Relive 25 years of Higher Ground shows through their concert posters
One of the most memorable parts of a night at Higher Ground is receiving a beautifully designed silkscreen concert poster on your way out.
Over the last 25 years, local designers have crafted more than 350 original concert posters for Higher Ground. They're the result of a unique collaboration between the venue's co-owner, Alex Crothers, and Michael Jager of the graphic design firm Solidarity of Unbridled Labour, formerly JDK Design. The posters are printed at another Jager outfit, the Iskra Print Collective.
Music and graphic design fans alike can explore all the posters in a new coffee table book, ECHO: A Survey at 25 Years of Sound, Art and Ink on Paper, out April 1.
Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak spoke with Crothers and Jager about their quarter-century-long collaboration. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mikaela Lefrak: How did this partnership get its start?
Alex Crothers: It all started with a letter. I wrote a physical letter [in 1998] that got printed and put it in an envelope and a stamp got put on it. And Michael decided to open it and read it and respond. It's the last thing in the book — we put it in as an addendum.
Michael Jager: It was a beautiful letter. Alex was building something over in Winooski — a community connected to music and art and ideas. And we were building something over here in Burlington with, in many ways, the same spirit, and music was really a bridge. The letter was a beautiful invitation and something that deserved a resounding "yes."
Crothers: I’m glad it landed the way it did.
Lefrak: Alex, you wrote in your letter to Michael, “Our sole interest is in elevating each show to an event, and what’s cooler than going to a great concert and walking home with a memento of that evening?” Alex, what did you mean by "elevating a show to an event?"
Crothers: Shows are events in and of themselves, right? They have this ephemeral nature to them. It's a moment in time. You're either in the room or you're not in the room. You were either at the show or you weren't. It's a moment in time, and that memory starts to fade in time. And so by providing folks with an artifact from the experience — in this case, a poster — they get to take that home and hang it on the wall... And then the memory comes flooding back of that concert experience that they had.
Lefrak: All of these posters are so different, as are the bands. Michael, is there still a common process for designing and printing them?
Jager: I would say the process is somewhat jazz-like. It’s kind of an improvisational thing, really. There’s usually one designer that’s working on each piece and will develop three to four different conceptual pathways. We'll rough out ideas and start creating a feeling, after spending time with the music or being fans of whoever the artists might be.
One of the things that also makes this a little more improvisational is that they're not posters that are promoting the show. They're not designed to sell tickets and communicate the date, time, ticket price or anything like that. I think it's important to remember that these are artifacts that are commemorative pieces of art.
Lefrak: All these posters are silkscreen posters — they were printed in this very specific way at Iskra, a nonprofit you founded in Burlington, Michael. Can you tell us about it?
Jager: Appropriately the name actually means “the creative spark.” It’s a nonprofit that we created probably close to 30 years ago now. The whole mission behind it is to help people enjoy the making of art and art education. It's really about serigraphy, or silkscreen printing — it's ink on paper and done by hand. I started it as an experimental lab, in a way. I had bought an old press and we were playing around with T-shirts and things.
We ended up being focused on flat stock and printing on paper. It was really a place to experiment with art and making and printing. It was a love of something I enjoyed, and a lot of the designers were looking for. We teach many, many people every year, and it's quite a beautiful thing.
Lefrak: In the book there are a number of bands who pop up again and again throught the years. Through the posters you can see a relationship develop between venue and artist. Alex, what are some of the bands that got the honor of having multiple posters made for them?
Crothers: Ween has quite a few posters in the book. We developed a relationship with Ween early on in their career. They were a band that just naturally lent themselves to doing really fun artwork and posters. Guster is another band that has a lot of posters represented in the book. They've been a band that, in the last 25 years, has played the Burlington area quite a bit, so we've done a lot of amazing posters with them as well.
Jager: Bands are in a constant state of change, and artists. That’s something that makes this really fun when they do come back. It's really intriguing design-wise to be able to respond to a transformation. Great artists are always changing and learning and advancing.
Lefrak: What's the future of this project? Is it going to continue as both of your companies evolve and grow?
Crothers: As long as I'm alive, and I'm involved — and not to speak for Michael — this collaboration will continue. It’s one of my favorite things we do. It's now baked into the DNA of who we are. To step back 25 years and look at the collection of posters both from a visual standpoint and a historical context of, oh look, Busta Rhymes came through, and Public Enemy, and the Wu-Tang Clan, and Norah Jones, and Kings of Leon... All of a sudden you start to realize, wow, over the last 25 years, there's been an immense amount of musical talent that's stopped in our little corner of the world to play a show for the folks that live here.
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