I love the Art Hop. No, I'm not really a fan of "art," per se. Though I can scrunch my nose, stroke my chin and nod knowingly at paintings and sculptures with the best of 'em. For me, it's all about the spectacle. Thousands of people from all walks of artistic and non-artistic life descend on Burlington's South End for the event each year. And watching the throngs of revelers ambling along Pine Street to and from various studios has become a time-honored final salvo to summer. This year proved no different . . . sort of.
I began my trek Friday night at Sanctuary Artsite, otherwise known as the offices of Jager Di Paola Kemp Design. Higher Ground and the über-hip design firm were celebrating the launch of __ of 1500, a new book documenting their 10-year relationship and the stunning collection of free concert poster art that partnership birthed. Jaded folks in the Queen City sometimes grouse that HG "doesn't book any good shows, man." The works on display at JDK proved that sentiment simply silly.
Posters from a remarkable array of shows adorned the walls. Just strolling through the gallery brought back fond memories of nights at both the Winooski (Wilco, Gillian Welch, Badly Drawn Boy) and South Burlington (M. Ward, My Morning Jacket, Built To Spill) locations. I was also struck by pangs of bitter jealousy when reminded of shows I can't believe I missed (The Shins, The Pants reunion, Tenacious D).
By the time I made my way to the building's basement/skate ramp, local experimental trio Oak had just begun their set. Seated on the floor, the band coaxed loud, eerie drones from behind a techno-geek's wet dream of sonic doohickies. But "other" music is not for everyone. And here I'm thinking of the two small children who immediately plugged their ears and ran for the door once the show started. It's OK, kiddos, it's an acquired taste.
Unfortunately, the folks I was with had yet to acquire the taste, too. And so it was time to hop - that's the whole point anyway, right?
We made our way past The Box Studio on Pine Street, where a small child was playing fiddle for about 10 people, framed by the sodium arc of street lamps and a constant stream of passersby.
As we crossed the street and headed towards Speaking Volumes, a riotous cacophony greeted our ears. Turning the corner into the parking lot, a similarly frantic visual feast met our eyes. Hundreds of people filled the dirt lot, most headed towards the curious sounds emanating from behind the building.
As we neared the makeshift stage, a bizarre scene unfolded before us. Fire dancers twirled flames on various swinging implements. Jugglers tossed glowing red balls through the muggy night air. At one point, two standing on either side of the makeshift stage in front of the loading dock juggled over the band from 20 feet apart.
Onstage, harmonicore hooligans Cccome? were holding court, their subversive sounds practically bending the crowd to their hedonistic will. Debauched bandleader Smoky Knolls preached bohemian revolution to the masses. From inside an inflated, opaque tent to the left of the stage, women danced in pairs, their sensuous silhouettes projected 15 feet high against its walls.
Knolls ended the set by imploring the crowd to join him in a parade down Pine Street - the group had somehow procured 60 marching-band outfits from a local high school. But on this night, clothes would prove an unnecessary accoutrement. Because that's when the topless chicks showed up.
As the first dancers descended the ramp from the now deflated tent, an uneasy buzz fell over the crowd. "Are they . . . ? Are those . . . ?"
Grinding electronica filled the air, meeting the growing carnal tension - and disbelief - in a sweaty haze of lust and loops. For a while, the topless dancers rotated on and off stage in pairs. But then all five women came together for a rapturous finale.
A stunned pause followed the conclusion of the performance. And then as hearty a cheer as you'll ever hear in Burlington erupted from the audience. The line between stage and crowd blurred into nonexistence as the music kicked in again and an orgiastic dance party ensued.
There were other bands to come. And they were good. But this was a heady night in Burlington. And nudity, er, art is always a tough act to follow.