I was right.
I know, I know. I’m as shocked as you are. But bear with me and I’ll try to explain.
Regular readers know I’m often prone to making semi-ridiculous predictions that, almost unfailingly, don’t come true. It’s part of my charm. And, no, last week’s tongue-in-cheek prognostication column doesn’t count. Although I think my “Dylan’s Law” idea banning music critics from making outlandishly hyperbolic comparisons between rock legends and modern artists is friggin’ brilliant. Just call me the next Lester Bangs … oh, right.
Anyway, last week I postulated that last Saturday’s seventh annual Higher Ground Comedy Battle had the potential to be the best yet. I wasn’t kidding. What’s more, by nearly all accounts, it was exactly that, which is great news for me … er, great news for standup comedy fans in Vermont.
In my experience — three years as a judge, including this one — the Comedy Battle is always entertaining, if not necessarily chock-full of outstanding performers. Typically, there are a handful of polished comics who stand head and shoulders above their peers. Those folks, who in recent years have included the likes of Alex Nief, Tracie Spencer and Roger Miller, generally succeed with a combination of wit, perspective and experience. Their counterparts typically fail because they lack one or more of these qualities.
(Brilliant insight, right? That’s why they let me judge standup comedy.)
More often than not, it’s a lack of experience that derails contestants in the comedy battle. You can see it the moment a newbie steps onstage. And the audience, which often includes some drunken assholes ready to get their heckle on, can sense it like dogs smell fear. It’s gruesome to watch a clearly overmatched young comic shredded onstage. But I gotta admit, there’s also a lurid fascination that comes with watching someone completely tank. It’s gut wrenching but titillating.
But here’s the thing: This year nobody really bombed. Sure, some sets were weaker than others. But, by and large, the quality of the contestants — 14 comedians auditioned from a pool of 60 — was legitimately solid. And the show’s five finalists all displayed talent that could one day land them on stages in more comedy-friendly cities such as NYC or Chicago. Really.
During a break in the action, one of my fellow judges, HG box-office manager Kellie Fleury, suggested that the uptick in talent had to do with the increased opportunities afforded to local comedians to hone their skills, as local comedy has developed a bigger following in the last year. She should know. Kellie was a battle finalist two years ago and is a talented comedian in her own right.
If that logic sounds familiar, it’s because — wait for it — it’s exactly what I wrote last week when I said this year’s battle would be good. No kidding.
For years, local comedy struggled to garner much recognition beyond the friends and families of the comics involved. But in the last 12 months a legitimate scene has sprung up. This is due in large part to the efforts of such people as Kathleen Kanz, who hosts comedy nights at clubs around the state; Josie Leavitt, who teaches standup-comedy classes at the Flynn Center — a few of her alums were onstage Saturday; and Nathan Hartswick, who runs the website vermontcomedyclub.com, a one-stop resource for anything and everything comedy related in VT.
It was fitting, then, that Hartswick took the evening’s top prize in the closest final heat in recent memory. He is without doubt one of local comedy’s biggest boosters.
Hartswick was on fire Saturday night, and certainly deserved the win. But you could have made a strong argument for any of the five finalists. Case in point: I thought Hartwick was hilarious but actually had him third on my ballot — though only two points from the top spot. It was that close.
Topping my ballot was Burlington’s Colin Ryan, a storytelling comic comparable to Mike Birbiglia. Ryan’s stories about getting in and out of uncomfortable social situations were both wince inducing and hysterical. Fellow finalists Jason P. Lorber and John Lyons had great sets, as well.
But the real find of the night was Montpelier-born standup Carmen Lagala. The recent University of Vermont grad was a clear audience favorite, and rightly so. Her set was witty, sharp and edgy — bonus points for the anatomy lesson with her boyfriend’s mother in the crowd. Ballsy, Carmen. Were it not for a slight case of jitters early on — which should ease with a little more experience — she easily could have walked away with the crown.
It was a banner night for standup comedy in Vermont. Who knew?
Songwriter Scott Mangan is set to unveil a new monthly series at Parima on Wednesday, January 19 — the day this paper comes out — entitled “Mildred Moody’s Full Moon Masquerade.” The evening will feature Mangan’s new band, Mildred Moody, Samara Lark’s outfit MusicSpeak, and then … a whole bunch of crazy shit in honor of the full moon. You can expect to find still more music from DJ Frank Grymes, live painting by Emagine and body painting by the Human Canvas. Meanwhile, in the Acoustic Lounge, Bee Well Massage will provide massages while patrons relax to films by local filmmaker Bethan Wixey, or have their charts read by astrologist Jane Beaumont Snyder. The showcase will double as a charity fundraiser each month. The debut edition of Mangan’s full-moon madness is a fundraiser to help Pete’s Greens recover in the wake of the farm’s recent barn fire.
Welcome back to prodigal songwriter Henry Jamison and his band The Milkman’s Union. When he was but a teenager in 2006 and 2007, Jamison, now a student at Bowdoin College in Maine, impressed local critics with a pair of promising indie-rock records. Then, last year, he impressed this critic with Roads In, an album that suggested the songwriter was very, very close to realizing his potential. Jamison’s maturation has been rapid, so, one year later, I’m curious to see how far he’s come. We can all find out when the band plays a homecoming gig with Maryse Smith and the Rosesmiths and Hello Shark! at the Monkey House this Thursday, January 20.
Bluegrass Thursdays at Nectar’s are becoming quite a star-studded affair. Case in point: This Thursday’s edition features NYC Americana band The Wiyos, last seen in Vermont opening for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and the Coug (John Mellencamp) at the Champlain Valley Expo.
Band Name of the Week: Theodore Treehouse. From the hipster hamlet of Other-Portland — that would be the one in Maine — comes this hard-charging indie-rock band. They just released a killer new disc, Mercury, Closest to the Sun, last month and have two local shows this week: Friday with indie darlings Villanelles at Radio Bean, and Saturday at Muddy Waters with the aforementioned Maryse Smith and the Rosesmiths.
Speaking of Villanelles, the band plans to release a brand-spankin’-new four-song EP sometime next month. Awesome.
This just in: Local live electronica outfit Casio Bastard were just added to the bill for this Thursday’s Seven Days “Hot Ticket” show with The Breakfast at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge. That is all.
Last but not least, after reading Matt Bushlow’s profile of Joey Pizza Slice, you’re probably like, Wow. That sounds rad. He must be playing a release show soon, right? Yup. He is. This weekend, in fact. The thing is, it’s at an underground venue, so I’m not supposed to to tell you exactly when or where it is, for fear of drawing unwanted attention from Burlington’s Finest. The whole thing really wedges me between a rock and a hard place, if you know what I mean. But I’m sure the resourceful among you will figure it out one way or another. As always, when in doubt, ask a hipster.
And once again, this week’s totally self-indulgent column segment, in which I share a random sampling of what was on my iPod, turntable, CD player, 8-track player, etc., this week.
Social Distortion, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Wire, Red Barked Tree
Way Yes, Walkability
Nada Surf, The Proximity Effect
The Beat Farmers, Tales of the New West