On a recent Thursday at Parima’s Acoustic Lounge, Burlington-based singer-songwriter Joe Adler is wrapping up another installment of his weekly Burgundy Thursdays series. From his barstool perch, acoustic guitar balanced on his leg, he thanks his audience for coming. Moving to unplug his guitar, he pauses at a voice calling from the back of the room. Waving a harmonica, a college kid asks if Adler has “anything in G.”
Moments later, Adler is singing harmony on the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away,” accompanied by singer, showman — and Parima waiter — Aaron Burroughs on piano. The harmonica player sits in front of them, trying to keep up. It is nearly midnight, but the remaining crowd of stragglers is clearly enjoying the impromptu encore. But then, that’s just how Burgundy Thursdays roll.
Spontaneity and variety define the weekly series. Hours earlier, the show began with a performance by pianist Amber deLaurentis, a jazz voice instructor at the University of Vermont who sang heartfelt love songs. Marty Power, a jazz guitarist whose quartet featured three UVM students, followed with a hot set of bebop standards. Next, local pop-rock goddess Missy Bly knocked out the crowd with impossibly catchy songs about such timeless subjects as Dracula and soda pop.
“When are you going to see Missy Bly preceded by a four-piece jazz band playing all these standards?” Adler asks a few nights later over a beer.
Adler founded Burgundy Thursdays in October 2009, following talks with Parima co-owner Daryl Campney. He had hoped to create a regular series centered on local and regional songwriters. But Adler was careful to steer clear of more traditional open mic or in-the-round-style settings. Instead, he says his goal is to offer “more of a show, a presentation.”
Adler likes to book performers from a variety of genres and styles, people unlikely to appear together anywhere else in town. Local songwriters as stylistically divergent as neo-soul siren Myra Flynn, cosmo-rural crooner Brett Hughes, rocker Steph Pappas and folk guru Rik Palieri, among many others, have either played Burgundy Thursdays or are scheduled for upcoming shows.
The mashup of talent and styles gives the evening a loose, anything-goes feel. On the harmonica–guy night, Power’s backing band of students occasionally misses changes. Bly stops a song more than once, and even tries playing one riff several times, adamant that she could remember how it starts.
Somehow, it all works.
“I love that you can really play anything,” deLaurentis says via email. “Covers, originals, whatever.”
“It’s definitely the kind of thing that I’ve always really wanted to find — not necessarily ever thought about cultivating or curating,” Adler says. “For me, it feels less like a booking job than just planning a party every week.”
While Adler’s booking approach makes Burgundy Thursdays a casual, who’s-who-in-Burlington get-together, there is a silent partner, equally important to the evening’s relaxed atmosphere: the room itself.
Parima’s Acoustic Lounge, aka the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, is a long, rectangular space set apart, and a few steps down, from the bustle of the main restaurant. Mirrors line each long wall and red cloth banners hang from the ceiling. There’s a smattering of tables, chairs and deep couches, and a small stage and baby grand piano at the far end.
“I typically end my emails with ‘BYOO’ — Bring Your Own Opium,” jokes Aaron Flinn, a veteran of both the Acoustic Lounge and Burgundy Thursdays. The local songwriter was part of a special Burgundy Thursdays band last December that featured Adler and mandolinist Eric Segalstad and covered Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. At a more recent edition of BT, the same band covered Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy.
Jokes aside, the room’s decorative style could easily be defined as “opium-den chic.” It’s the perfect spot to order a glass of wine, sink into a plush couch, and let the night unfold.
Adler says the Lounge feels “like you’re in a living room.” And he agrees that it’s a big influence on the Burgundy Thursdays vibe.
“That’s what I get from the artists who play,” he says. “It’s so nice to have a listening room where people can come and listen to the songs and not be drowned out by a bar or noise in the background. You’ve got a room where people can sit down, and if they want to go have a chat, there’s a bar outside, behind a closed door.”
Joshua Panda, who has played both the bigger room with his electric band and the Acoustic Lounge for Burgundy Thursdays, agrees.
“I think Burgundy Thursdays offer Burlington a relaxed environment where, as in my case, you can drop in and see the sweaty, wailing, shaking front man of the Joshua Panda Band singing his softer and more living-room-friendly songs.”
Adler says attendance has ranged from “sparse” to standing room only; most nights the room is “about half-packed.”
“We played in front of a standing-room-only crowd,” says Segalstad of the Nebraska performance. “People literally sat on the mic cables in front of the stage.’”
On another recent Thursday, a lineup including Justin Levinson and Myra Flynn played to a fluctuating crowd. At one point there were about 10 people, and the room was comfortably full an hour later.
Flynn sat down at the piano to the largest audience of the night. The room bubbled with conversation, as folks enjoyed their drinks and friends. The moment she started singing, however, extraneous noises came to a halt. Flynn is a commanding performer who can stop conversations mid-syllable. If only her powers extended to stifling electronics. A song or two later, a loud, garish cellphone ring cut through the room. Gamely, Flynn played on … as the guy with the phone answered the call in the back of the room.
Over Facebook the next morning, Adler pointed out that the guy could have taken two steps and been outside the door. But then, he added, “On a more positive note, nice hanging out last night, fun show!” We then considered the merits of his medley combining The Who’s “See Me, Feel Me” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”
Did it work? Of course. Because that’s how Burgundy Thursdays roll.
Catch Burgundy Thursdays with Joe Adler at the Parima Acoustic Lounge weekly at 9 p.m. Free.