Burlington is northern Vermont's nightlife hub on most nights. But the typically bustling Queen City could be a bit of a ghost town this weekend, May 1 to 3. Why? Because all the cool kids will be hanging out on the other side of the river in Winooski, taking in the sights and, more importantly, the sounds of Waking Windows 5.
Since its inception four years ago, the three-day music and arts festival has grown from an underground, countercultural upstart to a cornerstone of Vermont's spring/summer festival season. Thanks to the smarts, savvy and enthusiasm of its organizers — and maybe to a little dumb luck — Waking Windows appeals to a wide cross-section of music fans.
The festival's track record of identifying and booking cutting-edge bands — often ones just about to break out, such as Future Islands in 2011 and Speedy Ortiz last year — endears it to the picky hipster set. Typically a band or two on the roster appeals to more mainstream crowds, such as Titus Andronicus this year. The fest is also a comprehensive showcase of homegrown talent, satisfying Vermont's notorious appetite for all things local.
Waking Windows has struck a balance between maintaining its indie cred and fostering an inclusive environment where you don't have to be a cool kid to feel like one. Ducking in and out of music venues both conventional (the Monkey House) and otherwise (a wine bar, a hip resale shop, a church) on Winooski's roundabout, you can't help but get caught up in the thrill of it all. It's electric and seductive. Other festivals may be larger, offer more big names or trade more overtly on their localness. But Waking Windows is simply the coolest music festival in Vermont.
It began as a 12-day festival in Winooski in 2011. But Waking Windows' origins actually go back one year earlier to a little-known, short-lived event called the Other Music Festival. Developed and curated by experimental jazz drummer and Burlington expat Peter Negroponte, who currently lives and plays in Boston, OMF was devised as an alternative to the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. It ran for six days in the middle of BDJF at Burlington's North End Studios and carried a provocative tagline: "Discover other music."
Despite that pointed motto, Negroponte insisted the goal of the OMF wasn't to poke the bear that is the burly BDJF. Rather, he intended the fest to highlight factions of the local free-jazz and experimental-music scenes that he deemed underserved by Vermont's highest-profile festival.
"It's not really an anti-Jazz Fest thing," Negroponte said in a 2010 phone interview with Seven Days. "It's really just a chance for us to do our own thing. [BDJF] can do their thing, and we'll just have all the freaks who slip through the cracks."
OMF was a modest, if overmatched, success. But Negroponte decided not to hold the festival the following year. Enter Paddy Reagan and Nick Mavodones.
While the OMF was a genetic precursor to WW, the festival's concept was based on another regional event, the Thing in the Spring. That fest leans on underground music and uses the town of Peterborough, N.H., in much the same way that Waking Windows now settles into Winooski. Reagan, 31, and Mavodones, 34, had been booking shows in the Burlington area under the banner of Angioplasty Media. Noting the success of the Thing in the Spring, they decided to give a Winooski music fest a shot.
The first Waking Windows ran for 12 days in 2011 — not coincidentally, over the same 12 days as that year's BDJF.
"That probably killed our attendance," admits Reagan, speaking from Waking Windows' command center, the Monkey House.
The inaugural WW festival featured one showcase per night, all at the Monkey House. The acts ranged from local singer-songwriters and rock bands to more far-out shows in the spirit of the OMF, curated by the likes of local experimental composer Greg Davis and local micro-labels NNA Tapes and the now-defunct Mars Pyramid. Indie synth-pop band Future Islands anchored WW1, headlining the fest mere months before releasing their 2011 breakout record, On the Water.
"I think we managed to have every genre that year, except maybe hip-hop," says Reagan, adding that WW5 will correct that omission.
"It's funny," adds Brian Nagle, 28, a member of the core Waking Windows crew, "out of all the music we have this year, we don't really have any jazz, which was sort of the whole reason it started." Nagle curated a night at the original WW.
The following year, Reagan and Mavodones wisely decided to move the festival to early May so it didn't conflict with BDJF. The revitalization of Winooski had yet to take hold in 2012, and numerous empty storefronts still faced the Onion City's traffic circle. For WW2, Reagan and Mavodones used those spaces, including the former Stoplight Gallery and what is now the wine bar oak45. They also commandeered the Winooski United Methodist Church, the Block Gallery — now Scout & Co. — and a handful of smaller spaces. Waking Windows began to take shape.
"It made downtown Winooski seem a little more alive," recalls Reagan of WW2. "Like, instead of a bunch of people smoking in front of the Monkey, there were people smoking all around the rotary," he jokes.
"It felt more like a festival," agrees Nagle, noting that 2012 headliners such as the Blow, the Luyas and Death Vessel helped raise Waking Windows' profile.
That was also the first year Matt Rogers was involved. Formerly James Taylor's assistant tour manager, Rogers, now 30, had been running his own Burlington booking and promotions company, MSR Presents, and often copresented shows with Angioplasty Media. He currently works for Higher Ground, alongside Mavodones, where he helps book and manage off-site shows and festivals.
Rogers' music-biz experience and booking connections proved invaluable in streamlining the festival as it began to grow. Reagan says that attendance for Waking Windows has roughly doubled each year. If that trend holds true, this year's event might bring 8,000 to 10,000 visitors to town.
That seems optimistic, but Reagan doesn't think it's crazy. "I think it's reasonable to expect numbers close to that," he says.
It's no coincidence that the growth of Waking Windows has been contemporaneous with the blossoming of Winooski. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the festival drove the Onion City's renaissance, but it has certainly played a role. At the very least, the relationship between Waking Windows and the city of Winooski is symbiotic.
"As the festival has been growing and evolving with the city, the city has been growing and evolving with the festival," says Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard in a phone call.
"It's become part of the city's identity," Leonard continues. "Winooski has a strong artistic and musical history of being an inspired and creative culture. And I think more people are choosing to live in Winooski because of the culture we're seeing develop here." He adds, "There's real excitement and possibility, and I think the festival represents part of that."
While WW and Winooski have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship, the festival's impact is felt well beyond the one-square-mile city's boundaries.
"To me, the evolution of Waking Windows directly coincides with the growth and evolution of the music scene in Burlington, and all of Vermont, for that matter," writes Burlington's Bryan Parmelee in an email.
Parmelee played the first Waking Windows with his now-defunct band Parmaga. He's played the fest every year since and will do so again this year with his synth-pop duo Pours. He suggests that WW's organizers built the foundation for the recent explosion of new venues, festivals and booking agencies in Burlington and beyond.
"It's been amazing to see so many new venues and festivals popping up around Burlington," Parmelee says. "But none of this would be possible without the groundwork laid out by the WW crew. These new entities are piggybacking off of at least a decade of relationship building and respect garnering in the indie world, and it'd be impossible to overstate how much [WW's] efforts have benefitted every single music fan in this community in countless ways."
Following the success of last year's festival, Angioplasty Media and MSR Presents merged into a single entity, Waking Windows Presents, which also includes Nagle and Ali Fogel, 29, manager of the Monkey House. The crew has been booking shows under that banner to keep the Waking Windows brand in the public eye year-round.
Much like Winooski's signature rotary, those bookings have a certain circular symmetry. Last fall, the WWP crew presented Future Islands in a sold-out Higher Ground Ballroom. Days later, they brought in indie icons Neutral Milk Hotel for a two-night Ballroom run. Those shows were something of a reprise of the solo show that reclusive NMH front man Jeff Mangum played at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington in 2011, a joint venture between AM and MSR.
WW5 will present more than 100 bands over three days in 11 venues — including a large outdoor stage abutting the Champlain Mill, which will close Winooski Falls Way for portions of Saturday and Sunday. The festival's tendency toward circular recurrence will be evident in many of the acts slated to play.
Headliners such as Delicate Steve, Birdie Busch and J Fernandez have all played local shows previously booked by members of the Waking Windows crew. Ruth Garbus played the first WW and returns this year. Several years back, she also played a sparsely attended gig at the Monkey House with her old band Happy Birthday, which Reagan booked long before the Brattleboro-based act signed to Sub Pop Records. Happy Birthday then also included Kyle Thomas, better known as King Tuff, another WW5 headliner.
And then there is the festival's backbone: the scads of local musicians who come back year after year, acts such as Pours, Swale, Lowell Thompson, Maryse Smith and Blue Button, to name a few.
"It's cool developing these full-circle relationships with people," says Nagle. "It's cool to see that, as we're changing and growing, they are, too."
That goes for Winooski, as well.
"The underlying theme of Waking Windows is the revitalization of Winooski," notes Fogel. "Last year proved how successful the festival can be for local businesses. Everybody had so much fun and an amazing weekend in business. And that just makes the whole community want to be involved."
More than 100 bands are slated to play this year's Waking Windows festival, most of the cutting-edge variety. That's an embarrassment of indie-rock riches. But it does present a dilemma even for the most seasoned and knowledgeable rock fan: Where to begin?
What follows are capsule descriptions of seven bands featured at WW5 that we're pretty sure you won't want to miss. We're mainly focusing on some of the bigger names here. But don't be afraid to take a flyer on lesser-known bands, too. Half the fun of WW is discovering your new favorite band. And for a local take on the festival, turn to Soundbites on page 69.
The first thing that will grab you about Picture You Staring, the latest album from Montréal indie band TOPS, is its obvious affinity for the 1980s. In both mood and sonic feel, the album evokes classic '80s pop and soft rock. It's a throwback, but in a wholly reverential, nonironic way. TOPS aren't simply regurgitating a bygone era of cheesy synths and bad hair. They're putting a modern spin on a maligned era of music that, deep down, you know you love.
Recommended if you like (R.I.Y.L.): Prefab Sprout, Berlin, AquaNet
The bedrock beneath Brattleboro is composed of quartz crystal, and some have suggested that's why the tiny southern Vermont city resonates with such vibrant and unusual music and art. Few encapsulate the town's odd charm like Ruth Garbus — the sister of Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs renown, BTW. Garbus' idiosyncratic music is warmly lo-fi and curiously comforting, like soft rays of morning sunlight filtered through, well, a crystal.
R.I.Y.L.: Elliott Smith, Deerhoof, geology
It's appropriate that Cymbals Eat Guitars draw their name from a Lou Reed quote explaining why he didn't want a lot of cymbals on the Velvet Underground records. (Because "cymbals eat guitars," duh.) The New Jersey band doesn't sound anything like the Velvets — they take cues more from classic indie-rock bands such as Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. But CEG's attention to balancing competing sonic textures is readily apparent in their lush, sprawling indie jangle.
R.I.Y.L.: Built to Spill, Pavement, Lou Reed quotes
Birdie Busch makes a habit of defying expectations. Writes her hometown Philadelphia City Paper, "She's noisy when she might've hushed up, nervy when most are more relaxed, funny when others stay forlorn and dressy when she could be buttoned up." That's a long way of saying that her whimsical blend of folk, pop and psychedelia is thoroughly unpredictable and endlessly enjoyable.
R.I.Y.L.: Dr. Dog, Jolie Holland, whimsy
King Tuff is the pseudonym of Brattleboro's Kyle Thomas, formerly of the bands Witch and Happy Birthday. That latter act, which also featured B-boro's Chris Weisman and Ruth Garbus (see page 33), specialized in painting 1970s glam and power pop with a twee color palette. Left to his own devices as King Tuff, Thomas is similarly playful, but he inhabits a cartoonishly debauched rock-star persona. His 2014 release for Sub Pop Records, Black Moon Spell, is a gangly throwback of psych, glam and garage rock that plays like it was meant to be blasted from the eight-track of an El Camino — in a good way. All hail the king.
R.I.Y.L.: T. Rex, Hunx & His Punx, rockandfuckingroll
J Fernandez is often referred to as a "bedroom pop" auteur. And that's pretty accurate, provided your bedroom is a place where hazy fever dreams happen with some regularity. The Chicago-based songwriter's music has a woozy, surreal quality that is experimental by nature but rooted in identifiable pop archetypes. The result is a gently disorienting yet familiar collage of sounds that exists in the ethereal space between sleep and waking.
R.I.Y.L.: Vox Jaguar, Terry Riley, NyQuil dreams
Here's a fun fact about Delicate Steve, aka Steve Marion. For Marion's 2011 debut Wondervisions on David Byrne's Luaka Bop records, the label hired famed rock scribe Chuck Klosterman to anonymously write a fictional press release. Said release completely fooled both fans and the press with lines such as "This is like My Bloody Valentine minus the guitars." (MBV are, like, all guitars, by the way.) National Public Radio eventually exposed the (totally awesome) hoax. But gullible critics haven't seemed to hold a grudge against Marion. His kaleidoscopic, instrumental fusion of rock, surf and African rhythms has been praised by everyone from Pitchfork to SPIN to the New York Times.
R.I.Y.L.: Fang Island, Dirty Projectors, all the guitars
Waking Windows 5, Friday, May 1, 5 p.m. to 2:15 a.m.; Saturday, May 2, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; and Sunday, May 3, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., at various locations in downtown Winooski. $20-40. wakingwindows.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Full Circle"