In Burlington, fans and critics applaud new and original music of just about every type. And yet audiences have been turning out en masse for something old: canonized rock albums played live in their entirety. Though bands have done this occasionally for years — think Phish's New Year's Eve album-oriented sets — the current local trend seems to have begun with a charitable event: Hug Your Farmer.
In 2012, in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, a group of creative and civic- minded people at Select Design hosted a benefit concert at Higher Ground for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont's Farmer Emergency Fund. The event concurrently celebrated drummer Levon Helm, who had recently passed, in a Last Waltz-style carousel of the Band tunes.
The evening's resounding success prompted a Rolling Stones edition of Hug Your Farmer. The Select Design crew went on to collaborate with Signal Kitchen and Zero Gravity brewery in producing seven more sold-out tribute nights, calling them the Select Sessions.
These events have presented the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Police's Synchronicity and other classic albums. While the tributes honor past beloved bands and the album as an art form, Select Design marketer and designer Chuck Mauro says the musicians interpret, not just replicate, the material and thus also create something new. "To do it artistic justice, you can't just copy it," he says. The Select Sessions have included top-notch local musicians such as Lowell Thompson, Joshua Panda, Bob Wagner, Clint Bierman and others.
Other homage-paying ventures around town include Dead Set, the weekly roundtable of Grateful Dead covers at Club Metronome that consistently draws a full crowd. In Winooski, the Monkey House has hosted nights devoted to Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, the Pixies, LCD Soundsystem, Lou Reed, David Bowie and others. Dark Side of the Mountain, an ensemble led by Nocturnals drummer Matt Burr and Wagner, revived Pink Floyd for a few shows at Nectar's in Burlington and the Rusty Nail in Stowe, and have a few more shows in the works.
On a recent Tuesday night, a bizarre mix of Frank Zappa devotees and neophytes crowded Club Metronome in Burlington to hear a faithful performance of Zappa's seminal 1979 rock opera, Joe's Garage. Guitarist Dan Davine tastefully channeled Zappa's prodigal, wah-wah-soaked wailing, while the ubiquitous Wagner launched off bluesier bits such as "Watermelon in Easter Hay." Panda executed the demanding vocal duties of the story's protagonist with elegant poise, and other local musicians and guest actors rounded out the cast.
Under a bare bulb and dressed in a bathrobe, Nectar's talent buyer/manager/partner Alex Budney stood offstage as the opera's narrator, the Central Scrutinizer.
A few days prior to his performance, Budney sat in his airy office perched above Metronome and ruminated over the city's flourishing love affair with tribute acts. He has no qualms about tribute nights being "easier to promote" due to the built-in audiences, but he also ascribes their proliferation to the fetishization of "classic albums" and the unique talent pool in town that is skilled and willing enough to learn them.
Brett Hughes, the venerated host of the Radio Bean's Honky Tonk Tuesday, Monoprix guitarist and more, reflected on the tribute tendency recently from a back table at Burlington's ¡Duino! (Duende).
"I think it's just human nature," he said. "We're both sentimental and driven to crave novelty. Maybe that's what tribute nights satisfy on some level."
Like Budney, Hughes also attributes the cover nights to an impressive quality of musicians banding together.
"This is a town of great songs and great songwriters," he said. "Burlington has a deeper bench and more people collaborating on greater levels. It's never been better."
Hughes also regards the tribute nights as a mark of "our mashup society" and "digital culture," where exposure to the sheer quantity of music is unprecedented. He doesn't view tributes as a threat to originality, but said he would draw the line if musicians did abandon being "themselves" to focus more on being like other, past bands.
Tribute nights have another benefit for musicians: they can hone the technique and nuance in their playing. Dan Munzing, leader of the on-hiatus band Errands, plays in Dark Side of the Mountain and recently hosted a Flaming Lips tribute show at the Monkey House. He and his band covered Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in its entirety. Learning another band's material, he said in a phone conversation, makes him more confident in his own songs and forces him to get outside of his knowledge of music. Munzing also appreciates the caliber and diversity of musicians with whom he collaborates in the tributes. And, like Mauro and Budney, he sees the events as an opportunity for musicians to increase their exposure.
Munzing recognizes audiences' hesitation to take chances on unfamiliar material as "a huge problem," but said it's just the reality for musicians. Regardless, he abides by Hughes' credo: "I would never want to do tributes to the point where it would not give me enough time to work on original music," Munzing said.
Indeed, the originality of local bands and songwriters shows no sign of weakening against the recent upswing in album "interpretation." While committing the acid-drenched Yoshimi to memory, Munzing was simultaneously prepping for a tour with Ryan Power, just one of many original Burlington musicians carving out his own niche in the canon.
So tribute nights don't necessarily indicate the downslope of a cultural zenith, as some detractors fear. People just like what they know.