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The Self-Taught Art of Larry Bissonnette

by Bill Ellis, Saint Michael’s College Assistant Professor of Fine Arts: Music

See LOOKING OUT: The Self-Taught Art of Larry Bissonnette, in the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery June 5 through August 29, 2015. 

Larry in the studio.

Larry in the studio.

Larry Bissonnette’s art is many things: colorful, playful, energetic, and visceral. Context is as thick as the layers of paint he smears with his hands. His work can be viewed through the spontaneous, untutored aesthetics of the self-taught, or at the interchange where autism and art meet. His multimedia creations find kinship with contemporary art, offer social discourse coupled with incisive humor, and mediate the gap between disability and ability. Not least, they place him in a select vernacular of Vermont artistry.

Just don’t call what he does “autistic art” explained away as a byproduct of disability. Instead, his art speaks past autism to share the humanity of a person whose diagnosis inhibits typical communication of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Historically, singular abilities in the arts have countered the conventional narrative of disability, such as the technical brilliance of many blind musicians. To that end, Bissonnette provides his own explanation of what he does: “Love to look at my art as intuition driven not ordered by my disability.”

Autism does feed his routine, which involves daily drawing and weekly painting, the latter at workshops sponsored by G.R.A.C.E. (the Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort).  “Yes, used to certain habits of doing things,” says Bissonnette, 57, who types responses via facilitated communication. His assistant, Pascal Cheng, places a gentle hand on the artist’s shoulder to keep him focused as he types – no such assistance is required when Bissonnette makes his art. “Upending the routine would be good.”

Some traits in his work are common to art made by people on the autism spectrum, such as thematic repetition, interest in the past, transportation imagery, and a compulsion to create for its own sake. Indeed, the understanding and appreciation of art by those classified autistic has grown in recent years. This includes an ever-expanding list of books on the subject and as well as studios, exhibition spaces, and representation for autism-related art (California’s Art of Autism collective – the-art-of-autism.com – lists more than 50 such organizations). Yet given that autism exists on a spectrum – i.e., no two people with the diagnosis show exactly the same symptomatic behaviors – it follows that work by visual artists with autism is just as varied, existing on a creative spectrum that ranges from the hyperrealism of Stephen Wiltshire to the ethereal pop art of Jessica Park to the Lego compositions of Alex Masket.

As for Bissonnette, recurring motifs, gestures, themes, and ways of doing things in his art can – and should – be attributed as well to personal style. Some distinguishing elements in his work are: memory-based subject matter; preference for multi-media; recurring iconography and symbols including hyperlexia; motion imagery such as wheels and circles; faces, both painted and photographed; marginalia; handmade frames; and commentary on disability issues, for which he is a well-traveled advocate.

Visually arresting, Bissonnette’s larger works take the form of oblong, multi-media panels layered with acrylic paint, marker, colored pencil, Polaroid film, tape, wood, and nails.  As the book, Loud Hands, points out, people with autism often rely on their hands to break the “language” barrier – and by extension the deflating stereotypes – that accompany autism. How fitting, then, that his art relies on bold, tactile gestures that could only be made by engaging one’s hands in a direct dance between paint and panel.

The frames are their own marvels, thick blocks of wood that usually hide or obscure part of the painting, which may be the point. Here is an unrevealing element between art and viewer that hints, perhaps, at the impasse autism can inflict on social interactions. Then again, “the frames add a formality that lifts the work into a realm of intention and public communication,” as art scholar Lyle Rexer writes. Put another way, the frame gives purpose to the act of viewing and to what is being viewed, which would explain why Bissonnette refuses to call a work finished until it is framed.

Many of his works are memory based, recalling more often than not his institutionalized childhood at the since-closed Brandon Training School. Far from the nostalgic, rural vistas of, say, Grandma Moses, or the whimsical recollections of fellow Vermonter Gayleen Aiken, Bissonnette’s paintings and sketches bear witness to a time when he was most misunderstood and mistreated. And yet the young boy – who first learned to draw as a nonverbal child – nurtured his love of art at Brandon, where he would sneak off in the middle of the night to the padlocked art room, break in, and get about to the business of making art.

Such burning single-mindedness can spill over into the constant revisiting and refining of a theme, such as many drawings he has made of a school playground. This form of perseveration locks in the rhythms and patterns of a scene or scenario, a quality that may well equip children on the autism spectrum with the kind of practice-instilled discipline necessary to create art. Still, his paintings are atypical of “systematizing tendencies” by so-called savants and artists with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in which recreation of a scene or experience is rendered in painstaking detail and accuracy, such as the aforementioned work of Stephen Wiltshire.

Bissonnette’s style and content – which has consciously shifted and adapted over the years and contains an abundance of self-reflective humor and social critique – leaves no doubt that the autism-classified artist is auteur, not automaton. One only has to compare his earlier works, tightly conceived and executed, to his late style full of impromptu swirls of color and a looser command of materials. “Wilder and more movement driven, paint is thicker,” says Bissonnette of his current approach. Stuart Murray sums up the Vermonter’s art, calling it “a supreme example of autistic intelligence at work in a portrayal of disability…His individual version of autism and his chosen working method represent a unique version of autistic expression.”

Like many artists with ASD, Bissonnette revels in an obsessive iconology, one packed with allusion and autobiography. Numbers figure prominently in his work, including the numeral 3, which refers, he says, to the age when he started to do art. Even his numbering system for dating works becomes, a la Howard Finster, part of the painting (“It’s like popular magazine timeline of regular issues,” Bissonnette says). So too do the walls, rooms, windows, play park swings, and zip code of Brandon Training School make frequent appearances, as does an anonymous painted face that, Bissonnette explains, is no one in particular, just the same face in different scenes. Still, the hyperlexia and fanatic pervasiveness of certain shapes and objects in his work, I would argue, is no less compulsive and artful than Jasper Johns’ fixation on flags, maps, and numbers.

Even more defining is the other face that shows up in nearly every painting as a photograph attached by bands of tape. These photos – initially taken with a Polaroid camera though he has since switched to a Fujifilm Instax 210 – are of family, friends, and those he meets at conferences. He likens the method of placing photos on his canvases to adding “a topping on an ice cream sundae” and says he will sometimes wait years before he matches an image with the right painting (this explains why the dates on the front and back of a painting frequently disagree). More than a mere topping, these photos anchor the paintings in complex, associative ways. If the human face has been at the forefront of modern art, as Lucienne Peiry contends what to make of the instant camera headshots that give weight, balance, completion, focus, and human connection to the background abstractions of Bissonnette’s paintings. It’s almost as if the painting becomes activated or inspirited once he tapes on the face, a post-modern Janus figure moderating two worlds, the autistic and non-autistic, who now share a space of recognition.

Many pieces as well have the recurring catch phrase, “No Parking,” stamped in stencil-like lettering almost as a kind of graffiti politik. It is the artist at his most political, suggesting the socially imposed limits of inclusion and presumption of competence for the disabled. The way he explains it, anybody can park where you like unless you happen to be disabled, in which case you are met with “no parking” at every turn.

There are other aspects to the Milton native’s artistic identity. His color palette, nature-imbued sensibility and sense of line, and rootedness of location confirm his ties to the Green Mountain State. And he embraces his “outsider” status, though the label risks marginalizing him further than disability has already tried.

True, he experienced relative isolation at Brandon when he was developing his artistic voice, and his autism can be misread – to the uninformed, at least – as severe disengagement. But the self-taught tag is relevant only in that he has not let the absence of tradition or formal art training dampen his desire to create. The G.R.A.C.E. program he partakes in is a community, after all. Add his family, his Howard Center relationships and interactions, his ongoing presence in academic and disability rights circles, and his sundry travels abroad, and he is more of a global citizen than many of his neighbors.

In 1949 French artist Jean Dubuffet put together the first exhibition of art brut, which championed the creativity of children and the institutionalized as an alternative to schooled, conventional art. In the show’s catalog, he wrote, “Where is he, your normal man? Show him to us! Can the artistic act, with the extreme tension it implies and the high fever that accompanies it, ever be deemed normal? … artistic function is identical in all cases, and there is no more an art of the insane than there is an art of dyspeptics or those with knee problems.” We have come a long way since Dubuffet’s time in understanding the complexities of the mind and in cultivating a culture of empathy and inclusiveness for those with disabilities. But his argument holds true. Bissonnette’s dazzling work, which resides, aptly enough, in Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut, uses color, form, and line – the capacity of any and all visual art – to make us see the world in ways previously unimagined.

 

 

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Three Picks from the 2015-16 Season

by Steve MacQueen, Artistic Director

This season is diverse, with a truly fabulous breadth of performances: modern and post- modern dance, ballet, and tap; jazz, soul, classical, Americana, Portuguese fado, Jamaican, Brazilian, Haitian, and Irish music; Broadway; historical drama, tragedy, Beckett, Shakespeare, and the downright unclassifiable.

Here are a few that I’m especially looking forward to:
• Guitarist Ry Cooder makes a rare appearance on the concert stage and we’re lucky to have him, along with Ricky Skaggs, and Sharon WhiteCooder-White-Skaggs play on the MainStage, Monday, November 16.

Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White, Ry Cooder

Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White, Ry Cooder

Lisa Dwan’s reputation as one of the world’s finest actresses stems from her work in an evening of notoriously difficult Samuel Beckett one-acts. Amazingly, this big-market production is coming to the Flynn on one of this tour’s final stops. The Samuel Beckett Trilogy of  Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby is on the MainStage on Wednesday, March 23.

Samuel Beckett Trilogy

Samuel Beckett Trilogy

• Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, a fully committed deep-end dive into a world of pure sound and overwhelming emotion. See her Saturday, May 14 in FlynnSpace.

Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq

While the Flynn is best known as a performance venue, its impact stretches beyond what you’ll see in this brochure—our collaborations with Vermont artists and other regional arts organizations, for instance, and our deep commitment to arts education, which includes masterclasses, school visits, and student matinee performances for 35,000 K-12 students.

We also offer funds and resources to help artists create new work. This year, the Flynn is commissioning dance (Lucky Plush’s The Queue), music (a new work by multiple Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider), and theater (local actor/director Seth Jarvis’ multi-collaborator work Transitions . . .).

See you in the lobby this season.

Tickets go on sale at 10 am on July 10 to Flynn members and July 28 to the general public. Tickets for individual performances go on sale Thursday, August 13 to members and Monday, August 17 to the general public. Visit www.flynntix.org/series to order.

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Thrill Ride at the Flynn with Chris Botti

by James Gamble, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Chris Botti at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on June 14, 2015.

When I told my wife we were going to see a trumpet player at the Flynn Sunday night she was a little dubious. She didn’t know anything about Chris Botti. She’s not that into the trumpet. But I told her he’s supposed to be amazing and, as a music lover like me, she was willing to give it a shot. I had never seen him either. “Trust me,” I said. Yeah, she’s heard that one before.

Settled in our seats with an excellent view, her body language was still telegraphing “I’m here just so you don’t have to sit alone.” But I was confident. A few minutes later Botti took the stage in a somewhat unassuming fashion. Of course the crowd exploded, but he rather nonchalantly crossed the stage, horn tucked under his arm, and started playing along with his full band. Beautiful tones, nice little bit of syncopation.

At the piano, Geoffrey Keezer ran up and down the 88 a couple times. Solid base line from Richie Goods. Artful drumming by “new guy” Lee Pearson. Ben Butler interjected a number of dazzling riffs on the electric guitar. Andy Esrin, positioned almost surreptitiously upstage left, glued it all together with synthesized orchestration. All very cool sounding. All what you might expect in a professional jazz performance.

And then the first car of what was to be a rollercoaster of a night began to scream down the tracks. Next thing you know, Botti is slaying high C and then some. The band is rockin’ and the audience is visibly stirred. My wife leans over and says, “Okay, that was really good.” Progress.

Our heart rates effectively elevated, Botti slows things down a little, bringing out violinist Lucia Micarelli. She immediately charms everyone with her melodious sounds and virtuoso bow work. And then, gradually, he builds up speed again. Throughout the night Botti mixed it up with some contemporary numbers and original compositions, as well as standards and pieces from his Italia recording. I glance over—My wife’s got that immersed look on her face and I just get right back into the performance.

What I found particularly remarkable was when Botti took a break while someone in the band soloed, he didn’t just stand idly by. He was fully engaged with his fellow performer—watching, tapping his foot, bobbing his head, really into it. In fact, on more than one occasion he started clapping for the soloist before the audience, as impressed as all of us.

Just when you think you’re in a groove for the night, he switches it up again—this time bringing out vocalist Sy Smith. Smith is vivacious with a voice that’ll have you eating out of her hand one minute and begging for mercy the next. She kills it on stage and then descends with Botti into the audience, making us all part of the show. You could feel the electricity. Turns out this was just the beginning of the full charge to come.

After thoroughly wowing and wooing us, Smith exits and Botti brings back Micarelli. He introduces her with a brief commentary on the life of a concert violinist and then sets her loose, no horn required. She leads us through some spectacularly beautiful classical-sounding piece (I couldn’t tell you what it was, but it was beautiful). Slowly but surely she builds up speed and volume to the point I was sure she’d break a string. Then, just when you’re certain either the instrument or the whole stage is about to burst into flames, she lays down a heavy chord in perfect synchronization with the band (sans Botti) and they blast into Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Totally didn’t see that coming. Needless to say, she took the house with that one. Wife is speechless.

Change of pace again to bring this ride to an end. Botti brings out singer George Komsky for a couple of Italian numbers, including the theme from Cinema Paradiso. Botti, like all successful leaders (musical or otherwise) really knows how to surround himself with greatness.

Finally, after a leaping ovation Botti and his band returned to the stage for the encore. He closed the night (aptly I think) with “My Funny Valentine,” the song that inspired him to take up the trumpet when, at the age of twelve, he heard Miles Davis play it. Very nice. At this point my wife is leaning her elbows on the seat in front of her, chin in hands, completely smitten. Success.

The evening was perfectly formed, and for this audience member at least, rolled by all too fast. Of course that happens when you’re completely immersed in a performance. Something tells me we’ll be listing to a lot more trumpet in our house now.

 

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Review of Richard Thompson Electric Trio

by Jeffrey Lindholm, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Richard Thompson Electric Trio at the Flynn on June 21, 2015.

The Flynn crowd on Sunday, June 21, is ready for an electric trio show from Richard Thompson, so it’s a bit of a surprise when Burlington-based singer-songwriter Caroline Rose walks up to the microphone wearing her acoustic guitar (and black-and-white saddle shoes with knee-high athletic socks). Her short set opens with droning Eastern-sounds guitar strums and includes a non-band, jam band jam and an acoustic punk song about her Long Island heritage that features some sailor-worthy cussing (not often heard at the Flynn)—all propelled by her strong, bell-like voice.

Richard Thompson’s career has been charted along a sliding continuum, from sensitive balladry to full-bore amplified freak-outs, but when a show is billed as the Electric Trio Tour, you know what to expect.

So it’s not really a shock when Thompson takes the Flynn stage with six string blazing, as he and his rhythm section rip through the first few songs: two from his new album, Still, and one from the one before, Electric. Drummer Mich

Rael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk are loud enough to match Thompson note for note, but also nimble enough to dance through the decibels—not to mention skilled enough to keep up with Thompson, which is no small feat. Jerome, especially, offers quite varied rhythms throughout, using drumsticks, mallets, brushes, and, once, his hands.

After the first few tunes, they ease back a bit with “For Shame of Doing Wrong.” It’s still slow and mournful, like the ‘70s-era original recording, but almost completely rejiggered as if done by the Who, with absolutely no accordions on this version—but exquisite in its own way.

Then it’s back to rough stuff; “Hard on Me” from Mock Tudor sounds like Bachman-Turner Overdrive, so it’s a bit of a respite when Jerome and Prodaniuk amble off the stage and the roadie hands Thompson his acoustic guitar.

We’re then graced with an absolutely stunning version of what is perhaps Thompson’s best song, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” He effortlessly delivers the seemingly endless cascades of notes driving the melody. As his voice rises to tell the story of the dying motorcyclist and his love for Red Molly, shivers run up my wife’s spine and tears creep from my eyes. We’ve both heard him do this song live multiple times, but never to this level of emotion.

The two acoustic songs seem an interlude too short, but the rhythm section comes back to swing into the loping pace of “Beatnik Walking,” a song about Amsterdam from the new album, and the jazzy nostalgia of “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” before Thompson dons his electric guitar again for the rest of the show.

When they play “Guitar Heroes,” another new song, in which Thompson drops in notable homage to, well, his guitar heroes, including Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Les Paul, and others, I figure that was the big production number and the show is over. Nope. There’s more!

In fact, it’s the only major misstep of the evening, a hard left from the goofy exuberance of “Heroes” to the creepy, menacing vibe of “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed,” probably my least favorite of his songs.

But of course, there’s more as we careen into the life-affirming wonder of “Wall of Death,” which I again figure will be the “final song.” Nope. We get one more song, and then the band bows off to a standing ovation.

And of course, they come back and do a two-song encore, including a rousing extended version of “Tear-Stained Letter,” thankfully without any Cajun accordions.

As the guys leave the stage again, some of the audience trickles out, but the rest keep applauding, and the Thompson band reappears for yet another two-song encore, finishing with a surprise bit of fifties retro rock.

So after a show this varied, with peaks and then more crescendos, and not one but two encores, we are surprised that Thompson and his band had only played for about an hour and a half. They really pack a lot of musical value (and notes and bashes on the drums) into a totally rocking evening.

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A Note of Gratitude From the Executive Director’s Desk

by John R. Killacky, Executive Director

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on our past season and thank you once again for your support. There was much joy and laughter in our theaters and gallery, as well as politically-charged work that generated post-concert discussions. I love the discourse artists engender.

It was as gratifying to me to watch FlynnArts students blossom in Show Choir and the musicals we produce. And when the yellow buses arrived at our front door on Main Street for our student matinees, I zipped downstairs to watch the little ones experience live theater. I was once one of those kids, and am proof that theater can change one’s life.

We finished up the third phase of structural renovations, opening our new box office that faces Main Street; replacing the sidewalk under the marquee; and expanding the downstairs men’s room and FlynnSpace artist dressing room. All that’s left is replacing the main curtain in the large theater, which happens this summer.

Financially, we end the season with a balanced budget thanks to your membership support and participation in our Garden Tour, Neko Case benefit, Chinese New Year celebration, ticket raffle, online auction, and Burlington Discover Jazz Events—all to support educational and cultural programs.

In September, I’m asking you to rappel down nine stories of the Courtyard Marriott Harbor Hotel in our Over the Edge experiential fundraiser—fun and challenging, and it all supports the Flynn’s vitality. Hope you can join us, or better yet, put a team together.

It takes a village to run the Flynn with our 34 full-time staff, but when we factor in box office and stage crew, we employ 221 folks. Rather than share only my highlights of the season, I asked some team members to share their mission moments (listed below).

In a few weeks, we announce the new season that begins in September. I look forward to greeting you in the lobby and, as always, welcome your comments. The Flynn would not—and cannot—exist without your support. I’m grateful to you for your ongoing generosity and belief in the Flynn.

Camille A. Brown & Dancers

“Both Camille A. Brown’s performance and the Q&A that followed were thought-provoking. During the Q&A, a white woman bravely stepped up to the mic to reflect on a piece titled Black Girl, and began to question how it related to her. This was followed by a black female audience member reflecting on a part of the same piece that dealt with African American hair. Then, in a bold gesture, she began to unwrap her hair, allowing it to flow freely as the rest of the audience cheered her on.” —Nadia Mitchell, Event & Contract Manager

“As a big fan of Ira Glass on the radio, it was a real thrill to see him venture into the artistic expression offered by dance, and I loved watching him glide across our stage. What a wonderful project—giving voice to what is usually a wordless art form, and creating an artful and visual interpretation and motion to content that is usually related just by voice and sound, thus deepening the understanding and enjoyment of both mediums.” —Leeeza Robbins, Assistant Box Office Manager

“The teen energy at Vermont Young Playwrights Festival was exciting to be around. I was so impressed by the quality of the plays the students wrote and the performances. The subject matter of the plays was very intense at times and made me cry, and other times hilarious. Who knows how many kids have been inspired by participating in this program so they might one day become a famous playwright or actor?” —Amie Paquette, Senior Accountant

Vermont Young Playwrights Festival

Vermont Young Playwrights Festival

“The Vermont Young Playwrights Festival. I was moved to chills watching Molly Parker—not an actress—navigate and control her own anger and frustration as she played herself, a deaf girl begging to be understood, in Max Chlumecky’s play that he wrote for her, his best friend.” —Suzanne Lowell Marchelewicz, FlynnArts Manager

“Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature. It’s always exciting to have a premier artist performing on our stage, in the end, we were able to negotiate solutions to their requests, deliver a memorable performance to the audience, and send the artist and her staff away with ‘miles of smiles.’” —Gary Lemieux, Director of Production

“It was wonderful to see students from Vermont Ballet Theater get to meet one of the premier dancers of our time, Wendy Whelan, in the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery after her performance. The joy on their faces lasts with me to this day.” —Brennan Neill, Membership & Special Events Manager

Larry Bissonnette

Larry Bissonnette

“Working with curator Bill Ellis on Larry Bissonnette’s show was a great learning experience for me. The greatest moment happened when Larry showed up during the hanging. His excitement at seeing all the selected paintings—some already on the walls—was a true mission moment for me. My heart was close to bursting!” —Nancy Abbott-Hourigan, Gallery Manager

 “Vermont Stage Company’s production of The Mountaintop was a highlight. The power of the script and the larger-than-life acting, as well as VSC’s lighting, sonic, and scenic elements, combined for a very moving experience from which many members of the audience left teary-eyed.” —Brian Johnson, FlynnSpace Manager

“At the Nile Project student matinee, I watched 1,000 children dancing, singing, waving their hands, and swaying to the music like they were at a rock concert. The energy and joy was just amazing.” —Gina Haddock, Director of Development

“The Nile Project. We worked with multiple regional partners over two-plus years to put the tour together, including UVM and Middlebury. The show also hewed to our desire not to tell ‘one story’ about other nations, as the show was specific and nuanced in its representation of many African countries. It was a tremendous performance, but it was only part of a larger work that reached into and touched many different communities, providing illumination and understanding, as well as entertainment.” —Steve MacQueen, Artistic Director

Martha Graham Dance Company

Martha Graham Dance Company

“Martha Graham Dance Company was a joy for all involved. As soon as the company arrived, Senior Artistic Associate Denise Val, led a masterclass at Spotlight Vermont for 35 dancers ages 16 to adult. The dancers were pushed beyond their comfort zone but they were laughing and smiling the entire class.” —Madeline Bell, Programming Manager

“Wayne Shorter Quartet put on a killer performance at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. The best anyone could hope for, anywhere around the globe.” —Grant Orenstein, Technical Director

 “Two things I overheard during Burlington Discover Jazz Festival in FlynnSpace: ‘Wow! Great set-up for jazz. It’s so open.’ And ‘It’s nice to get to be so close to the performers.’” —Stefan Jacobs, FlynnSpace Manager

“My husband, Charlie, was working as a spirit for the MainStage show with Chris Botti. He said it was the best he’d ever seen. Standing ovation for the jazz organizers!”  —Liz Weiss, Accounting Clerk

“I had the unfortunate job of telling a woman who had lost her wallet that it had not been turned in. Amazingly, even though she is now without her money, credit cards and ID, she was so thrilled by the performance she saw at the Jazz Festival that she had nothing but praise to give! There is nothing better than hearing how happy our presentations make people feel.” —Cherie Marshall, Office Administrator/Concessions Manager

“One lovely woman chose the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival as the perfect setting for her 80th birthday. Along with a group of her closest friends, she enjoyed the live music on Church Street while dining outdoors, followed by an evening at the Flynn. She told one of the festival staffers, ‘I’ve just always loved the jazz festival and this was what I wanted to do today.’” —Chelsea Lafayette, Marketing and Development Manager

Burlington Discover Jazz Festival

Burlington Discover Jazz Festival

“I made my way to the front during the encore at the Robert Randolph and The Family Band show at the Waterfront Tent for the jazz festival, and was mesmerized by the energy and talent of the performers. I instinctively grabbed my phone to capture the moment. It wasn’t focusing properly and after several frustrating minutes, I put it away. Why was I wasting my time trying to record something if it meant missing the experience of the moment itself? There are so many ways to see and hear performing arts with today’s technology. But none provide that challenge as much as live performancewhen the experience is happening only now and it can never be truly captured.”  —Odele Peter, Development Database Manager/Application Specialist

Schoolhouse Rocks Live!

Schoolhouse Rock Live!

“We received the following from a parent who attended the autism-friendly performance of Schoolhouse Rock Live!: ‘If there were more supports and accommodations like these in other public venues, my child and family would be much more integrated into our community. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for an afternoon where my child was safe and supported, where his needs were not seen as exceptional or inconvenient.’” —Kat Redniss, Student Matinee Series Manager

“The Schoolhouse Rock Live! show was a wonderful collaboration of community, staff, and families coming together for a joint experience.” —Carol Goodrum, Finance and Front of House Manager

“I’m thrilled with the collaborative efforts our staff, volunteers, and community have put into breaking down barriers of access to individuals with disabilities, and making the experience at the Flynn more comfortable for all.” —Gail Clook, Box Office Supervisor

“On the day I interviewed with the Flynn, Harold and the Purple Crayon was showing as part of the student matinee series. The students were audibly enjoying themselves, oohing and aahing, and the excitement was contagious.” —Sarah Venuti Yates, Director of Human Resources

“As I watched Integrated Arts Academy and Sustainability Academy kids walk down Church Street to the Flynn on their ‘first magnet class to graduate’ celebration walk, cheering and grinning wildly, I was filled with gratitude. My daughter is lucky enough to attend IAA. Her experience learning through the lens of the arts has been incredibleshe is engaged and excited to be there, she speaks with pride when she talks about where she ‘gets’ to go to school, she is articulate when she describes the artists and ideas they are exploring, and her learning follows her home where her play continues to meld the arts she loves with the math, science, nature, and literature ideas she is exposed to and has truly learned about.” —Tracey Gilbert Dengler, Marketing Production Manager

Flynn Show Choir

“The email was a moving one for me, from a 10 year old’s mom: ‘What an amazing, once in a lifetime experience those kids had (on the Show Choir trip to NYC.) The only way Avery was able to go was to spend money he has saved from every Christmas and birthday for his whole life. It was a huge decision for him, and he says it was the best money he ever spent. Perhaps best of all was what he took away from seeing his friend perform on the Broadway stage. He told me, ‘When Oscar was singing in Fun Home, you know what I was thinking the whole time? I could do that!'” —Christina Weakland, Director of Education

“The FlynnArts programs have been an integral part of my performing career and I would be nowhere without them. We were glad to be able to give back in some way—and especially in the form of scholarship fundraising—with our performance of 35mm: A Musical Exhibition. Without the summer show and Show Choir scholarships, many of us would not have been able to participate and would have missed out on invaluable learning and friendships.” —Cassidy Thompson, FlynnArts alumni and 35mm director

Finally, a note that Facilities Director Jack Galt received after taking students on a tour of the Flynn:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Discovering the Burlington Music Scene

by Tyler Harris, Burlington High School class of 2015

“As a social studies teacher, my primary goal is for students to feel connected to their world. Within the schedule-constraints and concrete walls of a typical school day, this can be challenging. But Burlington High School’s Year-End Studies [YES] program has transformed the last few weeks of the school year, allowing for rich, relevant, real-world learning. From late-May to mid-June–a time of year when adolescent minds are often thinking more about ice cream and blockbusters than finals–BHS students get to engage directly with community partners.

The YES course that I facilitate, Exploring the Burlington Music Scene, gives learners a chance to experience a vibrant element of their city’s unique spirit. Based at the Flynn Center, 8 students spent 10 days in the field, visited 26 different sites, and worked with over three-dozen professionals from every imaginable sector of the local music scene. Witnessing each student’s response to this immersive experience was truly inspiring.

In the piece the follows, Tyler Harris, a graduating senior from BHS and a recent participant in the Exploring the Burlington Music Scene program, offers a unique perspective on the value of authentic learning. Her piece stands as a testament to why we need more opportunities that connect students to the complex, vibrant world that may just be just a few blocks away.” —Dov Stucker, BHS teacher

Tyler Davis playing bass at Advance Music in Burlington.

Tyler Harris playing bass at Advance Music in Burlington.

I live and breathe music. I listen to music while I make coffee in the morning, on my way to school or to work, and in between all of my social interactions. I love seeing live music more than anything else; I love small, intimate shows where I’m five feet from the artist and I love huge arena shows where I’m struggling for breathing room with thousands of other people. I got into college with an essay about mosh pits. Forget therapy, all I need is some functional headphones and I’ll be okay.

With that being said, I have spent years eagerly awaiting my departure from Vermont, convinced that the music scene here was nonexistent. I looked forward to the day when I could move on to a real city where there were more concerts than cows. I constantly complained that there was nothing to do, no music to see, and that none of my favorite bands would ever play here because, really, what big rock band would come to Vermont? Maybe I just didn’t search hard enough, because I had no idea how vibrant Burlington actually is.

As it turns out, Burlington and its music scene are alive and thriving. I spent two weeks with my Burlington High School Year End Studies class exploring venues and meeting with a variety of people involved in making the local music scene rock, and it was an incredibly enlightening experience.

Initially we met with several people involved with the Flynn. Linda Little, who is the director of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, told us on our first day about everything that goes into putting on a festival of this scale, and all the moving parts that she is responsible for. I’d almost written off the Jazz Fest before as something for tourists and old people, but after watching her eyes light up as she talked about all the fun things the festival encompasses—well, I’ve made a point to see some of those downtown shows since then.

We also talked with the Flynn artistic director, Steve MacQueen, who is in charge of discovering music and other acts to bring to the Flynn. He played us a few of his favorite songs—which ranged from Bach’s cello suites to some early London punk music—and watching him happily get lost in the music, both times around, was wonderful. The passion in these two people blew me away, and this continued to be a running theme throughout our encounters. It was awesome to hear from people who had built their lives and careers around something they still get excited about.

In addition to hanging out with people from the Flynn, we also met the organizers of a nearby music festival called Waking Windows. Ted Olson from BCA, Patty Reagan the sound technician, and Brian Nagle—who doubles as DJ Disco Phantom—were a goofy bunch of dudes who, five years ago, put their heads together with a few other friends and organized a festival to take place in the Winooski circle. It went over so well that they’ve come back to do it again five years in a row. I was shocked that I, a music fanatic, had never even heard of this festival in all my years living here.

Brett Hughes performs for the group.

Brett Hughes performs for the group.

We were also introduced to several active musicians around town, including Brett Hughes, Eric Maier and company of local band Madaila, and Linda Bassick of Steady Betty. They told us about their experiences trying to make it in the industry and what it’s like to do it in this particular town. They told us about their friends and acquaintances in other local bands and as they spoke, it was easy to see that there really was a lot of local talent here that I had overlooked.

Meeting these people who have chosen Burlington as the place to make their music happen, along with booking agents, music writers, promoters, at and other community members who strive to make the music scene go on, made me realize just how much music there is here. Burlington has revealed itself as having just the right balance between small town and city, where art and creativity can be nourished on a community-wide level. It’s rare to find a place where music is supported so strongly, where the artists are all interconnected and there is as much collaboration as there is competition.

And so, it turns out, this town does have a music scene, even if it doesn’t consist so much of the huge rock shows I had been accustomed to. To find those, I might still have to drive out of state to a more urban area. But if I expand my musical horizons just a little bit, there’s plenty for me to listen to without walking more than 15 minutes from my house. And if I learned anything over those two weeks, it’s this: I should have done more research before stubbornly deciding that Burlington was dead.

After 12 years of public education, I have never enjoyed school as much as I did for those two weeks. We weren’t cooped up in too-small desks, longingly watching summer happen without us, outside the window. Instead, the Flynn was our home base and Burlington was our classroom. This made it possible, for the first time ever, for various community members to be our teachers. There’s something about being out in the real world, talking to real people about the things they are passionate about that cannot begin to be captured in a Powerpoint presentation. We could have spent just as much time sitting in a classroom, talking vaguely about the “music scene”, but the experience would not have been nearly as valuable.

There is nothing I love more than music. I want to be a music writer someday, so that I can continue to surround myself with music, professionally, and maybe even get paid for it. Those two weeks have simultaneously sparked my love for this town and reinforced why I am going to dedicate my life to music in the future. Say what you want about standardized tests and math classes, but I don’t think anything is more important than what I encountered during the 2015 Year End Studies session.

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Richard Thompson: Accept No Substitute

by Jeffery R. Lindholm, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of Richard Thompson Electric Trio at the Flynn on Sunday, June 21 at 7 pm. Get tickets at www.flynntix.org.

The first time I saw Richard Thompson on a concert stage, close to thirty years ago, he was wearing some kind of strange, Tyrolean-style baggy shorts (thankfully without suspenders) and leather sandals—with socks! I think the socks were a bright turquoise color, too.

Yikes!

The other thing I remember from the show was the encore. Thompson, the grown-up folksinger, was standing there in his shocking outfit, bashing his acoustic guitar and belting out “Substitute,” a song about teenage angst and uncertainty by the Who, a rock band about a galaxy and a light year from the folk music world.

But then, turquoise socks aside, Thompson was always a man of many colors. I think most people, if asked, would identify him as a “folksinger,” but he first appeared as a teenage electric guitarist in Fairport Convention. The band was inspired by Jefferson Airplane and Bob Dylan in equal measures, and arguably pioneered the mix of traditional British folk songs with rock decibels, so the two sides were there from the first.

Then he and his wife, Linda, formed a mostly acoustic folk duo, but their Shoot Out the Lights album included “Wall of Death,” a song about a motorcycle trick rider that has been covered by many rockers including, most notably, R.E.M.

Reaching farther out than that, the French, Frith, Kaiser, and Thompson band (featuring avant-garde guitarists Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith and drummer John French from Captain Beefheart’s band) tackled the Beach Boys, comic opera, blues, music from Okinawa, and a bit more. Thompson even did an album of Morris dance tunes (that twee British folk dancing where people wear ribbons and bells and hop and wave their arms around) for crying out loud!

And from the other angle, Thompson’s songs have been covered by a vast array of artists from both the folk and rock realms, including Linda Ronstadt, the Neville Brothers, June Tabor, Dinosaur Jr., Beausoleil, Natalie Merchant, Loudon Wainwright III, David Byrne, Los Lobos, and Bonnie Raitt.

So what can we expect from the upcoming Flynn show, part of his “Electric Trio Tour”? There will probably be, mixed amongst the classics and the nuggets, some unheard songs from his new album, Still, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and featuring an amalgam of musicians associated with both Thompson and Tweedy. On it, Thompson dances between his acoustic, contemplative side and romping pyrotechnics—ending with the seven-minute “Guitar Heroes,” with Thompson zipping off spot-on homages to Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, and a few others. Online concert reports have the band covering Cream’s “White Room,” too.

I expect that with the wisdom of age, Thompson’s sartorial choices will be a bit more, shall we say, carefully considered, but you never know. He might doff his drab folksinger threads and go a bit more casual, since this is an electric tour. Perhaps pull on some shorts for old time’s sake? I just hope he doesn’t pull that socks/sandals thing again.

And if you hear someone at the show shouting out, “Play ‘Substitute,’” that will likely be me.

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Jazz Junior Review

by J.D. Fox, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of the Jazz Junior workshop with Christian McBride Trio at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on June 12, 2015.

“Anything can be jazz. As long as you know what the jazz language is, you can take any song and dress it up in jazz clothing.”

I love that quote, said by Christian McBride of the Christian McBride Trio midway during their performance Friday at FlynnSpace. It’s definition, theme, and aesthetics of jazz encased in a succinct, memorable statement that stays in the head like the Jazz songs they played.

Mostly kids came to listen to the Trio’s “Jazz Junior” show, with band members from Waterford High School taking up a whole wing. But plenty of adults attended as well. Altogether, the audience filled FlynnSpace to a three-fourths capacity that overflowed with enthusiasm.

Bassist McBride started the learn-about-jazz performance with a few plucks of his bass followed by a serious question: “Who likes Milky Way?”

Promising a candy reward to anyone who could tell him what his T-shirt (Tamla emblazoned on it) means, he expanded on an audience member’s answer by saying “Tamla was a record label that was very famous in the 60s and 70s [Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, et al.].”

He then plucked at his bass more deliberately and, along with drummer Jerome Jennings and pianist Christian Sands, launched their first song of the night: “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” from their album Out Here. Starting out deceptively simple, distinct notes pulsed as it sauntered into a jazz groove that became layered, more complex, and shifting in instrument emphasis and melodic content.

The shifting is important, with lots of give and take occurring throughout their lightly sprinkled with question and banter set; musical movements flowed not only between musicians, but also between musician and instrument, as if it were a sextet instead of a trio.

McBride didn’t just play his bass, he played with his bass; a collaborative effort, in much the same way that Fred Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers. McBride’s gifted fingers questioned, urged, encouraged, and implored. The bass couldn’t help but respond in kind, offering answers and follow-up questions of its own.

Communicating in this subtle, secret language, the two – one flesh and blood, the other string and wood – created more of an aural experience rather than just music. Likewise with Jennings on Drums and Sands on Piano, their anthropomorphic instruments sharing the stage with them.

Learning jazz by exposure, we heard the trio cum sextet play Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” jazz up Stevie Wonder’s “Send One your Love” and, McBride using a French bow on his bass, interpret “I have Dreamed” from The King and I.

It takes a lot of effort to make the creation of art look effortless; a lot of hard work to make it all sound like so much play. As if to emphasize just how easy it is to turn something into jazz – when you know its language, that is, and have become a fluent speaker – they ended the show by putting their distinctive spin on a familiar song as the audience sang its lyrics:

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star…”

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Rubblebucket: Trombones, Saxophones, Trumpets, Oh My!

by Michelle Watters, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Rubblebucket at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on June 13, 2015.

My body is sore from dancing. I smell like other peoples’ body odor.

From babies to seniors I saw an eclectic mix of concert goers: tie dyed T-shirt wearers, teenagers dressed like Stevie Nicks, and an old man with long white hair in a green shirt with leather suspenders. I saw a man hop-walking to the beat of the music, a smile so big on his face I found I was wearing one too, his butt cheeks boppin in tiny shorts.

Pimps of Joytime warmed the crowd with their Parliament/ Jamiroquai style funk. They ended their set with my favorite song, The Sky Is On My Side.

Rubblebucket hits the stage with Annakalmia in white short overalls over a bra complete with black knee socks and combat boots.  My legs are already tired from dancing but I stay put.

Annakalmia’s presence has an ethereal quality to it; combined with the pure energy from the band, it creates a time vortex.

Lazer lights like the background of your 7th grade school pic burst from the stage.

In my direct eyeline is the guitarist Ian Hershey. He has a Johnny Cash vibe and the way he plays the guitar as if it were an extension of his own body has me transfixed. I watch him sweat through his blue button-down shirt.

At this point in the time vortex, some technical difficulty is going on with the speaker and the vocals become so distorted that the lyrics can’t be heard; however, it seems to have no effect on the crowd or Rubblebucket.

Four women in front of me wear peacock feathers in their hair and I pondered this for way too long.

Alex Toth and Annakalmia are crowd surfing. I worry that they will fall because I’m a worrier, but they are gently carried throughout the crowd.  I think about all the happy hands opening and closing. Back on stage, Annakalmia encourages us to jump and we jump with her.

I think sunbeams shot out of her hair when I blinked.  My face hurts from smiling.  I accidently jump on a woman next to me and apologize profusely. I am wearing boots.

Rubblebucket goes off stage and the lights turn out.

The guy in front of me starts screaming, “One more song.” Everyone starts woo-hooing in agreement.  I stand silent, confused, thinking, boy I really haven’t been to a concert in a long time. 

The lights turn on again and Annakalmia jumps around stage in a crouched position completely covered in a metallic grass skirt. Alex Toth asks the audience if they want one more song. Two? Three?

We cheer.

The next three songs coincide with happy-faced octopus-like balloon creatures being dropped from the ceiling, a lot of jumping, getting down low on our haunches like bunnies until my thighs ache, and my favorite part: screaming out “Always, always, always” as part of a group chorus.

The show is over.

Rubblebucket thanks us. We cheer.

My husband and I turn to head back to our car and there is Annakalmia playing saxophone with the band behind in procession like a Mardi Gras Parade. They lead us out of the tent and stand up on a vendor table to continue playing.  Suddenly they are gone.

It must be over now.

The crowd turns to head to the parking lot and there they are behind us: all of Rubblebucket and the guitarist from Pimps of Joytime. Annakalmia is inches from me. I can see her sparkle-like sweat.  People start thanking them, shaking hands. I don’t though. I’m actually crowd phobic so I split.  Exhausted and happy my husband and I drive home talking about our favorite parts.

Rubblebucket is an energetic force. Seeing their show was an experience on all levels. Annakalmia has an inner power that is apparent in her lyrics and her stage presence.  How she is able to be the singer, the band, and ultimately part of the audience with such authenticity is beyond me.  It was an excellent show and I am so glad it was my first after a long draught.

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Staples Electrifies Audience at Discover Jazz Festival

by Brett Sigurdson, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Mavis Staples at Burlington Discover Jazz Festival on June 12, 2015.

My wife and I had been buzzing about Mavis Staples’ performance at the Flynn MainStage in the month leading up to Friday night’s show. She was, in many ways, the soundtrack to the formative years of our relationship. Seeing Staples live, and possibly hearing her cover our favorite song, “The Weight”—this was bucket list stuff, and we were giddy as the lights began to dim.

Evidently, we were not alone.

The mostly full Flynn was electric with anticipation as Staples and her band took the stage. At 75, Staples moves gingerly. She was supported by an escort when she entered and exited the stage. But that voice. That voice with is soulful highs and growling lows, as if born of the pure, undiluted essence of joy and woe, is still a force, and she had it on full display in her opening songs, the Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and her interpretation of the old spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

Staples took the audience to another level in her third song, a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” She and her band—Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turner on bass, Stephen Hodges on drums, and Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle on backup vocals—found the gospel at the heart of the new wave song (which the Staple Singers covered on their 1984 album, Turning Point).

There were many such peaks during the show.

When I closed my eyes during “Respect Yourself,” for instance, I found the song retained all the vitality and fire of the Staple Singers’ rendition at the legendary Wattstax in 1973. And even

when things didn’t go exactly as planned, Staples still shined. She and Randle used music stands so they could read the lyrics during a new song, “Fight.” This made Staples’ performance a bit clunky, and she declared to supportive whoops and cheers she’d know the song the next time she played Burlington.

In between songs, Staples engaged in some fun banter with the audience.

During her introduction to “I’ll Take You There,” she was interrupted by a fan who shouted something about Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a contemporary of Pop Staples, who apparently played Burlington in the 70s. “You’re gonna make me forget what I’m doing,” said Staples, laughing. During the chorus of the song, she held the mic to audience members in the front row, beckoning them to sing along.

One of those audience members was Win Butler, lead singer of the Montreal-based band Arcade Fire. Staples and Butler have played together before, covering The Band’s “The Weight” together at the Outside Lands Festival in 2011. Staples was apparently surprised Butler was in attendance, and called him onstage to join her for another stab at the song during the encore.

There are moments from concerts I’ve seen that will linger forever, moments that embody the power live music has to thrill, and I think this is one of them.

Butler, dressed in all white and towering over Staples, was game to sing along, even if he stumbled over the lyrics to Rick Danko’s verse (my favorite, alas). As the rest of the band sang their respective parts, Butler and Staples slow-danced and he twirled her. When they broke, Staples motioned offstage for someone to take a picture. Clearly, she thought the moment was as memorable as we did.

The crowd was ecstatic by the final verse and Butler fell to his knees to bow down to Staples. It was a move that captured the sentiment of everyone in the Flynn. After the song, Butler disappeared—later to make another cameo that night with Future Islands at a Dealer.com party—and the audience rode the energy on its feet for one more song before the concert came to an end and everyone shuffled away into the rainy night.

Somehow, the rain didn’t seem to touch us.

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Flynn Center for the Performing Arts

Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
153 Main Street, Burlington, Vermont 05401
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