Jeff Mattson and Friends performs at the Stone Church

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BRATTLEBORO — Twenty years ago Brattleboro resident James Charles Brown, Jr. was ice fishing on the Harriman Reservoir in Wilmington when he fell through the ice and amazingly was able to rescue himself. The experience motivated him to become certified as a scuba diver and helped him overcome his fear of frigid Vermont waters. Next month he turns 50 years old and wanted to have a huge celebration to mark the occasion, so he invited his friend Jeff Mattson of Dark Star Orchestra to Vermont to help him celebrate. Mattson agreed and Jeff Mattson and Friends will make its only Vermont appearance at the Stone Church on May 5, at 7 p.m.

James Charles Brown Jr.

Mattson's reaction to Brown's invitation was, "We have to do this because James is like family," and that's how the idea of the Stone Church show was hatched. DSO has played 2,700 shows and Brown has attended over 200 of them in an area known as "The SkipZone," which is in the front row, directly in front of DSO bass guitar player Skip Vangelas. Brown maintains a Facebook page called "The SkipZone," which posts photos and videos, as well as whimsical and satirical material related to Vangelas and to DSO.

Brown, originally from Cape May, N.J., moved to southern Vermont 25 years ago with his wife Rebecca Curtis-Brown, an R.N. at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Brown, as deacon at the Dummerston Congregational Church, went on a mission to Kenya, and volunteers at the Apple Pie Festival each year. He wanted to share with his friends what it is like to be up front and backstage at a DSO show, so he decided to bring this experience to his hometown of Brattleboro. He said, "It's an intimate enough venue so people can really experience it. This place (Stone Church) is special. There is all this latent energy here. The musicians will find inspiration in the setting." He added, "The building has a level of joy in it. We are uncorking that latent energy that has been buried for so many years."

Jeff Mattson and Friends

Mattson, a guitarist who has been called "lightning in a jar," is the permanent lead guitarist for Dark Star Orchestra, founding member of the jam band The Zen Tricksters, and guitarist in the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, which features the Grateful Dead's Donna Jean Godchaux. A veteran of more than 30 years on the road, Mattson's style ranges from rock and roll, to blues, bluegrass, to country, jazz, folk and '60s psychedelic. His original songs are featured on five albums, including several pieces co-written with Godchaux.

Joining Mattson at the Stone Church will be Lisa Mackey on vocals and harmonica, also a founding member of DSO. Vangelas of Colt's Neck, N.J., also in DSO, will be on bass guitar. A talented musician with range and endurance, Vangelas has the chops of an old school bassist and is a master of cutting edge improvisation. Rob Barraco also of DSO will be on keyboards. Barraco, a professional musician since the early '80s, was keyboardist for "The Cosby Show," "A Different World," and toured with R&B performer Freddie Jackson. Barraco joined The Zen Tricksters and spent more than a decade touring with them.

Their second album, "A Love Surreal," brought the band to the attention of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who asked Barraco and Mattson to play a series of shows in San Francisco and then tour the country, double billing with Bob Dylan. That band included Allman Brothers guitarists Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes and was called Phil Lesh and Friends. Barraco was member of the Phil Lesh Quintet and toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead from 2002 to 04. He is now a permanent member of Dark Star Orchestra. His son Tom Barraco, will be on drums.

The Stone Church

The story goes that in the 1990s Omega Optical Inc. started to outgrow their space at the Stone Church on Main Street and from 2003 to 15 various entities held dance classes, concerts, films and performances there. Robert Johnson of Guilford and his company Delta Gamma, LLC, bought the building in 1975 and his son Robin Johnson who manages it, explained, "In 2015 we finally cleared out the basement and for the first time had access to the whole building. We completed the bulk of our big renovation project and reopened last summer 2017."

The Stone Church is in the Victorian Gothic style and was built in 1875 by the All Souls Unitarian congregation. Its Celtic cross, which used to rest above the bell tower, was hit by lightning in 2007 and huge stones from the tower were tossed into Main Street. It has a stunning ceiling hand painted with Scandinavian folk designs by workers from the Estey Organ Factory, and nine original stained glass windows hand made by Joseph Baker of New York. A new large yellow birch dance floor was added as part of the renovation. Its 2,700 square feet of space can hold up to 299 patrons, including seating in the balcony.

Johnson said he plans to have more diverse offerings. "We just installed a dumbwaiter to access our new kitchen, so we can have farm to table dinners, Sunday brunches, weddings, and corporate events." Johnson wants to focus on making it "a good experience for bands and audiences. We'll be able punch above our weight and attract acts that normally wouldn't play such an intimate venue." It's a challenging market, he added, "We feel it's important to provide an eclectic mix of genres. It's not just a listening room or a dance hall; it's a small community with diverse tastes." Dan Richardson the chief sound engineer has put together a high-end sound system and the room's acoustics are top notch. They serve light snacks with a full bar featuring a wide selection of local and craft beers.

In thinking about his birthday party show on May 5, Brown concluded, "There will be a great conflagration of peoples and cultures at this event that will result in a fantastic spontaneous experience, and there are moments to be had that will never be had again."

"The Big Empty," a local band, will open the night with Jason Scaggs on guitar, Jeff Richardson on upright bass, and Marcel Le Claire on drums. These musicians were formerly of Jatoba and Flabbergaster.

Doors open at 7 p.m.  The Big Empty plays from 8 to 9 p.m. and Jeff Mattson & Friends plays from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.  Tickets are $40 each and can be purchased at the Stone Church, 210 Main Street in Brattleboro, or online at www.stonechurchvt.com.


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