Most people who walk past 101 Main Street in Burlington likely don’t give the long-vacant building a second thought. And they’re probably unaware of its place in Burlington music history. But long before there was a Higher Ground, Monkey House or Radio Bean, and well before the now-defunct Club Toast resided above Rasputin’s or Phish put Nectar’s on the national map, there was R.W. Hunt Mill & Mining Company.
Hunt’s, as it was more familiarly known, was the centerpiece of the Burlington music scene from 1977 through 1987. This Saturday, one local band that epitomized that thriving, Reagan-era music scene will reunite to bring its spirit — though not its site — back to life.
Yoram Samets opened Hunt’s, which had previously been a mostly folk-oriented venue called the Opry, in 1977. Shortly thereafter, he sold the bar to Fred “Chico” Lager, and Hunt’s soon became Burlington’s place to see and be seen.
As local venues still do, Hunt’s took advantage of the city’s geographic location to draw national acts touring between Montréal, Boston and New York. The club’s decade-long resume is impressive: B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Roy Orbison, Sun Ra and Townes Van Zandt were among those who graced its stage. But weekends belonged almost exclusively to locals. Bands such as the N-Zones, Pinhead, the Decentz and the Unknown Blues Band would play two- or three-night runs on a regular rotation.
Loud and bluesy, the N-Zones had their day ruling this musical roost. This Saturday, August 18, at the Higher Ground Ballroom, surviving members of the band will reunite for the N-Zones & Friends Hunt’s Reunion, a celebration that will benefit VSA Vermont. Coincidentally, the show will take place 30 years to the day after Hunt’s held a fifth anniversary party featuring the very same band.
Some musicians from the era credit the N-Zones with paving the way for locally made original music, but they were, first and foremost, a down-and-dirty bar band.
“At that time, being a blues band was something that was still sort of cool, instead of like, ‘Goddamn it, another blues band.’ There weren’t so many of them yet,” says N-Zones bassist Mark Ransom, who has played in a number of other groups over the years.
“They did a few originals, but the meat and potatoes of the N-Zones was the true rhythm and blues — in the original sense — stuff they covered,” says Brett Hughes. His own music career began with scene contemporaries the Decentz, a popular, local, all-original new-wave band in the early 1980s. Hughes is now better known for his twangier forays with groups such as Ramble Dove and as the leader of the weekly Honky Tonk Tuesday sessions at Radio Bean. He adds that several other local bands of the ’80s, including noted bluegrass outfit Pine Island, mixed original songs into their sets.
Drummer Bruce McKenzie, now 60, was a founding member of the N-Zones and the only constant through the band’s many lineup changes. He recalls including original tunes almost out of necessity.
“We didn’t really feature ourselves as an original band. But it was a different time,” McKenzie says. “You’d play for five hours at Nectar’s. And at nine o’clock, Nectar [Rorris] would be out tapping his watch. So we mixed originals in with the covers.”
Joe Moore (X-Rays, Joe Moore Band) played saxophone with the N-Zones during their heyday — the late 1970s and early ’80s. He agrees that the band’s popularity helped warm audiences to the idea of locals playing something other than classic rock and blues or top-40 hits.
Some members of the multiple incarnations of the N-Zones are still active locally, while others went on to national prominence — such as guitarist Drew Zingg, who toured with Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. In particular, the N-Zones went through bassists like Spinal Tap went through drummers. The band’s original bassist was Grant Hopkins. Ellen Powell replaced him, and later passed the torch to Jim McGinnis, formerly of Pine Island. Dan “Harpo” Archer and Peter Riley also played bass for the N-Zones at various points.
“Each different bass player defines an era of the band,” says Ransom, who held down the low end in the early 1980s and again in a later version of the group.
Saturday’s show will feature members from throughout the band’s history, but there will be one notable absence: that of front man Richard “Zoot” Wilson, who took his own life in 1997.
Wilson was the face of the N-Zones and its most recognizable member from the time he took the reins from founding front man Derrick Semler in 1977. Larger than life, a Telecaster-slinging enigma, Wilson could dominate a stage by sheer force of personality.
“He was legendary. One of the coolest guys on the scene,” attests Ransom. “He was a dynamic personality. And he was hilarious.” Ransom adds with a chuckle, “Girls loved him.”
“Zoot Wilson was a mighty man,” agrees Hughes. “He had a really compelling charisma, a pretty biting and esoteric sense of humor, and he played in this rhythmic, commanding guitar style that nearly every guitar player in town emulated on some level.”
“He probably couldn’t play in a minor key if someone paid him,” says McKenzie, “but he was a strong guitar player.”
Pinhead guitarist Mark Spencer, a Vermont native, went on to form the Boston-based, alt-country band Blood Oranges with Jimmy Ryan (Decentz, Pine Island) and currently plays alongside Jay Farrar in Son Volt. Spencer credits Wilson and the N-Zones as important early influences.
“Zoot was and is my guitar hero,” he says. “I can think of three or four of his signature licks that by now I’ve probably played more than he did. I consider his R&B/blues/rock style of guitar playing archetypal,” Spencer continues. “No matter what kind of music or gig or tour or record I’ve worked on for the past 30 years, in one way or another I think of him almost every time I play guitar.”
For his part, Wilson “never had any particular guitar hero,” according to McKenzie. “He didn’t try to sound like B.B. King or anyone else. He really did his own thing. It was raw and direct.”
“And he’s still the only guy I know of that I’ve seen arrive at a gig in a shopping cart,” notes Spencer.
Wilson’s warped sense of humor is nearly as legendary as his performances — he was also an accomplished cartoonist. Humor carried over into his off-color songwriting, which Ransom describes as “straightforward, bluesy and hilarious.” Unfortunately, only a handful of Wilson’s songs were ever released. An out-of-print 1979 LP, Live at Warehouse Hall, and a cassette tape recorded in the 1980s, Ain’t Got You, are the only recorded works the N-Zones produced. In 1999, a limited-edition, two-CD tribute, Zoot Wilson, was released; one disc contained Wilson originals, while the other was a reissue of Warehouse Hall with five bonus tracks.
Ellen Powell played with Wilson pre-N-Zones, in a Baltimore band called the Fabulous Dogtones. She says the late songwriter’s muse was his dog, a German shepherd named Beaner. Many of Wilson’s originals were canine themed but hinted at more human, sometimes salacious themes. Powell, now an adjunct faculty member in the music department at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and a local jazz bassist, cites a few songs that would later appear in the N-Zones’ repertoire. One was “I Saw Your Wife at the Dog Show” (“She didn’t even win first place / Perhaps it was her posture or maybe just her face”). Another: “My Dog Won’t Bark Since You Sat on His Face (I wish you hadn’t shown him that token of affection last night at your place.).”
He was witty, funny and sweet, too,” Powell adds. “Nothing was sacred to Zoot, which was one of the things that drew me to him. We were close, like sister and brother.”
From many a memorable show, Hunt’s owner Lager remembers Wilson as a natural performer. “Zoot was a showman,” he says. “The night would build, and he’d be getting sweatier and sweatier; Joe Moore would be blowin’ and a bunch of the notes would be a little off key, but it didn’t really seem to matter. They would fill the house.”
And that’s exactly what Wilson’s friends aim to do this weekend, when Higher Ground resurrects Hunt’s for just one raucous night.
N-Zones & Friends Hunt’s Reunion. Saturday, August 18, 8:30 p.m. at the Higher Ground Ballroom in South Burlington. $20/25. highergroundmusic.com