Students join local music scene to make their mark at legendary Burlington venue

Bathed in fog and purple light, five UVM students nodded in unison on stage to a funk beat.

The college-aged audience grinned and closed its eyes, swaying together to the band’s groove.

Together, juniors Zach Lewellyn, Ethan Silver-Wheeler and Graham Peterson, as well as seniors Andrew Waterhouse and Vince Urbanowski make up the student band Kudu Stooge.

The group performed with local bands Cosmosis Jones and Doctor Rick for the first-ever Burlington Showcase March 30 at Higher Ground.

Thursday was Kudu Stooge’s first time playing Higher Ground, or an “actual venue,” Urbanowski said.

Urbanowski said he could feel the room’s energy.

“I think we played well off of the excitement,” he said. “It felt great.”

During their last set, Kudu Stooge was joined onstage by Mihali Savoulidis, guitarist and lead vocalist for Vermont-based band Twiddle.

Looking out into the crowd, Savoulidis recalled Twiddle’s similar beginnings at Higher Ground.

“I was right there,” he said. “The same room, same crowd, same thing, just 10 years ago.”

Since beginning their touring career in 2005, Twiddle has visited Higher Ground 32 times, according to a board kept by Higher Ground founder Kevin Statesir backstage.

Twiddle’s success story was made possible with the support of local music industry professionals, such as Statesir and his unofficial protege, senior Tim Cece.

Cece’s talent and ambition echo those of the musicians his work supports.

“Last semester, five out of seven nights a week, I was at a concert,” Cece said. “I wanted to meet everybody. I’m a huge music fan; I’m a huge audiophile. I’ve always wanted to do music as a future.”

Cece began working for Higher Ground security in September 2016, he said. It was through this work that he met Statesir, and their friendship proved to be fortunate for them both.

Statesir said he had been running Higher Ground for 18 years when the two met.

“I have a lot of family in the business,” he said. “It’s just what we do.”

However, Statesir said he had been growing tired of the venue and sought something new.

“From the time I woke up to the time I went to bed, I was doing this,” he said. “So when somebody came along and said, ‘would you like to sell,’ I really was thinking of getting out of it. When they did that, I said, I’m going to get out of here, and you know, I’m done.”

Struck by this, Cece questioned Statesir’s decision. He had so many connections and was well-known in town, so why would he leave?

Fortunately, Cece’s question resonated with Statesir.

“Through that conversation with him — one of my first — apparently, unintentionally, I changed his mind about moving to New Jersey,” Cece said. “So, he decided to stay here.”

Since then, the pair have played off of each other’s connections and skillsets to create a professional partnership, Cece said.

They built StatesirReal Projects, a music services company, he said.

Cece and Statesir book tours, act as agents, manage and give advice to bands and assume a concert promoter role, where they put their own concerts together, Cece said.

“We’ve got our toes in every little area and we’re trying to build that up,” he said.

Smiling, Statesir said he was happy with his decision to stay in Burlington.

“Working with Tim is probably the smartest thing because he knows all the bands you don’t know,” Statesir said. “He knows about technology, which I don’t. But I probably have a few connections that he might not yet; and those two things working together.”

The two work particularly well because they have a similar philosophy, Statesir said. “Both of us really like this local music thing, and tonight is really an example of an idea that we had,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here, and that’s really great.”

The Burlington Showcase is the first true concert promoted through StatesirReal Projects, Cece said.

The show’s purpose was to to give musicians a chance to get to the Higher Ground stage, make more money and have a great time, he said.

Additionally, Cece said he aims to bring back some of the venue’s original vibe.

“Higher Ground, the history of it — this used to be, like, a local haunt,” Cece said.

He noticed a distaste for the venue among kids of the college age but not necessarily the drinking age, as the security staff had been kicking them out or breathalyzing them before they could get in, Cece said.

“I figured if we can give that community a home here, too, maybe they’ll feel more like coming here,” he said.

Statesir gave a nod to Savoulidis and others who support local music.

“People who are really well-known musicians in this area want to come in and want to be part of what we’re doing, too,” he said.

Kudu Stooge’s newest album, “Origin Thang,” will be released April 14, according to the band members.