Windsor, VT: Small Towns

Old towns have tales to tell. In New England, that’s just about all of them. Welcome to Windsor, “the Birthplace of Vermont.”

That’s the title Windsor obtained in 1777, when Vermont’s Constitution was drawn up in a graceful white clapboard building that’s now a museum called, naturally enough, Constitution House. By the way, that document forbade slavery in Vermont, which set itself up as an independent republic until 1791, when it became the 14th state–on the condition that slavery would not be the price of admission.

Then came the early 19th century, when Windsor became an industrial village where leather harnesses, guns, and furniture were produced. Robbins and Lawrence made machine parts and some say their factory is where interchangeable parts were first made. Try having an Industrial Revolution without them! That factory closed in 1866 and it was an armory for the next hundred years until it was converted to the American Precision Museum, a sturdy red brick building that showcases the age of water power where Mill Brook tumbles over a small dam and makes its way downhill to empty into the Connecticut River. Inside the museum there’s enough info on engineering and tools to warm a gear geek’s heart.

In the 20th century, Cone Machine Company and Goodyear were the largest employers. Both have closed and, like postindustrial towns everywhere, took a big chunk of the population with them. In 1960, there were 4,468 people in town; today there are just 3,553 and it would be fewer still were it not well-situated. Vermonters would be loath to admit it, but being on the border with New Hampshire has something to with that. Windsor is the gateway to the section of Cornish, NH that was once a thriving artists’ colony.

One of them, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, left behind studios and a home that is now a national historical park. If the name doesn’t ring immediate bells, Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was one of the most famous sculptors of his day. Among his works are The Puritan, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial that stands on Boston’s Beacon Hill. There’s hardly a major city that doesn’t have one of his works–mostly of those you don’t want to topple. At the park, you can see various pieces, studies, and casts. It’s also a very pleasant place to stroll through well-kept gardens and hike.

Crossing the Connecticut River is one of Windsor’s big attractions, and that’s no joke. One does so via the Windsor-Cornish Bridge, a 449 ½ foot long lattice truss covered bridge. It was the world’s longest covered bridge until 2008, when a faux steel and wood structure was built in Ohio. It’s a thrill to bore into a wooden tunnel that often requires headlights to penetrate the darkness. Some folks drive across several times and almost everyone stops on the New Hampshire side to snap a few photos.

Back in Windsor, a saunter down the main street reveals some of its postindustrial wreckage. It’s higher in elevation and affords a look at old factories and rundown properties. This is not a part of Vermont synonymous with rustic charm. Think abandoned or barely repurposed factories and homes that display the attendant poverty associated with job flight. It’s not a nice side stroll, but it does explain why Windsor’s town center is a mishmash–factory housing reborn as apartments, once-grand but still-handsome homes set back from the road, housing stock of varied quality, churches, and a quirky business district. You’ll find a greasy spoon diner, a striped pole barber shop, an insurance company, a credit union, antique stores, and some open-whenever stores. But you’ll also see an arts center and a firehouse whose upstairs morphs from one thing to another. It used to be a place where you could see Maxfield Parrish chromos, but that’s gone now, as Parrish’s studio in Cornish is no longer open to the public. I won’t lie; Windsor is trying but it has a way to go. I often wonder if locals appreciate the ironic name of its sleek new(ish) coffee shop: Boston Dreams.

Here’s the thing, though. Unless you pack a picnic, you’ll spend time in Windsor if you want to eat. Boston Dreams does nice breakfasts and lunches. There’s also an eatery and bar in the town’s Amtrak station, which is unique these days in that part of the railroad station is actually a station! There are pizza shops in town and a few restaurants I’ve not tried. Most visitors head a little further up the road.

Windsor is also where one accesses the road to Mount Ascutney (3,144’) where there’s a nice overview, hang gliding, and skiing on the northwest side of the mountain. It’s south of town, but if you drive north of the center you can sample distilled spirits at SILO or make your way to the Harpoon Brewery. I confess that Harpoon isn’t my bi√®re de choix, but lots of folks like it and there’s very good pub grub to be grabbed. If you want to spend some silly money, Simon Pearce has a glassblowing and retail studio nearby.  Also close by is an unlikely pairing, an outdoor center where you can rent a kayak or canoe to paddle the Connecticut, or you might want to stay land-bound to Path of Life Garden. Cross some 60s hippies, New Age mystics, Eastern religion, and quirky artists and this is what you get. You walk counter-clockwise through sculptures, environmental art, enigmatic carvings and installations and make a symbolic journey from life and death to rebirth. If this sounds too funky, chill; it’s actually a magical one-of-a-kind place. Plus, there’s a high-hedge maze where you, your kids, and everyone in your party can get lost. I think of the Path of Life Garden as a metaphor for Windsor and towns like it.  
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Rob Weir


August 2020 Artist of the Month: Two Bird Stone

Two Bird Stone
Hands and Knees (September 2020)

There are a lot of great bluegrass bands these days. Perhaps too many, as after a while they begin to step on each other’s phonic turf. North Carolina/Nashville-based Two Bird Stone is different in that it often sounds like a Celtic band that strayed a bit far from home. Perhaps that’s the meaning of the band’s moniker–as in killing two birds (bluegrass and Celtic) with a single projectile. The Irish-tinged country rocker “Shoebox Money” certainly crosses a few borders.Two Bird Stone isn't the first band to use this formula, but they do it very well.

Two Bird Stone brings together four guys who have done a lot of stuff for other people, including documentaries, movies, commercials, and touring in other people’s groups: Liam Thomas Bailey (lead vocals, banjo, fiddle, guitars, piano), Chad Kelly (accordion), Judd Fuller (bass, mandolin), and Rohin Khemani (percussion). Their debut album was prefaced by the release of the single and video of “The 99,” which also has a touch of pump organ. Is it a riff on the Biblical parable of the lost sheep, or does its imploring come and find me lyric mean something else? Listen and make up your own mind. I like to see it as the companion piece to “Handsand Knees,” a reverse road song about coming home.

A lot of the band’s material falls into the love song category. Another single, “When Somebody Can See Your Soul,” is a nice corrective to the love at first sight clich√©. The lyric you can feel it…/when it’s someone that you think you should know…/when somebody can see your soul reminds us that this kind of attraction is Platonic as well as physical. Sarah Siskind guests throughout the record and is a terrific counterpoint to Bailey’s vocals–a balancing sweetness to his strong, reedy voice. She shines again on “Drive It ‘Till the Wheels Come Off.” This one builds to a soaring harmony and Siskind punches her way through the mix. For the record–pun intended–this song isn’t about handing over a jalopy; the keys go to the heart. “Needle and Thread” is another nice relationship song; it pays homage to the one who stitches things together so that everything makes sense.

I found the band’s Celtic fiddle and accordion melody lines refreshing. That’s not just because of my love of Celtic music. As accomplished as many young bluegrass players are these days, too many bands have fallen into predictable patterns of short establishment of a melody line, vocal, alternating instrumental solos. That was the norm of the early days of bluegrass, but the crossover “newgrass” emerging from the 1980s disrupted the old Bill Monroe paradigm. I’m certainly not knocking Monroe or what is oxymoronically called “traditional” bluegrass–it’s problematic to use the term traditional for any music whose exact origins we know–but bluegrass strikes me as a musical form in which retro should be used sparingly. After all, Monroe, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Norman Blake and other such classic stars are mighty big shoes to slip on. By sliding into Celtic melodies, Two Bird Stone again uses a single rock to accomplish two useful things: their melody lines sway and linger, and Celtic music has already been thoroughly hybridized.

I have a reservation, though. I’ve not seen this band live and I worry that it’s so much Bailey’s band that it might be hard to capture the studio magic on the stage. Bailey sings leads, but he’s also the string lead on backing tunes. Some of the tracks, for instance, overlay banjo and fiddle–both of which Bailey plays. The album also uses Kenny Vaughan on guitar and that’s another stringed instrument Bailey plays. Unless he’s amazing at laying down melodies and using pedal playback, much of what we hear on the album would need to be altered for the stage. And, of course, Sarah Siskind has her own career.

A final caution: There seems to be another band called Two Bird Stone that plays funk, so if you go video surfing make sure you get the right band!

Rob Weir

 See also this new video of "If You Want to Come Back," which is on the album.


Utopia Avenue a Stroll Through the 1960s

Utopia Avenue  (2020)
By David Mitchell
Random House, 592 pages.

Blend Lester Bangs, Nick Hornby, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Pynchon, and (yes) David Mitchell. Flavor with Zelig, psychosurgery, sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. That’s a good start for delving into David Mitchell’s new novel, Utopia Avenue. It’s a rare Mitchell offering that’s mostly straight narrative. Key word: mostly.

Utopia Avenue opens in London in 1967. It may be swinging, but it’s not the Summer of Love and Carnaby Street isn’t Haight Ashbury. But it is a place where risks are taken and new sonic explorations are considered. Enter Levon Frankland, a manager/music producer who dreams of putting together a new band. He has no interest in sugary ersatz pop bands like The Monkees. Instead, he wants one that will break genre boundaries. To that end, he brings together four unlikely musicians: Dean Moss, a hunky working-class bass player from Gravesend; Elf Holloway, a young woman from a solid middle-class background who already has a reputation as folk music goddess; Peter “Griff” Griffin, a jazz percussionist from Yorkshire; and Jasper de Zoet, a blistering lead guitarist originally from The Netherlands, who might be mentally ill.

In 1967, The Beatles ruled, The Rolling Stones were palace courtiers, and bands such as The Who, Ten Years After, and Pink Floyd were storming the ramparts. Mitchell’s novel is Zelig-like in that fictional characters interact with all manner of real-life celebrities: Francis Bacon, Syd Barrett, Michael Caine, Mama Cass, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Brian Epstein, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Pigpen McKernan, Keith Moon, Steve Winwood, and many more. You might notice that some of the names on the list come from the infamous 27 Club–those who died before their 28th birthdays. Fame requires sacrifices.

Mitchell does a superb job of capturing a Zeitgeist that stretches from London and the Midlands to New York’s Chelsea Hotel and Laurel Canyon. His characters also embody cultural shifts. Elf is a chanteuse who also happens to be as accomplished on keyboards as she is with an autoharp or acoustic guitar. She’s also in an on/off relationship with her former duo partner Bruce, an oink-oink Aussie sexist whose days are numbered by the early days of second wave feminism. Dean is the guy who can’t keep money or his tallywhacker in his jeans; Griff a sort of Ginger Baker type whose soul is always in jazz, though the money’s in rock n’ roll; and Jasper is on another plane altogether, or perhaps several. He’s been treated for schizophrenia, though he might be less Brian Wilson than things appear. At the height of acid rock, being stark raving mad wasn’t necessarily a career impediment, but in Mitchell novels one must keep open the possibility that demons might be real.

If you’ve read any of Mitchell’s past works, you know he recycles better than a backyard Earth Machine. Jasper is descended from a Dutch East India Company trader featured in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Levon appeared in The Bone Clocks, and journalist Luisa Rey showed up in Cloud Atlas. Nonetheless, you need not have previously read a word of David Mitchell to appreciate Utopia Avenue. You could just read it as–to borrow a phrase–a long strange trip through the 1960s. The book is divided into three sections named for Utopia Avenue’s three albums: Paradise is the Road to Paradise, The Stuff of Life, and The Third Planet. Think of an Icarus parallel with part one being preparation for flight, part two the ascent, and part three descent. By populating the book with real bands, you could do worse than go to YouTube to assemble your own accompanying playlist. Utopia Avenue is more than rock n’ roll, though. It shows the seedier sides of the music business, doesn’t shy from presenting the recklessness of the drug culture, and reminds there is nothing “instant” about bands that suddenly appear on the charts. It is also superb in probing family dynamics. In what Joni Mitchell famously labeled the “star maker machinery,” it is easy to forget that every celeb is somebody’s son, daughter, brother, sister, etc. Jasper has an especially complicated family background, which puts him at the center of skin-crawling creepiness that might keep you up at night.

Mitchell is to be congratulated for getting so much right. He makes us feel as though we are in the room at the Chelsea Hotel chatting with Cohen about madness or in Laurel Canyon listening to Frank Zappa diss the counterculture. Mitchell was, however, born in 1969, so there are places where his hits wrong notes. He overstates cooperation between some musicians who were bitter rivals and treats feminism as more developed than it was in 1967. Also, my memory is that gay people were much more closeted than they appear in the novel. In 1967, Britain had just decriminalized homosexuality, but acceptance took much longer. (It would not be legal everywhere in the United States until 2003.)

I’ve long held mixed feelings about David Mitchell novels. Because they are often weird, they encourage over-intellectualizing in the same way that Thomas Pynchon novels have done. This time, though, Mitchell soars like a Jasper de Zoet arpeggio.

Rob Weir