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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Middlebury music explosion

Middlebury is home to a variety of distinct bands and solo artists. While bands may form on their own, many jump at new opportunities to make music with people they meet through the college’s ensembles, such as the Afropop Band, Jazz Workshop, the college choir and the college orchestra. For those who are not involved in these settings, showing up to WOMP (short for “Wednesday Open Mic Party”) in the Gamut Room is a classic introduction to Middlebury’s live music scene.

While all of these events and organizations existed at pre-pandemic Middlebury, there used to be only a small number of acts who would perform regularly. Seniors may remember some of these household names from their first year, such as The Big Sip, 10” Personal Pizza or Gemma Laurence.

“I remember our first shows had like 10 people in the Gamut Room, mostly our close friends,” said Ben Arriola ’23, a founding member of the popular campus band Bottle Rocket. “Then I remember returning from my semester off during the pandemic, and suddenly it was packed with people. Now, there are so many great bands and more venues hosting live music. ”

Another favorite act over the past two years, Mutual Friends, was one of the first bands to emerge after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. They consistently perform at WOMP, Brooker House, the Mill and elsewhere, attracting crowds with their catchy lyrics, instrumental breaks and a whole lot of funk. 

Yet beyond the continuing success of Bottle Rocket and Mutual Friends, this year has brought a fresh slate of acts, and while some of them (such as Brühm and Griefcase) formed this fall or last spring, most of them emerged during a music-drenched J-Term. On most weekends, new bands came about to play shows at the Mill, where Afropop headlined weekly. For aspiring players, music became a daily routine, and members of different bands often encountered each other at the Mahaney Arts Center or in Proctor and connected over shared musical interests. Even a simple joke could spring a series of ideas, leading into a seminal question, “Wanna jam sometime?”

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Many of these new groups are quite inventive, often blurring or subverting lines between genres. Scrapefruit, the brainchild of Noah Hochfelder ’22.5 (bass), Cooper Lamb ’23 (tenor saxophone), Finn Lester-Niles ’23 (drums) and Asa Skinder ’23 (guitar), is Middlebury’s resident avant-garde punk project. Current vocalist Chad Kim ’23.5 describes the band’s craft. “We’ll spend some time workshopping a sound if someone has an inkling of inspiration,” Kim said. “It’s kind of like being in a shared echo chamber where you can understand each other's minds.”

For other musicians, playing in a band at Middlebury has been the actualization of a first-year dream. Bobby’s Short Shorts, a Grateful Dead cover band, arose from Zev York ’23.5’s (guitar/vocals) desire to revive a counterculture spirit through extended jam numbers. “My first weekends at Middlebury were filled with the sonic grooves of Grateful Dead jams,” York said. “What better way is there to celebrate the very reason I started playing guitar?”

Other groups like the Middlebury Jazz Messengers (MJM) or Otter Creek Bluegrass (OCB) primarily play music from certain musical traditions. MJM often rotates personnel depending on who’s available at any given WOMP, although the group’s mainstays are Scott Li ’23.5 (piano/tenor saxophone) and Shengquan (Will) Wang ’26 (trombone/vocals). OCB, formerly known as Skunk Hollow, graduated three of its founding members last year, yet Will Behm ’22 (guitar/vocals) happily drives down from Burlington to meet up and perform with Lester-Niles (bass), Katie Loomis-Adams ’26.5 (fiddle), and Skinder (mandolin). You can catch OCB this Friday, April 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Weybridge House’s semesterly feast. 

While these bands consist of mostly upperclassmen, there is a serious contingent of underclassmen acts making their presence known. Soop Spoons is a group of five sophomores who play various folk-adjacent covers, flexing their instrumental versatility and seamless chemistry. Brand new to the scene, Chapel Hill, led by Greg Marcinik ’25.5 (bass/keys), is a rock band that played at WOMP this week and sang “Kyiv,” a song with Ukrainian lyrics.

The Baby Febs have also mobilized, as Lincoln Pierce ’26.5 (trumpet) introduced his group Febs with Benefits two weeks ago at an outdoor WOMP.

There are also various solo acts. When not leading her rock band, Starburn, Marina Prikis ’25 lends her powerful voice to original compositions and covers at WOMP. Kosmo (Aakhut Khepra ’26), a rapper who refers to his style as “galaxy trap,” opened for Sage the Gemini a few weeks ago in Kenyon Arena, having come onto the scene at the Mill and WOMP.

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Kosmo is a dogged advocate for expanding Middlebury’s live music options beyond what they are now.

“The Middlebury music scene is a family. As soon as I got here I received a warm welcome,” Kosmo said. “I wanna transform it into more of a culture, a movement that everybody can have fun with. Having a music culture can be a life changing experience.”

While the pandemic stalled many college traditions, it opened a rich opportunity for more people to intentionally craft culture. Middlebury’s burgeoning musical identity is the most poignant example of how students are making something fresh that future generations can latch onto, build upon or redesign.

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For students who don’t play music, there are many ways to make stuff happen. This J-Term was a glorious time for music, and none of it would’ve happened without some facilitators, meaning people who handle audio tech setup, decorating and advertising. Isaac Danuloff ‘23 reflects on how he and his friends worked to support the scene. “The creativity is all here. It’s inside of the people on campus,” Danuloff admits. “Our role was simply to create an intentional space for it.”

The scene will be on display this weekend, with MiddChella (rap concert) this Friday, April 28 at 9:00 p.m. in Wilson Hall and Nocturne outside all evening on Saturday, April 29 (rain date is Saturday, May 6). You may find yourself dancing in a way that you didn’t think was possible, or you may find yourself meeting some new folks. Don’t hesitate – even in a mosh pit. 

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