up and ready for another day of good, clean fun at the festival. One of the day’s first offerings was a jam packed comedy show, first showcasing the sassy sensibilities of Michelle Buteau of Big Morning Buzz, Key & Peele, and The Eric Andre Show fame. She poked fun at her upper-middle class white audience in between cracking self-deprecating and painfully relatable jokes about relationships, farting and being a woman.

Following Buteau was the impossibly charming Nick Offerman, who immediately launched into his trademark campfire song comedy with tunes about his wife, Megan Mullally (whose power comedy-music duo Nancy and Beth were also on the festival lineup), Siri, and Ron Swanson. Each song was the perfect balance between satirically self-aware and riotously raunchy all with the perfect finale of “Bye Bye ‘lil Sebastian” from Parks and Recreation. “If you know this song, you are welcome to sing along—if you don’t, you are in for a real treat,” he giggled. The audience let out sighs of nostalgia and some put their lighters in the air for Pawnee, Indiana’s favorite mini-horse and one last resounding applause at the song’s end.

MAX MCCURDY. Michelle Bouteau performing.

Back outside, the music was in full swing. We caught a stunning set from the Brooklyn-based indie rock group Big Thief, followed by a raucous power pop performance by Jessica Dobson’s current Seattle-based project, Deep Sea Diver. Both sets filled the courtyards with delicious sound under peak afternoon sun.The crowd swayed and sweated between beer refills until the music was over. Festival-goers started to feel more like family as we saw familiar faces again and again and got into the rhythm of hopping from show to show, breaking for barbecue in between.

Amidst the afternoon’s excitement, we went inside for a breather and a quick chat with one of the day’s favorites, Big Thief. In a cavernous room with floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the courtyard where moms were intently gyrating to Peter Wolfe’s set, we asked the band about their Solid Sound experience.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. The Solid Sound crowd listens to Big Thief.

“It feels really good; it’s really cozy,” the band’s guitarist Buck Meek said. Big Thief is new to the festival scene, but Solid Sound is the first of many they’ll be playing throughout the summer from Winnipeg to Newport.

“We’ve never played a big festival; we’ve never heard that ‘waaaaaaa!’,” bassist Max Oleartchik laughed. Despite the setting’s newness, during their set the band seemed to be totally in tune with the audience, atmosphere and each other as they delivered raw and ambient riffs with powerfully emotional lyrics that echoed with potency into the air. “You have to find a different resonance in the middle of the day in the sunshine, singing about emotional stuff; it’s an interesting thing to do in the day,” guitarist and lead singer Adrianne Lenker said.

The band cogitated on performance as an art form and the different modes of being it takes based on the kind of audience they’re playing to. “One night we played at this big rock club and the next we played at a church, and it was so different; you can’t just plug a set in anywhere and expect it to stick,” drummer James Krivchenia said. To them, everything comes down to presence. “We’re in what we’re singing for the whole show if it’s hard or if it’s joyful, it doesn’t matter as much — it feels right when it’s present,” Lenker said.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Big Thief, one of our Solid Sound favorites.

“If you have all these ideas of what you want it to be then it’s useless; it’s all about being like water,” Oleartchik said. “We have to do this with other people we don’t know which is very strange; the larger the audience is, it’s more abstract,” he said. “Today was a big crowd, but we could feel them and we’re starting to do better on that level.” What Big Thief was looking for – that presence – the Solid Sound audience delivered again and again throughout the weekend.

The final taste of that tight-knit community between artist and audience filled the air as the sun set behind the hills and Wilco took the stage for a rambling two-hour set. The band played old favorites as lifelong fans sang along and slow danced into the night. In between songs, Jeff Tweedy appealed to the sentimental crowd with his philosophy of art’s importance in hard times. “The most important thing is that we get to make art and show it to each other,” Tweedy said as everyone cheered in accord.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Wilco fans await the band’s big show.

Tweedy and the band played long after the end of their time slot, and slowly Wilco fans trickled over to one last cool-down show, Jeff Parker Trio, to end the evening. The sky had darkened and a smattering of stars poked out from under rain clouds as couples swayed shoulder to shoulder and a pair of free spirits danced with hula hoops to the sound of double bass.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. A pair of whimsical festival goers dance to Jeff Parker Trio.

All too soon the night was over, and dimly lit school busses carried weary but smiling festival goers back to their tents as if they were kids coming back to their cabins after a long day at camp. The soft sound of an acoustic guitar playing Wilco covers faded into the night along with the giggles and sighs of parents shepherding their already asleep children into their Airstreams. I dozed off slowly to the sound of my campground neighbors cracking open one last cold one as if they were old friends.

First Fridays in Burlington’s South End

Alongside the Burlington waterfront lies a lesser-known land beyond creemees and sunsets; one populated by photographers, metal workers and painters alike.

I attended my first-ever “First Friday” event, in which dozens of art venues and restaurants across the South End opened their doors free of charge to the Burlington community to promote local artists April 7. Aptly named, the event takes place on the first Friday of every month from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

        Beyond enjoying the plethora of free brownies and viewing an impressive array of artwork, I was fortunate enough to speak with two women in the Burlington art community, both of whom are involved with galleries in the Downtown area.

My first stop was the HAVOC gallery on Sears Lane, one of the furthest galleries featured on the Burlington Art Map. HAVOC is a self-proclaimed “abstract contemporary gallery” featuring both local and international art. When they’re not displaying international artwork, the local flavor of Vermont artwork is brought by metalwork artist Bruce McDonald;  HAVOC also serves as his studio space.

The gallery is a single room with the exhibits in front and McDonald’s studio in the back. It’s only view of the outside being a large garage door behind heaps of metal and wire contraptions. “In the summertime we put the bay doors up because you can smell the lake and it’s all green back there, which makes it an open air gallery,” said gallery director of HAVOC, Sarah Vogelsang-Card.

We discussed the gallery’s diverse displays of art from McDonald and international artists, and how their collection fits into the Burlington art scene.

“We don’t show Vermont-type art work; we exhibit abstract work, a lot of minimalism, high-profile work… so it’s the kind of artwork you would find in New York City galleries,” Vogelsand-Card said.

Although McDonald brings international work to the community, HAVOC prides itself on bringing a new outlook to the community.

“We love the Burlington art scene. We want to be able to contribute new visions, new ideas, and we generally don’t show Vermont artwork so we try to bring in artists from California and Virginia so we’re infusing the community with more art,” Vogelsand-Card said. “More art to see, more art to buy and more art to enjoy.”

She emphasized the importance of introducing international work to Burlington.

“We’re always flushed with new work of Bruce’s, but to be able to show international artists is really fun for us,” Vogelsang-Card said.

There are currently two exhibitions in the HAVOC gallery along with McDonald’s permanent display year-round. Next on the HAVOC agenda is their party in June celebrating McDonald’s piece, “Visible Indivisibles” reaching completion.

Just up the road from HAVOC on Pine Street was my next stop, Brickwork Art Studio. The space is home to fourteen studios featuring artwork of all shapes and styles.

“We’re primarily painters, printers, and I’m the only photographer,” said Jude Domski, Brickwork resident photographer. “We each rent our own spaces, but because of the close proximity, there’s always a bit of cross-pollination.”

The exhibits rotate monthly,  as artists’ work alternates from the main gallery to smaller corridors.   

Domski’s residency at Brickwork has influenced her work beyond what she initially expected. Her newest exhibit, “Shape of Water,” illustrates her artistic evolution since her time at the studio.

“I usually do digital, mostly event photography,” Domski said. ”[Shape of Water] is my first foray into more abstraction, which is not necessarily typical of what I do.”

This exploration began whilst looking for an art space, where Domski took into consideration multiple venues throughout Burlington.

“One venue was Karma Birdhouse, which is more media-focused. Had I been there, I would have been more influenced in that direction,” Domski said. “But it just happened that I chose to be here and I’m around more people doing abstraction. It’s been good for me as an event photographer to get out of that very literal mindset.”

After my time spent speaking with Jude and Sarah on that First Friday in April, I can honestly say I’ll be back exploring the Art Map on the next First Friday in May. Each venue offered me an entirely different experience, all within the comforts of Burlington’s borders.

www.artmapburlington.com

Music Making for the Masses

 

It is genuinely hard to find someone who doesn’t enjoy listening to music. It’s quite a bit easier to find someone who doesn’t play music.

While factors such as lack of interest or time might play a part in this gap, the disconnect between listening and playing music is surely due to the difference in difficulty between listening and playing music.

Playing a guitar is hard, and there are infinitely wrong ways to do it. Listening to music is easy as can be as there’s no “wrong” way to hear an album. While the difficulty of learning to play an instrument, such as guitar, discourages a lot of people from trying to learn, others choose to embrace the challenge.

Holden Jaffe, a NYC-based singer-songwriter and frontman for the indie band Del Water Gap is one of these people.

He started his musical journey by learning how to play drums at age 12. His focus eventually shifted to guitar while spending his junior year of high school abroad in Zaragoza, Spain.

Upon moving to a big city for the first time, he knew he would have to part ways with his beloved space-robbing drums.

“I had brought my guitar, and I spent a lot of time that year sitting in my room, getting better at playing and writing songs.” Jaffe said; “then I kinda caught that bug and continued through my senior year of high school.”

DEL WATER GAP. The band performing at Stone Studio in Lakeville, Connecticut.

While playing the guitar had logistical beginnings, as Jaffe became more interested in writing, it made more sense for him to play a melodic instrument he said.

Up until the early ‘70s, the only music making method was Jaffe’s instrument-based method. Anyone unwilling to put in the time and effort to buy and learn an instrument was relegated to simply listening to music rather than playing it.

That was until one album—Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin On—exposed the world to the then-primitive technology of drum machines. Interestingly enough, Sly’s motive for using a drum machine for the first time was not some genius attempt to re-invent the music industry; it was simply a logistical reaction to his drummer quitting the group due to a souring relationship.

Digital music technology has come a long way since the first drum machine, the Chamberlin Rhythmate, was released in 1957. Drum machines, synths and MIDI controllers are now becoming commonplace in most college dorms and apartments.

Be honest — everybody knows someone who “makes sick beats.” While over-confident, under-talented people such as these may contribute to the impression that increased accessibility of music-making is an awful thing, real musicians tend to disagree.

That change in accessibility is the biggest change to music—both the industry and the art form—in the history of recorded music, Jaffe said.

“I think it’s great; I’ve gotten so many opportunities to create content and meet new people, and to have a career I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

Jaffe also shrugged off the common misconception that making music digitally is “easy as pie.”

“People treat these Digital Audio Workstations like instruments –they have to practice them and get to know them like instruments,” he said. “There’s no difference there.”

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Del Water Gap performing in Burlington.

Jaffe has also noticed this increase in the accessibility of making music digitally. “A lot of friends are now moving in that direction,” he said, “and a couple of my most consistent collaborators are now in that world.”

Things are no different in Burlington, as every year there are more and more people digitally producing music.

One of those people is junior Mike Garrett (aka Mike G), who takes an old-school approach to production.

Mike G’s main instrument is an MPC-2000 XL, a storied drum machine and sampler that’s been the tool of choice for countless hip-hop legends over the years, like J Dilla, Nujabes, DJ Premier and many more.

“This machine is indirectly responsible for hip-hop, so I felt I had to get one at some point,” he said, “and I’m using the same thing my favorite producers did, so I can sort of put myself in their shoes and think, ‘this is what it’s like when Pete Rock makes music.’”

Garrett also took the old-school route of buying an MPC made in 2000 due to his self-proclaimed affection for old machinery.

“I love old electronics; they have cool little quirks to them that new things don’t,” Garrett said, “and the quirks are your friends.”

Even as someone who is passionate about producing the hard way on now-defunct technology, Garrett shares Jaffe’s opinion that the increased accessibility and ease of making music is a great thing.

“If you make music, I don’t think you can actually have a problem with more people making music, or that you can think of making music as an exclusive thing,” he said.

Garrett also commented on how advancements in production technology are beneficial even to old souls such as himself.

“In my research of trying to make a full analog studio setup, I’ve found it’s ridiculously expensive and requires a truly amazing amount of hardware,” he said, “but now your computer can do the same things all that hardware would do, so now it’s just so much less expensive to make music.”

A love for hip-hop, though, doesn’t attract everyone to the expensive and sometimes-frustrating world of dealing with decades-old analog electronics, and there are different paths to digitally producing music.

UVM junior N’Kosi Edwards has taken one of these alternative paths, choosing to produce with a modern MIDI controller – the AKAI MPK Mini 2 – and a Digital Audio Workstation, Logic Pro.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side.

“[Producing] is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Edwards said, “and once I saw young producers like Young Chop getting big I thought, ‘maybe I should start making beats, that looks kinda fun.’”

For Edwards, the desire to produce came hand-in-hand with his love of rapping. “I’ve always been infatuated with how people could twist words in hip-hop,” he said, “which is why artists like BIG Krit were always an inspiration, because he made his own music and rapped over it.”

The increased accessibility and popularity of making music has not gone unnoticed for Edwards. “I know a lot of people that rap and make music,” he said, “like my friend Louis that got signed to a record label. I get a lot of inspiration from people like him, that are just doing their own thing.”

Edwards also shares the opinion that the more accessible music is, the better.

“If it wasn’t for that I probably wouldn’t be making beats, so I have to give thanks that it’s so much more accessible now,” he said.

Edwards’s use of only one MIDI controller is something he surely couldn’t imagine before he got started producing. “Back in the day, when I didn’t know much about it, I thought I would need a whole bunch of equipment,” he said.

The only downside that Edwards could see with increased accessibility is that “it has definitely given people the ability to mass produce a lot of crappy music, but who’s to even say that? People might say my music is crappy,” he said.

Digital music production has come an unspeakably long way since that first Chamberlin Rhythmate went on sale in 1957, and there’s certainly no end in sight. Digital music tech has gone from that ancient Rhythmate with only 14 drum patterns, to Digital Audio Workstations with thousands of samples built in, with the ability to download an almost infinite number of additional sounds.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. N’kosi Edwards making music.

It’s gone from the first digital sampler—the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer—costing $5,000 upon its release in 1980, to MIDI controllers like N’Kosi Edwards’s AKAI MPK Mini 2, which costs as little as $100 on eBay.

It’s gone from expensive analog tape recorders that added unwanted white noise with every recording, to programs like GarageBand, offering a far superior recording experience for free on any Mac computer.

In short, it’s easy to see why digital music production has become so much more common and accessible in the last few years: it’s more intuitive, cheap and advanced than it has ever been before.

And with that, there’s more music available now than there has ever been. And even if that means there’s now more crappy music out there than ever before, statistically there has to also be more great music out there than ever before, right?
In order to enrich your life by checking out the amazing music these great artists make, I strongly encourage you to check out their respective online libraries. For some soul-touching, emotionally-rich indie grooves, listen to Holden Jaffe’s super-group Del Water Gap on Spotify, iTunes, or Bandcamp (https://delwatergap.bandcamp.com/), and be on the lookout for their upcoming EP! For some futuristic yet old-school raps and instrumentals, check out N’Kosi Edwards on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/nkosi11. Unfortunately, Mike G’s music is yet to be published online, but be on the lookout for his gritty, 90s hip-hop greatness hitting the internet’s airwaves in the near future.

A Night Out with Rose Street Collective

Snapping their fingers under lights of purple, blue, and yellow hues, Julia Spelman, Lilly Dukich and Erika Polner spend the majority of a Friday night set perfecting harmonies as a powerful vocal trio, while reserving a few songs for solo performances highlighting individual strengths.

 Rose Street Collective, a new band consisting of five UVM students, surrounds the three singers while playing songs the group has meticulously mastered.

Filling two venues in one weekend, the Skinny Pancake and Radio Bean, the Collective shares their own perspective on jazz by playing both original and familiar tunes.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. From left: Lilly Dukich, Julia Spelman and Erika Polner performing at the Skinny Pancake on February 3rd.

Since November, the band has played about 10 shows and is quickly becoming a  staple of the Burlington music scene.

The magic of Rose Street Collective lies in their ability to pay tribute to the history of jazz by taking the audience through a dynamic tour of the genre, from Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” to a nostalgic yet energetic rendition of Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” and, finally,  covers of today’s hit indie songs.

The band consists of Adam Sullivan on keys, Ian Mack on guitar, Kevin Nikolaides on bass, Ethan Shafron on drums, and Rayne Bick playing the alto sax.

Members share a respect for jazz’s rich history, a reverence that resurged years after taking lessons as kids.

“It has always been a part of our lives, even when we didn’t realize it,” Spelman said.

Most of the members met through the UVM jazz ensemble, while Mack and Bick connected with the group later on through mutual friends.

The ensemble helped them further develop their skills and the group quickly became eager to branch out from campus once they recognized their common love of many different genres of music, from soul to funk to rock.

The group’s ultimate goal was to mimic their favorite musicians, incorporating classical jazz standards into the modern music they listen to.

MAX MCCURDY. B-Side. Rose Street Collective at the Skinny Pancake on February 3rd.

Their interpretation of funk group Vulfpeck’s hit song “Back Pocket” illustrates this perfectly as they replace keys with an alto sax and turn the volume up, taking the song to a new level.  

While it may seem that there is a meticulous strategy to their setlist, it mostly just pays tribute to the songs they all love, which they compile into a Spotify collaborative playlist or suggest via Facebook messenger, Shafron said.

Nikolaides uses Google Sheets faithfully in order to avoid chaos, keeping ideas and song choices organized. 

At the show, the band members seemed completely in their element on stage, exchanging glances and smiles in the midst of their solos.

They’re quickly making their way from one Burlington venue to the next each weekend, which helps to immerse them into the “hopping” music community, Spelman said.

To keep up with their movements, the band suggests liking them on Facebook and possibly following their Instagram in the near future, Shafron said. They have a show this coming Thursday, February 16th at Radio Bean, 11:00 pm.

The Anti-Sport

     Skateboarding is set to be in the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo. I’m confused. The Olympics are for usually for sports, and skateboarding can’t be a sport. Seeing skateboarding in the olympics is akin to McDonald’s offering dry cleaning. Skateboarding can’t be a sport, sports have clear objectives and points. In a basketball game, everyone knows what they should be doing: trying their darndest to get the ball in the net. When they do, they don’t wonder what happens next, they know they will get points for it.

   Skateboarding is nothing like that. Skateboards don’t come with instructions. Some people choose to use a skateboard purely as transportation. Some people decide to ride huge boards exclusively down steep hills. Some people aim only to flip their board in complex ways. Some people strive to hop down huge sets of stairs. The only wrong way to approach skateboarding is to not approach it.

    There are no points in skateboarding. When I landed my first ollie, there wasn’t a scoreboard flashing numbers at me. There’s no way to score skateboarding. Some people can naturally do things without trying, while it might take someone else years to learn. That one guy at the skatepark that’s struggling to kickflip may turn around and do something twice as hard.

   Sports encourage competition. Competition encourages animosity and hostility amongst competitors. Every time a team celebrates scoring a goal, there’s another team that hates them for doing it. Skateboarding is the opposite: it encourages camaraderie and friendship. When I see someone do some trick I’ve always wanted to do, I can’t be mad at them, I can only be excited for them.

   Calling skateboarding a sport is like calling a grilled cheese a burger. Or calling high heels tennis shoes. Or calling 9 hours of sleep a nap. While they may share some minor similarities,the connection is not quite there. I propose a new word, something to signify an activity that requires physical exertion and developed skills, but does not contain an inherent goal or point system. How about ‘hobby’? Skateboarding is a hobby. I’m all for making an Olympics of hobbies, but I’d like to keep skateboarding out of the current hyper-jockish, athlete-childhood-extinguishing Olympic culture.

And The Kids Share Lovers

“I’m trying to wrangle everyone into a group costume…but it’s a secret!,” said And The Kids frontwoman Hannah Mohan. Mohan and her bandmates are gearing up for a two-night run at Signal Kitchen Thursday and Friday, excitedly rallying friends and assembling outfits for the weekend’s festivities.

“We love playing in Vermont, there are so many amazing bands playing with us,” Mohan said, “I have all my best friends so it’s really fun.”

The band has been touring with their new album, “Friends Share Lovers,” for the better part of 2016, and are finishing off the year with shows in the U.S., Canada and Europe. They’re coming back home to New England with friends to see and old times to revisit.

Mohan hails from western Massachusetts, where she and the band spent their formative years living in tents, playing residencies and growing together. “When we started the band, we decided ‘ok, no jobs for us, we’re not gonna pay rent,’” Mohan said. “We found this piece of land in Hadley right on the [Connecticut] river and payed this guy 100 bucks a month to live on the property while we were on tour.”

And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.
And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.

With a makeshift practice space crafted from a Pods container, Mohan and drummer Rebecca Lasaporano roughed it during the band’s inception. Mohan testified to the importance of place in her life ever since, which seeps into her music as well.

“I’m a cancer and our whole thing is we revolve around home,” she said. “I’m also a crab, so my home is on my back. There’s a huge inspiration for me to write about habitat.”

Even on tour, Mohan’s connection to place inspires her. “Out of nowhere, I loved Madison, Wisconsin,” she said, “I got really attached — we bought a tape deck at this vintage store, I just really didn’t want to leave.”

Anchoring to home has been problematic for And The Kids, too, as Canadian synth player Megan Miller’s visa troubles have kept her from touring with the band in the U.S. “We wrote “Friends Share Lovers” before our keyboard player got deported, so there are some songs about her,” Mohan said, “we had to come up with power songs we could play as a two piece.” 

And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.
And The Kids. COURTNEY CHAVANELL.

Despite Miller’s absence on tour, she is anything but missing from the album. Her synth riffs float through the album’s most atmospheric tracks, like “Creeper” and “Picture” with exquisite and ethereal spookiness.

“Creeper is my favorite because of Megan’s fucking synth part at the end,” Mohan said.

“We went deeper into the ocean of experimenting with sonic shit on this album,” she said, “We recorded it on tape, too, so that’s fucking amazing.”

The album is nebulous and playful, resounding with anxious emotion and confusion, yet remarkable sophistication. “We were trying to have more of a concept linking all the songs on this one,” said Mohan.

Along with strikingly evocative sounds is And The Kids’ glittering and gorgeous album art by Brooklyn, New York  artist Chase Carlisle.

“Aesthetics are really difficult because we have different visions, some of us want a more mature look and some want sketchy drawings,” Mohan said. “Now I just want fucking gorgeous stuff that doesn’t take two seconds to make.”

“I’m gonna hang out with a bunch of my friends and go to my old house in Colchester, maybe build a fire,” Mohan said. “We’re trying to make a music video with Joey Pizza Slice too, he makes awesome VHS videos.”

Gone, sadly, is their trademark inflatable deer, Andrea, that Mohan rescued from the woods in Washington, D.C.

“Andrea the deer…she had a really rough tour with Ra Ra Riot and she’s kind of out of commission now,” she said. Regardless, And The Kids has incredible music, lovable antics and a guaranteed sprinkling of glitter to offer when they return to Vermont. Catch the band at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 27 and 28 at Signal Kitchen and in the station at WRUV Friday at noon.

Grand Point North Celebrates Burlington

With summer officially coming to an end next week, Grand Point North music festival serves not only as the perfect ode to warmer weather, but also as a celebration of all things Vermont music, art and food.

        Years ago, Grace Potter approached promoter Alex Crothers with a vision of a Burlington music festival that would revolve around the local bands that inspired her as well as her and her friends’ smaller, up-and-coming bands. In its sixth year, Potter and her brainchild, Grand Point North, have grown beyond the bounds of Burlington to national success.

RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.
RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.

        Potter’s constantly growing fan-base attracts people from all around the country, with people from out of state  making up about 50 percent of ticket-buyers. Crothers describes the event as the “mecca for Grace Potter fans,” as it’s an intimate performance in her hometown, where she will be surrounded by family and lifelong friends. Music fans from all different parts of Vermont will make up the other half of attendees, shipping up to Vermont’s biggest city to enjoy the capstone music event of the summer.

Support for the burgeoning Burlington and New England music scene will bring great diversity of sound to the stage, from punk to Americana to funk to rock and beyond.

        The same goes for food. With Skinny Pancake as the chief caterer of Grand Point Local, the festival’s culinary component, Crothers says the they will offer local food for everyone. Pingala offers vegan eats for veggie lovers, while Southern Smoke BBQ offers Cajun and Caribbean barbeque for meat fanatics. Farmers & Foragers and Green Pasture Meats offer wholesome farm-to-table meals, while Duino Duende and Caja Madera offer flavorful tacos.

RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grace Potter at Grand Point North 2016.
RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grace Potter at Grand Point North 2016.

        In addition to music and food, Crothers says attendees can check out the “visual eye candy” at Grand Point Weird, the art installation located on the festival grounds. Professional glass artist and sister of Grace, Charlotte Potter, will feature an “intensive collaborative project” between Brooklyn-based painter Esteban del Valle and artists from Vermont Governor’s Institute of the Arts.

        Before festival gates open, yoga instructor Taraleigh Weathers will lead hour-long free classes at noon on the Great Lawn. With live music and yoga mats provided, the lessons will offer an ideal environment for anyone wanting to try out yoga for the first time, and for expert yogis looking for a fun, laid-back experience.       

RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.
RICK LEVINSON PHOTOGRAPHY, Grand Point North 2016.

Crothers describes the festival as “convivial,” with a fun and art-driven atmosphere. Though it’s conveniently located in the heart of Burlington on the lake, the festival will feel far from chaotic, with short and quick lines. The festival emphasizes the importance of community through maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere, kids 12 and under are free, making the crowds welcoming to everyone. As the final outdoor event of the year, Grand Point North encourages all to soak in the last moments of summer in the ultimate celebration of Burlington.

Wit and Wisdom with Matteo Lane

Matteo Lane is a master of many trades: he’s a painter, an illustrator, an opera singer and now, a stand-up comedian. Lane will be at the Vermont Comedy Club Sept. 9 and 10, treating audiences to his trademark sarcastic wit.

Opera may not seem like the traditional path to comedy, but for Matteo Lane, everything is connected.

“I tried to get my start as a singer in Chicago and i joined a group of drag queens and strippers and it was a year and a half of hell,” Lane said, “so stand up seemed glamorous in comparison.”

His past experience continues to influence his stand-up today. He told me he’s found similarities in all his artistic pursuits.

“The most important thing in all art forms is to surround yourself with people better than you. That’s the only way to get better at any art,” Lane said.

His transition to stand-up was inspired in part by his large Italian-American family.

“I’m mostly shaped by my family. They’re the funniest people on the planet,” Lane said, “You have to compete; you learn what is and isn’t funny. You learn your timing at a very young age.”

Lane paused here to refill his coffee and tell me the fried chicken he was enjoying from the comfort of an NYC diner was delicious, before we began to talk about what makes stand-up unique as a form of entertainment.

“Stand-up is one of the rawest forms of performance,” Lane said, “it just requires a microphone, your thoughts, and a lot of hard work; singing, you can hide behind the music, acting behind the character. Stand up is just a dialogue between you and the audience.”

This “rawness” Lane values in stand-up, which he compared it to a combination of sexting and Catholic confession, has increasingly allowed more and more diverse voices to break into the business.  

“I think there’s been a shift even in the past five years in what people in the industry are interested in,” Lane said, “I’m not someone who’s like ‘straight white men suck,’ but I do find it refreshing that more people are seeing themselves reflected on stage.”

His experiences as a gay man have provided material for his stand-up. Lane particularly values comedy as a kind of coming to terms with his past.

“I’ve found humor in healing all the shame I held onto as a child,” he said, “the stage will heal whatever I’m going through.”

Although Lane unapologetically embraces all aspects of his identity, the comedian also does not feel the need to limit himself to only performing to certain audiences when speaking on certain issues.

“I don’t think of myself as a spokesperson for anything but I’ve gotten a lot of outreach from kids in the closet and it means a lot to them to see me,” he said, “if you’re LGBT, you’re doing a lot just by being yourself. Anything else is extra.”.

Lane’s ability to create humor from  the shameful, the scary and the awkward is what has allowed him to connect with so many audiences, from his work on MTV’s GirlCode to his growing career as a touring comedian.

“When you are really honest, it’s not so much shocking as it is interesting,” he said, “I’ve said things that make people’s skin peel off them. But it’s a relief to say them. It can be dark and intense but life is dark and you have to find the light in it.”

Reviving Rock Classics with the Sheepdogs

      ‘70s rock and roll lives on, and not just on Beatles-filled throwback playlists. With sweet harmonies and classic three-chord guitar rhythms, Ontario based rock outfit the Sheepdogs are reviving the genre’s golden years.

        The band released their fifth studio album “Future Nostalgia” last year, and is set to play Signal Kitchen May 4.

        “Future Nostalgia” is chock full of crisp and sunny windows-down rock and roll, immediately evoking the southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. All the while, neo-blues tracks like “Darryl & Dwight” align the band with fellow rock revivalists like the Black Keys.

        Ewan Curie, the Sheepdogs’ lead singer, spoke about the band’s preference for older sounds. “I don’t really like modern rock, so I don’t want to sound like it,” Curie said, “I think rock and roll should be more fun than it is.”

        For Curie, making music isn’t about doing something that hasn’t been done. “We’re going to keep on playing the music that we love,” he said, “People can play whatever they want and hopefully find an audience for it.”

        At the same time, the Sheepdogs aren’t set out to be a cover band. “We love all these acts, but we’re not just trying to be the Stones,” Curie said.

        In terms of influences, Curie sticks to the greats. He said Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills and Nash are two of his favorites. “With Zeppelin, you get the power of blues rock; with CSN you get a singer-songwriter sound but still a band that rocks,” Curie said.

        He said he  seeks to strike a balance between the two ends of the classic rock spectrum, landing somewhere between explosive riff-driven tracks and light, folksy jams. “We work really hard on our singing—we want to record songs that connect with people on a personal level,” Curie said.

        While he holds rock renaissance acts dear, contemporary bands like Wilco and My Morning Jacket are among the bands he loves. “I admire them for sticking to their guns and making the music how the way they want to,” Curie said.

        “[Wilco] might have had a moment when they were a hip and cool new band, but they just kind of do what they want,” he said.

        The idea of doing what they want, how they want to do it, seems to be a defining aspect of the Sheepdogs. “We play the music we love, and we’re gonna keep on playing it,” Curie said.

        After cutting their last album in a secluded cottage on an Ontario lake, he said the band is refocused and ready to head out on another tour. Come this fall, the band will begin work on their sixth studio album which, at the pace the band is going, will likely become a new classic.

Cricket Blue’s Io: An Exploration of Music, Myth and Agency

“Myths and old stories feel unresolved. You want to explain them,” Taylor Smith told me as we sat down to discuss Burlington folk duo Cricket Blue’s new EP “Io.”

Their new EP opens as Smith and the duo’s other half Laura Heaberlin softly croon: “When the woods were full of wolves, the girls tied back their hair. They covered up their hands because it gave away their age.”

With this first track, “Angela Carter,” Heaberlin said they were “emulating Angela Carter’s  weird fractured fairytales.”

Carter’s fiction, with its combination of feminism and magical realism, is the perfect fit for Cricket Blue’s mythological folk.

This desire to explore and complicate traditional myths and fairytales is an undercurrent in much of Cricket Blue’s music, from earlier work like “Forsythia,” a love story set in the garden of Eden, to “Angela Carter’s” investigation of what lurks after the words “once upon a time.”

Their lyrics read like missives from another time or place. They remind the listener that the myths and stories they were raised on often have a dark underbelly lurking behind their apparent innocence.

“I think I have sort of a tendency to mythologize places,” Smith said.

This attention to place is evident on “Kentucky,” a song inspired by the state where Smith spent his formative years. He both wrote the lyrics and arranged an impressive cello part for the song.

Lyrics like “lost like a boy with his lord bound around him with cords” and “the staff and the rod of the terror of God have finally gotten to you” are almost visceral in the way the violence they discuss is made concrete through metaphor.

However, even at their most melancholic, Cricket Blue does not make music for cynics. In “Kentucky,” kernels of hope glimmer as Smith and Heaberlin sing wistfully: “Let all that is old be made new.”

Unlike Smith, who is more influenced by place, Heaberlin said she thinks she is more influenced by the theme of time when she writes.

““For me, it’s not so much place, as era,” Heaberlin. “I write in the past a lot.”  

The influence of past eras on Cricket Blue’s work are obvious not only in their fondness for myth but in their song “Eleanor,” a ballad of young wife who has an affair when her husband ships off to war.

One of Smith’s personal favorites of the album, the song exemplifies the eerie and complex harmonies that make Cricket Blue so intriguing.

Although “Io” has much in common with their previous work – the attention to mythological detail, the bluesy orchestration, the recurrence of the figure of “Eve” (“because feminism,” Heaberlin quipped) – it also is a departure from their previous work.

This is the first album the duo has recorded in studio, and because of this they were able to collaborate with other musicians and had access to more resources than they have had in the past.

“We were a little worried about bringing a creative partner in, but it was wonderful,” Smith said of their experience working with Beehive Productions.

Thematically, “Io” is more “character driven,” than their previous EP Heaberlin told me.

Named after a myth where Zeus pursued a woman against her will, only to transform her into a cow in order to hide her from his wife, “Io” takes up the plight of the downtrodden and trapped.

“We were writing about characters who had lost agency in one way or another,” Heaberlin said.

From the fairytale women who so often are reduced to archetypes, to Eleanor the suffocated 1950s housewife, to the namesake of their album, Cricket Blue uses their music to provide a voice to those who have been rendered voiceless.

This reclamation of agency is what makes their music so interesting to return to. You’re lulled in by the sweetness of their melodies that are reminiscent of traditional Appalachian folk or literary indie rock like Andrew Bird and find yourself suddenly surprised by the epiphanies that their songs so often crescendo to.

“We haven’t run out of stuff. We don’t get sick of each other,” Heaberlin said when I asked what it was like to work with Smith.
“Io” is something else you can count on not getting sick of. The EP is replete with literary and mythological references that don’t yield themselves up upon first listen. “Io” begs to be played over and over.

The arts, lifestyle and culture blog of the Vermont Cynic