From Grace Potter to a thriving apres band scene to informal fireside jamming on winter nights.
Though the magical night happened many years ago now, anyone present remembers the music so well. Relive the moment: a young woman emerging through the crowd’s hushed stillness under a stunning star-filled evening of purple twilight, sinuously tapping a tambourine against her right thigh, keeping rhythm to her soulful wailing chorus: “Nothing but the water is gonna set my soul free.” The chanteuse? Waitsfield-born musician Grace Potter—homegrown songwriter, pianist, and now frontwoman for her band the Nocturnals, celebrating the release of the album that would put them on the musical map. Everyone listening that remarkable night at American Flatbread, seated on the cool bonfire-lit grass, flanked by the Mad River and the Green Mountains, understood we were witnessing a star being born.
For every Grace Potter who makes it big, there are countless Mad River Valley residents who infuse this neck of the Vermont woods with musical mojo. Talk with anyone about music’s role in the Valley, and three themes quickly emerge: community, diversity, and incubation. Locals and visitors alike are hip to Harwood Union High School’s top-notch theater program and impressive choral, band, and jazz band performances, while the Green Mountain Valley School’s hard-training athletes muster an annual autumn musical that delights audiences of all ages. “We’ve got an extraordinary musical community here in the
Mad River Valley,” explains Sugar Shack guitarist Gary Frankel of Waitsfield, who works as a social worker and therapist to feed his music habit. “People here like to listen and they like to play, and this give-and-take feeds a thriving scene.” Warren’s musical wunderkind Chicky Stoltz, an equally accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist, and drummer, agrees. “I get to gig with amazing musicians who are parents and professionals by day,” Stoltz says. “But at night, they rock out.” How to explain it? “The music in the Mad
River Valley seems to come from the celebration of our surroundings, our quality of life, and a collaboration between young and old,” says entrepreneur Jeff Mack, the driving force behind the Valley’s annual Vermont Music Fest.
Mad River music fans quickly discover that every Valley season offers something to satisfy. Winter weekends witness après-ski bands performing at three different ski mountains. In terms of Sugarbush, “We have performances in the Wünderbar, Castlerock Pub, Green Mountain Lounge, and Timbers Restaurant, with a wide variety of musical styles ranging from acoustic folk to jazz to rock featuring some of Vermont’s finest musicians,” says entertainment coordinator Tom Hooper, a drumming dervish who regularly sits in with some of Vermont’s most popular bands. No wonder Sugarbush Resort got the “best après-ski music” award from Vermont Ski & Ride magazine.
Down in the Valley, meanwhile, year-round venues like the Localfolk Smokehouse and the Big Picture Café & Theater offer access to intimate musical acts in cozy settings. “Live music creates community by allowing both musicians and listeners to interact and develop a shared relationship through songs—it’s that simple,” explains Big Picture booking agent Asah Rowles. “We try to offer different music flavors for everyone in a family-friendly environment with local food and drink and an intimate living-room-like setting.” Next time you are in the Big Picture, don’t forget to notice the decade-old framed photograph of Grace Potter and her Nocturnals, a reminder that it takes a whole Valley to raise a musician. Good music starts at home, and the winter months offer plenty of time for informal jamming by the fireside.
Summer, meanwhile, sees the Valley explode with a diverse array of musical events, bookended by Sugarbush’s June Brew-Grass Festival (bluegrass, beer, and good local fare) and August’s month-long Festival of the Arts, featuring painters, sculptors, and, yes, musicians of every description. And don’t forget the farms and barns for which the Valley is famous. Hear live music at the weekly farmers’ markets on Waterbury Common (Thursday afternoons) and in Waitsfield (Saturday mornings). Looking for diversity? Catch the incendiary energy of the Valley’s annual musical barn burners: Waitsfield’s Skinner Barn for professional theatrical performances, including musicals; the Lareau Farm Inn for live jazz; the Round Barn for Green Mountain Opera; the Mad River Barn for a weekly acoustic series; and Warren’s Phantom Theater for … ? Well, you just have to track down their schedule to know for sure, but it is often something musically mysterious and cutting-edge.
“Music,” the legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey once said, “washes away the dust from everyday life.” I first heard this nugget from Blakey’s own son Gamal, a longtime Valley resident, who showed up at the Big Picture a few years back during a Wednesday Valley night (think local bands and beer on tap). My band, the Phineas Gage Project, happened to be playing, and Gamal sat in for our rendition of the Dave Matthews Band’s archetypal tune “41,” suddenly scatting over the top of our three-part melody in an otherworldly voice that transported listeners to another continent. The locals at the bar went wild, people took to a makeshift dance floor in front of the tiny stage, and suddenly we had a full-fledged dance party on our hands. Such is the power of music in the Mad River Valley—a spontaneous and collaborative force that cannot be underestimated, one that all residents enjoy celebrating together—in just about any place, indoors or out, we can find.