Sunday Night Mass: Pioneering the Underground Electronic Music Scene for the Past Twenty Years

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Sunday Night Mass: Pioneering the Underground Electronic Music Scene for the Past Twenty Years

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON CHURCH STREET DJS, WRITTEN BY JOSH KERMAN ON AUGUST 12, 2017

All they wanted to do was spin records, and couldn’t get their urge for electronic music out any other way. These two individual disc jockeys were creating art in their bedrooms and wanted to take it public. Ben Barlow, also known as DJ Aqua, and Ralph Bottaro, aka RJ, had that itching desire to express themselves through music. The only thing standing in their way was the need for a stage to perform. In the earlier months of their downtown career, their first handful of opportunities were presented to them by the co-owner of the late 135 Pearl, Craig Mitchell. “Craig was very kind to have given us a chance… we ended up with a few of his open slots, which helped get us get started” says Ben. It was perfect for them to gain a little experience at 135 Pearl, because the regular crowd called for electronic music. Another stage that represented true history for electronic music was and still is, Club Metronome.

RJ and Ben loved electronic music, but more specifically, they craved house, techno, breaks, drum and bass, and Ben always enjoyed dipping into trance. Their mission was to earn a spot on the Club Metronome calendar, which eventually happened after four months of knocking on their door. At first, their opportunities were staggered amongst Tuesday nights, which were given to them by Craig and DJ Little Martin. When Sunday’s opened up in the summer of 1998, Ben and RJ begun to change the local electronic music scene one week at a time.

They named the night Sunday Night Mass (SNM), and kept the door open for inspired DJs from around the greater Burlington area to perform a set. Ben and RJ had a vision and it turned into something profound, which rapidly grew a strong and positive reputation amongst local electronic lovers. On a monthly basis, SNM used to dedicate one Sunday each month to host up to twenty DJs. The DJ lineup on that night was molded around ten minute sets, and arranged in a specific order based on the type of electronic music each DJ spun. The goal was to structure the night to progress in a specific flow of sound.

RJ and Ben remained as the weekly resident DJs and used the first two hours of the night to schedule in others who have never played on loudspeakers or in front of an audience. “We wanted the opportunity to play, but once we got the stage every week, we wanted to give other DJs the opportunity, like Craig and Little Martin did for us” says Ben. The night was organized with a calendar in the back room, that was used to scratch in DJs for SNM slots. They structured the evening to encourage DJs to improve their skills and “graduate” from the earlier slots to later ones in the night. By the year of 2000 walk in DJs had become too much for Ben and RJ to accommodate. They limited the night to an average of four DJs and kept the door open for whomever was dedicated and wanted to interview/try out for future slots.

In 2001, Sunday Night Mass had been hosting an average of 150 people each night. Ben remembers the three day weekends that left Mondays closed due to holidays. Those were the nights that generated an influx of attendance. There were regular massers that attended each week. In particular, one individual drove up from Rutland. Everyone referred to her as Mamma Mass because of her senior age and her uninterrupted desire to dance. Her spirit was adventurous and accepted by the regulars. It was a true family setting that took place in Club Metronome every Sunday night. College students were accepted and encouraged to maintain the positive and non-judgemental environment that SNM created.

In 2003, Ben and RJ invited Justin Remillard, aka Justin R.E.M. and Nexus Artist Management brand, to curate the night. With the addition of Justin, the three of them improved the image of SNM, which is now regarded as the longest lasting electronic music series in the North-East United States.

Justin had been part of the Sunday Night Mass movement since 1999, but had been more involved with talent buying and booking special events at the original Higher Ground in Winooski. “It was the perfect fit for Justin to curate Sunday nights… he had all of this prior experience in booking talent and promoting events” says Ben. So the three of them decided to change their structure once more. The new plan was to focus on one big name headliner, joined by the resident DJs and a special guest or two. Guest DJs were selected from a pool, which included; DJ A_Dog, Justin R.E.M, DJ Endo, Chris Pattison, DJ Haitian, Craig Mitchell, Tricky Pat, Justin B, Cousin Dave and many more! No matter what, SNM had a crew that was ready to go.

Club Metronome on a Sunday night was poppin’ and generated as much revenue than any other night of the week, says Ben. He’ll also tell you that they didn’t always pull in a profit. But it wasn’t about the money for them. There was a real connection that made the night so special and worth producing on a weekly basis. “You felt so intimate with what was going on. Each DJ was intimate with the crowd, and vise versa… you could reach up and give the DJ a high five” Ben remembers. It was an amazing place to spend your Sunday night.

Sunday Night Mass had gained global attention when they started booking artists regularly from Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. Ben, RJ and Justin would often hear about the headliner’s positive experience from performing in Burlington. Amongst our community, we represent a culture of electronic music lovers who know how to have a good time. In addition, the convenience of traveling though Burlington seals the deal. The central location we sit in, between Boston and Montreal, makes the trip out here much more worth it.

Burlington had never seen anything like SNM before. It took the underground electronic music scene to another level. The first handful of agencies that SNM worked with included: Blue Collar, Gray Multimedia, Sonic AM, and local groups such as The Mist, Blessed Breaks, and the Blue Moon Crew. They’d been receiving a lot of support from local artists, which gained the attention of Budweiser who got behind as a sponsor. At this rate, Ben, RJ and Justin had what they needed to continue producing quality events that blew the roof off of the venue.

On March 25, 2007, Sunday Night Mass hosted their last supper. Up until this point, they’d hosted SNM every consecutive week since mid 1998. As much fun and success that Ben, RJ, and Justin had producing each event, they needed some time for themselves.

By 2009, Justin decided to start SNM again, only limiting them to monthly events. Budweiser got back on board and so did some other DJ groups such as Sanctuary Sundays and 2K Deep. The extra time between each event allowed for additional thought in talent, equipment, and presentation. As a result, massers leave the night in anticipation for the next event.

Justin had gone on producing consecutive events until 2014, when he decided to reduce the frequency of SNM. Still today, as they’re about to reach twenty years of throwing Sunday Night Masses, you can expect an average of five to six events per year. Coming up this Sunday, August 13th 2017 from 9pm to 2am, is Sunday Night Mass featuring Randy Deshaies and Pat Fontes at Club Metronome. The event is recognized to be a very special night for the close community of massers as Pat Fontes, who is an influence and an accomplished disc jockey has recently been diagnosed with ALS disease. He will be rocking the SNM stage for the first time since 2003, and it will be a memorable night for many in the underground electronic music community. We hope to see you there.

Josh Kerman