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106.7 WIZN's assistant program director Mike Luoma continues his walk down memory lane. This time Mike remembers Ninja Custodian, The Joneses, the club called Hunts and the almighty Phish.
The best live music experiences are religious experiences, deeply personal and yet communal at the same time. Live music can create transcendence, whether performed by a solo performer or an orchestra and chorus. The feeling of being part of a greater whole: the audience, the performer, and the energy exchanged. Ideally.
I don't know what it is about Burlington, but here those experiences seem to happen a lot. The place seems to lend itself to magic, to music. The energy is right for it here, and not just in town, but out into the surrounding towns, out across Vermont and New York with Burlington as some kind of concentrated center of energy, constantly changing, yet always generative, always hungry for more.
Last issue of Good Citizen, I started a subjective "history" of the Burlington music scene, and opened up speculation on what might be included on a rock compilation of a "Burlington's Greatest Hits," so to speak. Reading through my last column, there seemed to be so much I didn't get to - kinda frustrating! But that's the risk in these personal histories.
There were seven tunes I singled out last time, from a period spanning late '83 through early '87 - a pretty healthy start. We'll add more now.
In early '87 I moved into Burlington after graduating from St. Michael's College. I just felt I had to live here - something about Vermont, something about Burlington just felt right. I realize it's intangible, but you can feel something: a sense of magic (I suppose if you don't feel it, you don't stay here).
I was trying to get a job at WIZN, doing college radio, shifts on WWPV, and working at IBM cleaning offices to pay the rent. What a bizarre summer! Me and my two roommates, Jonathan and Scott, all worked for ARA at IBM. We all wore the same polyester uniform shirts, rode to work together, rode home together - scarily like a sitcom - we could almost hum the theme music!
Music kept me sane through that brief period -I remember a tape Scott had that we listened to repeatedly that summer. It was from a Vermont ETV broadcast, "Guest of the House," I think - James Harvey and the H-Mob, live in the studio. I wasn't much into jazz at the time, but those horns kicked ass!
Those horns got me into jazz - the harmonies as they played together, different voices from each horn blending together into many chords, slightly skewed, with so much energy, so much bounce, and phrases you could sink your teeth into. I don't know the names of the songs, or even the names of the other players. I didn't even get to see James Harvey play until years later, but I remember the performance on that tape as incendiary.
I don't know where that tape is now. If I could track a copy of that down, I'd have to include a tune on our hypothetical CD. My mental playback may be enhanced by the filters of memory, but I don't think I'm exaggerating too much to say the entire performance would make a great CD in its own right. Anybody got those master tapes?
About this same time, R.W. Hunts closed. Memories are faded now, but for years after its demise, every new club to open faced comparisons to the late, great Hunts in the brick building at 101 Main Street. The place had its faults, but I still remember it fondly.
If you've ever been in Sha Na Na's, picture natural wood wherever you now see black and white tile. The wood made the room incredibly warm, soundwise. The suspended ceiling always seemed a little too low, painted matte black, but it was high enough (or maybe I'm just a bit claustrophobic).
Hunts could hold around seven hundred, if I remember right. National acts would play weeknights, local bands on the weekends. I remember catching the Del Fuegos, Adrian Belew and the Bears (twice!), Hot Tuna, Max Creek and a local band that introduced me to the "good stuff" by the Grateful Dead. They were called the Joneses. I can't remember how many times I saw them at Hunts. Richard Thompson played there too, the Bodeans, Jane Siberry, the Band and so many others. "Guitar Wars," a local band competition, was always at Hunts; always a good chance to see what you might have been missing among the local bands.
But Hunts closed and when it did, it left a void still felt to this day. The first club to try to fill that void sprang up across the street from Hunts - The Front, where the Ski Rack is now. Out of the ashes of a couple of meat-market dance clubs, Minerva's and NRG, Shawn Sweeney opened a club that could be both a small bar and a large club - The Outback and the Front. It was a cool concept - The Outback was small, a bar open every night. On the other side of a retractable wall was a large space for the weekends and shows - The Front. The wall between could come out for really big shows.
Nectar's was thriving in the wake of Hunts closing. The most vivid memory I have of Nectar's then is seeing the Trees. I remember seeing Phish there back in '87, but I really didn't appreciate them then. The biggest impression they made on me then was that their stage looked like someone's living room, with rugs, tapestries and all those wooden cabinets. I remember the Trees, very Byrds-like - I think they played some of their tunes. I'd want to include their tune "Let's Live" on our CD.
1987 ended on an up-note for me. I'd gotten a part-time gig at WIZN and found a full time job managing a small convenience store on College Street called The Daily News. I got to meet a lot of great people while I was working behind the counter there, in the center of the business district. There were lots of eccentric entrepreneurs around, and the Vanguard Press was right down the street, so all sorts of characters came through the store.
I remember one day sitting in the store during a quiet lull when this guy walked by the store, glanced in, then doubled back in to talk to me. He said "You look like a music person. What's the town like?"
As you can imagine if you've read this far, I gushed about the town, the music scene, and mentioned the major club, Hunts, had closed, leaving a void. He introduced himself - Sam Romano, and said he was heading upstairs to the commercial real estate offices. He was thinking of moving to Burlington and opening a club.
"Sam's" opened on the corner of Main and Church Streets, where Manhattan Pizza is now. It had a weird U-shaped bar, with the stage on the left in back.
It was around this time, in early '88, that I began to work full-time overnights on the radio. I also began to get into Phish. They had just returned from a trip out West, to Colorado, and began playing around town again.
I had to be in Vergennes by 1:30 AM to do my air shift, so I'd try to catch their first set from the start. I'd have to leave at about 12:30 to drive down Route Seven.
Back then, the shows were well attended, but not until later in the night. I'd go see them at 9:30 and there'd be hardly anyone there - the crowd built through the night. I can't pin down the date, but I can remember one night at Nectar's, sitting down with around twenty or so people as the band began. Through some whim, they launched into "Gamehenge," Trey's mythic - epic. I believe they did it in its entirety, completely with narration between the songs. I was blown away!
After that, I went to see Phish as often as I could. They always seemed to play on weeknights or Sundays, especially as time went on, but back in '88 they still played on some weekends. It was after one of their Front shows that I introduced myself to them, and asked if they had a tape I could bring to the radio station, to try to get them on the air. I hung out with Page and Fishman, and Page got me a demo tape to bring to WIZN.
The demo had some of the tunes which came out on Junta, along with the live tracks. I tried to convince the music director and program director that we should play "Golgi Apparatus."
They refused. "Too weird, Mike" I was told. That didn't stop me from continuing to try. And if a Phish song made it on the air in the middle of the night, who would be the wiser?
More on Phish next time, but "Golgi" would be my pick for this Burlington's Greatest Hits thing.
Jon Fishman introduced me to another band who rocked my world that summer and the next couple years. We were getting some air (ahem) between Phish sets at Sam's, hanging out on the steps of City Hall, off the park, when he introduced me to the "second greatest drummer in town," Mike Billington, better known as Ninja Mike, singer-songwriter and drummer with a band called Ninja Custodian.
I had seem them at Nectar's. We called them the bug band, because while they played they would stack petri dishes with bugs in them on an overhead projector and project their wiggling, overheated bodies onto the wall behind them.
Ninja Mike is one of the best drummers I've ever seen. I'd put him right up there with Keith Moon and Bill Bruford. And he could sing while he was doing it!
1988 was a good year for the Burlington music scene. My orbit of downtown was usually Nectar's, Sam's and The Front. Besides Phish and Ninja, there was Molly Allom, Dark Hollow, the Fortune Tellers and more bands that just aren't coming to mind at this point. The scene was on an upswing in energy, in bands, and in audiences willing to check out new material.
The stage was set for two great years to come, '89 and '90; some of my best times on the scene. The Rumble at The Front, Phish takes off and more..have to save it for next time.
As for the Burlington Greatest Hits CD, this time around I'd be adding something from James Harvey and the H-Mob, "Let's Live" from the Trees, "Golgi Apparatus" from Phish and, well, the tune I'd include from Ninja didn't come out until 1990 - so I'll save that for next time, too.
Once again, I'd like to know what you'd include on a Burling-ton Greatest Hits CD. ~GC~
Mike Luoma is assistant program director at WIZN-FM (106.7 FM) and can be spotted almost nightly in a club near you.
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