Local Rhythms – Middle Earth’s Dark Days Ending

chrisjonessml.jpgFive months filled with lawsuits and countersuits, delayed court dates and mounting attorney bills haven’t made Chris Jones an optimist. But the Middle Earth Music Hall owner was buoyant enough last Monday to declare that “jackhammer season is over” for the Bradford club.

The reason for his cautious jubilation was an Orange County District Court decision handing Shiloh’s Restaurant back to landlord Vincent Pacilio for non-payment of rent. For the time being, Jones can concentrate on what he does best – bringing great music to the basement establishment he’s run for the past five years.

“We’re not done,” say Jones. “I expect a suit for failure of the business,” a prospect that mostly upsets him because “it will hurt the landlord.” But, he says, “the threat of an injunction to shut us down is off the table.”

This battle may be won, but because Shiloh’s owners have ten days to file an appeal, Jones is reluctant to declare an end to the war. So the legal defense fundraisers and the milk cans by the bar filled with dollar bills will be around a while longer.

“I don’t believe it’s over, and the best defense is a good offense,” Jones says.

The good news for music fans is that the court victory has cleared the way for Middle Earth to firm up several tentative dates. The coming months will welcome performances from Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Cheryl Wheeler, banjo master Tony Trischka, Garnet Rogers and Chris Smither. With the legal cloud hanging over them, Jones couldn’t afford to commit to shows as far out as May (Arbo).

He remains wary of Victory in Jesus Ministries, and their leader, whom Jones cites as the primary force behind the suit. “Knowing (David) Lund, he’ll appeal,” he says, adding “if you give him a crack, no matter how small, he’ll stick his foot in it.”

Overall, his outlook’s good. “In the long run, we’ll come out on top,” says Jones. “But it’s time-consuming, and expensive. I just got the bill today.”

He’s most heartened by the support he’s received from the music community. Bands like Amity Front, Boston’s Session Americana and Nobby Reed all performed to raise much-needed cash.

“But the publicity has been priceless,” Jones says. “I’ve seen a lot of new faces in here over the past few months.”

What priceless toe-tapping experiences await music fans this weekend?

Thursday: Harvey Reid, Four Corners Grille – Missing from the area music scene this fall, the Flying Goose Music series is, according to the restaurant’s website, a one-night affair this year. Lucy Kaplansky, however, is advertising a show there next month. Reid is an acoustic guitar master, and along with wife Joyce Andersen, he made a great Christmas record last year. He and Andersen perform selections from it tonight.

Friday: Junk in the Trunk, Salt Hill Pub – Richie Cortese has been an Upper Valley fixture for a long time now, and his latest combo was quite well received when they played outdoors at Sunapee in the summer. This is the first Salt Hill appearance for Junk in the Trunk, which plays classic rock and boogie driven by Cortese’s singing, which can bend the treetops.

Saturday: Yer Mother’s Onion, Seven Barrels – I caught these guys at a pretty crazy party recently, just across the Unity line. Everyone was in costume, and let’s just say I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the subculture in these parts. I’m also impressed by this band, who play a few originals, but can also knock out powerful covers by everyone from Carlos Santana to Cake – check out their take of “Building A Religion.”

Monday: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, NBC – This is a well-written drama, not a musical performance show. If you’re all about music and nothing else, you can wait until the last 10 minutes of the episode to watch a superlative performance by a band of New Orleans horn players led by 20-year old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. Their version of “O Holy Night” has replaced “Little Saint Nick” as my favorite Christmas song.

Tuesday: Toby Lightman, Iron Horse – One of the reasons I think the Grammies are a joke is that Mariah Carey is still getting nominations, and truly soulful singers like Lightman are overlooked. She’s made two excellent records, the most recent of which, “Bird on a Wire,” runs the gamut from charged up gospel to passionate torch songs. Her time will come, and when it does, Grammy will probably pick the wrong album to honor.

Wednesday: Carlos Ocasio, Canoe Club – Frontman for Gusano and other area bands, Carlos stretches out at Canoe, playing restrained, intelligent blues and showing off his elegant guitar style. As always, get a seat near to the stage if you want to listen closely.

Middle Earth Music Hall and Shiloh’s Head To Court

middleearthbarsml.jpgUpdate: Middle Earth wins court case

What started as a promising cohabitation has become an increasingly bitter dispute between the Middle Earth Music Hall and its upstairs neighbor, Shiloh’s Restaurant. Each has filed suit against the other, and the spat threatens the future of both Bradford, Vermont businesses.

Shiloh’s claims the music from Middle Earth is so loud that it’s driving away customers. Owners Nicole and Miranda Fenoff began withholding rent last July. When landlord Vincent Pacilio sued, the Fenoffs counter-sued, naming both Pacilio and Middle Earth owner Chris Jones as co-defendants for what court documents allege is “constructive eviction” – a concerted effort to drive them out of business.

Nicole Fenoff claimed in an interview that she was “set up” by Pacilio, who “wanted us to do renovations and then take over.”

As for the Middle Earth’s music volume, Fenoff says, “Vince never, ever said it was going to be a problem.” She claims “people told us it was just bluegrass,” but admits that she never actually listened to the sound levels prior to opening Shiloh’s.

“This is not about music,” counters Chris Jones. He says the noise is a “phantom issue” being stoked by David Lund, leader of Victory In Jesus Ministries, who he claims “pulls all the strings” for Shiloh’s, even though he’s not the owner. Jones has named Lund as a co-defendant in his own suit against Shiloh’s.

Jones claims the real purpose of Shiloh’s suit “is to cause as much financial harm as possible” to his business in an attempt to force them out. “I don’t think they ever wanted to run a restaurant, they had eyes on the building,” he says.

Both Nicole Fenoff and David Lund deny Jones’ claim.

“He didn’t realize the strength of the community,” says Jones. “It’s international.” An e-mail appeal sent to Middle Earth patrons has generated a lot of financial support. Two benefit shows to raise money for their legal defense fund have been very successful, with more planned.

“When this first hit the fan, I thought we’d just give up,” says Jones. “But everyone stepped up. There’s gonna be so many benefits, people will get sick of them.”

“I’m overwhelmed,” he adds, noting the encouragement comes from “not just performers, but the community itself, even people who haven’t been our customers. They recognize that it’s an asset to the community.”

On Saturday night, as Phil Celia and Friends jammed onstage, a customer from Norwich approached Jones and handed him a wad of twenties. “I took up a collection at work,” he said. Mike, a bartender who doubles as a sound technician, stuffed his tips into a ceramic vase with a “Legal Defense Fund” card taped to it. “They usually go in there,” he said.

David Lund is a polarizing figure in Bradford. Some in the community claim Victory in Jesus is a religious cult; others praise Lund for his charitable work on behalf of Haitian orphans.

Lund started his evangelical organization in the mid-1980s. He also began a construction company, Nikao Concepts, to provide jobs for his congregants, whom Lund refers to as “fellowshippers.” The company filed for bankruptcy in January 1992, leaving over $200,000 in unpaid bills. Lawsuits stemming from Nikao’s demise, and Victory In Jesus’ hasty relocation to Hollywood, South Carolina, have fueled much of the local ire against Lund.

David Lund insists that his personal history should have no bearing on the Fenoff sisters’ attempt to run a business.

Of his problems 14 years ago with Nikao Concepts, Lund says simply, “this town destroyed the company. The Attorney General of Vermont went over the case with a fine tooth comb and found nothing wrong.”

“The game is that Dave Lund’s got a bad reputation so let’s hang it on him,” he says. “I’ve never fought back and I don’t believe in retribution.”

What’s really at issue, says Lund, is that “people don’t want to eat when that sound is going on. “

Lund said in an interview that he has no financial stake in Shiloh’s. His name doesn’t appear on corporate documents for the business or for First Trust Construction, the company formed by the Fenoffs to build the restaurant.

“Those girls’ names are on the certificate and they can do whatever they want,” he says. But he does allow that he designed the business for them, has been a mentor throughout.

“I was involved with this restaurant, that’s no secret,” he says. “We designed the soups, set up cooking and training their help. We also provided spiritual counseling.”

If they’re successful, he hopes they will contribute to his work in Haiti, though he says they haven’t yet.

“They’re taught to give to the church. We work with each other because we believe in giving, and they,” he says, referring to Jones and others in Bradford, “try to slander us.”

Behind the legal issues, which are due to be heard in Orange Country Court on November 6 after being postponed from last week, are a series of escalating skirmishes which have made amicable reconciliation all but impossible. The Bradford Merchants Association offered to intervene, but was rebuffed.

Both Shiloh’s and Middle Earth claim the other defaced their common entryway. Lund accuses Jones of deliberately producing an odor “like boiled sneakers” to drive customers away from Shiloh’s. Jones denies it, but says someone from the restaurant put up a sign in the entryway that read “The Stench Comes From the Middle Earth.”

Last April, an electric hammer being operated in Shiloh’s interrupted a performance by Solas and led to an angry confrontation between Jones and Lund. Lund claims there was planned construction, and attributes the dispute to a misunderstanding with the contractor. Jones insists it was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the show.

What everyone seems to agree on is that a hoped-for synergy, akin to “Cheers” and the Hampshire House in Boston, has been irretrievably lost. Early on, Nicole Fenoff considered providing food to Middle Earth patrons, an idea she says Vince and Chris suggested.

“Before the whole situation happened, we would send people down there,” Fenoff adds. “We wanted to promote Bradford.”

Chris Jones is less circumspect. “They really had a chance to be part of something special,” he says, “and they blew it.”