The clock atop Burlington City Hall is striking 10 as I jog up the stairs to Club Metronome for Thursday night's Zen Tricksters show. A longtime staple on the jam-band circuit, the Grateful Dead tribute band has been cranking out rockin' Dylan covers, nimble-fingered Jerry licks and original noodlings for nearly 25 years. You'd expect a decent turnout for such a band in a hippie haven like Burlington. Instead, the room is virtually empty.
Rather than gazing at my navel for the next 45 minutes while the band sets up, I go back downstairs to Nectar's and catch a pretty good funk band from Philadelphia called Town Hall. Lately, Club Metronome's talent buyer, Alex Chaykin, has been booking all the shows at Nectar's, too, which has created a nice musical synergy between the two venues that share the same Main Street address.
By 11 p.m., when the Tricksters finally take the stage, the crowd upstairs is still disappointingly thin. Aside from a couple of balding Deadheads who smile and bob while the band launches into a version of "Cumber-land Blues," there's nothing shaking on Shakedown Street. It's an anemic turnout for a Thursday night -- the kind of night that can fuel speculation about the future of Burlington's nightlife.
These days, you still hear Queen City old-timers bemoaning the demise of great nightspots like Hunt's and Club Toast, or waxing nostalgic about Metronome's "heyday," when it was a steppingstone for rising stars such as G-Love, The Black Crowes, Ben Harper and Martin Sexton. With the recent change in ownership at Red Square, the fire at Sh-Na-Na's, and the imminent closure of Higher Ground on April 15 to make way for Winooski's downtown redevelopment project, it's inevitable that local live-music fans are wondering when and where the next shoe will drop.
It won't be Metronome, according to Mark Gauthier. The club's proprietor and former Red Square co-owner is pleased to report that -- Zen Tricksters notwithstanding -- business has been strong in the last year or so. Like a prudent financial investor, Club Metronome has been diversifying its musical portfolio with a combination of indie rock, funk, hip-hop and reggae, as well as local, regional and nationally known DJs and turntablists. Gauthier's found a winning strategy -- 40 percent local shows, 40 percent DJs and 20 percent touring acts --that should keep Metronome a vital part of the music scene until he's ready to give it up.
Gauthier credits Chaykin. "Alex came in at the right time and has a done a good job of making a name for himself," he says. "He's got a good ear and he knows what's happening out there."
The picture was anything but rosy as recently as two years ago. Gauthier recalls that when he bought the club in the late '90s, he was able to bring in small bands from Boston, Philadelphia and New York City, charge a cover and fill the room, even on weeknights. "But after a while," he says, "it just started to phase out, and people were no longer willing to come see a band that they didn't know."
For example, a few years ago Gauthier booked a band from Tennessee called Bone-pony, "a bluegrass kind of thing I called Appalachian porch music," he recalls. Though not exactly a household name, Bonepony has toured with big names like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Rusted Root, Santana and Widespread Panic. "It was really cool and very interesting to watch, and yet it only drew a crowd of about 75 or 80 people," Gauthier remembers. "There was a whole lot of great music back then that never got seen." The local music scene "just flopped."
Blame it on a videocentric MTV generation, the ascendancy of hip-hop, the fickle tastes of clubgoers or the cyclical nature of the live-music scene in general. Whatever the reasons, live music in Burlington just wasn't generating the same buzz as it had just a few years earlier.
In an effort to carve out a new niche for itself, Metro-nome began shifting its focus to DJs. Saturday night's "Retronome" has long been a hugely successful '70s and '80s dance party with a reliable clientele. In fact, Gauthier remembers one week when he tried to replace Retronome with a live band. The results were disastrous.
"All of a sudden, at 10 o'clock, when most of the Retronome people came upstairs and it wasn't there, people were really upset," Gauthier recalls. "I had underestimated its place in the market. Now, I would never change it."
With Chaykin on board, Metronome has been targeting smaller, indie-rock bands that are just emerging nationally, such as The Waifs, Stellastarr and Ima Robot. The club also does well with older, more established names such as NRBQ, James McMurtry and Chris Whitley. The Crash Test Dummies recently played two successive nights when they got trapped in town by a snowstorm. Likewise, Chaykin has drawn crowds with nationally recognized DJs like Josh Wink -- a turntablist who performed at the 2003 Bonnaroo Music Festival.
"I've gotten phone calls from people who are driving five to six hours from Ottawa to see shows here," Chaykin reports. "It's good to know we can draw them from that far away."
One might assume that Club Metronome will experience a windfall now that Higher Ground is closing, but Gauthier doesn't think losing that venue is good for him or the overall health of Burlington's music scene. "Metronome and Higher Ground weren't really competing venues. They were doing much larger shows that we couldn't possibly do," he says. "Actually, if there were three or four more venues in town, I think we'd have even more people coming here to experience that. And not just out-of-town people, but people on the perimeter of Burlington who say, We should really go check that stuff out.'"
Of course, like all downtown bars and clubs, Club Metronome has felt the chill of Burlington's more restrictive entertainment policies in recent years, which another unnamed bar owner recently dubbed "the general pussification of downtown": the rolling back of the hours when outdoor entertainment is permitted, the impending smoking ban, and stricter enforcement of a vaguely worded noise ordinance. But rather than pointing fingers, Gauthier is hoping that club owners and the city will come together to address these relatively minor nuisances without killing the scene altogether.
"I think the City Council wants to do the right thing. And I think I speak for most liquor licensees and venue owners when I say that we all want to comply with the rules all the time," Gauthier says. "But it should be a little easier to do that. I think an objective noise standard would make this whole problem go away."
Gauthier proposed the city adopt a measurable noise standard, which would allow club owners to use a decibel meter to police themselves. While it's just one small suggestion for keeping Burlington's entertainment infrastructure alive and kicking, for small businesses a little proactive housecleaning goes a long way.
And speaking of keeping the scene in the green, Higher Ground doesn't expect to be off-line for too long, according to co-owner Alex Crothers. He and the club's other owners are currently in negotiations to secure a new location -- perhaps in Burlington or South Burlington -- though he won't reveal where just yet. "We feel fairly confident that we'll be back up and running before too long and before we're missed," Crothers says, hinting that it'll likely be before September. In the meantime, Crothers will be booking outdoor concerts for this summer.
Crothers sounds as optimistic as Gauthier on the health of the Queen City music scene. "I think it's very much a pendulum that swings back and forth," he says, "and at this moment in time, it feels like we're swinging . . . upward."