Burlington's next great band is never far away - the city is teeming with them. When one act calls it quits, it's a safe bet that another will emerge shortly thereafter, often with similar membership, à la Chuch to Jésus Vanacho. Such is the musical melting pot that is the Queen City. The question, of course, is "Who's the next great band gonna be?" For this scribe's money, Burlington's best "new" band is a punkish little quartet called Blowtorch. Funny thing is, the group has been around, in one form or another, for more than a quarter-century.
The scene was the University of Vermont in the early 1980s. According to those who were there - this writer was not - Burlington's music scene was a far cry from the sprawling, vital community we're lucky enough to enjoy today. In those days, there were precious few clubs open to original bands, and even fewer original bands to fill them.
"There were no venues, no places to rehearse," says Clark Russell, Blowtorch's 47-year-old vocalist. Russell is recalling the early days of what would become a lifelong - so far - collaboration with guitarist Bill Mullins, 46. Exiled to a waste-storage room in the basement of UVM's Christie Hall, the duo's original band, No Fun, held impromptu Friday night shows for "stragglers into early punk songs."
Eventually, No Fun/Blowtorch branched out to all-ages nights at Burlington's Knights of Columbus Hall. Russell surmises that those early shows may have been the first hardcore and punk shows in the state; local punk legends The Wards also cut their teeth on those bills. "We were punks without earrings or tattoos," he says. "We sort of had our own niche that wasn't quite as harsh as what a lot of people think punk rock is." Still, legitimate venues and support were hard to come by.
Enter Nectar Rorris. Before he helped make Phish a household name, he lent the space above Nectar's - what would eventually become Border and then Club Metronome - to bands looking for homes. "[Metronome] wasn't even open," says Russell. "But Nectar would let us play and keep the door. And he'd keep the bar. It was sort of the only thing in town."
The band's first incarnation lasted until the mid-'80s, when Mullins moved to California. Following a trip to Egypt, the pair found themselves back in Burlington, and Blowtorch's second wave began. That version made it as far as a CMJ showcase appearance at New York City's iconic punk club CBGB's, with a then-unknown punk-fusion act, Living Colour. "I think Iggy Pop was there that night," muses Mullins, adding that he also slipped a demo tape to Joey Ramone.
After a brief re-emergence circa 2000 - with The Pants' front man Tom Lawson on drums - the Torchers again went their separate ways. Mullins continued to play in other local acts (Barbacoa, Chrome Cowboys) and Russell focused on performance art and sound collage with Safari 500 and Recon, respectively.
The band's latest manifestation was born this spring with bassist Kirk Flanagan and Swale's Jeremy Frederick on drums. "I'm not really sure why we got back together now," admits Mullins, seeming genuinely puzzled.
"I don't want to say revenge," injects Russell, chuckling and then mysteriously trailing off.
When attempting to describe Blowtorch's sound, the pair is slightly more effusive but, ultimately, just as vague. Mullins writes the music and collaborates with Russell on lyrics. But that doesn't make either terribly eager to try and define it. "I think the music has a more melodious aspect that sort of defies the category of 'punk,'" suggests Russell. "Although it's not pop-rock, either." Pausing for a moment, he quips, "metamorphic rock?" before he quickly rescinds the idea. But it might actually be pretty close to the mark. Russell goes on to lay out the band's longstanding credo: "No swear words. And no love songs." And that, too, could be a fairly apt description, in a minimalist, punkish sort of way.
While Blowtorch's current canon comprises a decent amount of new material, much of their repertoire consists of songs they've been playing for more than two decades. "I think being a little wiser makes us play with a little more conscientiousness," says Russell. "We've just learned what the strengths and weaknesses of the songs are. But there's a certain amount of not being aware that's a part of it, too. It's really experiential."
Whatever you want to call it, and whatever brought Blowtorch back for another round, area rock fans couldn't be happier. In a relatively short period of time - even for Burlington - the band has generated an impressive buzz. A recent performance at Speaking Volumes was easily an Art Hop highlight. Mullins, in typically unassuming fashion, delivered jaw-dropping riffs with little more flash than an occasional head bob. In contrast, Russell served up a perfectly spastic vocal performance brimming with more punk energy than most rockers one-third his age. Bruising but melodic, fearsome but fearless, Blowtorch are the best thing to happen to Burlington music since, well, the last time they were the best thing to happen to Burlington music.