An Ode: To the Odyssey of a Troubadour and a Pancake

The first time I heard Josh Panda perform was on Church Street in the summer of 2008. The Skinny Pancake had just one small location on the Burlington waterfront which had just completed its first trip around the sun. As a small operation, I wore many hats back then – payroll, scheduling, accounting, working shifts on the floor and so much more. I also booked all the music that came through the Skinny for those first two years.

The Church Street Marketplace can be a charming scene in the busy summer months, with musicians of all stripes entertaining the passing crowds. It can also be chaotic: choked with enough people to ruin a Fire Marshall’s afternoon. Regardless of your perspective, there is a lot of competition for attention out there. And yet amongst that scrum, Josh Panda’s performance jumped right out from the crowd. His voice is so crystal clear, so versatile, so powerful, his demeanor so playful. His songwriting has a set of barbs that would make a fisherman jealous. Josh had attracted a crowd that day and lured me in too. Alas, after a few minutes, my many duties called…so I dropped a business card along with a few bucks and moved on down the way.

Like many self-respecting (or self-destructive?) musicians, Josh is not one for self-promotion. My business card likely found its way into his pocket and then onto a disorganized pile in short order…if it didn’t go straight into the trash. But Josh has a secret weapon: his now wife, then girlfriend, and co-owner of Pandarue Productions, Ruth Hill. Several months later, as fall waned into winter’s wax, I received an email in signature Ruth Hill style. She weaved a string through her mother to my brother and onto another sibling just to get our attention to perform in our little creperie. She is focused, determined and smart…though frankly, it wasn’t that hard to get a date on the calendar at the ‘Cake back then. My brother’s note read, “This is that Josh Panda guy Ted was referring to you.  The music certainly passes the test as far as I’m concerned.” His first gig with us was booked with his then backing band, ‘The Murder Ballads’ on the winter solstice of 2008. It was a raging success. In our next newsletter, I reported, “Josh & the Murder Ballads absolutely lit up our venue…one of the best performances we have ever had!!! I told Josh as many days later in a mid-town encounter, thanking him for bringing his talent to our little city. His response:

“I heard Burlington was a hip town with a home-grown music scene…and that’s where I want to be right now. Just hoping to be that double-shot of espresso in the mug of Burlington’s music scene.”

 

In the months and years thereafter, Josh hopscotched through dates at the Skinny P. In 2009, We infamously set him up for our biggest night of the year, July 3rd on the Burlington waterfront. When it threatened to rain, I was dispatched to get shelter and returned with a rather dirty 6’x8′ tarp. Apparently, I still had a lot to learn. Suffice to say, it was insufficient. (My sincerest apologies to the great Lowell Thompson who still holds that one against me.) The party abruptly moved inside as the impending rain approached. The crowd quickly completely overwhelmed our tiny venue. It was muggy and wet. We’re lucky we didn’t have a slip-and-fall lawsuit that day. Panda and his band were on a roll and didn’t want to stop. He kept playing acoustic, his powerful voice projecting over the crowd, while we reassembled our fledgling PA from outside to indoors. We only managed to get one speaker working, but he didn’t seem to care that night…nor did the crowd, so long as they could still enjoy his pipes.

 

In January 2011, after several more packed parties at the Pancake, Josh settled into his weekly Wednesday residency, which has enjoyed a proud five-year run, ending January 25th. Before we expanded our location on the Burlington waterfront, performing at the Pancake was a tightrope walk. Somewhere just past critical mass we would find ourselves over capacity. With not an inch to spare, a performer like Panda could pick up a fork and start eating from a guest’s plate…it was that tight.

 

Half way through his residency, we doubled the size of the Skinny. We were careful to make our last night in the old space our regular Wednesday residency with Josh, and what a night it was. When it was all said and done, we took it upon ourselves to begin the demolition right then and there. This big broad wall had curtailed our size and limited our parties. It had been a physical and psychological barrier. “TEAR DOWN THIS WALL, MR. PANCAKE!!!” Panda declared. Tear it down we did…

With an expanded space and improved performance area, Panda found new life in his residency at the Pancake. He hosted bigger bands. He worked through his own limitations and found comfort in performing alone. We hosted multiple New Year’s Eve crowds together, an infamous Doors cover celebration for Halloween 2015 and many, many more Wednesday nights. For several of us, Wednesday became our weekly routine to get together and catch up.
But like all odysseys, this 5-year collaboration is set to end. And while that’s surely a bittersweet thing for those of us who found weekly comfort in the music and friendship, everything is ultimately impermanent. Moreover, when one door closes another one opens. The Pancake-Panda collaboration is far from over. We’re just moving onto the next chapter.

 

-Benjy Pancake