House of music worship: The Stone Church provides spirit, vibe to Brattleboro concert scene

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BRATTLEBORO — When funk-metal guitar legend Vernon Reid told an audience assembled at the historic Stone Church for his "Revisiting the Band of Gypsys" show that he was moved by "the spirit" in the venue, some fans probably thought he was referring to Jimi Hendrix, the creator of the music performed that early November night. And they were right.

But there was something else at work, as Reid related after the show.

"This is a beautiful room. You can feel the spirit here," Reid said of the nearly 150-year-old building, once a Unitarian Church.

"When we walked in here today, I felt the vibe. I said, 'All we have to do is get out of the way and let it guide us.'"

The Stone Church — with its stained-glass windows, stately pipe organ and biblical passages on the walls — was the perfect venue for this show. The band members were effusive in their praise, noting how much the spirit and vibe of the place contributed to their performance. The sound and lighting were excellent, and the crowd soaked it all up.

It was just another night at the church, where you are as likely to catch a regional favorite like the genre-bending Gaslight Tinkers as internationally-known acts like Robyn Hitchcock, Martin Sexton or the David Wax Museum. One week it might be the heavy grooves of Brooklyn afro-funksters Kaleta & Super Yamba Band; the next it's the quieter sounds of singer-songwriter Ryan Montbleau or the raucous energy of New York City hardcore legends Sheer Terror.

"We try to serve all audiences, because we know that there's not a big reservoir of one audience here," said Robin Johnson, who serves as business owner, talent booker, bartender and just about anything else needed at the building his family owns. "We try to bring everybody in, and we kind of feel that it fits with the nature of the church, all-inclusive and catering to all audiences.

"It's pretty cool when you can have one night where there's 100 people in chairs watching a folk show, and people are whispering quietly, and you move the chairs out and the next night, it could be a hardcore show with a hundred people moshing in the middle, and everyone's equally as happy and equally excited by the space and the performance. It's really good to get the feedback from musicians and audience members. That tells me that we're doing the right thing, and the space itself seems perfect for it."

The Stone Church has a long history. It was built in 1875 and was the All Souls Unitarian Church until the 1960s. When Johnson was growing up, the building was an Omega Optical office. Later, it became a dance studio and, eventually, a concert venue.

Johnson, 45, is the son of Bob Johnson, the founder of Omega Optical. Robin lived in Moscow, working as a translator and editor with his Russian-born wife, Larisa, and their two children before returning to Brattleboro to embark on a full-scale renovation of The Stone Church. Johnson estimates that more than $500,000 has been spent on transforming the space into a first-class venue for live music, with a new floor and sub-floor, a rebuilt stage using some wood from the old pews, a new sound booth and acoustic panels, two ADA compliant bathrooms, a new green room for wedding parties and a bar and kitchen.

The Stone Church recently received $116,000 in tax credits from the state toward $572,595 in repairs and code upgrades, including the installation of a sprinkler system, window repairs and the construction of an outdoor ADA ramp. There are also plans to revitalize the old church pipe organ, but Johnson said that is far down on the venue's "to-do" list.

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Johnson and his staff have worked hard to expand the church's event menu by offering movies, sporting events and stand-up comedy. The building is also used for music classes by the Kindle Farm School in Newfane, and as an attractive setting for weddings and catered events. Food is a recent addition to the menu, and the bar has an impressive list of craft beers, wine and mixed drinks.

"Part of our model is to try to make it better than other places, because there's a lot of competition in the area," Johnson said. "We recognize that we need a larger percentage of our audience to drive to get here. The people in Brattleboro that come are really supportive and come regularly, but it's a small percentage of what we need."

Johnson said the demographics are challenging for operating a concert venue in southern Vermont. "Most of the people in their 20s and 30s, the more adventurous, are somewhere else. They go to school, they go to cities — that segment of the population seems to be lacking for us, and in general, economically, people make a little less here than in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, so they have less disposable income."

The church has expanded its marketing focus to Keene, N.H., and western Massachusetts, but Johnson knows there are plenty of other entertainment options available.

"We're looking to get on people's radars, getting people to make the drive," he said. "You have to make people aware that you exist, then once they come, it'll be a good experience and hopefully they'll want to come again. It's hard to get people out for things they haven't heard of; that's why we've done more tribute stuff lately. We just need names to get in people's heads."

Among the "names" that seem to attract New England music lovers is Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. The Garcia Project, led by guitarist Mik Bondy, is one of several Dead-centric bands that have recently played The Stone Church. Early in November, it was a fitting place for Bondy and his bandmates to unveil several tracks that will appear on a new album of spiritual songs that Garcia performed throughout his life.

"I'd love to live in a town that had a venue like The Stone Church," Bondy said, "because it's a great hall, there's plenty of eye candy, there's a good vibe ... and it's just beautiful.

"Everybody comes from different spiritual backgrounds," Bondy said. "I'm all about inclusion, and playing in a church, playing this music, it's kind of a double whammy. It's a good vibe all around."

Upcoming shows at The Stone Church include Gumboots: The Music of Paul Simon (Dec. 14); and the Sweetback Sisters Country Christmas Sing-Along Spectacular (Dec. 18).

To learn more about The Stone Church and any of its upcoming events go to stonechurchvt.com or check out its Facebook page.

Bill LeConey is the Reformer's night news editor. He can be reached at wleconey@reformer.com.


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