Vermont Music Spirit Alive and Well: Artistry and community take precedence over profit at year's festivals

An intricate trellis bent into an archway shimmers with strings of lights against a dusky late-summer backdrop.

Stepping beyond this—through what feels like a portal protecting some sacred secret within—a bouncing playground of sounds and sensations emerges. Children spin hula hoops in front of a stage wafting tinkling guitar sounds into the evening. Adults line up with plates at an overwhelming organic buffet. Musicians laugh over cups of lager in an outdoor bar constructed of wood and draped with colorful tapestries. There is a feeling of camaraderie. There is an air of creativity. There is a whisper of endless summer.

Am I vicariously living through one of my parents' acid flashbacks, one may ask? Am I describing some sort of Human Be-In where Allen Ginsberg's ghost is about to roam through, banging a gong and looking on approvingly?

The truth is better than fiction. I'm describing Harvest Moon, an annual music festival tucked away in Middletown Springs that is very representative of the vibrancy of Vermont's festival scene. Harvest Moon has been put on, out-of-pocket, for the past eight years by Tom Moon and Corey Best. From Aug. 29 to 31, the state's best musical talent graced the stage, from Rutland hometown favorites George's Back Pocket and Duane Carleton and the Backwoods Messiahs to regional touring acts such as folk impresarios Rick Redington and the Luv to rising national sensations such as melodic improvisateurs Twiddle. Amid the established draws, there was room for newcomers such as Rutland grunge-rockers Gladstone—the new project of Samples bassist Jared Johnson, who's a Vermont favorite—as well as free food, free beer, parades and bonfire jams. One would think that such an event requires a hefty admission fee. But admission is always by donation only. Additionally, all the bands volunteer their performance. The festival is more about community, musicians supporting other musicians and good times in a creative atmosphere than about the large profit margins that dictate the flow of similar events dominating the national landscape.

And that is precisely what I, as a Chicagoan recently transplanted to Vermont, have noticed about the music festival scene here and in the Northeast at large: The blaring commercialism and sense of competition inherent in megaliths like Bonnaroo in Tennessee or Summer Camp in Illinois are simply not present. The musical community, as well as other artistic clans in Vermont, seems more focused on sharing, support and pooling resources to help promote everyone's work and instigate collaboration.

Essentially, it can be seen that Vermont loves Vermont, and, like a doting mother wanting to show off her children to the world, the state doesn't rest in its endless drive to make its musicians and their work readily available to the masses for next to nothing.

This has roots in the Northeast's role in the resurgence of outdoor music festival culture in the mid-1990s. Well-known pop history tells the story of faithful legions following the Grateful Dead for decades until the band's demise in 1995 following lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia's death. Grateful Dead shows had served as community-building institutions, and suddenly the masses had no community to follow. Ken Hayes, founder of the live-tape distribution outlet called Terrapin Tapes (named after a 1977 Dead album), decided to give his fellow fans an event that recaptured the spirit of this traveling music-lover's society, titled "Deadhead Heaven: A Gathering of the Tribe." It took place in 1996 at SUNY Purchase in New York.

The following year saw the festival relocated to Crown Point Park, N.Y., and renamed "Gathering of the Vibes." As any music fan in the Northeast knows, Gathering of the Vibes has been going strong for 12 years now—with Bridgeport, Conn., as its home—and is one of the biggest and most successful music festivals in the country, having retained that original noncommercial atmosphere despite tens of thousands of patrons and internationally renowned acts on two stages. Soon after GOTV's inception, similar multiday events started popping up around the country, all of them inspired by the same nostalgic spirit. They carried the torch of '60s and '70s events such as Woodstock, which had diminished considerably, yet possessed a new set of ideals for a new era. Soon the market expanded and there were dozens of festivals every summer and fall. Then hundreds. Sniffing untapped profit, promoters began to diversify line-ups and soon came palaces of excess like the aforementioned Bonnaroo, carrying a $275 ticket price and showcasing hip-hop and electronica artists alongside roots-rock mainstays.

And let's not forget a tiny phenomenon that was brewing in Vermont around the same time as the first GOTV … a little thing called Phish—which, incidentally announced its first tour dates Wednesday morning after a four-year hiatus, set to hit March 6 to 8 in Hampton, Va., amidst much fanfare among the band's substantial community of fans.

Presently, the Northeast literally leads the country in variety and number of music festival offerings, with events well into fall despite plummeting temperatures. Jambase.com, the respected and comprehensive music database, lists 18 festivals still coming up, slated between this weekend and November. This number ties with the Southeast and towers over the Midwest, South, Mountain and Pacific regions. Highlights include Camp Jam in the Pines in Monroeville, N.J., Sept. 18 to 20, featuring Ryan Montbleau Band, The Bridge and Entrain, among others; Harvest Celebration in Redfield, N.Y., Sept. 25 to 28, with Max Creek and Juggling Suns; and Back River Farm Festival in Dover, N.H., Oct. 10 to 12, with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Roots Nation.

The tagline for the latter attests to the spirit patrons will likely find at these events: "A celebration of music and community." Bring your tent and leave your cares and money roll behind.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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This article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald on 10/2/2008. www.rutlandherald.com Published here with the author's permission.

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