Soundbites: The Wallflower Collective Throws a Birthday Music Festival | Music News + Views | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Soundbites: The Wallflower Collective Throws a Birthday Music Festival


Published August 9, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Willverine at the Wallflower Collective - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Willverine at the Wallflower Collective

When Lauren McKenzie and her husband, Matt Simpson, pulled up stakes and left Austin, Texas, for Burlington in 2020, they knew little about their new home.

"It was right in the middle of the election cycle, and Texas didn't feel [like] a great place to be," McKenzie told me as we sat inside the Wallflower Collective, the bar she and Simpson opened in Burlington two years ago. "Burlington was one of these places we sort of kept tabs on to move to. When we saw there was a bar for sale, we sold our house in Austin and made the leap, which was sort of crazy because, yeah, we didn't really know anyone."

Moving into the space on South Union Street once occupied by Stonecutter Spirits' Highball Social, McKenzie and Simpson's Wallflower quickly became one of the coolest bars in town, a spot to grab a nice drink in a hip room devoid of televisions and TouchTunes machines. The bar also hosts great music from time to time on its tiny stage — notably, the popular Wednesday residency of electro-pop producer Willverine.

"I love music, especially going to festivals," McKenzie said. "Austin is obviously this great live music city, but we were kind of shocked to discover how good Burlington's scene is when we moved here. For its size, it's really something."

The size of the bar prevents McKenzie and Simpson from turning it into a proper music venue, but it didn't take them long to concoct a way for Wallflower to host some serious shows, including a birthday party/music fest right in their own parking lot. After throwing a smaller, non-ticketed event last year as a sort of experiment, the two service industry veterans have stepped it up for year two, planning what McKenzie called "a very for-real music festival right in the middle of downtown."

The second annual Wallflower Fest, going down on Sunday, August 20, is an all-day affair featuring 11 bands on two stages, outside and inside the bar. The outdoor stage will hold six out-of-town acts, including Austin garage rock duo Black Pistol Fire, Philadelphia singer-songwriter Ron Gallo and LA indie pop act Boy Deluxe. The indoor stage hosts a local contingent, including No Fun Haus, Steady J and Willverine.

McKenzie booked the fest herself — a process that intimidated her last year, she said, but the experience increased her confidence. This year, she knew how to get permits from the Burlington City Council and the fire marshal. She communicated with nearby businesses and made connections; Willow's Bagels, for instance, will double as the green room for bands during the fest. Perhaps most importantly, she was able to book a festival that she hopes will fill a growing void in town.

"I've met so many friends who talked about what the music scene in Burlington used to be like," McKenzie said. "And I've read all the stories about how we've lost venues like ArtsRiot and might lose more. And maybe it's cliché to say it like this, but honestly, I felt called to make our show even bigger to try and fill those shoes."

Under normal circumstances, Wallflower's stage can accommodate a trio at best. The fest finally gives McKenzie and Simpson a chance to book the bigger bands they've always wanted to bring to town.

"It's only once a year right now, but having the ability to be this kind of a venue, even just for a bit, feels so cool," McKenzie enthused as she swept her gaze across the darkened bar and the sunlight streaming through the windows, perhaps already imagining the scene.

"Last year went off without a hitch,"she told me in an almost confidential manner, as if afraid to jinx things. "Something like that just encourages you to try and make it bigger, and I think we've really done that. I can't wait for the city to see it."

As for how the past two years in Burlington have been for the couple, McKenzie made it clear what their new home means to them.

"It's honestly been like a dream," she said, laughing as she brushed back a strand of her platinum blond hair. At nearly 36, McKenzie feels she moved to Burlington at the exact right moment in her life.

"I love so much about this place, and I love how it's accepted us and our bar with such open arms," she said.

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