Review: “The Wake” – four Indianapolis American rock bands turn it up

Dubbed “The Wake,” the four-band bill at The Earth House in downtown Indianapolis on Friday night was a well-paced night of throwback Midwestern heartland rock, updated for the times. Held in an old church (with the gospel influence that brings) is most certainly a good thing in rock and roll.

All four bands were almost entirely Indy-based. The Weakenders, with only a guitar player not from Indy (he was the from-the-gut guitar-playing, long-haired Nashville cat) were the final band of the night, and brought home the two-guitar rock and roll turned-up-to-11 noise.

The Dead Hearts showed the promise and original music that warrants following the Tom Petty/Bryan Adams/Springsteen vibe they throw off when they play. Attakula was a surprisingly diverse and mature roots rock version of Arcade Fire. And Henry French and The Shameless worked as a three-piece; French wrangled rock and roll grit and beauty out of his Telecaster guitar and was helped along by the cranked-up drums.

The show was a model of efficiency, moving from one band into the next in about 15 minutes each; it roared to a start with French, whose sound channeled a rocked-up version of Son Volt. They tore through just over 45 minutes of originals. French, who has said he is taking a break from the band and music for a while, was most effective when taking a song’s energy, and twisting it higher as the song roared. A neo-Bo Diddley beat, and Henry stomping his right foot while facing the drummer during the last song of the set, was goose bump-inducing.

Attakula, six-piece band of nuanced roots rock, revealed themselves as a contender for best local talent working in the Americana genre. They can come with twin guitar attack, or bring on a mandolin to replace the Gibson Les Paul. A full, intricate sound and Petty blues mixed with The Band country-rock moments were highlights.

With “Not What I Wanted to Say” coming early in their set, The Dead Hearts brought the most accessible songs of the evening. They, as all the bands did at some point in their set. worked moments of beauty mixed with barbed wire electricity, By the time they reached “Bad For You” at the end of the 50-minute set, singer Brandon Perry had found sweet spot of chunky rhythm guitar with Brian Gropp’s gospel-tinged Hammond B3-like keyboards. The band is only one year old, and they’re still growing in confidence. If they find a way to let loose a bit more during performances while continuing to write, I like their future,

The most polished, and also pleasingly Shooter Jennings-like rugged, of the groups was the Nashville-based The Weakenders. Three of the four members are from Indy, and have recently moved to Tennessee. Guitarist Eli Chastain led them through “Sink or Swim,” echoing a Neil Young rawness; the two hard-strummed guitars worked together with slamming drums to show off the band’s efforts to take their musical game up a step by moving to Music City. Their effective harmonies and a nicely rehearsed set closed the show, using high-energy rock and roll with country-via-“Exile on Main Street” touches to pull the crowd in.

Were there things to that could have been better? There were moments with each band when lyrics needed to be sold harder, as they stopped being words and blended into melody. I would have loved a cover tune from each band; sometimes I need one, even on a night of originals. And the crowd of a 100 or so felt large enough to make it seem like the night was appreciated, but they did hang back until The Weakenders took the stage.

In reality, these are minor qualms with a show that was meant to refute the notion that American rock and roll is scarce — or dying — in Indianapolis.

As Brian Gropp of the Dead Hearts told me between sets during the show “American rock is out there” — at house parties and in basements; it’s just harder to find.” For one night, it seemed lost no more, and instead found in an old church in downtown Indianapolis.

And it may be in the hands of these four – and the others who mine the same sound — to keep playing, elevating their on-stage energy, and continuing to honor their true voice. We know it is rarely a one night or one week or one month endeavor to get anywhere worthwhile in life, professionally or otherwise.

It’s up to one band to make themselves heard with American rock in Indy. If any one of these bands, or others who were not at this show, takes their musical game to the next level — in popularity and with creativity — then others could follow. This was a good step in the process. What’s next?

Indiana Music: Gamblin’ Christmas

The opening track of the Gamblin’ Christmas album “Alaska” earned its way onto my list of favorite discoveries of last year – “Blue Lights” a piece of Americana that is anthemic, in the way James McMurtry or Joe Ely can drawl and then fire a song into your consciousness.

Make no mistake, the magic possessed by Patrick Flaherty and Kurt Franke – the duo that are Gamblin’ Christmas – is in their harmonies; Cutting, beautiful, unique moments that blend Flaherty’s throaty Texas-influenced foghorn with Franke’s upper-register and distant siren. The two are a little more than a year into a musical reconnection that followed each getting married, the addition of two kids for Patrick and a year-long stint for Kurt in Austin, Texas. But it makes sense for them to be play music together, if for no better reason better than damn good harmonies.

Gamblin’ Christmas brings their Americana/folk/alt-country sound to Bear’s Place in Bloomington on September 4.

Ball State grads, both now living in Indianapolis, are about to commence work on a follow-up to the 2007 release “Alaska”, a minimalist-yet-powerful effort, showcasing their voices above Patrick’s strident acoustic guitar playing and Kurt’s nimble bass guitar.

“We have seven or eight new songs that haven’t been played live or recorded, and another 12 or 13 that we do play that also aren’t recorded,” Flaherty revealed. “We are going to get ready to record another album and have been playing the songs out live. The energy is there.”

Kurt, who has a degree in Music Engineering, adds they are looking for something even more organic this time.

“Interlochen (in Michigan, where they recorded “Alaska”) was amazing, but I want to capture the sound of us in a room where we are very comfortable, rather than a studio,” said Franke. “Its really a struggle balancing a folk approach to performance with classical training in theory and recording, but it is exactly that which keeps me interested”.

The folk approach stems from a mammoth multi-record album of songs they both listened to while in college.

“We both sort of started to take an interest into the ‘Harry Smith Folk Anthology’,” Flaherty said. “It is a collection made in the 1950’s, by someone going all over the country, with a really basic recorder, catching people singing, before they died. Really hardcore folk.”

“When you first listen to the album, it is sort of disorienting, because it is so raw. That kind of music resonated with us.”

It led to playing some Muncie gigs and open mic nights. Sharing a house after college, beginning in 2004, their combined skills and musical strengths began to blossom.

“We were renting a house on Central Avenue and lived together for a year and a half,” Flaherty says. “That it was a time that was amazingly productive, “ Flaherty remembers. “We’d practice and record.”

Eventually, Flaherty got married and moved out, and Kurt and his fiancé (now wife) moved to Austin in late 2006, bringing and hiatus to their partnership.

“My wife and I were expecting a child and we didn’t really want to leave the safety net of family,” Flaherty said. “The plan was for all of us to go down there, and not necessarily relocate. Just to see Austin. It was sort of this mecca. Townes Van Zandt lore. Then when he came back last year, we picked back up again.”

And picking back up meant relearning old songs, writing new songs, and finding that vocal harmonies were still intact.

“I think when the Silver Dollar Family Band (a former four-piece band were both in) was whittled down to Gamblin’ Christmas, we started to realize that our voices sounded really good together.” Franke said. “It has taken a long time to develop the harmonies though, and it was about the time we recorded “Alaska” that it finally all sort of fell into place.

“I think we are worlds beyond that in terms of singing, plus Pat has started to sing harmonies on my songs, which is a huge addition to the sound.”

Steadfast in pushing their own writing and music, their live performance at a recent Sunday night at Melody Inn appearance still mixed in a couple public domain-type covers and one Simon and Garfunkel song (the brilliantly chosen “Duncan”). At that show,. Flaherty, pounding the chords out on his acoustic guitar, frequently grounded his feet twice shoulder-width apart, and bounced his back foot as he sang, sounding equal parts McMurtry, Robert Earl Keen with a bit of Gordon Lightfoot. Kurt leaned in and nudged the songs to a higher place with his high and lonesome harmonies.

“We want to have that vocal chemistry,” Patrick says “The new songs are more mature. More than just relationship gone wrong. More about life. More complicated, with more layers.

“But it’s like the guy who asked Neil Young if he had written the same song at least a 1,000 times. Well, maybe,” Flaherty says. “It’s not like there are a whole new system of rules.”

“I feel like every new song we write keeps getting better and better,” Franke says. “Knowing that the longer we stick with it, the more fun it is, the better it sounds, and hopefully people will feel as strongly about it as we do.”