October 22, 2021

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Burlington musicians hopeful as live music makes a hesitant return

From left, Kirk Flanagan, Jeremy Frederick and Bill Mullins of Barbacoa (with Phinn Sonin, right, providing additional entertainment) play out of a van parked behind Momo’s Market in Burlington on Saturday, April 10, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On a sunny Saturday in April, the Burlington surf-rock band Barbacoa rolled up to Winooski’s Landry Park in the back of a truck. 

The band, a fixture in the Queen City’s music scene, played a lively set for a crowd of a few dozen last week, their bright orange rig serving as a makeshift stage. For frontman Bill Mullins, it was a rare chance to play live. “There hasn’t been anything for a year,” he said.

The show was a sign of a music scene that is — hesitantly — coming back to life. After a year of canceled gigs, emptied venues and shuttered recording studios, Burlington’s local musicians are feeling hopeful. 

There may be much to rebuild. Over the past year, the pandemic has made its mark on music in Burlington — and cast uncertainty over its future.

When the pandemic set in, Burlington rapper Omega Jade felt lost.

At the time, Jade was working on her second album, “Elevate: The Rise of Mama MC.” She was planning a comedy and hip-hop showcase. Then, she said, “everything stopped.” Her gigs were canceled, and her usual recording studio closed. As a single mother of four, she also had to juggle family responsibilities.

Creatively, the pandemic left her in an “all around funk,” Jade said. 

It also forced her to innovate. Locked out of the recording studio, Jade created a makeshift studio at home, teaching herself to record from YouTube videos. “It really made a creative monster out of me,” she said. “I recorded the first song that night.” 

Jade’s new record is slated for release on Mother’s Day. “I had to rise up to the occasion of being a stay-at-home mom who also wanted to be an artist, and that’s what this album is about,” she said. She’s also in talks to perform at Burlington’s Juneteenth celebration.

Jade is wistful when she thinks of performing live. “I miss it. I miss it so much. There was a rush that came with performing in front of a live crowd that you don’t get when you’re doing livestreams,” she said. “You miss having that energy to feed off.”

Recording artist Omega Jade in her home studio in Burlington on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Burlington rock outfit Zodiac Sutra also misses the stage. “Gigging is our lifeblood, really,” said the band’s frontman, who goes by the mononym Wolf. 

Zodiac Sutra has put out two records since March 2020, bookending the pandemic. The first arrived last June, and the second one last month. The most recent album is called “Sickness, Then Love” — a prophetic title, Wolf said. They had named it before the pandemic began. 

The pandemic has changed Zodiac Sutra’s sound, Wolf and his bandmates said. “When we recorded our first record, it was almost like a flyer to get people to the gig,” Wolf said. “The next record, we were looking at it like, well, the record is no longer the flyer. Now it’s the gig.”

What resulted, Wolf said, is a “sonic mosaic” — music that is more textured and introspective. 

Zodiac Sutra isn’t yet sure what to expect from Burlington’s music scene as it reawakens. “Covid has been a hard reset for the scene in a way. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing,” said Tops, the band’s drummer.

Some beloved basement venues — such as Gloom Garden in Winooski — have shut their doors for good. And while many local acts have continued writing and recording through the pandemic, others have moved away from music.

But Zodiac Sutra bassist Raf Soto is optimistic. In addition to his work with the band, Soto runs the radio show “Face for Radio” on 105.9 The Radiator, a low-powered, noncommercial community radio station that spotlights local artists. During the pandemic, the show has been one of very few platforms for local music left standing.

“There’s just been new music pouring out of Burlington,” Soto said. “So, I think it’s going to be explosive, personally. Everybody’s ready to play that stuff live.”

They’ll just need to figure out how.

In limbo

When Gov. Phil Scott announced his reopening plan earlier this month, staff at South Burlington music venue Higher Ground began scrambling to build a summer lineup. 

“We’ve been running around working on it,” said Alex Crothers, Higher Ground founder and co-owner. 

Higher Ground expects to put on concerts this summer at the Shelburne Museum and Midway Lawn in Essex, both popular outdoor venues. Crothers also said a plan for an outdoor stage near downtown Burlington is in the works, though there are few specifics so far.

Live music is returning to Burlington’s bar scene, too. Nectar’s, a downtown staple, is reopening and booking shows after a long winter hiatus. Orlando’s Bar has begun hosting live music on its patio.

Bill Mullins of Barbacoa plays out of a van parked behind Momo’s Market in Burlington on Saturday, April 10, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Still, live music isn’t yet out of the woods. “We’re still in limbo,” Crothers said. “We’re sort of at this inflection point.”

Higher Ground — like many live music spaces across the country — is waiting on a Shuttered Venue Operators grant, part of a program established by the Save Our Stages Act, which Congress passed in December.

The grants are meant to bail out businesses like Higher Ground that, unlike bars and restaurants, rely entirely on live shows for their business.

“We’re not a bar on the side. We don’t sell tchotchkes,” Crothers said. “If we don’t have a show on Friday or Saturday night, we’re closed.” The end result: “It’s been 13 months since virtually any of us have seen any revenue.”

The grants are promised to arrive this week after several delays in the rollout. If they do go through as planned, venues will receive funds equivalent to 45% of their 2019 revenue — “the difference between life and death,” Crothers said.

Over the past year, Higher Ground has scraped by on federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and other grant programs. But as landlords grow impatient, and the Shuttered Venue Operators grant remains just out of reach, “it’s coming right down to the wire,” he said.

Still, formal performance venues such as Higher Ground have access to resources that Burlington’s basement venues — the heart of the city’s DIY scene — do not. 

Before the pandemic, the city’s house shows “packed people in like sardines,” said Stephen O’Brien, a musician and longtime Burlington resident. This lack of space will make reopening difficult for informal basement venues, O’Brien said. Most don’t yet have plans to do so.

“We’re going to have to rebuild a lot of the foundation that we’ve lost,” O’Brien said.

Recording artist Omega Jade in her home studio in Burlington on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This month, O’Brien announced plans to begin hosting live DIY shows in his backyard — a venue he’s calling “The Weston Cove.” For now, shows are capped at 20 guests with masks and distancing required.

O’Brien said the shows have booked quickly. He has performances slated each week until July. “We’re just so ready to come back and make this real again,” he said. His own band, SUS, hasn’t played a live show in a year.

Jade, too, is looking forward to her first live performances in months. “I feel hopeful about it,” she said. 

“My kids are definitely looking forward to it,” she added, laughing. “They’re tired of hearing me practice in my room every day.”

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Filed under:

Business & Economy

Tags: Barbacoa, coronavirus economy, COVID-19, Higher Ground, live music, Omega Jade

Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger’s Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat.