NORTH BENNINGTON, Vt. -- Well, dear readers, I'm officially in my 30s. Last month, I turned 31 to seal the deal.
Instead of celebrating with a wild party or trip, I wanted to celebrate in a more laid-back way this year, by gathering with small groups of friends here and there over the next month.
On March 22, the day after my birthday, I celebrated by driving with my friend Darcie to the Vermont Arts Exchange here in North Bennington, about a half-hour from northern Berkshire County and about an hour from Pittsfield, according to Google Maps.
We planned to meet my friend Andrea and her boyfriend Justin, who live in the area.
Located in an old mill on Sage Street, the venue can be a little tricky to find using GPS and parking is kind of a free-for-all. But it only threw us a few minutes off track. We didn't use the directions on the website, which I highly recommend.
I knew the Vermont Arts Exchange, or VAE, was a venue for art-making and art exhibitions, but a recent email reminded me that its basement doubles as a cabaret-sized performing arts venue. It was established in 2004.
On this particular Friday, VAE welcomed the Boston-based string band Joy Kills Sorrow, featuring some members from Gold Town, a bluegrass/old time string band from southern Vermont, as an opening act.
Though small, the venue and its Basement Music Series seem to run efficiently. My friend Andrea and I were able to purchase tickets through an online ticketing system and pick them up at a will call at the door.
Tickets to VAE shows are a standard $18 in advance, $22 at the door. Shows start at 8 p.m.
It was when Darcie and I actually stepped in line to pick up our tickets that I realized we were in for a unique experience.
The interesting woman at the will-call table asked if I was the Jenn Smith who was "brilliant with paint." I heard "brilliant with pain," and told her I was a writer. Then she told us to pick up our "tickets," which were actually slips of book quotes and fortune-cookie messages.
We took them downstairs and turned them over to the ticket taker at the door there.
If you go left at that point, you'll enter the basement area with the cabaret and a bar/lounge. If you go right, you'll find tables of the performers' merchandise. The hallway continues through a pottery studio and eventually leads to the restroom (like a gallery in itself).
We entered the club space to find about 18 tables (draped with linens and topped with small candles) of different sizes. The perimeter of the room was lined with more chairs, all facing a raised stage that was professionally lit.
According to the VAE website, the club space can sit up to 130. By my count, there were around 70 at the show that night, ranging from bohemian-looking 20-somethings who smelled like PBR and American Spirit cigarettes, to comfortably dressed, mild-manned folks in their 60s.
No one seemed to mind whether strangers joined their tables, though some tables had numbers on them, indicating they had been reserved. Otherwise it's general admission seating.
I loved the concert space itself, the art on the walls, the angel statue holding a candelabra, the strings of white Christmas lights intertwined with hand-bent tree boughs hung from the ceiling. There was a dim warmth to it all, providing a relaxing atmosphere fit to fuel creativity, cordiality and romance.
The bar area, designated by a red tube light bent to spell "BAR" in cursive, is in its own room, adjacent to the main club area. With lots of books, a wall of photos from past music acts, and vintage printing materials, it looked more like a set design from a play.
The bar is small, but well stocked with beer, wine and your standard cocktail fixings, with a really nice bartender lady who's quick to smile, serve and move the line along.
Darcie and I took glasses of wine back to our table at stage left, just behind the sound guy. We ran into our friend Emma from Pittsfield, there with one of her friends, and all sat together to enjoy the performance -- which we did, very much.
The acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin and upright bass resonated beautifully throughout the space. The performers were talented, played with heartfelt intent, and seemed grateful to the audience, which returned its appreciation.
I loved it and can't wait to head back, particularly for the rest of the spring's lineup.
Next Saturday, April 13, is Daisy Castro & the Gypsy Moth Quartet, playing "gypsy jazz" fronted by a "15-year-old prodigy violinist" (Castro).
Mike & Ruthy, with Brendan Eprile, and David Wax Museum are up after that. Mike & Ruthy and David Wax Museum have both graced the Berkshires with their music, and put on shows I've seen and recommend traveling to see.
Providing an uncomplicated but rich palette of music, culture and art, Vermont Arts Exchange and its Basement Music Series is truly a gem in our region's midst.
To reach Jenn Smith:
or (413) 496-6239.
On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink