Nectar’s, the legendary club in Burlington, VT, that has been the proving ground for local-turned-national artists like Phish and Grace Potter, is turning 40 this year. In celebration, the people behind the scenes—the current owners, along with the promotion company Nectar’s Presents—have put on various event celebrating the legacy of the venue, including Project ’75, an ongoing celebration of the music from the year in which Nectar’s opened, with local artists playing full albums like the Grateful Dead’s Blues For Allah, among other events. There was also a focus on remembering the history of the Burlington music scene, with a reuniting of the Sneakers Jazz Band—who members of Phish used to travel to Winooski outside Burlington to go see—and the bestowing of the one-and-only Nectar’s Lifetime Achievement Award to local legend Seth Yacovone.
The building began its life as a savings and loan and later became a two-story restaurant/lounge called the Hi-Hat. In 1975 Nectar Rorris purchased it and supplied the current name. Well-known to locals, Nectar’s gained national recognition through Phish’s song “Cavern,” and the band’s 1992 album A Picture of Nectar (that’s Rorris’ face on the citrus fruit). Rorris sold Nectar’s in 2003 and while there have been some renovations over the years, the spirit of the place remains true to Rorris’ ardent dedication to the local music scene and its participants. As Brian Mital, vice president for business development at Nectar’s Presents, puts it, “It seems like everyone has their own Nectar’s story.” We caught up with Mital, along with part owner and talent buyer for Nectar’s Alex Budney, to find out their story and what the venue means to them and to the Burlington community at large.
What went into the planning of the 40th anniversary—how did you guys want to shape the year?
Alex Budney: I think we started a list of things that were relevant in 1975 but also things that stuck out in our minds over the years, bands that played here or used to play here. Once word spread out to the community that we were doing it, people came out of the woodwork saying we had to include this band or that band or this person, and people were giving us stories and stuff. But it was also just a bunch of us putting our heads together and stuff that we probably thought would be really appropriate for the series.
For both of you, what was your first encounter with Nectar, your first show or experience?
AB: I was 16 years old and I came up to Burlington with my older brother to see [Jon] Fishman’s Pork Tornado at Club Toast. I come over to Nectar’s for dinner, and then one of us went to the show and got into the show somehow. At 16—I think it was an 18 plus show—somehow I got in, I don’t know. I do recall trying to find Fishman’s phone number in the phone book and calling and leaving a message to see if he needed help loading. I went to Nectar’s that night and I went to Nectar’s for breakfast in the morning and then after that, about four or five years later, my college band—we were at Green Mountain College in central Vermont—got a residency opening for a side project of Todd Stoops’ at the time. This was probably 2000 or 2001—I know I wasn’t 21 yet.
Brian Mital: My connection probably was being in college in the early to mid-90s and knowing the band Phish and hearing that’s where they got their start, and obviously the album Picture of Nectar. But then when I moved here, it was obviously—as everybody feels—a place you have to go check out. Then I ran the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival for a decade, and my first inroad with working with Nectar’s was with the then-owner, Damon Brink. They were a very supportive business in Burlington—and we still are—for the festival. That’s how I started working closely with the Nectar’s brand.
As you planned this year’s events—and as you continue to run the venue—What sort of responsibility do you feel to the history of Nectar’s and to the countless artists and fans who have passed through its doors?
AB: Well, the obvious one would be to honor a lot of those musicians and artists. But to me—even before I started working here, I was very conscious of Nectar’s history and the fact that no matter who’s owning it at what time, doing the work, this place is really a living, breathing space. There’s so much history here, so much that goes on in this place, that it’s difficult to honor everybody. On a day-to-day basis, I think we make a conscious effort to remind ourselves about that giving opportunity like Nectar did. He gave opportunities to local musicians no matter what their style was; no matter who they were, he opened his doors and his stage to them and let them hone their craft here. And I think what he did, for Phish and countless others, is something that we need to be conscious of on a regular basis. It is a breeding ground for artists to hone their craft. To start to play on a real stage, and that type of thing. And that’s how we can do our best to help artists as they have in the past, as Nectar always did.
Speaking of that, is there a sort of push and pull between being true to history and keeping things in the present? How do you stay relevant in today’s world while still keeping the spirit of Nectar’s alive?
AB: I really think that that initial large renovation was a defining moment of the next era of Nectar’s. Until that renovation, which I think was 2004, there was no cover, seven days a week. There was a sound system, but when we came in it was an eight channel board nailed to the wall. You stick a key in it and it turns all the amps on, you run your own sound. The speakers were blown—it was a do-it-yourself venue. There was no cover, so it made sense—you couldn’t pay for the big sounds and the sound technicians and all that. The bands used their own sound. When we moved the stage, expanded it, raised it up a little bit, we installed a top-notch sound system for the time, which has changed a little bit for the better since then. But at that time we moved the stage, we put in a new sound system, we slowly introduced a cover—maybe on the weekends—three dollars, five dollars. But still kept it free during the week. So we tend to toe the line between what it used to be—it was essentially a dive bar where bands could come in and play and run their own sound—and the ability to be a music venue and host national and international recording acts with professional productions. We strive to find that balance. We still want to be true to what Nectar’s always was. Since that sale from Nectar years ago, there have been countless music venues that have opened up in town. But because of what Nectar’s used to be, I think that we still are the premier place downtown for people to go and expect good music.
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