Well, that was just awesome.
As I mentioned in last week’s column , I had incredibly high expectations for this year’s Higher Ground Comedy battle, which took place last Saturday in the Ballroom. To refresh, I posited that the unprecedented quality of last year’s battle, coupled with increased opportunity for local comedians to hone their chops at venues all over the state, meant that this year’s contest should be the best yet. I was not disappointed. OK, that’s a lie. I was disappointed once. But we’ll get to that.
As strong as last year’s lineup was, this year was indeed even stronger. Of the evening’s 15 contestants, you could have made a valid argument that at least eight deserved to be in the finals. And of the four finalists — Kyle Gagnon, Kit Rivers , Alex Nief and defending champ Nathan Hartswick  — any could have been rightly crowned. In fact, choosing a winner this year was almost impossible. Three of the four finalists received perfect scores on my ballot, and the fourth only lost one point. I know my fellow judges were similarly conflicted — and impressed.
Much like Carmen Lagala  was the surprise of the night and a clear audience favorite last year, Kit Rivers was astounding. She was raunchy, rude and utterly fearless. She scored my highest marks of the opening round and was perfect in the finals to boot — though that could be because I’m a sucker for a good dick joke. I’m grown-up like that.
Hartswick was on his game once again and provided perhaps the most memorable moment of the night. For his finals set, he performed a song eviscerating Higher Ground for the disparity between the grand prize — a meager $200 — and the amount of money the sold-out venue likely made — by his math … um, a lot more than $200. It was clever, biting and made everyone in the room just a little uncomfortable, which is what good comedy should do.
Alex Nief, where have you been? Though he once again made the finals, and once again didn’t win, he provided an equally compelling and hilarious musical moment of his own. Nief’s opening set was a single song, ruthlessly lampooning a certain notorious downtown dance club — rhymes with “shift.” I’m publicly demanding that Nief record that song immediately. And I want Craig Mitchell to sing backing vocals.
The evening’s host, Lee “the Butcher” Seelig, is hilarious. He gets overlooked, as the focus is justifiably on the competing comedians. But he’s often as entertaining as the contestants themselves.
The potential awkwardness between Levity owner Ryan Kriger and café manager Lagala was avoided when neither made the finals — though both turned in very funny sets. However, there could still be some lingering bitterness behind the counter as the evening’s champ, Kyle Gagnon, also works at Vermont’s only comedy club. Awkward! (Well, probably not, really. But work with me, OK?)
Gagnon was somewhat of a dark horse. In fact, he introduced his finals set by confessing he didn’t have material ready because — get this — he didn’t think he’d make it out of the first round. Really. So he pulled out a batch of “half-finished” jokes, told while absentmindedly strumming a ukulele. Honestly, his finals performance was even better than his first-round set, and he kind of reminded me of Demetri Martin’s bro-y, 21-year-old stepbrother.
There were a couple of weaker performances here and there, and the less said about Jordan Paquette’s set the better. By and large, though … ah, fuck it. I really didn’t want to have to do this. But someone’s gotta say it.
Paquette turned in the most offensive, unintelligent and, frankly, embarrassing performance in possibly the eight-year history of the Higher Ground Comedy Battle — or at least in the four years I’ve judged. In less than five minutes, Paquette somehow completed an offensiveness hat trick, presenting himself as a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist. By the time he got around to “joking” about having sex with his friend’s teenage daughters, the entire room was dumbstruck. So I guess we can throw in pedophile, too. Bonus.
Needless to say, it was ugly, and prompted the first boos I’ve ever heard at any show, comedy or otherwise, at Higher Ground.
Look, there are no sacred cows in comedy — or few, anyway. Far smarter and funnier people than I — Louis C.K., for one — have noted that, in the right hands, anything can be joked about. Race, politics, religion, sexual orientation, jam bands, 9/11, whatever. It’s all fair game. I mean, Jesus, C.K. himself does a bit about having sex with dead babies. Really.
But there’s a catch: It has to be funny. Thankfully, 14 of the 15 comedians at Higher Ground last Saturday were.
On to lighter subjects — which is kind of a weird line to write, considering we were just talking about standup comedy. I love Ryan Power . No, not in the way that would cause a bad comedian to joke about “the gays,” but in an I-respect-what-you-do-and-think-you-should-be-famous kind of way. And I’m not the only one. Word on the street is that Power has hooked up with the industrious lads at NNA Tapes  and will be releasing a new album with a new band, and that the label plans to shop it around nationally. NNA has seen its star rising of late, and has scored some good looks from media outlets around the country. The idea is to use those connections to help bring Power to a wider audience. And it’s about damn time. You can catch Power solo this Friday, January 27, opening for Rubblebucket  at the Higher Ground Ballroom.
Here’s an event Jordan Paquette probably won’t go to: the first-ever Pop-Up! A Queer Dance Party , on Saturday, January 28, at the Round-About Gallery Space in Winooski. Local DJs Llu and Chopper founded the monthly shindig on the belief that “the Vermont queer community is in dire need of a decidedly queer dance party,” particularly since fabled downtown haunt 135 Pearl closed five years ago. Future installments of the party will be held at other random and unusual spaces around the area — “pop up,” get it? — and will include a variety of entertainment, from drag queens to burlesque to bingo. Yes, bingo.
All right, bass heads, listen up. This Thursday, January 26, Club Metronome is hosting a massive EDM party, called Sub Zero 3, put together by your dubstep-lovin’ pals from 2K Deep . The show features, like, half the EDM DJs in town, including Haitian, Sleezy D, Sharkat and the Orator — among many others. It also has bass-music collective Mushpost  squaring off with the cats from Bass Culture  in a winner-take-all DJ Battle Royale in the Metronome Lounge. I’m laying 3-to-1 on Bass Culture. But speaking of Mushpost, check out the “official” pre-party earlier that evening in the cozy basement speakeasy at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill for some chill, downtempo beats.
Last but not least, I’m told you haven’t gotten your tickets for Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore  at the UU Church in Burlington this Sunday, January 29. As of press time, there were still plenty of tix left. What gives? There’s no football this Sunday. It’s not supposed to be terribly cold out. Oh, and he’s Thurston fucking Moore playing in a small church in Burlington. Consider yourselves scolded.
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.
Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur
Deerhoof/David Bazan, DeerBazan
Stealing Sheep, Noah and the Paper Moon
Etta James, Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions