Can American rock and roll survive in Indianapolis? And if it is going to, where in Indianapolis can it be found? And what happens when four bands, all who embrace the retro-yet-authentic sound of American rock, struggle to get booked into an Indianapolis club?
On May 18, the stage on the Earth House in downtown Indianapolis will be shared by four Indianapolis American rock bands, doing their part to make Telecaster guitars ring loud in our city, just as Roadmaster, Henry Lee Summer, Mere Mortals and many others did in the 70’s and 80’s.
Dubbed “The Wake: A Showcase of American Rock ‘n Roll” (i.e. if rock is dead, let’s have a freakin’ party), The Dead Hearts, The Weakenders, Attakulla, and Henry French & the Shameless bring three-chord rock and roll noise to the old church.
Yet to hear The Dead Hearts keyboardist Brian Gropp explain it, there seemed to be little love for the Tom Petty-esque rock the band embrace.
“At the end of February, Eli (Chastain) from the Weakenders contacted me looking to get a show going in Indy,” he says. “A couple days later, I get an email from Greg Osborne from Attakulla. Our name happened to be dropped to him. I’m thinking the more the merrier. After listening to both bands, and knowing how good Henry French is, I thought this is one heck of a lineup,” Gropp says.
So they started looking for a venue.
“There was not a medium-sized club within I-465 that gave us the time of day. We went after a few of our favorite clubs from multiple angles and were repeatedly ignored,” Gropp admits. “We started to get a little frustrated. Nobody wanted this show.”
Eli emailed Gropp about renting a DIY venue or having a house party. At the end of his email he said, “Is rock and roll dead dudes? Say it aint so!’
“We finally got a bite at The Earth House. After we worked out the details, we realized that we have to show that independent local rock and roll is very much alive in Indianapolis.”
French had the idea for the show’s theme.
“Since we kind of got snubbed by everyone, I consider this a call to action to an extent,” he wrote in the original email to the bands. “Time to prove that rock and roll still has a crowd in Indy.”
It was his suggestion to build a title and theme for the show that’s on all the posters, website and handbills that proclaim “rock and roll ain’t dead.”
They found a media partner in the Back Roads Radio Show. They emailed, and it intrigued me; one show, four American rock bands in Indy, and the struggle to do it.
What the hell is American rock and roll anyway?
Do the Black Keys fit the description? How about less-mainstream bands like the Bottle Rockets and Deer Tick? Or Kid Rock, with his penchant for emulating his idol, Bob Seger? Or is it the domain now of country performers like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church?
I’d wager it is somewhere in the influences of these artists, and standard bearers like Wilco, John Fogerty’s CCR, Tom Petty, and the sound of Seger and Mellencamp – who loves that sound more than Indy, right?
“Our opinion on it is kind of like this; our favorite bands wrote classic songs,” Chastain, the guitarist in The Weakenders, says. “To us, stuff like What’s the Story Morning Glory? or Damn the Torpedoes are always going be on iPods or in playlists or on radio for a reason; they’re full of absolutely undeniable jams. We are aiming for that kind of territory.”
Longtime Indiana guitar player John Byrne has been plying his trade for two decades as a go-to sideman in bands like Mere Mortals, Danny Flanigan and the Rain Chorus (who he is joining for their own show the same night at another Indy club / Locals Only – 9pm), with Jess Richmond, 8-Track All-Stars and many others, most variations on a sound that used to be called heartland rock.
“It’s a tricky business trying to define or quantify something as broad and subjective as American rock,” Byrne says. “Neil Young said it best, I think, when he said ‘once you talk about mystique, you have none,’ but I definitely think that it has some essential, defining characteristics.
“For me – who basically grew up trying to be the kid that Patrick Fugit plays in the seminal rock movie “Almost Famous”, – the best, most effective American rock and roll had to have at least some self-awareness of what it was trying to deconstruct.
Gropp echoes the sentiments of Byrne.
“(It’s) always a slippery slope when you start to define a genre. We have some obvious influences. All four Dead Hearts have a mutual enamoring of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. I am biased being the keyboard player, but I love a band with driving organ and keys (and) love the E Street band so much.”
“If pressed to pick a single band that has become the most succinct standard-bearer for American rock in our current era,” continues Byrne, “I’d have to say Wilco because they quite literally took up the mantle of “Americana”, that somewhat self-congratulatory sub-genre that did its best to keep burning the twangy troubadour flame of vintage Neil Young, Gram Parsons, (and) Townes Van Zandt, and infused it with the intensity of the Stooges and the weariness of Steve Earle while rocking like a hurricane.”
With regional and national rock acts playing shows at the Vogue (upcoming dates include the Bodeans, Otis Gibbs and Dawes), Birdy’s (Paul Thorn has a show on June 23) and Radio Radio (two shows this month from The Lumineers), it would seem there would be a market for bands with similar sounds, on the local level.
What is trickier for most local and regional bands, is working on establishing a consistent fanbase for shows. And to do that, it is more difficult if there is not a healthy American rock and roll scene. Is there one in Indy? I would argue a pair of shows from aforementioned The Lumineers, and consistent crowds for Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams, Old 97’s and BoDeans, among others, gives the appearance of a plugged-in, web-savvy audience that knows the music and where to find the shows. Is that enough for local artists and bands of the genre?
“Rock and roll is still everywhere,” Gropp says. “In garages, basements, and house parties. I think there are a lot of frustrated rockers wondering how to get the music elsewhere. There are still a handful of places that will occasionally let a live rock band do their thing, but they better bring a crowd. If not, they don’t want you back.”
“Indy just doesn’t have the same amount or type of clubs that it did 20 and 30 years ago,” Byrne admits. ”Save the occasional aberration, local music has been banished from Broad Ripple. Plenty of cool shows happen in Fountain Square, but it seems to me that the gigs that get the most notice are for bands from out of town.”
As Byrne notes, there are clubs in the strip malls that book cover bands, And he plays in those bars because, “at the end of the day, I just love playing guitar.”
“If you want to find the essence of American rock and roll in Indianapolis any given week and you aren’t willing to settle for another heartfelt walk-through of ‘Mustang Sally,’ you have to dig pretty hard,” Byrne concludes “The good news is that there is music here, and plenty of it, but there’s just no getting around the simple law of economics that supply doesn’t create demand.”
For the four bands playing “The Wake”, the potential success of the event becomes a lesson in hard work, and networking an audience that they, WTTS and the terrific Back Road Radio Show cultivate. It also helps they believe deeply in the sound they are making.
The Weakenders are living in Nashville, Tenn, with three of their members are from Indianapolis. This will be their first show back in town. They have a new record Super Major, coming out this spring.
“We’ve noticed with the band, people seem to actually mean what they say to us when they talk about our songs, or the new record or the live set or whatever it is,” Chastain says. “People seem to really think we’re on to something. That is a really good feeling.
For The Dead Hearts’ Gropp, the effort to carve a niche, or be a part of something that means a lot to not just his band, but many like-sounding and –minded others, is one reason to go forward.
“So much of what we do is promotion and trying to find a balance between keeping people interested and not annoying them. It can be really taxing and frustrating, contacting countless clubs and not getting a response The bottom line is the music. We love making music. We would probably do it even if nobody was listening.”
Attakulla call their music a “revival of American garage rock wrapped in a crunchy, electrified folk sound.” Henry French likens himself to Tom Petty, the Foo Fighters and the Replacements. I even wrote that French was a “guy has the potential to make the next great Midwest rock and roll record.” And that The Dead Hearts were the Indianapolis’ Best New Band of 2011.
Is that enough? Can their passion, diligence and the sound of Indiana rock and roll get an audience to a beautiful old church in downtown Indy featuring these four?
According to Gropp, music fans know where to find good shows.
“I think people want something honest, something they can interact with. Something personal where they can say, “Oh yeah, I was there that night. I remember when that happened.’
For all their struggles in finding the right venue, they hope the show called “The Wake” will jump start something for them.
And Indianapolis will have a place for music that we call American rock, the trusted sound has never really gone away. For bands like The Dead Hearts and the Weakenders, they simply keep pushing forward, even if it is just three chords at a time. Because, for them, that’s the only thing they can do.
When: Friday, May 18, 2012 at 7:00 p.m
Where: The Earth House Collective, 237 N. East St., Indianapolis, IN 46204.
Tickets: $7 in advance ($10 at door) and available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/240272.