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Soundbites: Too Much Live Music?


Published January 29, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 3, 2020 at 9:40 a.m.

Anaïs Mitchell
  • Anaïs Mitchell

Much Music

Every so often, a slow news week comes along in the world of local music and nightlife. And that week usually arrives sometime in the dead of winter. Makes sense. When was the last time you left your house for something other than work or some kind of obligation? Were there leaves on the trees? Were they all pretty colors? That's what I thought.

Given the relative dearth of breaking news — though there are a few interesting items below — I thought I'd take this opportunity to opine on something I've been thinking about for a while now. As you know, Seven Days lists the music and nightlife happenings of dozens of Vermont's nightclubs, bars, cafés, restaurants, etc. And more and more seem to be jumping on the bandwagon every week. Like, a lot more. And that might not be a good thing for local musicians.

On the one hand, more places staging live music means there are more opportunities for local musicians to perform in front of an audience. I'm all for that. I'll always choose an abundance of art and self-xpression over no art at all.

But is it a good thing that practically every public house, brewery and artisanal market offers live entertainment? I'm skeptical, and here's why.

First, audience members — aka customers — may not know that live music is on the agenda for the evening when they walk into a restaurant. They may even sit down to eat before a singer-songwriter shows up with a stool and guitar. When the acoustic crooner starts their set, do people have to stop talking and shift their focus to the entertainer? How is that fair, given that they didn't even know what they were walking into? Many have been in this situation.

For instance, last summer, I checked out a standup comedy showcase at a popular downtown Burlington restaurant with a private, outdoor patio. Many folks present, some with young children, appeared surprised when their al fresco dining experience suddenly morphed into an R-rated comedy club. People continued to have (loud) conversations as the comics took the mic. Part of me wanted to get out the ol' shushing finger, but another part felt like the unsuspecting diners had every right to continue talking. There was no expectation that they'd be an audience member when they walked in, so why should they all of a sudden have to put a pin in their discussions?

Clearly, there was a disconnect between venue, performer and audience. Maybe some performers don't care if people aren't paying attention to them in such circumstances. A nice payout could possibly ease the pain — though paid music gigs are much harder to come by than ones that end with the passing of a hat.

My not-so-hypothetical question to business owners: What are your intentions in booking live entertainment? Are you just trying to get people in the door or attempting to set a mood? Are you hoping to garner some cultural cachet? If your answer to any of the preceding questions is yes, then you might want to rethink booking live music.

The best possible answer is that an establishment wants to shine a light on creative people and give them space to do their thing. If that's not your goal, maybe you don't need to have live music. Singer-songwriters shouldn't be treated as an accent or decorative touch. But, hey, if you want to keep it local in some capacity, perhaps consider playing a curated selection of local music recordings over your sound system. It might be just as effective in terms of atmosphere.


Roomful of Teeth
  • Roomful of Teeth

Vermont singer-songwriter and composer Anaïs Mitchell is another step closer to joining the EGOT club — that's an acronym for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, the major American entertainment awards. Mitchell just picked up the Best Musical Theater Album Grammy Award for her Broadway show Hadestown. In 2019, the critically acclaimed musical nabbed eight Tony Awards, with Mitchell picking up honors for Best Original Score. Now all she has to do is win an Oscar and an Emmy, and she'll join the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Rita Moreno in the EGOT club. Totally doable! She could simply turn Hadestown into a motion picture — assuming Hollywood hasn't soured on movie musicals after the Cats debacle — and/or an episodic prestige series for Netflix or HBO, and she'd have a shot. Seriously, the Tony Award is the hardest one to get, given that there are so few categories and eligible properties.

On Thursday, January 30, experimental vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth team up with Irish strummers the Dublin Guitar Quartet at Middlebury College's Mahaney Arts Center. The two groups take on the music of Vermont-born composer Nico Muhly, specifically the artist's 2015 work "How Little You Are." Originally commissioned by Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, the piece is based on selections of writings by 19th-century pioneer women. The two groups will also perform their original material. See Seven Days contributor Amy Lilly's preview of the show.

Recently, a team of wayfaring music filmmakers stopped by Burlington to create a new video starring acoustic punk singer-songwriter Adrienne Cooper Smith. Known as Sadrday, the two-person filmmaking crew visited 15 cities in 2019, shooting local unknowns everywhere they went. The videos include intimate, live performances, as well as brief interviews. Sadrday's YouTube page currently boasts 16 additional videos. A trailer for the project indicates that more videos featuring Burlington may be on the way. As of press time, Sadrday hadn't responded to our request for comment.