PUTNEY — When Lisa Brande moved to Vermont in 1979 she instantly fell in love with the place. She got a job working at the Common Ground in Brattleboro and served as a waitress, a cook, a manager and soon started the famous Dawn Dance Breakfasts that took place after the all-night contradances.
Yes, that was a thing back in the day.
“There was a big folk music scene in Vermont in the 1980s, and we would jam every Tuesday night at the Common Ground. It was such a scene musically, that was where my first gig was [...] playing dinner music with Kevin Parry,” recalls Brande.
She plays fiddle and acoustic guitar, she sings, and she started an all-women's rock band, No Regrets, with Patty Carpenter and Karen Bucher. They played at the Mole's Eye in Brattleboro and all over New England through the 1980s and even made an album.
Brande met musician Mark Trichka through their mutual friend Parry, and they soon started playing music together. They married in 1988 and spend half of each year in Vermont and the other half in Florida.
Today, they are Vermont's Easy Street duo and play primarily roots instrumental and vocal music which spans multiple genres: vintage swing, bluegrass, Cajun and Zydeco, rockabilly, jazz, and some instrumental music from South America.
Cajun and Zydeco
Since Brande and Trichka are both professional musicians who have made careers out of performing live for decades, they play in many bands with different names. They are Vermont's Easy Street when they play in Vermont and call themselves Maple Sugar Serenaders when they play retirement places in Florida.
From 2000 to 2017, they played a lot of traditional Cajun and Zydeco music from southwest Louisiana.
“We lived there a few months each year for several years, and we toured with a few Louisiana bands,” Brande says. In one such band, they performed with Thomas “Big Hat” Fields in Memphis and at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
“I played fiddle and Mark played electric guitar. Then we met Al Berard, who became a very good friend and who was a legendary Cajun musician. He liked the mandolin and we formed a Cajun mandolin group called Cajun Combo,” she recalls. They also spent almost 20 years in a New England–based Zydeco band, Slippery Sneakers, until the band broke up in 2018.
Another band they are part of today is Three Way Street with Parry, of Brattleboro, as guitarist. Trichka will also play with Planet Zydeco this summer.
Not ones to sit on their laurels, Brande and Trichka created a new quartet, The Epitones.
“We joined two guys in central Vermont - Cannon Labrie and Dave Richard - and it's all strings, guitars, fiddle and mandolin and singing. We play old vintage jazz and blues from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s,” explains Brande.
“Our niche when we started out was playing for seniors in Vermont,” she continues. “There were bus tours, which was a big tourist business up here. We took that and transferred it to Florida and began playing at retirement communities up and down the Gulf coast.”
She would mail out flyers to these communities and get a 10-percent response rate, which was considered good. “That established us in the early 1990s, and that got us a circuit in Florida,” says Brande.
“I like playing for seniors,” she continues. “They are a very appreciative audience and are not typically a distracted audience. One funny thing we noticed recently is that some of the seniors are on their iPhones now during our concerts, which makes us laugh!”
Multitasking with multiple instruments
Trichka plays mandolin, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar. He also sings.
“I like the voice the mandolin has with other instruments, since it is the higher register of the guitar, it stands out,” he says, explaining that the mandolin has eight strings in pairs, and is tuned like the violin; however, it's played with a pick instead of a bow. “The skills you develop as a guitarist are easily transferrable, and you learn the mandolin vocabulary - how to accompany other instruments.”
He started out playing his sister's guitar when he was 16 years old. Later, he took a few lessons and then started figuring it out himself. He hung around a band in high school.
In that band, one of those musicians was Parry, who was a few years older and quickly became a mentor to Trichka.
Brande plays the violin (fiddle), acoustic guitar, mandolin, and bass; she also sings. The Commons asked her if she plays violin or fiddle; she says it depends on what style of music you play on it. She calls herself a fiddler because she doesn't play classical music and she doesn't read music other than chord charts.
She took violin lessons in the sixth grade for one year and hated the experience - her teacher was very classical and very boring.
She took it back up when she was a senior at Tufts University, and the Boston Bluegrass Union was putting on shows in the Tufts Auditorium.
Brande graduated from Tufts in 1979. She started taking fiddle lessons at the Music Emporium in Cambridge that year from a woman who taught fiddle tunes by ear.
“I would take my cassette player in, and she would teach me a new tune,” Brande recalls. “And then I'd go home and listen to it, and I'd learn it that way.”
Snowbirds love warmth of Florida, consider Vermont home
“In some of the same ways we love music, we love Vermont. It was a life choice to settle here early on, we picked this place and it's a wonderful place and I really value it,” Trichka says.
“Florida is more of a utilitarian experience for its warmth, natural beauty and winter work,” he continues. “Florida audiences are older; we play at libraries, parks and retirement communities. We enjoy playing for older audiences. But Vermont still feels like home, and there is nothing like playing music in Vermont.”
Brande and Trichka have recorded a dozen albums of their own and with their various bands both for commercial release and for those who join them in their community of followers of spiritual master Meher Baba.
The duo mentions how much they appreciate working with local producers and engineers.
“Part of the joy of working on music at home, and recording at home, is seeing projects completed and having an audio imprint of our music through the years,” notes Brande.
Some of that work over the decades has also been accomplished in local studios like Billy Shaw's former studio, Soundesign, and Alan Stockwell's present home studio business.
“Special kudos goes to Al [Stockwell] for all the excellent mixing and mastering work he has done for us of late. A good engineer with good ears and tools can make such a difference in one's final product, a point which a lot of home studio enthusiasts sadly ignore,” explains Brande.
“There is that feeling of joy, and that raises the level of feeling,” Trichka concludes. “Music makes us happy and it makes us happy when we make others happy with our music.”
Upcoming performance dates:
• Friday, June 3: The Epitones at Kampfires Campground, 6–8 p.m. (weather permitting)
• Friday, June 24: Vermont's Easy Street at Kampfires Campground, 6–8 p.m. (weather permitting)
• Sunday, July 3: Planet Zydeco on Putney Tavern Lawn, 6 p.m.
• Tuesday, July 12: Three Way Street at the Brattleboro Town Common, 7–8:30 p.m.
• Some Wednesday nights at the Grafton Inn during June, July, and August.
The music of Vermont's Easy Street and the individual artists is available for purchase on iTunes and for listening on all the streaming platforms.