Bristol Band strikes up tune for 140 years

BRISTOL — If any tune was missing from the Bristol Band’s weekly summer concert last Wednesday night, it was “Happy Birthday to You.”
After all, this year marks the 140th consecutive summer that musicians young and old have picked up their instruments, packed into the Bristol bandstand, and serenaded the town with a weekly outdoor concert.
In lieu of the song, though, band announcer and saxophonist Fred Belanger marked the anniversary with an announcement at the beginning of the concert, and a fond gesture to some of the younger musicians — “the band’s future,” he said — packed into the crowded bandstand on the Bristol town green.
“We hope this will continue another 140 years,” Belanger said.
With that, band director Bill Bowers tapped the podium, the musicians lifted their instruments, and the band was off.
In front of the bandstand, two toddlers careened in circles each time the band struck up a number, delighted at the chance to dance. Older children raced through the park, zig-zagging between picnic blankets and lawn chairs and burrowing into the bushes lining the bandstand.
The Bristol Band plays “Sweet Georgia Brown,” featuring soloist Alice Weston
The band performs a Broadway show tunes medley
The Roy J. Clark Memorial Bandstand itself was festooned with bunting, and a few large speakers jury-rigged to the banisters. Band members paused between songs to riffle through their sheet music, chuckling and calling out to one another. After each song, it wasn’t just the audience applauding: The band mates did, too.
The Bristol Band doesn’t presume to be Vermont’s oldest, but band members do think that its continually running streak has to be among the state’s longest. The band got its start in 1870, around the same time that town bands were cropping up all over Vermont.
Alto horn player Ken Weston thinks the trend had to do with the return of so many Civil War soldiers. Though military bands were relatively sparse at the start of the war, after Congress authorized the creation of regimental bands for the army a few months into the conflict, thousands of musicians enlisted. The brass bands were the pride of their units, and boosted morale — and soldiers’ affection for the music lived on after they returned home.
Some of the musical traditions of that time — including traditional marches and patriotic hymns — live in the Bristol Band’s repertoire, but Michele McHugh, the band’s lead trumpeter, said the group’s specialty now is a cross-section of 20th-century American classics. That includes everything from polkas to John Philip Sousa marches and Broadway show tunes to jazz classics. They even offer the occasional rendition of “YMCA” or “Stairway to Heaven.”
Last Wednesday was “solo night” for the band, meaning that interspersed among ensemble numbers were songs designed to highlight individual instruments or musicians: the clarinet on “Over the Rainbow,” the woodwind section on an energetic polka, and Weston on the alto horn in a ballad, among others.
Weston began playing with the band in 1961, when he was 28 years old.
“It’s a community effort,” he said. “It’s just a matter of contributing to the community I guess. Other people do other things. Some people are fireman, some people are on the rescue squad. I happen to be involved with music.”
It’s also been a family affair, in his case. Weston’s wife, Vivian, played in the band alongside her husband, and at various times over the last 49 years all six of the couple’s children have taken to the stage, too. Weston’s daughter Alice made an appearance on the tuba last week, putting in a solo performance on the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Over the years, Weston said, the band has changed — for the better. The band has grown in size, and now counts roughly 55 members on its roster. As more musicians have joined the group, the quality of music has improved, too. Bowers took over as director 15 years ago, and said the difficulty of the group’s tunes has gone up substantially since that time.
Surprisingly, many of the band’s members are not, in fact, Bristol residents: They’re hobby musicians from as far away as Rochester, many of whom hop from town to town in the region on the summer band circuit. Some head to Vergennes on Monday nights, others to Orwell on Thursdays.
“If you really wanted to play, you could probably play every night of the week,” Weston said.
And just as there is some geographic diversity on the bandstand, the players range in age from fifth-graders to venerable musicians well into their 70s and 80s.
Sixteen-year-old Addison Tate, a clarinetist from Bridport, is one of the band’s younger members. Playing in the band can be something of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants affair, he explained. The band only practices four times before the summer concert series starts, and bandmates aren’t allowed to take home sheet music between concerts.
That means the musicians have to do a lot of sight-reading, though members who come back year after year learn the numbers over time.
Tate likes playing outdoors in the summer, to an appreciative audience of old and young music lovers alike.
“It’s very Vermont,” he said.
The band has a devoted following. Even on rainy evenings, concertgoers break out their umbrellas. Others park their cars along the south edge of the green, roll down their windows, and honk their horns by way of applause after each song.
Last Wednesday, there was no need for the car horns — the evening was warm and clear. The band ended its concert with the national anthem, and its audience rose to their feet for the final song. Then it was time to pack up, but the band faced a traffic jam on stage while musicians jostled to the stairs, burdened with music stands, folding chairs and instruments.
“Come on, woodwinds, come on. Let’s go,” teased a musician stuck toward the back.
It was still light out at 8:30 p.m., and members of the band dawdled in the park.
McHugh, the trumpeter, has been playing on the green since 1995. She joined because she had recently graduated from Middlebury College and was eager to begin making connections in the community beyond her alma mater. She learned about the Bristol Band from a few fellow musicians in a Middlebury wind ensemble, and began making the drive out to Bristol every Wednesday night. She’s been coming back ever since.
“I think it’s fantastic that we get to play with a whole cross section up here,” McHugh said. “People from all different backgrounds, all different musical abilities. We come together, and somehow every Wednesday it works.”
The Bristol Band plays every Wednesday night during the summer in the town park. Concerts start at 7 p.m.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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