No Depression Blog: There Ain't No Santy Claus At The Higher Ground

Sermon: Rev. Ribs on the False promise and low wages of Hippie Corporate culture or There ain't no Santy Claus at The Higher Ground
By Kevin Russell
October 4, 2011

Burlington was on the calendar. But the venue, The Higher Ground prefers to suggest they are in Woonoski,VT. Either way I think most would consider this to be one of a handful of hippie HQ's around the country; Berkeley, Taos, Austin, Boulder, Asheville, Woodstock, etc. One thing that struck me about this Higher Ground, founded by Phish members, was the number of employees it had and the number of rules as well. I won't go into the specifics, but let's just say it's built on the model of "corporate hippie" ala Whole Foods, REI, Ben And Jerry's and Starbucks maybe.

That term is an oxymoron of course. It feels ugly because it represents pretty well the hypocrisy inherent in those companies. I would have to use Whole Foods as the Wal-Mart example of the Corporate Hippie revolution. That store was founded by real, down to earth, idealistic, pot smoking, barefoot, granola eatin'hippies. But, people change. Ideals are no match for good ol' human greed. The buzz from wheat grass and weed is nothing compared to the buzz of wealth and power. It wasn't long before lots of money flowed into their take over of the natural foods retail market. An aggressive strategy of dominance became the driving force behind their success. And frankly their customers didn't give a rats ass. They have gradually become less and less about their personal ideals and more and more about their personal wealth and power. So what if they vote democrat and recycle? They are no different than the friends of Dick Cheney who operate upon the same aggressive winner take all, survival of the fittest model.

I suspect The Higher Ground began as an honest attempt at creating a community and cultural center based on the personal experience of it's founders. But running a business for profit is quickly the reality that sets in after the money has been spent to open the doors. It gets very real when one's own name is on the mortgage, when one's reputation and responsibility are on the chopping block. Suddenly all those dreadlocked, patchouli scented, terminally opti-mystic trippers (band name) are nothing more than potential liabilities and disgruntled customers looking to syphon a little bit of yer dream for their insatiable appetite.

So, yeah we understand they have a business to run. But so do we. It is one of the philosophies of our business model to extend a mutual respect, trust and general benefit of the doubt to our many partners. We expect the same. When we feel the other has not acted in good faith, then we get a little riled up. Too many rules, too much overhead and too high a percentage split of the door receipts makes us feel unwelcome.

The audience on the other hand was a magnificent group of folks who knew our music front and back. They appreciated the new and dug the old. They were generous as well, which is not a common attribute in the Northeast apparently. Traveling musicians appreciate greatly the sharing of comforts. We are like public radio, anything helps. Unfortunately they had to submit to bag searches at the door. I would guess this place doesn't sell a lot of alcohol so they don't allow drugs. I doubt it was to protect our intellectual property from being pirated.

A couple of the employees had actual personalities and were friendly. Most acted like they were just working a job and had the look of someone who is trying to remember the rules and make it to the clock out. I never actually met the upper echelon of the control mechanism. But there was an office where all the money disappeared and got divided, somewhat unfairly I would like to add. Though we agreed to this shitty deal, we felt we would do better. In the end it was not worth it financially. And that is what I mean by "corporate." It's a big operation that tries to extend niceties and comforts to everyone. But, it is so large that the simple welcoming by a human is lost in their quest for excellence in hospitality and production. Money is sucked up by the massive overhead. The governing of this system becomes more important than the actual human experience of the place and the moment. We may as well have been playing at a House Of Blues or Hard Rock Cafe or Stubbs.

This is what happens when the system is served instead of the soul. It happens in the private sector just as it happens in the public. There must be an emotional and moral tending to the system to keep it serving the spiritual needs of the humans involved. And that is done through relationships, love and respect. It is not easy. But it is highly effective as a motivator for employees and clients alike. This is especially true where money is not available to compensate everyone to their satisfaction because of an inefficient use of resources. If one can balance these things then I would call that success.

Spare me yer "real world" lectures and calls of naiveté. I am a growed up man with a pretty good sense about these matters. "That's just the way it is" is never something I can accept as an excuse or justification for ineptitude or selfishness. In matters of the natural world, yes, of course. But in matters of human interaction and commerce, no. We all have a sense of right and wrong. When someone feels wronged there is usually, not always, good reason for it. We all know when we are doing wrong to others. We should strive to not act like that. We should strive to be fair and just.

Where else is there to play in Burlington,VT? Is there any kind of mom and pop joint we could cozy up to? Keep those cards and letters humming.

Note: Audio, video, and set list from this show can be found here.


  1. Sorry about that....Boston was fun show, and can't wait till manana in the VA. Glad to see you could find a spot in Maryland!!!

  2. Kevin,
    I was talking with a good buddy last friday night after i had seen your glorious show at HG. He related to me an experience from your early, early years when he had seen you guys in a dive bar in Pittsburgh. He remembers the owner telling Jimmy at the end of the night that they could not pay you anything but that they did have floorspace for you all. Bullshit then & bullshit now. When you come back to Vermont pursue LOWER GROUND. How dare those bastards short shrift you. You would expect someone lingering in Higher Ground never to look askance at those who have been flooded out
    around here.

  3. Go to Nectars in downtown Burlington next time around. Send a letter to and let them know how Higher Ground disrespected you. HG needs to learn a lesson in humanity. You think they would have embraced reciprocity after what our state has endured since Irene. They have abdicated the higher ground morally. How sad.

  4. The old Lantern might be up your alley but I'm not sure they have concerts there anymore. I feel your pain, I live just down the street from HG and every time they have a DJ, I can hear and feel the base in my whole house. I've called and even emailed them with no response. I missed your show, because HG pisses me off but I would be glad to help you find a new venue because the Wife and I love you guys and the music is real. Fuck Higher ground (you can quote me on that)

  5. Wow. Huh, all you people going off on what seems to be hearsay. I thought the Gourds show was great, and I go to Higher Ground quite often and LOVE IT. I have also been to FOUR of the many benefits that Higher Ground has produced to raise money for Flood victims. So those comments are way off base too. As far as being "shorted", Didnt you say they paid you the moneys you agreed to? How is that shorting you? I think you all need to open your eyes and get some education....

  6. @Anonymous: What does Irene have to do with this? HG has put on 5 benefit concerts - including Phish at the Fairgrounds - and Grace at the Flynn, and 3 others at HG to benefit the flood victims. In no way did HG disrespect the Gourds, nor would they ever. They wouldn't be around if it wasn't for traveling bands.

  7. Corporate. What a load of crap. Who is this idiot who wrote this slandering blog? The road is fucking hard, dude, don't bite the hands that feed you. HG is owned by 2 local guys. Corporate, they are the exact opposite. Maybe you should actually play some corporate gigs that pay big bucks, and fire your agent who probably set you up with some deal that you agreed to, but then bitch about the venue after. I used to be in the music biz, for 22 years, and this is surprising to hear from a band like the Gourds. This whole lame article stinks of some whiny band member who is stuck in the 70's. I'll never go see the Gourds again, public outcries of whiny slander are for the birds. But you know that, because "you are all growed up".

  8. Ah geez y'all. Why get so riled up. I was just painting a picture, albeit badly. All due apologies to anyone and everyone that could even be potentially offended by this blog post. This is not personal. It maybe is philisopihcal, perhaps cultural differences that set me off on a wrong foot there. I don't know. Criticism is not always a bad thing either. I get plenty of it, haha. Grow fins, thicken the skin. Everything is gonna be all right.

  9. Joe Baker - I hope you're able to carry on without The Gourds in your future, because I'm pretty sure they'll be able to survive without you! Buh-bye!

  10. Yes, I can almost picture the band right before their next show, maybe in the Green Room...

    Keith: Did you see that guy Joe Baker is not coming to anymore shows?

    Claude: So what.

    Keith: No, NOT "So what", Claude...I'm talking about THE Joe Baker...the one with 22 years of experience in the "music biz"

    Jimmy: What? Are you serious? THAT guy??? He's not coming anymore??? It can't be.

    Keith: Yep. It can be. It's over boys. 17 years, 12 or 13 cds, and Joe Baker pulls the rug right out from under us.

    Max: I think I'm gonna be sick.

    (Kev, unaware, comes into the room whistling)

    Kev: What? What are y'all looking at me for?


    Oh, this could go on forever. The point is, Joke Baker can stay home. Who cares. More Gourds for me. And the HG can suggit. I'll still see shows there, b/c I'm not as self-important as Joe Baker, but there's no reason to treat anybody like a widget in a factory.

  11. okay. some of this has been pretty entertaining, but I'm capping it off right here. life is short. go back to what you were doing and enjoy it as much as you can.