The Grift gathers old bandmates for 15th reunion performance
MIDDLEBURY — They’ve been together longer than the Beatles, had almost as many members as Spinal Tap, and have traveled half a million miles on the road. Now, they’re preparing to commemorate their 15th anniversary with a big reunion.
They’re the band with the Addison County roots known as The Grift, and after dozens of tours, thousands of shows and six albums, the band is still going strong.
“There’s nothing we would rather do,” bassist Peter Day said the other day. “It’s the thing we would choose to do in any given scenario anyway.”
The reunion, billed as “G15” will begin at 3 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 20, at Mad River Glen in Warren. The concert will kick off at 5 p.m. Tickets are $20, and kids under 10 get in free.
The origins of The Grift date back to the mid-1990s, when both Clint Bierman and Jeff Vallone attended Middlebury College.
The pair didn’t actually play together then, but were involved in the college’s robust music scene. Vallone played in a group with Chad Urmston and Pete Francis Heimbold, who with another Middlebury student, Brad Corrigan, later formed Dispatch, one of the most popular independent bands of all time. Coincidentally, Bierman recorded an album with Corrigan on drums.
Vallone said he stopped playing with Urmston and Heimbold when he wanted to pursue a more electric form of rock.
“They wanted to go an acoustic route,” Vallone recalled in a recent interview. “The electric guys went off in a different direction.”
In 1998, Bierman was a year out of college and looking for a new musical project. He called Vallone, who was living in San Francisco; Vallone expressed interest in forming a group. Finally in April 1999 Bierman assembled a group of musicians, many of them Middlebury alums, in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“We did a week of rehearsal, and then moved immediately to Boulder, Colo.,” Bierman said.
The Grift was born.
Bierman played guitar and had lead vocals, and Vallone played bass. Like Middlebury and Burlington, Boulder is a college town, home to the University of Colorado.
“It seemed like a cool place to be in a band,” Vallone said.
Bierman said Boulder itself was a great incubator for young bands, but lamented how expansive it is to live out West.
“Everything is so spread out in Colorado,” he said. “It’s hard to make a living playing music there because you saturate the market pretty quickly.”
Because of this, the band frequently packed up the van and toured back East.
“We’d go on these massive tours where we’d play four to five weeks and then go back to Colorado,” Bierman said. “After a few years we moved back East because all the cities are closer together.”
It was on these tours that Bierman and Vallone met Peter Day, another Middlebury alumnus and fan of The Grift.
“Here was this band that was making it, that had come from Middlebury and was touring. It was a big deal,” said Day, who joined The Grift in 2003. “I was a fan before I was a member.”
Day took over on bass from Vallone, who now plays keys and mans the turntable.
Bierman said he was inspired to pursue music professionally by the massive success Dispatch achieved in just a few years.
“I did it because I saw Dispatch do it,” Bierman said. “What struck me about Dispatch is that they made really good money right from the beginning.”
When the band toured around the East, they would follow Dispatch around the lucrative boarding school circuit, where bands could earn much more than doing a bar gig.
“(Dispatch) would get us to open for them, so we could make contacts with the people there and play by ourselves when we came through again,” Vallone said. “So they were very helpful.”
Bierman said he realized how important it is to establish a good business model to have any chance of keeping a band together for the long haul.
“They found a way to find a niche, and for them it was boarding schools,” Bierman said. “They found this way to earn a couple thousand dollars a night, as opposed to playing Two Brothers for $400.”
He added that he’s tried to emulate that business-oriented approach with The Grift.
“Without that model, I don’t think I would have done it,” Bierman said. “I saw the possibility to actually make money.”
And though they have not reached the heights Dispatch did (the band drew an estimated 110,000 people to their farewell show in Boston), the members of The Grift say they’ve found success.
“The thing about The Grift is that we’ve always made pretty good money, for being a band,” Bierman said. “We’ve seen all these other bands come and go, that we’ve played with for like three years, and then go broke.”
The Grift has never signed with a major label. They don’t have anyone to do their booking, marketing or press. Instead, they do it all themselves.
“The thing about The Grift I found amazing is that we’ve never really been in the music business,” Bierman said. “We’ve just been a business that happens to sell music. We don’t have a booking agent. We don’t have a manager.”
Still, there are times when the band members wonder how life may have been different had they not pursued careers in music.
“There are times when I see my friends who went into investment banking from Middlebury where I’m like, ‘Ooh, that would have been a smart move,’” Bierman conceded.
But against the odds, the band has made enough money to thrive for a decade and a half.
“The rent gets paid on time,” Vallone said, no small feat for a working musician.
In recent years, The Grift has relied primarily on being hired for events, like weddings. The band said that shift started when they were hired to be the house band for a resort in Jamaica.
“We learned this catalogue of tunes that are undeniably awesome,” Bierman said. “When we came back from that, we could play any event ever.”
Bierman said that becoming an event band has allowed The Grift to become somewhat immune to the boom and bust cycle of the music industry, but may limit the band’s ability to promote original material.
“The problem with The Grift is that we are versatile as hell,” Bierman explained. “We can play any style and we can learn a song in five minutes. That’s what’s killed us and also saved us.”
The members said they originally toyed with the idea of playing under a different name for events, while keeping The Grift solely for original work. But they soon found out that they were able to bring more fans to their shows because of the exposure of weddings. It was, they admit, somewhat of an accident — but a good one.
“We played friends’ weddings, then it sort of snowballed,” Vallone said. “Now it’s the bulk of our bookings.”
Day added that playing weddings through the summer allows the band to focus on original work in the fall and winter.
“Without the wedding buffer, that would be harder,” he said.
Bierman said he does worry about being labeled a wedding band, but noted that it allows band members to pursue their studio work.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Bierman cautioned. “Well, I would trade it for a bus and being on the radio, but realistically I struggle with this every single day.”
But no matter what the gig is, or how much it pays, band members said they are always glad to be onstage.
“What we do is play really great shows, and when we do people come to them and it seems to be enough to sustain it,” Day said.
“We’ve always been a working band,” Vallone added. “We depend on our live work.”
“We’re on a mission from God,” The Grift announced in a press release last week, a nod to Jake and Elwood’s quest to reunify their band, The Blues Brothers (The Grift are admitted movie buffs, and quote from films constantly).
But they are, in a way, getting the band back together — for a reunion concert and celebration. Eighteen people have cycled through the Grift throughout the band’s existence, which has become a running joke among its members.
“We call it The Grift Scholarship Fund,” Bierman said. “They come, they play and then we send them back out into the world.”
But despite the high turnover, the members insist no one’s departure was acrimonious.
“There’s not one out of all the members we have bad blood with,” Vallone said. “And that’s a lot of people.”
The band said most of the members will be on hand for Saturday’s reunion concert. Beer maker Lawson’s Finest Liquids will even have a special brew to commemorate the band.
Bierman said over the years the band has culled a reputation as a rock ’n’ roll outfit that doesn’t mess around. As a result, they’re booked straight through next year.
“I would put us as one of the most professional bands around,” Bierman said. “We’re always on time. We always do what we’re hired to do.”
Now that the members are in their late 30s, they don’t play all the same gigs as when they started.
“I don’t think I’d want to be touring at this point in my life, for the $500 bar gig on a Tuesday night in Sacramento,” Bierman said. “I have two kids and a wife.”
Finding gigs is easier now, with the help of the Internet and an encyclopedia of bookers, talent agents and club owners the band has built over the years. For the foreseeable future, the band is going to keep doing what they do best — play great live shows, and record original work in the offseason. They’re working on a new record right now, with tracks that span a variety of genres.
“We take it seriously without taking it too seriously; this is how we make our living,” Bierman said. “Even after all these years and doing all these gigs, I still think we’re going to make it. I mean, I think we’ve already made it — we play all the time, and we’re happy.”
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