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The slow and steady rise of original music in Fort Wayne
How a small crowd made some very big changes
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
In the last decade or so, original music and its place in the Fort Wayne community has made a dramatic shift. No longer relegated to a few weeknights for a handful of bands to willingly perform, local original music is now front and center and, most would argue, stronger than ever. Nearly every traditional venue, along with some very non-traditional ones, seeks out and promotes bands that wouldn't play “Freebird” if their lives depended on it.
But, how did we get here and, let's be honest, why did it take so long? Speaking with folks involved on every level of the music community, from venue owners to fans and musicians to critics, the overall consensus points to a few mavericks in our midst who finally had decided the time was nigh.
Pinpointing exactly when the tide turned is no easy task, but the popular opinion seems to be either in the heyday of Jettingham in the late 90s or the day earlier this decade when Matt Kelley decided to take things into his own hands and book a few ground breaking shows in the downtown area.
"When Matt brought the Avetts and Tim Rogers through, there was a concentration on independent music," recalls Rob Wood, of Little Brother Radio.
"Not enough can be said about Matt Kelley," echoes Matt Jackson, a 17-year old music fan who's been interested in local, original music since the age of 13.
Wood says a few other key changes helped to push original music out from the darkened corners. "There was a crackdown on gambling on bars and the smoking ban went into effect. Those things caused bars to look for other ways to attract patrons and they started gambling on live music. That was a huge accelerant. Personally, I think it was a perfect storm of things. Kelley, Brad Etter and Bruce Lehman were all doing things. They were isolated events, but they bore the standard for today's gigs. The Brass Rail and Mid City Grill changed ownership, also. I know that Columbia Street, who has been a little slow to react, and Legends do stuff. O'Sullivan's and Kaysan's have given it a shot, as well. But, The Rail and Mid City are the twin towers of original music."
Wood's assessment of those two venues seems just shy of science fact according to others in the mix. John Commorato, Jr. and Corey Rader, the current masterminds behind The Rail and its rebirth, as it were, along with Mid City owner Sam Leto and Jon Ross (who promotes the bar’s original music showcase Mid City Mondays), have all been instrumental in pushing original music from local, regional and national acts into the spotlight. "We bought the bar because we wanted to have a venue that we would want to go to and like we had gone to in other places," explains Commorato, Jr., "Lounge Ax, in Chicago, had Jeff Tweedy, Bad Livers and Robbie Fulks. It was to Schubas what we are to Mid City. I really don't care, but I'll be bemused if somebody else gets Best Original Rock Venue this next year, after this last year that we've had. But, I'm sure it'll probably happen, because people don't even know where we're at. More seem to find out everyday, though."
Jon Ross, of Definitely Gary, SuperHunk and SupaBadd, began booking for Mid City in the early part of this year after the venue's Monday night blues jam started to lose public interest. "Sammy brought me in because he knew that I knew everyone in the local music community. I've done this long enough that I know what to book. It's also a great opportunity for bands to gain a Thursday night or weekend gig. I've taken the opportunity to support those I've played with before, as well as 'my boys' in the community. I'm trying to help out others who are attempting to write and create original music."
Even more inspiring, is the fact that for every John Commorato or Jon Ross, there is an independent agent working just as hard to bring in quality, original music from outside the city walls. "Greg Locke, R. Mike Horan, Kevin Hambrick, and Brenn Beck AND Anderson of Hillgrass Bluebilly are all setting up great shows," points out Commorato, Jr.
"Let's not forget maybe the best thing that ever happened to the Fort Wayne music scene: Kevin Hambrick losing his job," reminds Greg Locke, the man responsible for introducing the city to Thunderhawk, "I don't know all the details, but from what I understand, he rolled out of bed one morning and decided that, against the odds in this town, he was going to be a full-time musician, which is something a thriving music community needs. Now, he's bringing great national bands to town, playing constantly and, in general, making everyone feel really good and excited about what's going on. He's an artist, a cheerleader and a backbone." Locke credits the resurgence of original music to "good people with good ears. That and all the Brad Etter shows we can get."
Brad Etter at C2G simply arranges for shows that he would otherwise travel to see and thinks likeminded music lovers will enjoy. "I really appreciate 'listening rooms,' where you can go and support local performers doing original music," says Etter. Many of the shows he books at C2G include performances by musicians who often play The Ark in Ann Arbor or other venues that are conducive to quiet, beautiful moments.
With all of these volunteers seeking out original music to promote in the Summit City, everyone wins; the musicians, fans of great music and all the venues that split hosting duties. The excitement seems to be equally high for all involved. "The options on your radio dial in Fort Wayne certainly don't allow you to hear any new bands, unless it's commercial rap or commercial hard rock," offers Nick Allison, bass player for The B-Sharps, a.k.a. the most energetic band you'll ever see in your life, "Maybe fans of real music have just found that what they're looking for could be in a bar on Broadway."
"Audiences are more receptive at our shows," reports Lou Cucinelli, Zen guitarist for I, Wombat, "It just seems that everyone is willing to give the original guys a chance and maybe of the touring bands that we've played with have been pleasantly surprised by the crowd size and response here in Fort Wayne."
Out-of-towner, Josh 'Thunderhawk' Hall says he sees plenty of positive things going on in the Fort Wayne music community. It's quite different than his home base of Muncie. "Fort Wayne is big enough that there's a lot of stuff going on and it's small enough that all of the bands know each other. The funny thing is, a Muncie band contacted me about a month ago asking if we were a Fort Wayne band. They saw that we had a bunch of shows there and wondered if we could trade shows. I had to let him know I lived two blocks away from him."
"I think audiences are receptive to our music. But, then again, it's kind of difficult to ignore the 'bat when we hit the stage. It's electric sex," clarifies Chad Fry, front man for I, Wombat.
"I don't care who you are or how refined your taste is, if you think you can move to any city our size and find songwriters as sturdy as Mark Hutchins, Lee Miles and Kevin Hambrick, you've got another thing coming," states Greg Locke, "I'd put their tunes up against anyone's. I say this as a proud member of the city they live in."
There is always room for improvement, however, and that should be greeted positively, since it means there is still room for growth. "Venues should take an active role in promoting out of town bands. Create the hype, bring the people and deliver the rock," suggests Darren Monroe, bass player for I, Wombat, "Also, get a good, working PA for Chrissake!"
Anderson, who co-owns the Fort Wayne chapter of Hillgrass Bluebilly, thinks that some venues should pay bands in accordance to how much effort they put into setting up the gig. His other concern is that there are too many shows on the same night and it might be too soon for a slow building fan base to support all of them. "There needs to be more organization between the promoters," he offers.
Zach Smith, manager of Wooden Nickel at Clinton and axe swinger for Definitely Gary, agrees with Anderson and worries that things could boil over too soon. "Really, I don't think this town is big enough to support too many places that cater to the original music fan. I know this sounds weird and I'll probably get some flack for it, but I'm getting kind of tired of there being four shows on a Saturday night that I really want to go to. If low turn out, due to too many shows, becomes a problem then maybe a few awesome promoters in town could work on their schedules."
Ben Larson, voodoo guitarist for I, Wombat, says that the musicians in this city have it better off than others may think. "I just want to say that I LOVE the scene here. I'm always defying anyone to show me another city of this size that not only has such a huge group of talent, but also has the same kind of cooperative way of doing things. I'm always hearing about other cities where the scene is so competitive."
But Darren Monroe of I, Wombat reminds folks that Fort Wayne is still just as much a town that loves to hear covers, though. "Cover band serve their purpose and there is room for everybody!"
And according to Richard Reprogle, music director for Columbia Street West, his venue is just such the place for those still wanting to hear cover bands. "My best bands are Reaganomics and X-Ray Roger Jimmy. They still pack the place and I put on a Best of M.O.M.'s (Midwest Original Music) every month or so and the crowd just doesn't seem to get it." He finds that the current crop of original bands doesn't quite hold a candle to those just a decade ago. "Back then, you had Blue Moon Boys, Chronics, Rushville Whig, Jackie Fly and Strut Train. Now, I hear one or two bands that are whispering the thought of a record deal. The mainstay of Fort Wayne doesn't have a clue or the patience to sit and listen to a new thing going on."
Matt Kelley, formerly of covers-friendly Go Dog Go, original music maestros Legendary Trainhoppers, and forever the optimist, sees things a bit differently. "I certainly think the talent level is now equal to what I got to experience here back in '96 or '97. You had the wild, weird cathartic pop-rock of Jackie Fly and now you have the wild, weird sounds of SuperHunk or Thunderhawk. Then, you had David Todoran and Zig-Zag Railroad, now you have The Possum Trot Orchestra."
The abundance of groundbreaking bands, future-leaning venues and non-commercial radio listening music fans can all hold their heads high based on the inroads made in the recent past to increase the visibility of original music in Fort Wayne. And the good news is we have our newest goal clearly in our sights: headlining Three Rivers Festival next year. This year's honor went to Candlebox. You remember them; they were featured on Now That's What I Call Grunge: Volume 38.
"I feel like the people that put that event on worry about music at the last second and then rummage through their kids' CD collection from middle school," notes Nate Utesch, of dazzling soundscapers Metavari.
But Rob Wood of Little Brother Radio thinks that everything is on course for future success. "The community is building in the way that I like to see them built. It's the right spirit, it's high quality music and it's happening downtown."