2009 in the rearview: what’s to love in local music

In a state with a population of fewer than 700.000 you might think it would be easy to survey the handful of locally-made recordings in any given year to pick a few highlights. But in addition to being one of the smallest and least populated states in the Union (at least the last time I checked, we were still in the Union…), feisty little Vermont – or, the People’s Democratic Republic of Vermont as it is occasionally described – is also home to one of the most active artist and artisan populations in the lower 49.  Every week when I open Seven Days, the local weekly independent, I find an entire column devoted to the new local recordings (plural) that have come out over the last week.

I did not hear all of the Vermont-made recordings that were released this year. Would that I had 365 ears, one for each day of the year new music is being released here. But I heard many of them, and two really stood out for the consistent quality of their music making and their uniqueness. These are the two local recordings I spent the most time with in 2009:Twist of the Wrist: “Twist of the Wrist” – On a frigid night last February I went to the “Twist” debut CD release party and was introduced to the collaborative work of three artists whose adept musicianship was already familiar from their individual efforts. Together, the trio – Barbara Wager, Liz Thompson and Robert Resnik – make a beautiful sound with blend of traditional and new songs that range from haunting to spunky and upbeat. In a year when so much of the region’s energies were focused on the Champlain quadricentennial celebrations and related discussions about the immigrant experience, Twist of the Wrist seems especially relevant in its focus on French and other northern European songs and dances. This is a deeply musical adventure joyfully springing forth from the long overdue creative confluence of three of Vermont’s top artists. I’m ready for a followup! Gordon Stone: “Night Shade” – For some reason there have been a number of “bring the Banjo back to Africa” recordings in recent years, with mostly successful results. Bela Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart, Jayme Stone’s latest (click on Africa to Appalachia) and projects like Afrissippi (which turns the idea around to bring African blues to the American South) all do their part to dig into the banjo’s deep roots in the common history and culture of West Africa and colonial America. In 2009, Burlington-based banjo master and multi-instrumentalist Gordon Stone released Night Shade, which is less a historical or ethnomusicological effort than it is a purely musical one. Night Shade furthers Stone’s signature bluegrass jam band sound with the addition of African rhythms, courtesy of Senegalese percussion master Elhadji Mamadou Ba. The resulting fusion is so natural and fully formed it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when the Gordon Stone Band didn’t sound like that. Much recommended.

Twist of the Wrist and Night Shade are unquestionably two of this year’s best local releases. No surprise, Vermont’s independent spirit finds a voice in its native music.

(And hey, we have Bernie Sanders and Pat Leahy.)

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