Happy 20th, Higher Ground!

The+trumpeter+from+Jazz+is+Phish%3A+a+group+that+performed+at+Higher+Ground+last+year.+++
The trumpeter from Jazz is Phish: a group that performed at Higher Ground last year.

The trumpeter from Jazz is Phish: a group that performed at Higher Ground last year.

JAZZ IS PHISH

JAZZ IS PHISH

The trumpeter from Jazz is Phish: a group that performed at Higher Ground last year.

By ELIZABETH SRULEVICH

BURLINGTON – This past month, South Burlington’s foremost music venue, Higher Ground, celebrated twenty years of successful operation. The establishment’s prosperity rests on a drive for constant improvement, and its transformative history and lasting impact on the community, including on Middlebury College, embodies this very ambition.

Higher Ground’s conception came out of frustration. One of the founders and a current co-owner, Alex Crothers, had just graduated from the University of Vermont and wanted to create a space for people of all ages to enjoy live music. The other venues in the area served the 21-and-up crowd almost exclusively. Inspired, Crothers enlisted the help of his friend from school, Rob Hintze, to further his vision.

The two began hunting for spaces, when their real estate agent introduced them to Kevin Statesir and his partner, Matt Sutte, both of whom were looking to start a similar project. Soon after, the four partners came together and bought what was once a Denny’s in Winooski, turning it into the first iteration of Higher Ground.

Through occasional performances by Phish, whose guitarist’s brother-in-law is Statesir, the venue gained traction. After six years, a growing base of patrons and a steady stream of national and local acts led to the establishment’s complete reinvention. Higher Ground moved to where it still stands today— in a former movie theater in South Burlington.

The facility boasts the Ballroom, which has a holding capacity of 750 people, and the Showcase Lounge, which has room for 300 others. Along with three bars, Higher Ground can host up to 3,000 people for its outdoors concerts in the warmer months. But the changes haven’t stopped there.

Hintze, Statesir and Sutte have all left Higher Ground amicably, leaving Crothers as Higher Ground’s only original partner still in control. About five years ago, Vermont entrepreneur Alan Newman began working alongside Crothers. To commemorate two decades of growth, Crothers and Newman oversaw the installation of a new sound system in the Ballroom and an updated sound system in the Showcase Lounge. Additionally, Crothers hopes to further expand the facility to accommodate more people; this dream is stalled indefinitely, however, due to logistical obstacles.

While the physical appearance of Higher Ground stays in flux, the venue continues to book recognizable names to attract crowds. Fleet Foxes, Sylvan Esso and Jason Mraz are scheduled to make appearances within the coming months. These industry giants are balanced out with local acts, such as Madaila and Steady Betty, who performed for Higher Ground’s twentieth anniversary.

Higher Ground’s impact on the community is widespread. Vermont native and current Middlebury College first-year, Galen von Wodtke, described his experiences at the venue. “You go there and see people a lot of people you know. And it’s a huge space, but it still feels really intimate. It just brings the community together in a way, and it offers a lot of diverse types of shows for a diverse crowd, which isn’t common in Vermont,” said von Wodtke.

Those new to Vermont, like first-year Rayn Bumstead, also feel Higher Ground’s influence. “Higher Ground gives you a unique experience. You see a show that would sell out a big arena otherwise, but you get to see it in a smaller setting and be a part of a crowd that seems to really enjoy the music,” said Bumstead. “Everyone there is just in it for the music.”

Though Higher Ground is located about forty-five minutes away from Middlebury, this doesn’t stop students from seeking out the venue – especially because of the all-ages policy. This gives students at Middlebury, and students everywhere in Vermont, the opportunity to attend quality shows at a good price regardless of whether they are of legal drinking age.

With two decades of community empowerment under its belt, Higher Ground continues to expand its reach. On May 3, Higher Ground’s new show with Vermont PBS, a local public-broadcasting station, is scheduled to air for the public. The first episode focuses on a performance by a local artist, Kat Wright, at Higher Ground. The show is entitled “Bardo: A Night in the Life” and features tapings of shows paired with conversations with Ryan Miller, another local resident and host of another show that once aired on the network, “Makin’ Friends with Ryan Miller.”

Higher Ground is a Vermont staple for both musicians and music-lovers. Statesir, who only just recently departed from Higher Ground, spoke to the Burlington Free Press about the current state of the venue.

“I’m just hoping to see it continue with the warmth and the community feeling we started out with,” Statesir said. “It’s time for me now, and I really feel the place is in good hands to carry on the tradition and legacy that is so important to me.”

With Crothers and Newman in charge and new developments on the horizon, Higher Ground rings in its twentieth anniversary with the same momentum it’s always had.

Happy birthday, Higher Ground!

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Happy 20th, Higher Ground!