Honoring the stage
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Mark Piepkorn stands in front of the Stage 33 Live marquee in Bellows Falls.

Honoring the stage

Stage 33 Live provides a no-frills intimate listening experience for up-and-coming artists — all on stage in a repurposed paper mill that echoes with the history of Bellows Falls

BELLOWS FALLS — Housed in a former paper mill — which today looks very much like it did when the mill closed in 1963 — Stage 33 Live seems an unlikely spot for small, intimate live music concerts.

In actual practice, the space has worked out just fine.

Stage 33 Live is a no-frills live concert and listening room, featuring mainly folk, jazz, Americana, and roots music, with some interesting exceptions, performed by regional singer-songwriter musicians.

There’s a stage, built by local music hero Ezra Veitch, and 40 folding chairs for the audience. No bar, no food service or refreshments, and no cover songs.

“We feature really good talent,” said Stage 33 Live founder Mark Piepkorn, who also serves as executive director and president. “It’s just that most of these performers are not known at a high enough level long enough to be able to fill larger venues.”

Out of necessity, the concert series almost exclusively features original music by the artist, with an occasional traditional song in the public domain.

“The practical reason,” Piepkorn said with a laugh, “is that we have no budget to pay for covers. The romantic reason is to celebrate originality.”

Piepkorn describes Stage 33 as a live music organization that is “small and underfunded.” Some grants and donations help pay for the live music venue, but the work is all done by volunteers.

“None of us are paid,” Piepkorn said. “Any money we get goes to the performers.”

He admits that “it’s a terrible business model. We’re not trying to be [Brattleboro’s] Stone Church or Next Stage [in Putney]. We’re just trying to be as good as they are.”

A ‘hand up’ for regional talent

Stage 33 Live’s main purpose is promoting regional talent. “We’re trying to be a stepping stone for up-and-coming artists,” Piepkorn said. “We’re trying to help people in the ascendancy of their arc as artists.”

Piepkorn provides that help in concrete ways. First, Stage 33 Live provides a chance to hear live music performed by the artist. Covid proved that people still love live performances, and attendance has been growing. In addition, all the live concerts are recorded in audio and with multiple video cameras.

After the show, Piepkorn does a professional quality mix of the sound, adds the video, and passes all the media on to the performer. The audio can be turned into a CD, and the videos can be shown on public media or to a potential new performance venue.

“We’re not charging $100 an hour,” he said. “But we offer professional live audio and video.”

Making those recordings offers some challenges. They capture one live performance — no retakes. And with no money for the annual licensing fees to performance-rights entities such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) for legal authority for the performers to play other people’s music, Piepkorn said the recording is turned off anytime someone starts playing a cover.

“Our audio and visual work continually get better,” Piepkorn said. “I’m always trying to do better. You really have to move fast considering that we’re recording their one live show.”

Focusing specifically on local and regional artists, said Piepkorn, “this is a place to play, and we give them the resources to market themselves. We want people to capitalize on what we can produce for them.”

A stepping stone

Stage 33 Live has featured some 200 (1)performers since the first concert in the series on April 1, 2018, even accounting for an extended break when Covid hit in 2020. (2)The list of performers is a virtual Who’s Who of artists from Vermont and beyond.

Concerts are scheduled for about every three weeks through the spring and fall, with summers off.

“Somehow we’ve become attractive,” Piepkorn said. “We’re on the radar of some great touring artists. It shouldn’t be as good and as even as it is, but somehow we’ve set a very high bar for talent.”

Many of those artists have moved on to bigger venues, as well as national and even international tours.

Thus Love, a Brattleboro-based trio of young musicians who describe their music as “queer, post-punk,” performed at Stage 33. Since then, they have released a very-well-received CD, Memorial, recorded during the Covid lockdown. They have been on a national tour, and they will soon head out on a European tour with several shows already sold out.

The End of America (TEOA) has performed at Stage 33 Live several times. A harmonically rich, multi-instrumentalist trio, the group has played together for more than a decade and has released several CDs. Founding member Brendon Thomas has been a well-known performer in southern Vermont since his successful high school band, Blind Luck Music, 20 years ago.

TEOA has moved on to much larger venues and received numerous awards. In 2022, the group toured nationally and was slated to perform 19 shows in Europe this past fall, until the plans were disrupted by Covid.

High-energy, eclectic, acoustic band Spike Dogtooth has played Stage 33 several times. “The venue is so intimate,” wrote Christina Mancini, lead singer and founder of the group. “You know almost everyone in the audience. You invited them, and they are friends of your music.”

Spike Dogtooth, with special guest Sam Duffy, will return to perform at Stage 33 Live later this year. The group just released a new CD, Dogtooth and Duffy, from the recording Piepkorn made at their last performance here on Sept. 9, 2022.

Phil Henry is a singer-songwriter and music educator based in Rutland. He’s the winner of SolarFest’s Songwriter Contest and was voted a “Most Wanted” showcase performer to return to play the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Goshen, Connecticut. He played Stage 33 Live on Jan. 22.

“I play listening rooms in [Unitarian Universalist] churches, coffeehouses, house concerts, clubs, and festivals throughout the Northeast. As a singer-songwriter, listening rooms are essential to what I do,” Henry said. “I’ve played far too many noisy bars and restaurants where music is ambience, and not the focus.”

“To have a roomful of people at Stage 33 Live actively listening and connecting with the lyrics and emotions of the songs means everything,” he said. “Add to that topnotch sound, professional video recording that can be used for future promotional use, and Mark’s commitment to getting the word out about these shows, [and] this is a great experience, top to bottom.”

That experience is aided by the one basic rule that Piepkorn insists on: Honor the stage. He takes the designation as a “listening room” very seriously.

“Although our listening events are informal and friendly, they’re rarely a good environment for squalling babies, ADHD kiddos, or disruptive adults. It’s all about honoring the stage,” Piepkorn writes on the Stage 33 Live website. “Cell phones off, pop a lozenge if you’ve got a cough. Don’t talk over the performance. Applaud like crazy though [...] cheer a great solo, laugh loud at a good joke, or groan loud at a bad one.”

“Heck, heckle if it seems appropriate,” his web copy continues. “But honor the stage.”

Mentors and sponsors

Piepkorn is very clear that Stage 33 Live would not be functioning if not for the help of many others in the greater Bellows Falls community. Stewart and Dot Read, owners of the building, are at the top of his list.

“We keep our overhead extremely low,” Piepkorn said. “We’re not charged rent, and our electricity is free. Other tenants in the building help us out. Without that support, there is no way this could happen.”

Piepkorn wrote a tribute to his mentor, the late Gary Smith, in the Jan. 25 issue of The Commons. Smith, who died on Jan. 16 after a long illness, had been a key figure in Piepkorn’s musical life.

Smith was a founder of Fort Apache Records in the Boston area. After his move to the Bellows Falls region, Smith started a concert series in the Hotel Windham Ballroom, helped found community radio station WOOL-FM, sponsored numerous events, concerts and programs, and founded Popolo, a popular downtown restaurant.

Piepkorn said he also had help from artist and music entrepreneur Charlie Hunter and from local attorney, event producer, and community booster Ray Massucco. Stage 33 Live is located just outside Hunter’s painting studio in the 33 Bridge building, and its walls are decorated with the art of Hunter and other artists who work from the old paper mill.

In the last four months, with the deaths of Massucco and Smith, as well as author and theater enthusiast Bill Lockwood, the local arts community is reeling and trying to recover.

As Mancini wrote on her new CD’s liner notes about the night it was recorded at Stage 33, “The evening was further blessed by having our dear friend and music aficionado Ray Massucco present in the audience.”

“No one on this entire planet loved live acoustic music more than Ray, and he passed away a few weeks after attending the show,” she wrote.

Industrial not-so-chic

The building at 33 Bridge St. still looks like a former paper mill. Some of the artists have remodeled and spruced up their spaces in the building, but it is far from a gentrified industrial space.

In recent years, the building has been an incubator for the arts and small entrepreneurs. Its tenants now include several painters, two glassblowers, photographers, a community radio station, an artisanal soap making company, and a craft brewer, along with the live music space, which has also served as an art gallery and auction site for special events.

(3)The 18-building complex’s historical designation is the Moore and Thompson Paper Mill. (4)It is the largest remaining former mill complex in Bellows Falls, a repurposed reminder of the village’s industrial past.

The lower part of the complex was built in the 1880s. The Hudson Bag Company built the upper building, 33 Bridge Street, where the music venue is located, in the 1920s. It remained the area’s largest paper maker until closing in 1963.

Part of what makes the former paper mill a unique and valuable business incubator is a deal the company made in 1914 with the owners of the famed Bellows Falls Canal.

Construction began in 1791 for the canal, the first of its kind in the U.S. It was built to bypass the 52-foot-high Great Falls on the Connecticut River at that spot, and open the upper part of the river to navigation and boat trade.

But by the 1850s, railroads had made river transport by barge obsolete. At that time, the canal was converted to supplying hydropower to six mills built over the lower end of the canal.

With the advent of electric power in the early 1900s, a large dam was built on the Connecticut River above the north end of the canal, and the canal was converted yet again to power a hydroelectric generating facility. From 1926 to 1928, the dam and canal were rebuilt to power the hydroelectric plant. The dam, the rebuilt canal, and the generating station at the south end of the canal are all still in operation.

To encourage that shift from hydro power to hydroelectric power, in 1914 the Bellows Falls Electric Company, which owned the power plant, began to lease the canal water rights from the companies along the canal that owned the rights. This included the Moore and Thompson Paper Mill.

One vestige of those manufacturing agreements remains.

Per the terms of a 999-year agreement, “Our building gets a quota of electricity from the power company,” building co-owner Dorothy Read said.

She does note that there is an annual fee, and that as owners, she and Stewart pay normal rates for the excess power consumed. (“While it is reduced in price, it is not free,” she said. “Everyone thinks that.”)

The large, open main entry area into the building serves as the performance space. It has a concrete floor, and the mill’s original metal plumbing, duct work, and wiring conduits are still clearly visible and functioning. A clerestory runs down the center of the building, rising above the ceiling height, providing light and ventilation to the middle of the former factory floor.

Clerestories are ancient architectural features dating back to Egypt and Rome, and were a common feature in medieval cathedrals. It’s a welcome detail in a building that was once a temple to industry, and has been re-purposed as a temple for creativity.

Piepkorn said he first was involved with the building when co-owner Stewart Read suggested he start a live music show on WOOL-FM.

With recording and video equipment available, Piepkorn began thinking of opening a live music venue in 2017. The space had been used for numerous concerts over the previous 20 years, so it wasn’t an issue wondering whether it could serve that purpose.

Even with the interruption of Covid, Piepkorn said that he still has “more people waiting to play here than we have dates for in a year.”

“It’s ridiculous!” he observed.

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