Kendrick and Kanye: Artistry versus Ego

Kendrick Lamar just released a new record, “untitled unmastered,” and it is a great listen. The quality of the music onboard the LP is astonishingly layered: every instrumental lavish and fleshed out and every lyric codified to mean three things at the same time. Even though it was drafted from B-sides and incomplete song sketches, the album feels remarkably filled in and complete as an experience.

From his debut record to last year’s multiple-Grammy-nominated “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar has been consistent in just how, well, consistent in the amount of time and effort he appears to place into the music.

The interludes and spoken-word mantras of “Butterfly” become celebratory shout segments on “untitled,” with every appearance of Kendrick hooting “Pimp pimp, hooray!” serving as a reminder of dedication to craft and thought toward how the music feels for the listener.

The album has already received accolades from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound and other outlets for its impeccable musical quality. It is terrific.

However, we’re not here to talk about Lamar as a stand-alone. Instead, his latest effort is an important point of reference, to break down how creativity and ego can come together to make or break a work of art. King Kendrick masterfully avoids what could only be called Kanye-Sickness: the illness which occurs when artistry is overtaken by Artistry (the attempt to look like an artist).

Kanye West. EVA BARTELS . B-Side.
Kanye West. EVA BARTELS . B-Side.

Kanye West is someone dealing with an awful lot of Kanye-Sickness. His newest record, “The Life of Pablo,” was released about one month before Lamar’s, is a hodge-podge of multiple ideas. Where “untitled” carries an intentional improvisational looseness, “Pablo” does not carry much feeling of forethought.

The album received numerous name changes before its release and was put out exclusively on Tidal, a streaming service he owns. You cannot buy it.

Not only that, but he’s said he hasn’t even finished the album, and is still mixing some of the songs and replacing them for streaming (for example, the mix on Taylor Swift-dissing track “Famous”).

The album comes at the tail-end of a songwriting peak for West. Just like Lamar, he has walked a golden path of critically-acclaimed records, from “The College Dropout” to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” All of this success was built atop a wave of bold and brash confidence, creating a much-lauded portrait of a brilliant, misunderstood iconoclast. This act of projection went to such lengths that Kanye implying he was a Christ figure wasn’t far enough – he had to literally name an album, “Yeezus.”

And, like one would expect from a structure put together on a wave, eventually it crashes with it. This is where Kanye-Sickness comes in.

Let’s define this disease: the absolute intersection of egoism and brilliance. When an artist goes far enough into the self and loses sight of their creative process, they are dealing with a lot of Kanye-Sickness (see: Kanye West’s Twitter feed).

If one exhibits too much creativity and not enough confidence, that person is cured of Kanye-Sickness altogether. For reference, think of what kind of music white bread would play if it was human, or a Kings of Leon album.

Kanye is too Kanye-Sick now – but he’s not alone, and lately the disease is hitting some of the music industry’s finest.

Kid Cudi’s latest output, “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven,” is a stark reminder that the man once responsible for such radio smashes as “Day n’ Night” and “Pursuit of Happiness” is now making slow moans over Nirvana-lite grunge guitar with a metronome plinking in the background.

Kid Cudi. EVA BARTELS. B-Side.
Kid Cudi. EVA BARTELS. B-Side.

Just like Kanye, Cudi built his position in the rap canon as a unique “loner,” a misunderstood figure with a kinda-okay singing voice when he wanted to use it. He is always the “man on the moon,” isolating himself from the outside world.

Cudi’s early music showed promise through its artistic portrayal of this figure, but now there is no distance – he’s gone so far away from who he’s playing to that it seems he doesn’t care how the music sounds.

From his first rock album, “WZRD,” he’s shown no signs of slowing down his descent into blandness by way of strongly wanting to be Frank Black of the Pixies.  

Elsewhere, Miley Cyrus is recording sex-themed psychedelic-trap tunes with The Flaming Lips under the name the “Dead Petz,” releasing songs satiated with cheap reverb-laden synths and cringe-worthy lyrics (see: “f**k me so you stop baby talkin’”).

She and her Petz are an active rebuttal to her Hannah Montana days. Their public debut was on the MTV Music Choice Awards, playing a song with the opening phrase, “Yeah, I smoke pot.” The only reason this music seems to exist appears to be to contribute to Cyrus’ own public image.

Even Jay Z’s last record, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” made his legendary rap career feel like a memory How does he describe his wife, one of the most envied and successful women in pop music? “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa/The modern day version with better features” – poetics! Jay took mediocre raps over trap beats and tried to pass it off as Artistry, and even co-opted Maria Abramovic (“The Artist is Present”) to make “Picasso Baby” seem like a statement.

The only statement made was as empty and hollow as a Donald Trump tweet: all bluster and no higher thought. Ultimately, the determining factor as to whether an artist can resist Kanye-Sickness enough to make a masterful song, while carrying enough ego-blessed confidence to have resonance with an audience, is effort.

The difference between Lamar’s “untitled” and West’s “Life of Pablo,” both being altogether unfinished works, is the amount of time and care placed into making the album whole and the art complete and satisfying. The former was produced through the creative process as odds-and-ends – as Lamar put it on Twitter, the songs are “demos.”

Yet the project uses interludes and field recordings to carry a solid listen the whole way through. By contrast, “Pablo” is still incomplete according to West himself, existing in an ooze state, as semi-complete musical plasma.

This could easily be attributable to the idea of “Kanye being Kanye,” in the same vein that fans make excuses for other artists to take nosedives into Kanye-Sickness denial. After “WZRD,” I must have had the notion of “Cudi being Cudi” go through my mind at least ten times. The Cyrus-Lips collaboration sounded cool on paper, but once my headphones began to play its material form, I lost hope: Miley was just being Miley.

“X being X” in turn is the colloquial form of Kanye-Sickness. It is not art as exemplified through an artist’s personality, but instead the opposite. It is an artist’s personality exemplified through artistic expression…and that’s not worth much praise.

To compare: if you overheard someone saying the loved a Nickelback album because it was “Nickelback being Nickelback,” you’d question their taste in music, as well as probably everything else. You would not laud Nickelback for “truly channeling the persona of Nickelback in an incredible, fluid fashion,” or something similarly pretentious.

When an album comes out that throws a full frontal assault of an individual’s artistry at the listener and avoids the pothole of self-indulgence – that is when we should give high praise out of our pockets.

Sanders’ Tie-Dyed Primary

     The first thing I notice as I cross the parking lot are the men in suits. It’s thirty degrees—a clear day in Rindge, New Hampshire—but the men in suits don’t seem to notice. They have ear pieces that crawl out of their stiff collars like skin tone worms and one of them is wearing a black windbreaker that has “Secret Service” in blocky white letters across the back. They stand with their arms crossed in pairs of two, eyes quietly probing the pedestrians who stroll by in front of them.

    A bus with “Franklin Pierce University” stenciled in black on its white sides stops noisily in front of the building. The vendors occupying foldable tables in front of the gymnasium call to the passengers as they exit, waving t-shirts and pins in an array of colors and sizes, and the men in suits chew gum and scan the crowd. I check my watch. Bernie comes on in thirty minutes.

    It’s 72 hours until the New Hampshire Primary; the eleventh hour for last-minute campaign events. Bernie Sanders announced this rally only two days earlier, but the gymnasium at Franklin Pierce is still bustling with activity when my friends and I arrive at eleven o’clock.

     We follow signs that lead us past a line of large white news trucks and blacked out SUVs and enter through the front door of the gym, which funnels into a corridor whose path is blocked by two large metal detectors. Behind them stands an imposing man in a bulletproof vest strapped with an array of dangerous-looking objects.

     His thumbs are hooked in the shoulder straps of his vest and his eyes scan each person probingly as they enter. At the far end of the hallway two men hold large german shepherds on tight leashes. An old bearded man in a tie dye shirt helps his disabled son through the entrance in front of me. His shirt says “Feel the Bern.”

      As we enter the gym a woman materializes from the shadows holding a clipboard and steps in front of us, grinning broadly. She asks if we want to sign up to be part of a phone call campaign to increase voter turnout in New Hampshire. She tells me I’ll get a sticker that means no other people with clipboards will approach me. I accept quickly.

    The gym is mostly full, with a stage set up on one end of the court and a blocked-off press section on the other. Near half court is a platform filled with expensive-looking TV cameras and worried people with headsets talking on cell phones. A man in a suit stands quietly by each exit. “Rockin’ in the Free World” plays loudly through the PA system.

    As I stand near the center of the room scanning the crowd, a woman taps me on the shoulder and when I turn around she asks if I might give a quick interview for Belgian National Radio. As it turns out, this is the first of five interviews, most of them before Bernie takes the stage: CNN Politics, a girl doing a school project, and two reporters all ask for quotes.

   One man, however, draws more attention from the journalists than any other: a tall, denim clad man with a cowboy hat and a jacket which proclaims in bold font across the back: “Ask Me Why Cops Support Marijuana.” Reporters swarm to take him up on the offer.

     Bernie takes the stage shortly before noon. As he shuffles into view the crowd roars and those in the bleacher section on stage jump to their feet and wave signs that say “A Future To Believe In.” He’s dressed in a blazer covering a blue sweater and a light blue dress shirt, and as he takes the podium he leans forward and rests his weight on his hands. The reporters recede to better vantage points. Once the commotion has quieted, Bernie talks for roughly 45 minutes.

    He addresses the need for campaign finance reform, discusses the Koch brothers and the power of Wall Street and Big Pharma, and reiterates the need for strong voter turnout. As he speaks, two thick men in suits with cropped hair walk quietly in front of me, watching the faces of the onlookers, and as they whisper to each other one of them fumbles with his earpiece and the fat gold ring on his finger. Bernie shakes his fist as he discusses income inequality and a broken political system.

     And then, about halfway through, between bursts of applause, Bernie hits his stride. In the middle of an impassioned speech, he pulls off his jacket and tosses it ceremoniously to a young man standing behind him in the bleachers. The crowd is in love. The gym erupts in cheers as the wide-eyed young man raises the jacket triumphantly and Bernie, turning back to the podium with a shy smile, declares “I feel like a rock-and-roll star!”

     If the near-frenzied enthusiasm of the room had not been palpable, it was now unmistakable. Bernie speaks for another twenty minutes, interrupted often by whoops and cheers—and one woman who interjects with a short tirade about Wal Mart, which he listens to earnestly before resuming. As he finishes his speech and steps down from the stage, the crowd flocks to him in a dense throng of commotion. My friends and I decide it isn’t worth the trouble, and exit the way we came. Men in suits scan us blankly as we step outside into the cold, bright day.

    As we walk back to the car, vendors call to us with more t-shirts, sweatshirts, socks, hats and buttons. I wonder what the men in suits might look like in tie dye as a shuttle pulls away from the entrance in a cloud of steam and exhaust. People are laughing and calling to each other, and two men with a camera set up by the exit ask passing attendees: “are you feeling the Bern?”

    After a short walk we reach the car, and as we’re pulling out of the parking lot a man in uniform steps in front of us and motions for us to wait. He looks up the hill to our left and we follow his eyes as a convoy of black vehicles begins to roll around the corner and down the road in front of us. We watch as they pass, windows tinted black, lights flashing.

   Then, a cheer rises up from the top of the hill. As we watch, a tan SUV rolls down the hill, and passes in front of us. In it, I see Bernie, his forehead against the glass, his hand waving, and a broad and uneven smile stretched across his face. As he passes out of view, I can’t help but admit it: I’m feeling the Bern.

 

Meandering Stowe’s Main Street & Beyond

        Sometimes, you just need to take the day and get out of town. After a long week of running from Colchester to College Street, walking down a different Vermont Main comes as a much-needed change of pace. On a relatively balmy, brilliantly beautiful January afternoon my friend Eva and I headed southeast on I-89 into the mountains to Stowe.

        For skiers and riders, Stowe has an obvious appeal; the resort has 460 acres holding 98 trails and 11 lifts. But for those who prefer to admire the trails snaking down Mount Mansfield from afar, Stowe’s Main Street establishments offer a cozy change of pace from hanging out at Bailey/Howe.

IMG_9544
Main Street, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        The road to Stowe is predictably gorgeous, from the first 180-degree vista of the Green Mountain peaks near Williston to the cruise up Route 100 snugly situated besides Mount Hunger.

     On either side of the road nestled in pine forests sit local, artisan cheese and wine shops, craft breweries, and outdoor gear outfitters in typical Vermont fashion.   

        As the road snakes into town, it passes snow-coated golf courses etched with Nordic tracks, fly-fishing creeks, and charming saltbox chalets. Downtown Stowe greets visitors with historic inns, white-steeple churches, and general stores stocked with everything from canned tuna to children’s books.  

        Approaching Stowe, you’ll first come up on the Vermont Ski and Snowboard museum housed in a classic white clapboard town hall.  Here, you can learn all about everything from snow bunny fashion to slope maintenance through the years of Vermont ski history.

Make a left turn and you’ll swing up to the sprawling Stowe Resort by way of mountain road as it meanders over covered bridges and past small shops and markets.

Black Cap Coffee, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Black Cap Coffee, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        Just down the street, Black Cap Coffee sits warm and welcoming on the corner of Main & School streets. The painted red brick café is homey and bright, filled with paintings and pottery by local artists. Black Cap roasts excellent coffee in-house, and its baristas can whip up a killer maple latte.

        If you’re hungry for some savories, head to Jamie’s on Main. The staff is lovely and so is the food—you can stay and hang out or grab a to-go snack for the mountains.

IMG_9542
Main Street, Stowe, Vermont. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

After we’d had our fill of good coffee and Stowe sightseeing, Eva and I headed a few miles up the road to Putnam State forest. The quiet woods, hidden amongst gorgeous mountain estates and small family farms, are filled with waterfalls, young pine forests, mountain streams and stunning views.

        We got out of the car and tramped along the lowland marsh trail up Moss Glen Falls: snowed-over and frozen, but with clear blue water still rushing underneath. In the summer months, the falls get plenty of visitors but in the middle of winter you’re likely to be alone in the woods.

        Grabbing hold of protruding roots and scooting slowly past ice patches, we reached the top of the waterfall and looked out west. The evergreens frame flawlessly a delicious view of Mansfield’s western slopes and the valley in its shadow.

Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        From the falls, you can wander deep into the forest on a well-kept trail covered in pine needles in the summer, and packed snow in the winter. Or, you can head back down the hill, get in the car and explore the country roads, harmlessly trespassing through some beautiful backyards.

Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.
Putnam State Forest. MAGGIE RICHARDSON. B-Side.

        Whether you’re skiing or not, spending a day in Stowe is a treat. It’s just far enough away from the campus routine to feel like an adventure, and there’s plenty to do whether you’re pining for a quiet woodland hike, locally roasted coffee, or a snapshot of smaller-town Vermont life.

           

Cricket Blue Haunts with Ethereal Folk

    Cricket Blue makes exactly the kind of music you would expect when you hear their name.

    The folk duo is comprised of Middlebury College alumni Laura Heaberlin and Taylor Smith, who play what they have deemed “botanical, spooky, umbilically-resonant folk.” With soft vocal harmonies and carefully constructed guitar rhythms, Heaberlin and Smith craft a fine balance of eerie mystery and intriguing warmth that engulfs listeners.

      Cricket Blue’s allusive and poetic folk music is rooted in Heaberlin and Smith’s long-standing love of writing. Poetry was Heaberlin’s main focus at Middlebury, with a book of poems serving as her final thesis. Poetry, for her, started “as a tortured unrequited love,” said Heaberlin, which evolved into a fascination with the art.

laura and taylor
Taylor Smith and Laura Heaberlin of Cricket Blue. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.

    Despite their seemingly similar natures, Heaberlin insists that poetry and songwriting are not as connected as they may seem. Poetry tends to be “more abstract with more room for free-writing,” she said, while lyrics tend to come from more of an “emotional base.” In fact, Heaberlin’s career as a songwriter didn’t begin until after her graduation from Middlebury in 2012.  

        While it’s not uncommon for Heaberlin to draw upon her free-writing notebook for inspiration after figuring out the instrumental elements, the opposite is true for Smith. Most of the time, the words come to him before the melody. Sometimes, however, the two come together as a package.

       “There is something special about the marriage of words and music,” Smith said. While poetry tends to be “static,” with words on a page, the melody “makes the words more active,” he said. Both Heaberlin and Smith agree that poetry and songwriting occupy, as Smith said, “different parts of the brain.”

        Regardless of how the duo writes the lyrics, it’s clear from their self-titled EP that they are well-versed in literature. Their songs make allusions to mythology, and explore themes such as  “love, wishes, disappointment, friendship, potential future and the ends of things,” according to Cricket Blue’s Bandcamp bio.

      With lyrics like “Forsooth, forsythia! Yellow and sad / You lost all your blossoms in May / But take it from me – a forsythia tree – / our love comes the strongest too late,” Cricket Blue manages to convey through fictional imagery a strong sense of relatable remorse, with a melody that matches.  

Taylor Smith. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.
Taylor Smith. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.

        For Smith and Heaberlin, writing is always a personal matter, and can’t be done together. Instead, they present songs to one another once the songs are 75 percent complete; never less and never more. A certain creative balance between Smith and Heaberlin makes the song writing and editing process easier. Smith, who said he feels “energized by meeting new people and discovering new places,” practices improvisation and experiences “rapid bursts of inspiration.” However, Heaberlin, who “likes to go home at the end of the night,” leans towards quietude and takes her time on each word when songwriting.

        Perhaps the combination of extroversion and introversion is why they work so well together. Even after many long car rides they “still find new things to talk about,” Smith said, in part because they both enjoy exploring and observing the quirks of the towns they perform in. In fact, they’ve created an excel sheet with random observations to base judgement off of. For example, a small town in Pennsylvania was especially memorable because “parking was cheap and everyone in the coffee shop was having a deep conversation,” Heaberlin said.

        Given that they do what they do so well, it’s surprising to learn they experiment with different sounds in their free time. Smith describes his earlier music as more raw, loud and “complaining,” truly epitomizing teenage angst.

Today Smith remains dedicated to the Cricket Blue project, but also plays saxophone in four alternative bands on the side, including Abbie Morin, The Peasant Dramatic and Grundlefunk. Heaberlin said she feels less of a need to play around with different genres. When Smith is touring with his other bands, Heaberlin often plays solo shows performing Cricket Blue’s music.

        It’s evident from the logistical standpoint that Cricket Blue is on the rise. Their first and only EP was recorded at home on a laptop. Their second up-and-coming EP, which has no release date yet, was recorded with the record label Beehive at a studio in Saranac Lake, where Smith and Heaberlin perform separately. However, there hasn’t been one specific breakthrough moment for them; the progression has felt gradual, Smith said.

        Part of this is because they can foresee the next big thing, such as an EP release or an exciting show, and they worked hard to achieve their milestones, Smith said. The pursuit of success is not always as glamorous as it may seem. Even though they have no doubt that they’re living their dreams, the reality is that they “still have to write emails,” said Smith.

“More time is spent on the business side and driving than actually performing the music,” Heaberlin said.

        Both Heaberlin and Smith celebrate every little step. For example, Cricket Blue has started to get “a lot of cool junk mail, like watches to sell at shows,” said Heaberlin. The band now also has its own bank account, further proving the band is growing up.

        What makes a Cricket Blue listener?

      “A genuine love for lyrics and wordplay,”  Heaberlin said.

   “People who like stories, ideas, and feeling a little melancholy,” Smith said.

     Heaberlin and Smith said they have a lot of respect and gratitude for their listeners, as they got the band to where they are today. This is one of the reasons why they veer away from the word “fan” in general, which implies a “weird power structure,” Smith said. In the end, nothing means more to them than people truly paying attention to their music.

Taylor Smith of Cricket Blue. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.
Taylor Smith of Cricket Blue. SAM HELLER. The Vermont Cynic.

    Afterall, having “four people really listening to the music is more meaningful than having 70 people talking,” Heaberlin said.

   “One person really liking it makes all the difference,” Smith said.

    Smith said he often feels inspired by songs where “one line can just hit you.” The irony is that with lyrics like “I’ve loved you for years—glad to finally meet” and  “I wanna give in, I wanna make waves,” Cricket Blue essentially creates exactly these kinds of songs.

    When addressing the Burlington music scene, Smith said it is a “fantastic scene that differs from our sound.” Performing frequently in the local area at venues like The Skinny Pancake and Radio Bean, Cricket Blue is in high demand and seems to have captured the hearts of music lovers throughout Burlington.

Extra Spice in the Old North End 

Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.
Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.

“I’ll do medium spice, just to be safe,” said the server at Central Market Taste of Asia on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington’s North End. I tried again.

“No, I really do want it hot. I liked the curry you made me last time.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It has chilies in it.” I continued to emphasize that, yes, this was the level of spice I wanted, and after a fairly lengthy discussion she wrote “Hot” on the order slip and brought it out to the kitchen.

The issues I wanted to address during our discussion concerned whether or not I was doing something unusual. As a white American in a rural state, I realize that members of my demographic had probably come in before and been overwhelmed by spicy dishes— or, suspecting that they might be, had been careful to ask about a dish’s spiciness beforehand. I don’t blame my server, then, for exhibiting a bit of extra caution. Most of those inquiries had probably been followed by requests that the spiciness of an order of shrimp vindaloo or chicken tikka masala be toned down somewhat, to avoid undue discomfort.

On my first and third visits, I had apparently made the mistake of asking that same question. The first time, an otherwise delicious chicken curry arrived completely devoid of the bracing heat I’d anticipated. Its intact flavors were well-balanced and its chunks of chicken thigh were tender, but the lack of fire left me disappointed. I resolved to try again.

The second time, I ordered chicken shahi korma, a creamy curry dish with nuts and vegetables. I requested “hot,” without prefacing the request with any sort of question. I was asked to confirm my choice, and said yes with what must have been the right amount of confidence. The shahi korma was, indeed, blazingly hot. Small orange flecks of chili were visible throughout the pale sauce. On its own, the curry would have approached — but not yet reached — an uncomfortable level of heat. Accompanied by papadums, (thin, shatteringly crisp wafers of legume flour), white rice and pleasantly stretchy naan bread, the balance of heat and flavor was wonderful.

My third visit and subsequent order led to the conversation excerpted above. I had arrived with a question in mind, one I’d been mulling over since the first meal: Had my expectations of Nepalese food been skewed unrealistically toward the fiery side of things? The try-hard Westerner who seeks to prove himself by trying a foreign cuisine at its most “other” is a well-known foodie stereotype. He (for this diner is almost invariably male) is closely related to the seasoning-averse lightweight. Neither will appreciate another culture’s food except on their own terms, and neither is something I’d like to be.

veggies
Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.

Andy Ricker, a white American restaurateur and Thai food expert known for a nearly unique deference to the culture that created his livelihood, has often suggested asking restaurant staff to “make [a dish] as you would for a Thai person.” He offers a translation of this phrase into Thai; lacking confidence in my off-the-cuff Nepali, I settled for English.

“Would a Nepalese person want this dish to be spicy?” I asked.

“Yes,” my server replied. “Nepalese people like very spicy food.” Whew. Reassured that this order would be the real deal and not just some crass stunt, I thanked her and joined my photographer, Ryan, to look through the shop’s grocery section.

Because we got to Central Market Taste of Asia toward the end of their kitchen’s operating hours, seating was not available and we had to take our order to go. To avoid a similar experience, readers should take note of the fact that Central Market sometimes closes earlier than their sign states (9:00); additionally, the kitchen closes at 8:30 and sometimes before then.

After perusing a burstingly diverse array of pan-Asian produce, packaged foods, and housewares (highlights included coconut-flavored larva-shaped cookies, perfect for Halloween; stark white cans of butane gas labeled with a red and orange explosion graphic and the word “POWER;” and a tall, slim glass bottle of fuchsia-hued “Houston Cowboy” lychee-flavored syrup, product of Thailand, complete with illustrated cartoon namesake– perhaps a placebo substitute for Houston’s better-known purple concoction?), Ryan and I collected our food and ventured outdoors in search of a place to eat.

Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.
Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.

Tungsten streetlights lent a sleazy glow to the Old North End as we walked, and it soon became apparent that our food would grow cold before we found a table with natural lighting. We sat down to eat on the sidewalk by an African market, in full view of passing cars.

The thali platter I’d ordered included chicken and lamb curries, both assertive and complex, with tender and flavorful meat; lentil soup, whose float of orange chilies gave it a fruity, almost floral lift; the aforementioned pappadum, along with poori (a deep-fried whole-wheat bread puffed from within by steam); the creamy yogurt sauce raita, which was sweeter and thicker than Indian versions I’d had in the past; the ever-present white rice; and gulab jamun, a spherical dessert made of milk solids and soaked in cardamom-scented rosewater syrup. All were terrific. Ryan’s order of onion bhaji was enjoyable as well, although a tad greasy. We used part of the substantial portion to improvise a sort of quasi-Nepalese take on poutine, pouring a small amount of curry over the sweet, battered fried onion. It would probably have been better with some paneer to stand in for the traditional cheese curds.

All in all, I’m mostly pleased with the establishment that has replaced 99 Asian Market at 242 North Winooski Avenue. What was once Burlington’s most underrated bowl of pho has given way to an array of rich, well-spiced stews, as well as a number of noodle dishes I have yet to try. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future; already, Central Market Taste of Asia seems likely to inherit its predecessor’s place as an Old North End standby.

Comedy Finds a Home in Burlington 

Courtesy of Vermont Comedy Club.
Courtesy of Vermont Comedy Club.

Nathan Hartswick eagerly joined me at my table at Muddy Waters one Thursday afternoon, after weeks of trying to meet. We were finally able to sit down and discuss the opening of his new Burlington establishment, the Vermont Comedy Club. I looked forward to hearing about the new place and all the comedy shows it would bring to the area in the future, but I didn’t expect that I would walk away with a new knowledge of comedy and its role in the entertainment realm of Burlington

Hartswick’s involvement in the performing arts began with an interest in theater and musicals at a young age. Throughout his time in college, he took an interest in comedy and spent time in stand-up and improv classes, and wrote comedy when he wasn’t working. It was only when he was about thirty years old that he actually began performing for audiences outside of the classroom. Since then, Hartswick said, he and his wife, Natalie Miller, made it their mission to not only give themselves a place and chance to perform, but provide the community with the same opportunities.

For the past five years, Hartswick said, he and Miller have been producing shows through their booking agency, the Vermont Comedy Club. They’ve set up shows wherever they could find the space, including “music venues, churches, attics, basements, tents and bowling alleys,” according to the VCC’s website. Now they’re opening a new venue at the Armory on 101 Main Street.

“The people of Burlington are hungry for more variety in the local arts scene,” Hartswick said, “There’s a big pull for a home for comedy in the city.”

Courtesy of Vermont Comedy Club
Courtesy of Vermont Comedy Club

Now, after two years of drafting a business plan, shopping for investors and seeking available spaces, Hartswick said the space is finally ready for opening day. The club itself is 6,000 square feet, and includes a showroom, a separate bar room, a classroom and a small kitchen. The idea of the space, Hartswick said, is that people will have the option of being able move between the bar room and showroom depending on whether they want to visit with their friends, enjoy some comedy, or both.

As far as popular comedy goes, Hartswick immediately thought of George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, during his stand-up days. Hartswick also enjoys the work of John Dore, who he describes as “off the wall” and distinctively “alternative.”

Courtesy of Vermont Comedy Club
Courtesy of Vermont Comedy Club

Hartswick explained that after years of being in the comedy business, he’s able to tell exactly when the punch line of a stand-up routine is coming. Now he’s looking for something different: comics that surprise him.

Hartswick said that in his classes, he teaches his students that no subject is strictly off limits. He states that it’s the way that you present the comedy to the audience, and their reaction that tells you whether you’ve crossed the line. He uses Louis C.K. as an example of a comedian who constantly crosses boundaries, but manages to “win” the audience back immediately and keep his shows positive. The bottom line, Hartswick said, is to make your audience laugh, not feel “utterly uncomfortable.”

Hartswick said that the people of Burlington could use a laugh. Most residents can name one of the many music venues, theatres, or art galleries in the city, but good comedy is harder to find. With the VCC, Hartswick hopes to fill that niche. Hartswick looks forward to collaborating with existing clubs in the city to fill out Burlington’s arts scene. He envisions a future in which people can experience both live music and live comedy in the same night.

The Vermont Comedy Club is set to open officially Nov. 18. By then, you can expect to find great classes for kids and adults, where you can explore a new interest or potential passion. You can also expect to find both local and nationally recognized improv groups as well as stand-up performers, for a chance to both learn and be entertained. Hartswick and Miller expect that the festivals and competitions they’ll hold at 101 Main will draw big crowds and get people excited about comedy in a different way. With this many events in store, Hartswick said, you’re guaranteed to find “something different the next time you come, but something equally as fun.”

DIY Humanitarianism Hits UVM

No matter what day of the week, walk through the Davis Center atrium or past the library steps and you’re likely to be asked for a moment of your time by a group of activists. In an atmosphere where everybody cares, it’s tricky finding the right fit for your world saving ambitions.

One UVMer, though, is building her own framework to solve the world’s problems. Selena Garcia-Torres, sophomore, is spearheading her own non-profit project from her dorm room.

The Long Island native was inspired by a Montauk superfood store’s fundraising project for surfer-founded non profit, Waves for Water.

PHOTO BY OLIVER POMAZI
PHOTO BY OLIVER POMAZI

“There was an amazing sense of community about it,” she said, “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do’.”

Waves for Water runs a program called Clean Water Courier, described on their website as “based on a Do-It-Yourself Humanitarian model.”

“Clean Water Couriers are everyday people, travellers like you distributing filters to those in need around the globe,” says the foundation’s website.

Simultaneously balancing classes and navigating the complexities of college life, Garcia-Torres is working to bring the Courier program to UVM.

“The objective is to apply everything I’ve learned in class to a real life scenario,” she said, “So often you learn things, and nothing is done about it.”

Garcia-Torres is a Global Studies and Community Development and Applied Economics double major, working also on a Spanish minor.

“You shouldn’t look at a major or a class as just that, but as connected to everything else,” she said.

Classes she’s taken in high school and here at UVM have impacted her greatly, as well as her travels.

“Last year and this year learning about how there are companies trying to privatize water,” she said. “That’s so messed up.”

“I’ve gone to so many countries, and you’re seeing giant corporations robbing these countries of their natural resources,” Garcia-Torres said.

Garcia-Torres couldn’t imagine life without clean water.

“You can go fill up your water bottle in the sink, but you don’t think that people don’t even have a well in their town, or that it’s totally filled with storm water,” she said.

“I say I prefer Smart Water over Fiji water while other people only have one clean water source which is being polluted by our actions,” she said, “It’s crappy water!”

In terms of organization, the filter project is in its early stages. Garcia Torres, along with her roommate, sophomore Brittney Manning, has been brainstorming for months how to pull the project together.

“We’ve thought of different ways to raise the money–maybe a 5k run down by the lake,” she said.

“Social media’s going to play a huge role,” she said, “If we can make really good content for people, that’s a big part.”

Along with self-promotion, Garcia-Torres stressed the value of professors and their opinions in the project-building process.

“It’d be interesting to hear what my professors have to say about which countries need [the filters] the most, where we could make the biggest impact,” she said.

“This is the best time to do a project like this because you have all these resources in front of you,” she said.

Finally, Garcia-Torres is determined to foster a deeper connection with those she will bring water to than merely a client-customer relationship.

“You don’t want to go in there thinking you can just save the day,” she said, “Why not make connections with these people and find out what else you can do for the community.”

In these early stages of the activist’s project, Garcia Torres wants to bring as many mind to the table as she can.

From sponsors, to professors, to fellow students, Garcia-Torres is gathering support from all over campus. Forming an official SGA club is the next step for the project.

“It’ll be interesting to meet more people who have this idea, who share this thought process,” she said, “I want to make a system out of it.”

Garcia-Torres is turning her education into real-world action and is inspiring those around her to do the same. Her brand of activism is immediate but cohesive, and will surely flourish on campus, if not around the globe.

Indie Films Showcase Labor and Love at Vermont Filmmaker’s Showcase

“Indie filmmaking has never had it so good,” John Summa told me. We were sitting in his Old Mill office, surrounded by stacks of towering books. Summa, an Economics professor at UVM, wrote one of the films featured at the Vermont International Film Festival’s Vermont Filmmaker’s Showcase.

His documentary, The Resurrection of Victor Jara, received the Ben & Jerry Award Friday October 23. This recent success is the result of a process that was anything but easy.

“It’s hard to have the money to do it right,” Summa said.

Because of a tight budget, Summa edited the entire documentary himself in the Old Mill basement. He spoke about the time he spent laboring over the film as “1000 hours of love pay.”

This is a challenge many of his fellow Vermont filmmakers also faced. After the screening of two locally made short films on Friday October 23, members of the production teams of both films hosted a question and answer session.

Both crews pointed to low budgets as the biggest hurdle they overcame during production. Annelise Sanders, the screenwriter for The Fairies’ Child, said many scenes were filmed in her backyard in Shelburne.  

Joel Walter, the director of photography for Celina Brogan’s striking film mens rea, told the audience he had to stand outside filming on a frozen Lake Champlain to capture one of the film’s most crucial scenes. When her hands got too numb, their lead actress ducked inside  Walter’s car, not a fancy Hollywood trailer.

Summa and his crew also faced a unique complication while filming Victor Jara: translation. The film centers around the life of Latin American singer and activist Victor Jara, so much of it is Spanish.

Before the short film screenings during the Vermont Filmmaker’s Showcase, I ran into Juan Carlos Vallejo in the lobby of the Black Box Theater. He saw my conspicuous note pad (most of the other patrons were holding wine glasses or plates of hor d’oeuvres) and beckoned me over.

Vallejo worked with Summa on the subtitles of The Resurrection of Victor Jara.

“A good translator isn’t literal. They interpret what the director wants to say, not what they show,” Vallejo told me.

Summa also spoke to this challenge, telling me before he rewrote the subtitles, his brother had to watch an early test of the film twice. Once to actually watch the the documentary, and once to read the subtitles.

“Good subtitles need to be looked at, instantly understood, and then your eyes can wander back to the image,” Summa said.

Despite all the difficulties of making Indie films, as awards were announced in the Lake Lobby of Main Street Landing, the passion and love these filmmakers have for their work was evident in the familial atmosphere of the room.

Friends hugged, colleagues had animated discussions and congratulations were exchanged.

“I almost don’t want it [the filmmaking process] to end because it enriched my life in so many ways. Yes, I have scars from it, but I didn’t get divorced,” Summa confessed, laughing.

“It’s a labor of love,” Summa said.

After spending my weekend at the Vermont Filmmaker’s showcase, I have gotten an opportunity to see both the labor and the love inherent in this craft.

Filmmaking, especially as an Indie filmmaker, is hard work. But Summa doesn’t think that should scare people off.

“You don’t have to be a film guru to be a good filmmaker. Anybody can do it. It’s more about the determination.”

Burlington’s Haunted History

Halloween season is in full swing and it’s not unusual to see ghosts prowling the streets, usually sporting bedsheets and various party paraphernalia. However, collegiate mischief is not the only spooky thing afoot in Burlington.

PHOTO BY EVA BARTELS
PHOTO BY EVA BARTELS

“Surprisingly, Burlington has more haunted restaurants in one place than many other cities I’ve visited,” said Thea Lewis, an expert on all things spooky in Burlington.

Lewis, an author and historian, runs Burlington’s Queen City Ghostwalks. One of the most haunted places in town is American Flatbread, she said.

“There was a time, when a previous restaurant was in that location, when female servers were not allowed to go into the basement alone due to the paranormal activity,” Lewis said. “Lights going off. Objects moving. Even ghosts getting physical with those who ventured down alone.”

Paranormal activity has also been reported closer to campus. Converse Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, is known for being haunted.

Traditionally, the story goes that an unhappy student named Henry, terrified of failing his exams, hanged himself in the Converse attic.

“He’s been accused of spooking students by moving objects in their rooms and startling them when they are doing things they shouldn’t,” Lewis said.

Henry must have a busy schedule.

Most residents in Converse take a lighthearted view of their neighborhood ghost–residents joke that the recent spate of fire drills or the malfunctioning lights are the result of Henry’s antics. However, his story continues to be passed down through generations of students.

“There’s a lot of the universe we can’t begin to understand,” Lewis said. “We only use a fraction of what our brains are capable of. Whether you’re dealing with spirits or other phenomena, it pays to be open minded.”

Her advice, regardless of your view of the paranormal, seems sound. Whether dealing with paranormal activity or just the abnormal activity of those around us, keeping an open mind can work wonders.

Witches Get Snitches

Where can you play the most lighthearted, full-contact sport on campus? Only through club quidditch, the most unique sports craze to sweep college campuses in the last decade.

Quidditch, originally a fictional sport from the “Harry Potter” series — played with flying broomsticks — was adapted for “muggles” in the early 2000s and is now played by over 200 teams nationwide.

“The most enjoyable thing was how much it caught me off guard,” said junior and club president Connor Umsted. “I met all of my close friends through quidditch, it’s legitimately a great club.”

At seven years old, the UVM quidditch team is one of the oldest in the country, and frequently travels throughout the Northeast to compete against other collegiate teams. The team practices and competes year-round, moving indoors to astro-turf fields from mid-October to the end of the academic year.

“We love playing in the snow, and deep snow is the best,” senior Jenna Hurley said. “Everyone slides around and it’s a great time.”

Quidditch is played with 15 players on the field at a time: seven individuals from each team along with one neutral player, also known as the snitch. Teams consist of three chasers, who attempt to score by putting volleyballs (also known as quaffles) through three different hoops, all guarded by a keeper. Additionally, there are two beaters, who use dodgeballs to tag other players out. If a player is hit by a dodgeball, they must run back to their own goal before they are considered in play again.

“It’s a full contact sport, it gets pretty rough,” Umsted said. “There are a lot of injuries, a lot of broken brooms.”

There is also one seeker per team, whose goal is to catch the snitch runner — a neutral player wearing a gold uniform whose capture ends the game.

“The snitch is usually a cross country runner,” Hurley said. “It’s one of the most athletic positions.”

The snitch — which Umsted described “hilarious” — is one of the most lighthearted parts of the game. Seekers attempt to grab a ball in a sock that has been tucked into the snitch runner’s waistband, all while keeping their own brooms between their legs.

Although quidditch is described as being co-ed, U.S. Quidditch (the governing body of competitive quidditch) implemented a policy called “Title 9 ¾,” referencing Title IX and the famous 9 ¾ train platform seen in the “Harry Potter” books. Instead of dividing men and women into different teams, USQ policy states that each team is allowed no more than four players that identify as the same gender on the pitch at any given time.

The policy seeks to be more inclusive of transgender players and hopes to inspire similar gender policies in other sports.

The UVM quidditch team was a member of USQ, which hosts sanctioned events and even a national tournament, during the 2014-2015 season but recently left the league due to increasing rule changes. They now play other colleges without concern for rankings.

Quidditch takes players year-round with no tryouts necessary; matches are BYOB (bring your own broom). Contact president Connor Umsted ([email protected]) or check out them out on Facebook for information on joining.

The arts, lifestyle and culture blog of the Vermont Cynic