Ten years ago, Joe Adler was new to Burlington. The musician and music fan had fallen in love with Vermont after visiting for the Discover Jazz Festival and spending time at Big Joe Burell's jam sessions at Halverson's on Church Street. Today, he's one of the few Vermonters who's turned his passion into a full-time career in the music business.
Adler tips his fedora back while looking around a large, mostly dark room stacked with tables and chairs. This space was known as the Frank Lloyd Wright room in the old Parima restaurant on the northern edge of downtown Burlington.
"It's very nostalgic, you know," he says. "I spent many, many, many, many days in this room. Many, many nights in this room – putting on shows, playing, hosting events. And yeah, it feels the same. It looks similar."
The mirrored walls, comfy couches and baby grand piano are all gone now. But they once created a "vibe" that Adler recognized and helped to curate into a venue that was beloved by local and national musicians alike.
Adler first performed in the Frank Lloyd Wright room in 2008. After the gig, he hit it off with Parima's owners, who asked him to book talent for them on Thursday nights – bands like The Barr Brothers out of Montreal.
"I designed a whole series around this room called 'Burgundy Thursdays,' which just kind of like played into the aesthetic of the room and the personality of the room, the sound of the room," Adler says. "This space was – still is, really – absolutely perfect for live music and community. Especially with all the mirrors and everything. You could get lost in here and it's just one room. The vibe would just take you into a different planet."
Adler was the perfect underground impresario in those days: the guy with wild, curly hair who was always talking and laughing with musicians or hauling an amplifier or singing in his own distinct baritone.
Within a few months, Adler was booking bands full time – and managing the restaurant, too. But Parima was sold in 2009. The day after its doors closed, Adler called the owner of Radio Bean, a place with its own long, quirky history of live music.
Adler was hired to book talent at Radio Bean, but he quickly took up the job of managing the venue.
"Radio Bean was a place that was [an] incubator," Adler says. "A place where bands come through and they pass the hat, and the tradition of many, many great venues across America. But, with that comes a stigma."
Seated in an old vintage booth at Light Club Lamp Shop, another performance space in the Radio Bean family, Adler reflects on some of the changes he made after being hired.
"I kind of took on the role of breaking down that stigma and getting it to the point where if there were touring bands, getting them paid," Adler says.
"Part of the charm of Radio Bean is that it is a little rough around the edges and kind of anything goes," said Dan Bolles, then music editor of Seven Days, who was named the paper's assistant arts editor in January 2017. "But I think the structure that he helped implement at the Radio Bean, especially with booking and promotions, really kind of helped bring the venue to the next level and I don't think without him the place would have been able to expand as much as it has."
Bands like New York City's Superhuman Happiness were attracted to Radio Bean during the four years Adler managed the place.
He introduced ticketed shows and collaborated with the owner and others to create The Precipice, a Burlington arts and music festival that brought together local artists with national acts.
In late 2015, the world music record label Cumbancha, based in Charlotte, was looking for someone to do public relations. Owner Jacob Edgar asked Adler for ideas, and slowly Adler realized he was perfect for the job. Edgar agreed.
Now, instead of booking bands and spending his nights in a club, Adler wakes up early and spends his days in an office.
"Coming over here to Cumbancha, it's a lot like a dream come true in a lot of ways," Adler says. "I grew up listening to albums cover to cover on release day. It used to be Tuesdays that albums would come out."
"I would go to the record shop and get, I remember like, Purple Rain when it came out," Adler continues. "I remember like, the chair I was sitting in, listening to that on the headphones. I've always really just had a love for, and appreciation for, great music and just a desire to want to share it with people."
Acts like Daby Touré are now the soundtrack that fills Adler's days at Cumbancha. But he isn't completely office-bound: he hits the road with the label's artists and works with some of the same agents and managers he knew from his Radio Bean days.
For Bolles, Adler's move to Cumbancha makes perfect sense.
"You know, all of the things that made him great at Parima and the Radio Bean, I think can translate to working on the artist side," Bolles said. "His kind of unbridled enthusiasm for music is certainly an asset, and I think he has an underrated business acumen as well. He's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and kind of loose, but I think when it comes down to business, he's right there."
On a bright, sunny day at Cumbancha's office in Charlotte, Adler looks back on his journey from Parima to Radio Bean to Cumbancha with pride and a bit of wonderment.
"I count my blessings," Adler says. "I know that there have been times in everybody's life when they're just like, 'What am I going to do?' And I feel very grateful and very lucky that for the last seven, eight years, I haven't had to think that."
Adler says he just wants to keep focused on the goal of bringing joy into peoples' lives.