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Higher Ground Lives


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RETURN OF THE KINGS by Casey Rea

When Higher Ground closed the doors on its Winooski location last April, the community’s feeling of loss was coupled with hopes for its prompt and painless rebirth. Well, the wait is almost over; the new spot is shaping up to be an entertainment venue the likes of which Vermonters have never seen — at least not without leaving the state. The process of converting the old Merrill’s Cinema on Williston Road has begun and, as previously reported in this column, the gang is “aggressively shooting for an Oct. 31st show,” according to co-owner and booking chief Alex Crothers. During a recent on-site walk-through, Crothers revealed they might be starting off with a slightly lower-key event than expected. “There’s a lot of considerations — I don’t want to book anything with a really complicated stage show, and the sound has yet to be tested,” he explains. So how is the construction progressing? “The hard part for us is over,” Crothers says. “Believe it or not, it takes longer to get all of the permits than it does to build.” That said, converting a five-theater cinema to a sonically functional and aesthetically pleasing music venue involves some major construction. “We brought in 42 dump trucks of gravel to level the slanted floors,” Crothers describes. As you’ve no doubt noticed, movie theaters have graded slopes — not something typically found in nightclubs. While this might provide an interesting dimension to intoxicated patrons, it simply wasn’t practical. “We toyed with the idea of incorporating them into the design,” Crothers reveals, “but we found out the different rooms have different grades — one of them even sloped down, then went back up.” Since two of the larger theaters will be combined into one huge “ballroom,” the idea was dropped and the trucks rolled in. During my tour, I saw blueprints for the club and was impressed with the scope of the undertaking. The large room, which has an as-yet-undecided maximum capacity, could entice acts that have never been to Vermont. “There were bands that, by the time I got to them, had gotten too big for the old Higher Ground, but weren’t appropriate for the Flynn,” Crothers says. “And there are very few bands that come to the area that can sell enough tickets to make Memorial Auditorium worthwhile.” It also was frustrating to lose popular acts the Winooski club had developed. “Bands would just stop coming to Vermont,” he says. With a larger capacity, the problem is solved. Crothers hopes to keep the big room booked at least 12 nights a month. The smaller room will hold about 450. Both will have their own bars — in the case of the large room, two: a raised bar in the back and one in the heart of the action.

The new facility, designed by Winooski architects Gardener & Kilcoyne, also boasts an upstairs with offices and spacious “green rooms.” VIP balconies look out over the stages, as well as the audience. There’s plenty of parking for the bands’ buses and big rigs, and warm beds are just yards away. “That’s where we put 95 percent of our artists,” Crothers says, pointing to the nearby Best Western Windjammer. All this must be incredibly expensive, right? When asked if he anticipates ticket prices will go up, Crothers calms any fears the thrifty concertgoer might have: “I don’t see any reason the prices would change — you’ll just get more bang for the buck.”

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