- Tom McNeill
- Kiel Alarcon, cofounder of What Doth Life
For the past decade, Windsor's What Doth Life has championed independent music along the border of Vermont and New Hampshire in a distinctively low-key way. Self-described as a "brand with nothing to sell," the musicians' cooperative has served as a support system and DIY record label for scads of artists and bands who might not otherwise have had the means or, in some cases, the motivation to get their music heard beyond the insular Upper Valley.
Through a raft of EPs, LPs, compilations and live shows, What Doth Life has built a community of musicians and artists who, as the co-op states on its website, "adhere to the ethics of freedom, sharing and rock n' roll."
Those ethics will be on full display this Saturday, September 28, at the inaugural What Doth Life DIY Music Festival at the Windsor Farmers' Exchange. A de facto birthday celebration for the co-op, the fest features 11 Upper Valley-area bands, including Windsor indie-rockers the Pilgrims; Claremont, N.H., trio Chodus; and rising Vermont hip-hop act Maiden Voyage, among others.
All told, the fest offers more than eight hours of music and entertainment, as well as several food and business vendors. An after-party at nearby Windsor Station Restaurant & Barroom features a set by blues-rockers Moxley Union. For a label founded on a spunky underground ethos, the festival is quite the to-do.
"Originally, we were just going to do another What Doth Life sort of party," says cofounder Kiel Alarcon. "I just kept getting bigger and bigger ideas and bringing more and more people in. And then all these people wanted to play, so it was, like, You know what? ... This is going to be a festival."
Tall and rangy, Alarcon, 35, has the look of someone whose life revolves around music, from the dark hair falling to his shoulders to the black sunglasses he wears even over tea at a Montpelier coffee shop. He walks with the assistance of a cane, a result of nerve damage following the removal of a tumor on his spine five years ago. Still, it's impossible to ignore his energy — underscored by the fact that Alarcon will play in four of the bands on the festival bill. He'll also run sound and record the whole thing.
Much like Montpelier's State and Main Records and Plattsburgh's Third Eye Industries, What Doth Life has been a curator of hyper-local music since its 2010 founding. It helps cultivate Upper Valley talent that might otherwise slip under the radar.
"What Doth Life is kind of a guestbook of musicians that have come in and out of the area over the last 10 years," explains cofounder Brendan Dangelo, also a member of the band Derek and the Demons. "It is pretty much exactly what I had hoped for: a label that provides more leeway to play exhaustively and be creative with people I enjoy."
According to Alarcon, the collective came together more out of necessity than anything else.
"We had bands that would come together and fall apart, as bands do," he says of the then-nascent Upper Valley music scene. "But after a few years of doing that, we decided that we should just have one common thread that runs through everything."
The label has since released 68 albums. These range from the high-octane rock of Carton and the Pilgrims to the more experimental works of prolific lo-fi auteur Luke Chrisinger to numerous compilations, including a 2014 benefit comp for Alarcon, We Sold Out for Kiel.
"This town doesn't always have the best reputation in some ways," Alarcon admits. "But I really like Windsor. I've been here my whole life, essentially, and it's very cool to be fostering this sort of community.
"I mean, we're obviously not in it for the money," he continues. "We're just trying to highlight the talent here."
The What Doth Life DIY Music Festival is undoubtedly the highest-profile example of those efforts.
"I think the fest is a macrocosm of what we've been doing over the years: creating a means that we can all have to dig a little less deep to make the music we want to," says Dangelo. "In rural Vermont, there are fewer and fewer places that are open to the live, original and bizarre," he continues. "We're all cut from the same cloth and all know the struggle to find an outlet for your creativity."
Bob Haight is an architect and Windsor native who works with the town as a zoning administrator. He's also the owner of the Windsor Farmers' Exchange, a 2,000-square-foot community event and performance space in a downtown neighborhood known as the Railyards. The building was once a freight warehouse but for decades had stood empty and derelict — a "sketchy place where transients used to sleep," according to Alarcon.
Haight saw potential, though.
"I love going out to listen to music," he explains. "We have the Windsor Station here, and I'm there all the time. But sometimes I'm too old for, y'know, the loud and crazy nights."
So, with the help of a friend who used to run sound at the Newport Folk Festival, Haight built his own venue. He gutted the building, installed high-quality sound and lighting systems, and built a stage.
"Now it's this great place to just come in, plug in and play," he says.
Haight began booking occasional shows at the Farmers' Exchange a couple of years ago. But this summer, with help from Alarcon, Dangelo and the rest of the What Doth Life crew, he started to realize the venue's potential. He estimates the space has hosted 24 events since May, many in collaboration with What Doth Life.
"We've run everything from dance parties, film screenings, rural pride events, science talks and live bands this year," says Dangelo. "The Farmers' Exchange has [had] an immeasurable positive impact for the people of Windsor."
In booking the festival, Alarcon says, he drew some inspiration from another Vermont indie-music fest: Waking Windows. Alarcon had played the Winooski festival a few times over the years with his bands Carton and the Pilgrims.
"There aren't a lot of festivals that service indie-rock up here, other than Waking Windows," Alarcon says. "And there's been nothing in southern Vermont, so we wanted to really put our indie-rock out there."
It's probably not fair to expect the What Doth Life festival to reach Waking Windows' epic proportions. But if it proves successful, Alarcon envisions the fest growing more eclectic in the future. For now, he's happy to showcase the area scene's rock bands. In fact, the often thankless behind-the-scenes work of coordinating a music festival has been something close to a lifesaver for him.
Pre-tumor, Alarcon had been quite active, often biking three hours a day to and from work in New Hampshire.
"After I had to go on disability, I was just going crazy," he says with a laugh. "I'm someone who always needs to be busy, which is why I do all the audio work and play in four bands and What Doth Life and all that. I have to, man!
"I'm definitely pushing myself," Alarcon continues, admitting that he now tires easily. "But I love the challenge, and I love the mission. What Doth Life is all about growing the DIY scene, and this festival is the logical extension of that."
"In a way, it feels like we've come to accept that our flavor isn't the flavor that a lot of people gravitate toward, which is awesome," says Dangelo. "So it's nice when we find like-minded folks that get it."
Alarcon concurs: "The beauty of embracing DIY is doing exactly what you want."