By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — The first time Laura Thomas performed in a New York City club, only two people showed up to hear her play. One of them was a friend of hers.
“It was humiliating in a way, but strengthening in a way,” the singer-songwriter and guitarist said.
Seven years and plenty of grunt work later, the Middlebury College graduate is making a name for herself, and her five-member band, in the Big Apple and beyond.
On Friday, Feb. 29, the Laura Thomas Band will return to the hometown of their alma mater of three of its members — Thomas graduated from Middlebury College in 1996, lead guitarist Chris Farrell graduated in ’98 and violinist Ben Lively graduated in ’99 — to perform at Middlebury’s Two Brothers Tavern.
Thomas’ music is a fusion of rock, funk and jazz with lyrics that explore political and social issues as well as the complexities of love and relationships. The songs on her most recent album, “Step to the Wire,” which were written while her boyfriend served in Iraq with the Army National Guard, are rife with rage at the Bush administration and compassion for military families.
In many ways, Thomas’s musical career began at Middlebury. She sang in the all-female a cappella group the Mischords and in a folk music duo called Lindsay and Laura. At the same time, during the mid-’90s, another group of dedicated musicians were turning heads on the Middlebury campus. They often performed with Thomas, and then went on to form the popular indie band Dispatch.
After graduating, Thomas spent the next few years traveling around the country and the world, figuring out what she wanted to do. During a year in Brazil, she began writing songs. That’s when she decided she would pursue her music for the rest of her life.
The Middlebury connection came in handy again in 2001 when Thomas set out to record her first CD. She flew out to a studio in Boulder, Colo., where another group of Middlebury graduates were trying to make it big as a rock band. They called themselves The Grift and would later return to the Champlain Valley where they are currently based.
At the time, violinist Lively was playing with The Grift and accompanied Thomas on her first CD. A few years later, when he left The Grift and moved to New York City, he looked up Thomas and the two formed a group of their own. Guitarist Farrell, who remembered Thomas from her performances at the college, joined the duo shortly thereafter.
But making it in the big city wasn’t easy. Thomas didn’t know anyone when she moved there shortly after making that CD, so booking shows was difficult at first. Gradually she began performing, finding venues through friends of friends, ending up in places like the basement of a crab shack.
After only a few months of determination she was booking shows at CBGB’s, the legendary Greenwich Village club.
“It’s basically just brute force,” she said of the process to get recognition.
Still, all five members of the Laura Thomas band continue to work their day jobs — Thomas is a freelance researcher for the National Geographic Channel — but they agree the band comes first before everything else. If they don’t make a lot of money at a show, they can’t get upset about it, Thomas said, they just have to book another.
“The only way to make it is … you have to live and breathe music so much that there’s nothing else that makes you happy,” she said.
It all pays off in the thrill of the performance.
Recently, Thomas had scheduled a show at a particularly tiny venue. On the night of the performance, she discovered she was opening for one of her favorite musicians: singer-songwriter Amos Lee. The club manager had wanted to keep the crowd small, so even Thomas had been kept in the dark about who would be there.
“It was such an honor to play on the same night as Amos Lee,” she said.
To keep moving forward in the music industry, Thomas is getting ready to record a commercial demo — a single geared to appeal to mass audience that would be peddled by professional promoters — rather than release another independent album.
“I need something that can be put on television shows and commercials, that’s the only place people get exposure these days,” she said.
Without major label representation, getting on commercial radio is nearly impossible, Thomas said. What catapults bands into stardom these days is getting onto the soundtrack of popular television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Thomas is currently courting investors to back such a demo, which could cost about $30,000. She’s confident her band has the support — and the talent — to boost it to success.
“I just have to believe that it will happen,” she said.