For Higher Ground's Alex Crothers, the show must go on... outdoors
It had been a blisteringly hot day, the day that Howard Dean officially announced his bid for the presidency in downtown Burlington. But by evening the air had eased into balmy-and-slightly-humid, which perfectly suited the mellow crowd of 3000 nestled on a slope of Shelburne Museum lawn. And here two other high-ranking Vermonters turned out to laud not one of their political peers but an American icon of a different stripe: Willie Nelson.
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Congressman Bernie Sanders not only introduced the legendary Texan singer-songwriter and Farm Aid activist, but also kicked off the Shelburne summer concert series with a gravitas mere musical events don't normally receive. On stage, the 70-year-old Nelson flashed his humble grin at a cheering audience that ranged from toddlers to senior citizens. And somewhere on the hillside, 28-year-old concert promoter Alex Crothers must have relaxed, just a little, and smiled in relief.
This, after all, is what Crothers seems to live for: a sold-out concert; happy, well-behaved fans; a perfect night. Even the traffic control on Route 7 was nearly flawless. Then again, it's all about the music.
That might sum up why Crothers and his three partners -- Kevin Statesir, Rob Hintze and Matt Sutte -- opened Higher Ground five and a half years ago. After the demise of Burlington's Club Toast, the Win-ooski nightclub became the area's premier live-music venue, hosting popular local bands along with a remarkable assortment of nationally touring acts. From alt-country Mary Gauthier to hardcore Godsmack to jazz legend John Scofield, Crothers has booked just about every genre imaginable into the club.
The only thing the musicians seem to have in common is a certain level of quality and originality. Vermonters "love authentic, real music," Crothers suggests. "People know the difference between shlock and true talent; they have a discerning palate."
That observation guided the booking decisions for Higher Ground's second go at the outdoor concert business -- last summer Crothers and company took a modest first step with a jam/bluegrass package of bands on the Shelburne hillside. The success of that show encouraged the promoters, museum and town to quadruple the offerings this year. Willie Nelson, Grammy-winning bluegrass star Allison Kraus and National Public Radio's Garrison Keillor sold out almost immediately. There are still some tickets left for Tracy Chapman, performing this Sunday, perhaps because the singer-songwriter has been out of the limelight in recent years.
"Three out of four isn't bad," approves Burlington concert-meister Jay Strausser. "They picked good talent." The proprietor of All Points Booking, now 45, has been putting shows together since 1981 and has seen his share of wild successes and miserable bombs. Along with the directors of the Vermont Mozart Festival, the Champlain Valley Folk Festival and other summer staples, Strausser is intimately familiar with the risks of outdoor concert promotion in Vermont. "You watch the weather like crazy," he notes. "It's nice when you've sold out in advance and don't have to worry as much."
Worry, that is, not just about losing the sun but losing your shirt. Strausser is laying off big concerts this summer while he recovers from a skiing accident that smashed his tibia. But personal health concerns aside, he's not optimistic about the state of the music business in general: Sales have fallen in recorded music while, with live shows, ticket prices, insurance costs and artist demands continue to rise. Though he calls Shelburne Museum "a wonderful venue," Strausser believes artists such as Willie Nelson or Allison Kraus could have sold at least another thousand in a larger place. "I just say, 'God bless 'em,' but 3000 is just too small to make a lot of money."
The capacity is roughly the same at Burlington's North Beach, where Crothers booked a less-than-sold-out show this past Monday evening -- and once again lucked out with picture-perfect weather. The triple bill of Nickel Creek, Great Big Sea and The Gibson Brothers came together serendipitously, Crothers reports, and it was impossible to resist. The hot young neo-bluegrass band Nickel Creek is an act he'd been trying to get for more than two years.
But it was too late to add another show to the Shelburne Museum series, and the draw was too large for an indoor show at Higher Ground. "There are a lot of restrictions at Waterfront Park that I wasn't too keen on. Stacey Steinmetz [of Magic Hat] suggested North Beach," Crothers says, noting no concerts had taken place there since a reggae show more than a decade earlier. "Parks and Rec was enthusiastic; we did a site visit, and it all came together in three days."
The Higher Ground crew erected "a secure perimeter" with six-foot-high fencing to enclose the concert area. "People can hear but not see the show without paying for it," Crothers says. "And aesthetically, North Beach is fantastic." Though a little shy in ticket sales -- and therefore a money-loser -- the show was a success from the audience point of view, Crothers surmises. And despite some issues -- bugs, vehicle access on tight roads -- he says optimistically, "I'd consider it a viable concert venue in the future."
Long before Higher Ground opened its doors, Alex Crothers was drawn to selling bands; talking up his latest discovery seems to come as naturally as breathing. Tall and lanky, he's got a direct, hazel-eyed gaze and manner that's equal parts affable and intelligent. The Maryland native has an almost-Southern charm without the drawl, a relaxed confidence that inspires trust. Think a younger, hipper Jimmy Stewart who happens to know a ton about music.
And whether he's promoting yet another return of reggae legends Toots and the Maytals or breaking a newcomer such as My Morning Jacket ("Neil Young meets Lynyrd Skynard meets Granddaddy"), Crothers has always plied local media with the diligence of a Jehovah's Witness. Weekly phone calls touting the club's offerings are promptly followed by hand-delivered press kits, photos, CDs. Somehow, this comes without pressure, without wheedling; it's just Look how great this band is. "If we got bigger, I'd hire a P.R. person," Crothers speculates. "But I like talking to you guys." Meaning talking about music.
Reluctantly conceding to an interview about himself, Crothers can't help diverting attention to the melodic pop-rock emanating from an impressive stack of sound equipment in his living room: It's Sam Roberts, "a young Canadian performer who's tearing up the charts right now" -- in Canada, that is. Crothers happens to be presenting the performer to Vermont next month at Higher Ground. (Later, he proffers the CD. "Here, take it," he says graciously. "I think you'll like it.")
Nothing about his upbringing augured Crothers' predilection for promotion -- unless it was the fact that he's "the son of a self-employed insurance salesman." But by high school he was booking bands for events. At the University of Vermont, he was an environmental studies major who realized he wanted to be in the music business. His senior thesis, which sat on his desk unfinished for five years, was on "the sustainability of festivals" -- research included cases studies at Phish, Grateful Dead and Solarfest shows. (His conclusion? That festivals cannot be completely sustainable because solar technology is not yet good enough for the power draw.)
Every summer throughout college, Crothers immersed himself in the industry: He interned for a touring Virginia band called Everything; for RCA's A&R department ("I'd go see three or four bands every night and listen to demos all day."); for Solarfest; for Dionysian Productions, the outfit behind Phish. Crothers continued working at Dionysian for about a year after college; it was there he met Kevin Statesir, the brother-in-law of Phab Phour guitarist Trey Anastasio. As for the other soon-to-be partners, Rob Hintze was a friend from UVM; Matte Sutte was a friend of Statesir's.
Crothers calls the transition to Higher Ground a "natural evolution" where each of the principals has found his niche: Statesir is general manager, Hintze is the bar and plant manager, Sutte the production manager. Crothers hesitates before deciding on his own title: "talent buyer, marketing and promotions."
Because of his role, Crothers has become the public face of Higher Ground, but he underplays this. "For me it's been very natural. It was very exciting starting the club and you don't really think about it much, it's just ingrained... You just do what you have to do to promote and market the shows."
Crothers suggests Higher Ground has grown incrementally because of cautious, careful choices. "We prided ourselves on taking it one step at a time and never biting off more than we could chew," he says. The partners gradually found their footing at Higher Ground -- despite working "under the dark cloud" of a long-awaited Winooski revitalization project that continually threatens to dislocate the club. Under current revised plans, "There will be no changes for us until at least the end of the year," Crothers says, ruefully acknowledging that he said the same thing last year. "The positive side is, it's got people talking about us, and they care," he adds.
With the uncertainties and escalating costs of the nightclub business -- insurance alone was an astounding $37,000 this year, Crothers reveals -- you'd think the Higher Ground crew would be scanning the employment ads. Instead, they've upped the ante.
Three years ago Crothers booked his first Flynn shows -- Guster and G. Love, followed by String Cheese Incident -- both of which sold out. Since then the club has produced 311, moe. and Gov't Mule at Memorial Auditorium, as well as Mickey Hart, G. Love and Leftover Salmon, Guster, and Wilco at the Flynn. Only Hart, the former Grateful Dead percussionist, tanked. Scheduled in August, the show may have failed because "There were no students, it's hard to get people indoors in the summer, and we may have overestimated his draw," Crothers concedes.
It was one of few misses for the young entrepreneur -- at least outside Higher Ground. There, in addition to numerous "hits," many a promising but unknown act has failed to attract a crowd, artists have canceled at the last minute, weather has kept people and touring bands away, and post-9/11 insecurities have dampened the economy in general. Add Vermont's small population base and "liquor laws that are unlike any others in the country," and a nightclub looks like the poster child of Risky Business.
"It's really hard," Jay Strausser states flatly. "I take my hats off to those guys [at Higher Ground]; I know they've been struggling with the club lately. But the fact that the shows at Shelburne Museum do well de-monstrates there is a market for live music. Alex knows what he's doing; he's aggressive, he's a lot younger and has a lot of energy. And," Strausser adds wryly, "he's got two good legs -- that's more than I've got right now."
Crothers -- who plans to co-produce a Susan Tedeski show at the Flynn this fall with Strausser -- now knows as well as his elders do the hazards and disappointments of his chosen career. But he talks like a long-married man who's still madly in love with his wife. The joy comes, he says, "in finding a band that's undiscovered, just bubbling up, and allowing people to discover them. For me," Crothers continues, "it all comes back to that moment at a live concert when you had that epiphany. Regardless of the woes of the music industry, there is nothing like live music. And I get to throw a party practically every night of the week.