Twiddle | Higher Ground | Burlington, VT | 9/12/08
Last week while reviewing the Backwoods Pondfest, I was fortunate enough to meet and talk to some of the members of the Rutland, VT band Twiddle. Based entirely on my ability to speak with some eloquence about their music, and my wife's propensity to take phenomenal pictures, Matt, Twiddle's manager, invited us to attend their show the following week at The Higher Ground in South Burlington, VT. Having seen the bands strengths and potential at Backwoods Pondfest, we accepted the invitation and took the short ferry ride over from Essex this past Friday night.
I had hard a lot about the mystique of the former Higher Ground when it was in Winooski, but I hadn't heard anything about the new venue that opened a few years ago. When we walked into the venue, it had the feel of an old movie theater. The crowd was evenly split, half going into the Showcase Lounge and the other half headed with me into the main ballroom. For a Friday night with a lot going on in the area (OAR, The Brew and Twiddle), I was immediately impressed with the size of the early crowd, once I went through the large doors to the ballroom. The Higher Ground is a premier music venue. As soon as we walked in, I was impressed with the clarity, and yet non-overbearing sound being produced by the soundman. I walked past the board and saw that they were working with top of the line equipment. Just to the right of the board was a rudimentary, yet highly functional light board. Even more impressive were the great lights that were being choreographed… for the opener! I sensed that they take their musical experiences very seriously here. Brown curtains on the walls of the large square room ate up a lot of the extra sound that was being produced by the cement floor, reminiscent of a Fillmore-style room. When I saw the jumbo-sized digital clock backstage mounted near the rafters, invisible to the crowd, yet allowing the bands to keep track of their set times, I wondered if they were leaving anything to chance. The organic cotton tour shirts being sold at the merch tables answered this question with a resounding 'NO'!
Despite the wisdom that clearly went into the design of the room, the crowd seemed to be as green as the mountains outside. Granted, this night the club was allowing 18 and older fans through the door, but, the bulk of the crowd looked as if they were not only under the drinking age, but unable to vote as well. It looks to me like Burlington's reputation as a musical Mecca is being reconstructed by this hungry-for-satisfaction generation.
Burlington's own Greyspoke was the first band to take the stage. Most of the time, I watch the opener because I have to, not because I want to. It wouldn't be a full review of the show if I didn't mention the strong and weak points of the performances from the entire night. But Greyspoke was different. True, these young men were just breaking into the razor buying years, but their musical wisdom was far beyond their beards. They sang their new-school version of Americana. The five-piece ensemble was made up of two guitars, bass, keys and drums. Mike Wheeler handled the rhythm guitar and sang lead, while Rob Eaton played resounding solos on his semi-hollow guitar. The more hollow a guitar, the more I like the sound and, while at times his fingers got a bit ahead of his thoughts, Rob didn't disappoint when he stepped into the spotlight.
Even before I spoke with the band after their set, I could tell that Mike wrote the songs. He sang them with a passion that an artist can only give to something they have crafted themselves. His range was limited, but within its confines he poured emotion through the microphone all over the ever-growing audience. Early in the set it seemed like the drummer was a little unsure of the speed he wanted to play, but once he settled down, the boys were all right. At times, they sang three-part harmonies- a choice that makes the need for a sultry sound a must when you only have fellas on the stage. And these boys were sultry. A slower Ween-style Motown original had the girls swooning and the boys laughing at the ridiculous lyrics. From there they went into a jazz- infused, funk chart, although it remained pretty straightforward in its rhythm. There were occasional fat noted bass leads on top of synthesizer solos as the boys ripped this old school, fusion jazz song with a little Green Mountain style. Greyspoke was feeling it and when they brought out Dark Star Orchestra guitarist Rob Eaton, a guest vocalist, and drummer on their closing tune, the Nuevo-hippie crowd lost it. The Grateful Dead's 'New Speedway Boogie' was the choice. When a band takes a cover and makes it their own, while remaining true and respectful to its original inception, I am most impressed. Although this version of the early Dead classic was bluesy, as it had been all those years ago when Jerry emphatically belted it out, the boys of Greyspoke tinkered with the time signature, giving it a little bit more of a rockin' flavor, perfect for a climactic closer to a great set. Greyspoke will be taking up a residency at Nectar's on Wednesdays in September. Go check them out and look for me at the bar.
The crowd was well over 300 when Twiddle took the stage. Clearly nerves were evident, as the opener was a bit rocky at first. Mihali Savoulidis on lead guitar was having technical issues, all the while calling out, what looked to be, uncomfortable audibles to his befuddled looking band. However, just as they had been the weekend before, Twiddle was forgiven all of these early set problems when they dropped the hammer on their instrumental, orchestrated, slash rock introduction to 'Grandpa Fox'. This composition showed how technically strong these 4 could be.
As the set progressed, the jams became longer and the choruses became more infrequent. The band played quietly, yet quickly- not a lot of space within the notes of their spacey jams. But, just when the noodling looked like it may become too heavy; another sophisticated instrumental chorus that allowed a musical climax got the wiggling bodies back into their rhythmic boogie. Four hundred and fifty people, which included every member of the band's families, were bringing this room to life and when they launched into 'Tiberius' you didn't have to look to far to see three or four of your gyrating neighbors gleefully singing along. 'Tiberius' is Twiddle's take on the jam-rock-opera, full of tales about kings and queens, and the literal and figurative fall from great heights. That funky winter tour smell was creeping across the floor, confirming that people were shaking their asses and that the management of The Higher Ground has tuned the air conditioning off a day too early.
As midnight loomed, the crowd had peeked. But the band had plenty left to give to those who stuck around. The sweaty crowd began the kind of shaking that signaled the beginning of a fast paced drum and bass solo. Meebs put down his axe and assisted on bongos and Ryan Dempsey left the ivories to be tickled later and picked up a pair of sticks to frantically pound on some high-pitched toms. It was a rhythmic break down and it built the crowd's energy back up. This jam lead into 'So What' teases in which the give and take between Meebs on guitar and Zdenek Gubb on bass was masterful. Twiddle was showing me that they do have a few tricks up their sleeves. More rhythmic finger playing lead in and out of 'So What' and eventually lead into their original upbeat sing along 'Gatsby The Great'. The blood was flowing quickly through the brains of the band and, so too was it in the veins of the crowd. If you were still there, you were feverously dancing. The story behind this original tune is great and actually lead to Twiddle's'luvaduck' bumper sticker. I'll only go as far as to tell you that 'Gatsby' was the first tune they wrote together, as a band. To get the rest of the story you'll have to find Brook the drummer drunk enough after, or before the show to spin this yarn for you. 'Gatsby' has a well-rehearsed, well-received instrumental jam. As they wove through Allman Brothers, Peter Frampton and Bela Fleck teases, it became clear that Meebs was taking control of the direction of this set staple.
What may have easily been the last tune of the night segued into another four man drum jam, pounding on the hearts of the audience for that one last breath and, once we were revived, we were treated to more orchestrated rock jams. 'Beethoven in Green' the last song of the set, went out on a quiet note and the crowd wanted more. As a matter of fact, they knew exactly what more they wanted. "FRANK-EN-FOOT, FRANK-EN-FOOT" chants were heard from all points in the room. The band returned to the stage and gave the hungry what they craved. "Spiritual" was the abrupt, yet poignant description that the band's manager gave me of this tune, and although it didn't leave a lasting image in my head, I was pretty tired. Besides, it sent the faithful into the night feeling satisfied, and that's what counts, right?
When I think of what Twiddle has to offer to the musical culture, I think of the good versus the bad. Sure, they make mistakes, but they also show flashes of greatness. With more experience, they will begin to weed out the problems and their brief stints of musical inspiration will become full sets of musical inspiration. That is what Twiddle is bringing to the table and I recommend we all go back for seconds.