Sometimes, I’m really glad I fire my shots from behind the relative safety of a keyboard. I can envision few scenarios more truly terrifying than standing onstage in front of a roomful of inebriated strangers and trying to make them laugh. To those brave few who willingly put their lives and wits on display in the flesh for all the world to judge — and in some cases, harass — I salute you. Heartily.
Such was the case last Sunday at the Higher Ground Ballroom, the site of the Fifth Annual Higher Ground Comedy Battle, as 12 of the region’s finest standup comics performed in a no-holds- — or rather, jokes — barred comedic donnybrook. And I gotta say, there are some funny people around these here Green Mountains.
If you are just joining us, I volunteered to reprise my role as a vastly underqualified assessor of comedic talent by again serving on the judge’s panel, “American Idol”-style. This time around, I was joined by the original Vermont comedy diva herself, Josie Leavitt. I imagine she was there to give some shred of comedic legitimacy to our quorum, because rounding out the jury was — I’m not making this up — Jon Fishman. Yes, that Jon Fishman. More on him in a bit.
Unlike past incarnations, this year’s contestants were formally auditioned prior to the big night to ensure maximum hilarity. And, by and large, it worked — although a full quarter of the evening’s participants are or were Higher Ground employees . . . um, coincidence?
Anyway, the evening featured a number of familiar faces, including last year’s champ, Roger Miller. The usually easygoing Miller seemed a bit off his game, failing to defend his crown, or even make the finals. Though he did bring one rowdy — read: obnoxious — cheering section with him from Johnson State College.
Three-time contestant Tracie Spencer simply killed and rightfully made the finals. With an easy, measured delivery and subtly dry wit, she was arguably the most polished comic of the evening.
Alex Nief — dubbed “the Susan Lucci of the HG Comedy Battle” by emcee Lee “The Butcher” Seelig — made his third finals appearance. And he was once again denied the crown, albeit through no fault of his own. Neif — a.k.a. the Buffalo Bills of Vermont standup . . . OK, that was low — is among the region’s finest comics, possessing a rare combination of commanding stage presence, razor-sharp wit and utter fearlessness. Like any great comic, he makes his audience feel just uncomfortable enough. He was also the only performer of the night readily equipped to handle the numerous hecklers in the crowd.
(Note to hecklers: I know it goes with the territory in comedy, but nobody pays to listen to you, especially at a largely amateur event. So shut the fuck up. Please.)
As typically solid as the veteran comics were, the night unquestionably belonged to new blood. First-time contestant and finalist Kellie Fleury was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the evening. Quick and insightful, she was an instant crowd favorite. Her only flaw was a tendency to rush her delivery. Not bad for a newbie, all things considered.
Boston’s Kevin Anglin, another first-timer, took home the top prize, winning the hearts of judges and crowd alike. Affable and poised, Anglin had the look and feel of a seasoned pro. And he was flat-out hysterical. As the winner, he’ll be tabbed to open for one of the bigger-name comics coming up on the HG schedule. Keep an eye out. Trust me.
Also of note was beleaguered bouncer Mikey VanGulden. Though more storyteller than comic, the impossibly effervescent VanGulden was legitimately funny. Given everything the man has dealt with in the last year, it was nothing short of heartwarming, not only just to see him onstage but to see him succeed.
Finally, there was Higher Ground cook TJ Lippie, whose performance was eerily reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s toast in The Wedding Singer. Only with more booze. And profanity. And booze.
In what might have been the most awkward moment in the history of . . . well, Vermont, Lippie greeted the crowd and then addressed Fishman with a meaty middle finger. He then went on to rip into Phish and hippies with shocking, drunken aplomb. Yikes.
With no disrespect intended to Mr. Lippie’s work, I’d like to submit a couple of “educational” observations:
1. Insulting a judge probably isn’t the best way to curry favor, generally speaking.
2. Poking fun at Phish and their fans is my job, thank you very much.
Now that we’ve filled the annual comedy quota for 2009, let’s move on to some music, shall we?
Jazz heads take note, consummate guitar badass Nick Cassarino is back in Burlington with two shows this Friday: an early gig at the Marriott Harbor Lounge, and one for the night owls at Parima. Welcome home, Nick.
Speaking of jazz, those looking to get in on the fun themselves should swing by Richmond’s On the Rise Bakery this Friday as ace trombonist — note that I didn’t use “tromboner” . . . such restraint! — Dan Silverman hosts his semimonthly open-jazz sessions. The key word in that sentence (hint: it is not “tromboner”) is “open.” Anyone and everyone who would like to participate, regardless of skill level, is encouraged to do so.
Nectar’s kicks off the next installment of its monthly Live Recording Residencies with The Kelly Ravin Trio, every Wednesday in February. The first two weeks, Ravin and Co. will be joined by Maryse Smith’s The Rosesmiths — basically Smith and alt-whatever darlings Cannon Fodder. Closing out the month is the Zach Dupont-led outfit Stacked.
If you missed out on tix to the sold-out Collie Buddz show at Higher Ground this Friday, take heart. He’s performing the following night at Stowe’s Rusty Nail.
A brand-new alt venue opened in Middlebury last week called The Art House; it’s located in the Marbleworks Building on Maple Avenue. Venerable local duo Russ Lawton and Ray Paczkowski played the venue’s maiden voyage on Friday. This Saturday, noted local folk traditionalists Atlantic Crossing test the waters.
The new season of WRUV’s long-running live local music series “Exposure” gets underway on Wednesday, February 4, at 8 p.m. with Verm . . . er, Boston’s Pretty & Nice. This semester, rather than performing in the cramped confines of the station’s newish digs, bands are recording live at Egan Media beforehand, so the sound quality should be better than ever. And the upcoming schedule promises to be dynamite. Tune in.
If you find yourself in Montpelier this Friday, swing by Langdon Street Café and catch local singer Charlie Messing. He recently sent along a live recording from a show at The Skinny Pancake. Not for review, mind you. Just for me to listen to. Though I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, I haven’t been able to stop.
Finally, here’s your weekly Monkey House update: The town is abuzz about this Friday’s CD release party from local electro-indie-pop outfit June Debris, the brainchild of Jonny Wonser. Until now, the “one-man-band-plus-guests” has had only a single show as Wonser worked to perfect the LP and his live act. So we don’t know much about the project yet, except for this snippet from Wonser himself: “The whole experience is just a giant clusterfuck of fun for me!” Sold.