It's Funny Cuz It's True
I don’t want to say, “I told you so,” but … well, OK. I totally want to say, “I told you so.”
For at least the last two years, I’ve been an enthusiastic — bordering on obnoxious — cheerleader for Vermont comedy. At first, I think my fascination with local comedians stemmed simply from the fact that there was a local standup scene at all — though at the time, calling it that was charitable at best. But think of how often we take our long-established local music scene for granted. Why, just this weekend I had a conversation at a show with a woman who bemoaned a perceived lack of great bands on the local front. “I feel like it was so much better, like, 10 years ago,” she whined, er, said. I smiled politely, then promptly poured my Guinness over her head. (I’m kidding, of course. I’d never waste good Guinness.)
The point is that it’s easy to be spoiled amid an embarrassment of musical riches. It’s a vibrant, storied scene that dates back decades. But that’s not the case with comedy. It’s a new development — and we have a front-row seat to witness the standup scene emerge, as if out of the primordial ooze. How often does that happen? Almost never.
The other reason this is cool is far simpler. Local comedy is good; some of it, exceptionally good. But don’t just take my word for it.
Last week, seven Vermont comedians — Ryan Kriger, Colin Ryan, Nathan Hartswick, Kit Rivers, Mike Robideau, Tony Bates — performed at the prelims of the Funniest Comic in New England Contest at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. Care to guess how many comedians were in the field overall? Never mind, I’ll tell you: 20. That means a whopping 35 percent of this year’s regional contestants are products of the Green Mountains — and that’s out of a field of 200 who auditioned. In fairness, Robideau and Manion no longer call Vermont home, but they honed their chops here, so as far as we’re concerned, they count. And so does Kriger, even though he’s a relatively recent NYC transplant. I mean, dude opened a friggin’ comedy club in Burlington. He’s ours.
Of those seven, Kriger, Bates, Hartswick and Manion advanced to the quarterfinals the following night. And guess what? All four were among the 10 comics who advanced to the semifinal round, happening this Friday, February 24. That’s almost half of the semifinalists. Even more impressive, our Green Mountain boys — and girl — did this in hostile territory. Kriger reports that comics from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts were required to bring friends to help fill seats. An email to Treehouse Comedy Productions, the organizing sponsor, was unreturned as of press time, so no confirmation on that. But Kriger is a lawyer and lawyers never lie … ahem. Either way, given the location, Vermonters were definitely the road team in this match, with or without seat stuffing.
Congrats to all Vermont(ish) comics, and best of luck to our semifinalists this weekend. And if Mohegan Sun is a bit too far for you to travel, or you’re just more of a Foxwoods person, you can check out local comedy every Friday at Levity in Burlington — two shows! And this Saturday, February 25, the café presents two fundraisers for the Sara Holbrook Community Center, both hosted by Dustin Bruley with headliner Jason Lorber.
I’m being told that Soundbites is actually a music column and that I should probably mention music stuff. So let’s start with some new bands. Last Thursday, I ventured to the Monkey House, ostensibly to catch the headliners, Yellowbirds, from Brooklyn. But I was actually more curious about new local supergroup Shelly Shredder, which features members of Villanelles, Buzz Jar, Bearquarium and Dangerbird. If you recall from last week’s column, the alt-country outfit described itself as “Neil Young meets the Jayhawks.” Having never heard them — it was their first show — I couldn’t confirm that. Now I can. Their bristling set revealed the Jayhawks as a particularly apt comparison. And, no, I’m not saying the band is as good as the Jayhawks. But if you’re a fan, you’ll probably dig Shredder’s dual guitar, multilayered harmony attack. I certainly did. And I was equally impressed at how tight and polished the band sounds for having been together just about five weeks. Stay tuned.
Speaking of Villanelles offshoots debuting at the Monkey House, Seth Gunderson unveils a new project this Thursday, February 23, called Phantom Suns. The band also includes Lendway drummer Todd Gevry, Chris Mathieu (My Dearest Darling, Unkindness of Ravens) and Ryan Cohen, who produced Villanelles’ self-titled debut. So what do they play? Are you sitting down? Grunge. You read that correctly. Gunderson describes the band as if “Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana had an illegitimate love child.” Hmm. I always thought that was Silverchair, but I digress. By the way, that sound you hear is my inner 15-year-old absolutely freaking out, cracking voice and all. Suffice to say, we — meaning current me and teenage me — are intrigued. If your awkward teen is, too, check out a track from the band’s forthcoming EP at phantomsuns.bandcamp.com — it’s awesome. Then, find a torn flannel shirt, borrow mom’s car and get thee to the Monkey. Vetica and Workingman’s Army round out the bill.
Going for the new-local-band hat trick, sax player Dan Liptak unveils his latest venture, Wild Man Blues, this Wednesday, February 22, at Red Square. Liptak writes that the band — which includes local jazz vets Tom Morse, Greg Evans, Corey Beard, Don Einhorn and Jane Andrea — is an original Dixieland band that mixes in swing blues and second-line music. And just in time for Mardi Gras!
The Skinny Pancake in Montpelier has been running a well-received Sunday-evening series for several months now, featuring a variety of interesting local and regional acts. But this Sunday, February 26, they take it to another level with a pair of renowned fiddlers, Lauren Rioux from Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings and Brittany Haas of Crooked Still. If groovy fiddle music steeped in Appalachian grit is your jam, I strongly recommend it.
Once upon a time, there was a band called the Format, who traded in shamelessly hooky pop songs you’d practically have to be comatose not to like. But then, as bands do, they broke up. In their wake, a new group arose called Fun., featuring one of the main dudes from the Format. To the delight of Format fans, they released a debut record and … well, it kind of sucked. Yeah, it was similar, at least on the surface. The hooks were mostly there, the melodies catchy. But something was off. It was like when your mom tried to pass off store-brand chocolate-sandwich cookies as Oreos in your lunch box. Sure, it was sugary and chocolate-ish. But you could tell right away you’d been duped. Flash to 2012. Fun. is back with a new record, Some Nights. And guess what? It’s not gonna please Format fans, either. Or, as a coworker put it: “It’s like if the Format did the soundtrack to the Lion King.” Ouch. I mean, yeah, totally. But ouch. Anyway, I’m officially calling on Format fans to “occupy” the Higher Ground Ballroom when Fun. play on Wednesday, February 29, and not leave until they promise to start writing good songs again. Or reformat.
Speaking of Higher Ground, if you’re planning to check out Yacht at the Ballroom on Saturday, February 25 — and you should — do yourself a favor and get there in time to catch local indie-space-rock openers Errands. You’re welcome.
Last but not least, if you didn’t get enough Anders Parker in the Woody Guthrie story this week, his band Cloud Badge will be at the Monkey House this Saturday, February 25. BTW, Parker says the debut CB record is done, and he hopes to release it “sometime this year.” Fingers crossed.
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.
Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror
Shearwater, Animal Joy
Field Music, Plumb
Earth, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2
Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, Yim Yames, New Multitudes