Nothing heats up a cold Vermont night like a reggae show at the Rusty Nail in Stowe. The winter coat can stay in the car because you know you'll soon be sweating. Between the rasta rhythms and the discount drafts, it's the next best thing to an island getaway.
But a different kind of warming trend was discernible at a sold-out show of Toots and the Maytals there last March. Just beyond the line of ticket takers, a couple of volunteers greeted everyone who came through the front door with a friendly, "Thanks for coming out tonight." No interrogation, no backpack search, no patting down.
Just good, small-town customer service, courtesy of 1 lb. Productions -- a concert-presenting company comprised of young arts entrepreneurs Carlo Rovetto and Patrick Brooks. Since October, the duo has brought more than half a dozen enlightened reggae acts to the area, including Midnite, Sly & Robbie, Culture and Sister Carol, Dezarie and Ikhaba. Although they look more like pizza guys than concert promoters, and both are professional pie-pushers, they've created a groovy, Central Vermont scene that saves a lot of hippies from having to drive to Higher Ground.
"We want to promote a high level of consciousness with our shows," notes 32-year-old Rovetto, who brings the same upbeat attitude to his pizza place in Plainfield: the aptly named Positive Pie. The two men met five years ago, when dreadlocked 29-year-old Brooks was living across the street from the newly opened pizzeria. He now resides in Waterbury and works at Rovetto's cousin's pizza place in Stowe.
This summer Rovetto is opening a second, much larger storefront in Montpelier, where he can finally combine his two passions: pizza and promotion. He's transformed the 3000-square-foot space previously occupied by the State Street Market into a serious music venue, complete with full-sized stage, DJ booth and dance floor. The veneer plaster walls, exposed brick and a super-high ceiling painted midnight blue suggest a real urban nightclub in the making.
Live entertainment at Langdon Street Cafe and the Black Door Bar & Bistro has already put Montpelier back on the musical map. When Positive P2 opens in July, it'll add a reggae beat to the Capital City's rockin' Renaissance.
"People were itching for something to do here," Rovetto observes. That's why he and Brooks first started throwing musical parties at their respective homes in Marshfield and Waterbury -- "like house parties with bands, not normal parties," Brooks clarifies. Once they brought in a band from Boston. "We started getting some really good crowds. Hundreds of people, basically."
Rovetto also hosted live music on a regular basis at his funky Plainfield pizzeria. Most of it was "really small stuff," he concedes, with one exception: a reggae show "that was full-blown all over the streets," he recalls, chuckling. Apparently, town residents in close proximity didn't appreciate the vibrations.
"But it was more those parties that we had at the house" Brooks says, that inspired them to take it to another level. "We just liked hosting," Brooks says. Also, the annual Vermont Reggae Festival had finally imploded and Higher Ground had been shut for months. Without a trace of cynicism, Brooks explains that by making shows happen at public venues, it gave him -- and everyone else -- "something to look forward to."
It's that simple? "You learn to do it as you do it," Brooks explains, noting that he and Rovetto drew a lot of valuable lessons from their first show last October. They booked Midnite, a St. Croix-based reggae band, to play at the Rusty Nail. At $10 a ticket, it sold out, but when all the bills were in, the duo came up short by a couple hundred dollars. "We didn't realize all the extra expenses: hotel, food, promotions. Those color flyers are two bucks a piece," Brooks says.
They charged twice as much for tickets to their next concert, Sly & Robbie, and did better financially. In fact, the dub kings who formed the original rhythm section for Peter Tosh generated a tidy profit for the two entrepreneurs. Sure, there was a small problem with one of the musicians, who was convinced he'd found a piece of camel meat in his food -- which, in this case, was an authentic Jamaican dinner. Generally speaking, though, managing talent doesn't appear to be 1 lb.'s biggest concern.
Managing money is. The cash they cleared on Sly & Robbie was lost over the next three shows. Two of them happened within a week of each other at Waitfield's Eclipse Theater after the beleaguered venue had already shut down. Brooks had to take out a loan against his truck to cover his portion of the debt. Resigned, he says with a laugh, "I make loan payments now."
On both occasions, weather was also an issue. "If it starts snowing, you can expect half the people to show," Brooks informs. Other hard-earned revelations that may be unique to sparsely populated, snowboarder-infested Central Vermont: Weekends are much better than weekdays. And Rovetto points out the importance of having enough time to build excitement between shows. He's learned it's unrealistic to expect the local reggae audience to drop $20 on entertainment more than once a month.
Choosing acts is the easy part. At least in the reggae realm, Rovetto and Brooks seem to have good programming instincts. That's probably because "it's stuff that we know," says Brooks. "It's easy to tell people something will be good if you're confident about it."
Easier still when you're mixing with them all day long in Stowe, Plainfield and Montpelier. As pizza purveyors, Rovetto and Brooks are perfectly positioned to promote their presentations to customers easily converted into reggae fans. But ask them about demographics, and they both look puzzled. They've clearly stumbled into their niche.
Urged to be more analytical, Rovetto adds, "We've learned to take our time and really check it out -- to get a reaction from people before we jump in and get it." Reading the buzz on a band can mean the difference between packing the house and playing an empty room. Either way, the presenter still has to pay for the act.
The goal, Rovetto explains, is "to build, like, a name," -- artistic credibility -- so when people hear it's a 1 lb. production, "they know it'll be a good show, an experience." Rovetto cites one money-losing concert at the Eclipse as an example. Although it was poorly attended, Sister Nancy, Brigadier Jerry and Sammy Dread drew fans from as far away as Virginia and Pennsylvania. And "spiritually, it was incredible," he says, beaming. "The people that did go talked about it for weeks."
Such good reviews, spread by word of mouth, should get a few more reluctant reggae fans off the fence next time. The duo's Culture show sold out last weekend. They're trying to set up a big concert in Bolton at the end of August -- "with a huge tent," Brooks adds. Also in the works is a fall hip-hop series at the Rusty Nail that would include Inspectah Deck, formerly of the Wu-Tang Clan.
"We'll do something in Burlington eventually," Brooks promises.
In the meantime, there's the Montpelier space, which Rovetto plans to program with live music a couple of nights a week. "Lots of people are excited to play here," he says. "I've got stacks and stacks of promo stuff." He expects profits from the pizza side of the business will even out the ups and downs of the in-house entertainment.
It's still a gamble, though. Wide-eyed Brooks reports he recently heard about a guy in the biz who lost $30,000 on a single show. He vows, "I'd do it for free if I knew I wasn't going to lose any money." But the financial stress hasn't dulled his enthusiasm. With minimal urging, Brooks and Rovetto are happy to talk about their long-range plans, which include a 1 lb. recording studio, custom tour and a line of reggae-playing cruise ships.
Even articulating grand visions, though, these two guys are as far from slick as it gets.
"We're not in it for the money," Rovetto says. "We're in it for the good vibes."
Brooks seconds, "We never want to get to the point where we're not having fun doing it. That would suck."