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Sound Footing

Even without a club, Higher Ground is on the rise


Published May 19, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Higher Ground is headed south. No, not the club -- the former Winooski nightspot will reopen at a still-undisclosed location in the Burlington area this fall. But Higher Ground co-owner Alex Crothers will soon announce a series of shows in Manchester, providing a southern alternative to the recently announced concerts at the Shelburne Museum.

With a capacity of 3000, Hunter Park at Manchester's Riley Rink is an ideal venue for larger shows that can be difficult to book in Vermont. "The park is like a smaller version of [Boston's] Tweeter Center," Crothers says. "It is a brand-new, beautiful setting." Past concerts at the location have included Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, B.B. King and Ray Charles. Though Riley Rink has been hosting a music series for the past five years, a slow season last summer jeopardized its future. Recognizing the site's potential, Higher Ground stepped in.

So far, Crothers has booked reconstituted minister of soul Al Green -- who will also appear in Shelburne -- and country legend Merle Haggard, on July 17 and 21, respectively. At least two more shows featuring equally well-known artists are in the works.

"Each year we try to do something different; we want organic, natural expansion," says Crothers. "We don't want to get too big too fast. First, there was Shelburne, then North Beach [last summer]. This was another natural step." Manchester, he suggests, is not too far from home but represents a new market. Tickets to all events should be on sale by the end of this month.

Higher Ground is also staking a claim in the bustling world of summer festivals -- the company has taken charge of the Vermont Alternative Energy Festival. Not to be confused with Poultney's SolarFest, the event, also known as Pondapalooza has been held on the Niebling Farm in Randolph since 1998. Performers have included local popsters Salad Days and groove faves Reid Genauer and Spooky Daly Pride. The entire stage and lighting set-up is powered by alternative energy sources -- including vegetable oil.

Last year approximately 1200 people attended the show, but organizer Shane Clark, who could not be reached for comment, wanted a professional company to take over promotion and booking, Crothers explains. Genauer and his Assembly of Dust will once again headline both nights, August 20 and 21, with four or five regional groups completing the lineup. According to Crothers, the event is "95 percent happening."

A rumored series at the Old Lantern in Charlotte, however, is decidedly not happening. Higher Ground had been interested in booking a series of shows at the 6000-square-foot former dancehall, but cost and risk factors steered them away from the plan. "Eventually, we ended up having to prioritize what we were going to do," Crothers says. "Once you bring in hospitality, insurance and everything, it ends up being extremely expensive to go in and rent a location. Shows like that are hard to do without a club of your own."

More concerts at North Beach are not in the picture, either. While last summer's show with bluegrassers Nickel Creek and Celtic rockers Great Big Sea brought in a decent crowd of happy revelers, the iffy weather, insects, parking and other logistical issues make it a less than desirable, or lucrative, location.

As for where Higher Ground will resettle for its projected September opening, Crothers admits that a decision is close, but he remains tight-lipped. The two locations under consideration -- the former Sh-Na-Na's (and Hunt's) building at 101 Main Street in Burlington and Merrill's Showcase cinema on Williston Road in South Burlington -- are each appealing for different reasons. "At this point, we're going to let the numbers decide," Crothers comments, referring to the equation of cost versus potential profit. "We hope to have a decision next week and want construction to begin in early June." Meanwhile, Crothers is optimistically booking dates for the fall.

The Williston Road location would be transformed into two main concert rooms, one with a capacity of 200 to 300 people, the other accommodating around 800. This way, the club could host emerging or local artists as well as national touring acts. There is also ample free parking. The Main Street location was gutted by fire several months ago and is currently being renovated. If Higher Ground moves there, the club would have a main floor and a balcony area, with a capacity of approximately 1000. The building is a sentimental favorite for older concert-goers who are still nostalgic for shows at the late, great Hunt's, which closed in 1987.

"I'm generally enthused," Crothers states. "Higher Ground ended on an extremely high note. A new location will bring a whole new level of act to the area that previously didn't have a place to play." Though he and fellow owners loved the Winooski site, "What I want now," Crothers says, "is a club that will be here for the next 20 years."