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In an era of increasingly large and over-the-top music festivals, Waking Windows 2019 was a welcome return to intimacy, and a reminder of the important role community plays in the artistic process. It feels like a neighborhood festival that just happens to feature world-class talent – and a lot of that has to do with how it is organized.

Taking place in downtown Winooski, Vermont, Waking Windows pushes the boundaries of proximity and blurs the lines between curator and critic – for performers and audiences, vendors and patrons, and for the sleepy Burlington suburb itself. Now in its ninth year, the festival has played an important role in the revitalization of the former textile mill town, bringing considerable foot traffic and business to Winooski in what serves as the unofficial kick-off of for summer in Northwest Vermont.

The truth is that my expectations about the festival were surpassed in every way. This is not to say that I had any reason to be skeptical about Waking Windows – there were enough bands I knew and liked on the bill to draw my attention – but I was curious about the execution. All my worries melted away when I stumbled upon Francesca Blanchard’s performance at the Winooski Methodist Church. The audience packed every row and crooked pew of that tiny church, and you could sense the importance of the moment as soon as you walked in through the doors. Backed by a four-piece band, and joined on the stage by several female vocalists, it was soon apparent that the Burlington-based chanteuse is a local favorite, and the air rang with acclaim at the end of each one of her songs. Despite the roaring waves of applause, Blanchard and her band took the time to chat with and thank all who approached after the set. It was music as an element of communion, and not just because of the setting.

In keeping up with that spirit of accessibility, there were no green rooms or cordoned-off VIP sections to be seen at Waking Windows; the talent stood in the crowd and took in the work of their peers alongside the paying customer, and often were the most enthusiastic of cheerleaders for their friends and collaborators on the stage.

Most of the food and drink for sale was locally brewed and grown, a point of pride for Vermont. And Winooski – all of its one square mile –  used its space cleverly, as shows popped up in all kinds of buildings surrounding their principal (and only) traffic circle. Bars, parking garages, an old church, a brewery, a rehabilitated warehouse, and a coffee shop all hosted performances, pulling double duty for the weekend and seamlessly transitioning back and forth from utilitarian to artistic spaces. More than 170 music, art, and comedy performances took place over three days in an area approximately the size of Washington DC’s Meridian Hill Park, with makeshift stages popping up and disappearing overnight like groundhogs. It’s almost weird to consider Waking Windows in the same category as Coachella.

Built right off the Winooski River and kept up just for Friday and Saturday – the main stage played host to a few of the more high-energy acts from the weekend. Combo Chimbita and headliners Twin Peaks were the Day 1 highlights, but it was Caroline Rose’s performance that really blew me away. The Long-Island native spent a few of her formative years as a musician in Vermont, and her Saturday afternoon set served to showcase her personality in a way that the albums can’t quite capture. She made a point of playing a wide range of her “sad songs that sound happy” to a relatively young and energized crowd that was all smiles and goofy dancing, despite the light drizzle and threat of storms.

Other highlights included a solo set by Nat Baldwin, the longtime bassist for Dirty Projectors, who played his first show on the upright bass in over a year. His songs were hypnotic and heartbreaking, using the wide sonic range of his instrument to plumb new emotional depths. It was a beautifully poignant set at the Winooski Methodist Church, a makeshift venue that was imbued with spirituality. If I sound somewhat surprised by that, it’s mainly because I’m an atheist who normally does not ascribe this kind of feeling to structures – particularly not places of worship. But there was something special about that wobbly portal to the heavens. Come to think about it, that might be the best description for Waking Windows as a whole.

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