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Fine Pining 

Music Preview: Pine Island

Published September 17, 2003 at 1:59 p.m.

In the mid-1970s, the epicenter of the Burlington acoustic music scene was a joint called The Opry, located in a warehouse-y brick monolith at 101 Main Street. Before it became the R.W. Hunt Mill & Mining Company -- later known simply as Hunt's -- and long before its current incarnation as Sh-Na-Nas, The Opry was a large, dark room with a good-sized stage at one end and a bar at the other.

The place hopped with the sounds of the old-timey Arm & Hammer String Band, country-style diva Nancy Beaven, outlaw folkies Michael Hurley and Frank Wakefield, the ever-popular Vermont songwriter Jon Gailmor and Burlington's proto-Celtic band Colcannon. Philo recording artists Mary McCaslin, Jim Ringer and Utah Phillips played out when they were in Vermont recording at the label's barn in North Ferrisburgh. And then there was Pine Island.

One of the first bluegrass bands in the region, the well-loved Pine Island also was arguably one of the very first "jazzgrass" bands anywhere. Many Vermont music fans still care deeply about their music. This Friday, they'll get one more chance to hear Pine Island live -- a first and probably once-in-a-lifetime chance for younger aficionados of the genre. All five of the original band members will regroup for a 30th-anniversary performance on the Flynn Mainstage.

Named after a dry spot in the middle of the swampy Burlington Intervale, Pine Island began as a trio in 1973 with Queen City natives Tim McKenzie and Jim McGinniss on guitar and stand-up bass, respectively, and banjo prodigy Gordon Stone, a transplant from Connecticut. Within the next three years, classically trained fiddler David Gusakov and hotshot mandolinist Jim Ryan joined the band; local dobro player and vocalist Dan Mahoney and crooner Susan Longaker came and went. Banjo player Chris Lee, from Saratoga Springs, New York, took over when Stone left the band in 1978.

Pine Island played lots of straight-ahead bluegrass, but mixed it up with Hank Williams, Fats Waller, grassed-up Rolling Stones, gypsy jazz and lots of fine originals. They played many clubs and festivals in Vermont, toured a bit around New England, and released three recordings on vinyl before disbanding in the late 1970s. That was not the end of the story, however. A lot more fine music has come from Pine Island members since the breakup.

Gordon Stone played a key role in Burlington's seminal new-wave/punk band The Decentz, and in Breakaway, a now defunct but well-respected local bluegrass band. He continues to excel on both banjo and pedal steel. Garnering some national kudos through his ongoing association with Phish, he also fronts his own Gordon Stone Band, performing at venues throughout the Northeast. He'll be releasing a CD with Phish bassist Mike Gordon in the next few months.

David Gusakov fiddles with Banjo Dan and the Mid-nite Plowboys -- the only local bluegrass band around in the 1970s that's still alive and kicking today. He also performs as a classical violinist with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and still plays gypsy jazz, primarily with The Will Patton Quartet.

Decentz co-founder Jim Ryan moved to Boston shortly after that band's demise in 1983. A long-time member of the alt-bluegrass band the Blood Oranges, he now tours with singer-songwriter Catie Curtis and fronts his own band, which recently released its debut CD.

Jim McGinniss played in a duo with Tim McKenzie for years, was a bassist for the fabled Burlington rock 'n' roll band The N-Zones, and now performs in an acoustic duo again, this time with local multi-instrumentalist Jim Daniels. Tim McKenzie has traveled the farthest from Vermont -- he now strums for two bands in Oregon.

Chris Lee remains one of the musical pillars of The McKrells, a traditional Irish band that packs 'em in around Saratoga Springs.

This week Stone, McGinniss, McKenzie, Gusakov and Ryan will find themselves back together in Burlington. What's in store? The newly released Pine Island ca. 1978 offers a sample. The retrospective disc features some of the band's original LP tracks -- long unavailable in any format -- along with some live concert material from '78 courtesy of the Vermont Public Radio vaults. All the band members are fine songwriters, innovative arrangers and crack musicians.

Gusakov is a daring fiddler, able to shift in half a measure from Kenny Baker to Stephane Grappelli and back again. McKenzie's guitar playing is so smooth you have to concentrate to hear him weave the jazz into the grass at top speed. Ryan was and still is one of the hottest mandolin players around. And then there's Stone, who can captivate listeners with a perfect, melodic banjo run and then turn it into a funk riff or ska chop.

Older music fans remember and revere Pine Island after all these years because they could really cook. Chances are, they still do. This won't just be a nostalgia show -- more like a big fat musical extravaganza. Pine Island never played the Flynn during their heyday, but now, 30 years later, their time has come. For old time's sake, too bad 101 Main wasn't available.

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Robert Resnik


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