Originally published: April 30, 2014 on the blog Coach Nobody.
Late last October, on a frigid Thursday night in Bloomington, my girlfriend, Wendi, and I showed up pathetically early at the Bluebird nightclub because my favorite band was playing. I was hoping that maybe…just maybe I’d amble in while the place was still empty enough to echo and then…just maybe I’d bump into my new found hero: Scott Terry, Red Wanting Blue’s deep-baritoned front-man.
Click Here to Read Donovan Wheeler’s Recent Interview with RWB’s Scott Terry.
As it happened—as it often happens I suspect—Terry and the band were nowhere to be found, and Wendi and I were left with little to do other than order a couple of beers and sit in one of the Bluebird’s well-worn booth set ups which can only be described as “very Bloomington.” While we killed the eternity we’d allotted ourselves before the show began, I happened past the visiting band’s “guest room” door not far from the stage. Small, slathered unevenly with red-orange paint, and tucked into an otherwise obscure corner in complete avant-garde fashion, I was struck by an epiphany realizing that isolation is an almost ubiquitous reality which comes with any pursuit of rock-and-roll glory. For any number of reasons: the hours on the road, the weeks and months spent in small joints staring at strange faces (all of whom know you even though you don’t know them back), and the almost nonexistent time spent in your own home sitting in your own favorite sofa; little holes in darkened walls such as these have to be the average rocker’s haven.
Walking back to our booth, I passed the merchandise set up in the narrow lobby, and was startled when I noticed that the band’s drummer, Dean Anshutz—a scraggly-headed, scruffy-bearded twenty-something with an eternally youthful grin—was helping a young lady beside him layout t-shirts. I stopped cold and stared at him so intently that he finally looked my way, giving me a polite but impatient nonverbal “Yes…?”
Finally, I thought, finally: a member of the band, in a quiet setting, with almost no distractions. Now was my chance to lay out “on record” how much the band’s tracks meant to me. To explain how I connected with the undertones of self-reliance; of Midwestern, middle-finger in the air determination. For too long, I had always imagined having an in-depth conversation with the band about their lyricism, a discussion that, in my mind, bordered on an academic explication.
Instead, I flipped on the 13-year-old girl switch located in my head.
“You’re the drummer,” I said, trying to sound cool in the most idiotic manner possible.
“Yep,” Anshutz replied clearly feeling a bit awkward, “I am.”
Without another word, I gave Anshutz my best “casual Frank Bundy” face and worked my way back to the booth. I slid into my seat and sat in silence trying to decide how to pass on what happened to Wendi in the most awe-inspiring method possible.
“I just said ‘hey’ to the drummer,” I told her.
She rolled her eyes and asked, “Are you getting us another beer?”For a band who not enough people have heard of, Red Wanting Blue’s history is actually very well documented. Besides the cursory Wikipedia page, and a myriad array of interesting online interviews, radio shows, and live performances, the band was also compellingly featured in Ken Davenport’s 2010 documentary These Magnificent Miles.
The short version: Scott Terry formed the first incarnation of Red Wanting Blue in Athens, Ohio in the mid-1990’s while attending Ohio University. Quickly seeing the need to expand the band’s reach, Terry moved RWB to Columbus and soon they became the one of hottest acts in the mid-Ohio rock-and-roll scene. Then, just as the band seemed to be heading quickly to bigger venues and brighter lights, everything stalled. Meanwhile, RWB’s former opening band, Of a Revolution, exploded nationally, leaving Terry’s group in regional stagnation.
But this, arguably, is where Red Wanting Blue’s story is most resonant and perhaps even most “American.” When so many other groups would have “called it a gig” and shuttered for good, Terry kept working the road, kept putting in the late nights in one small bar after another, and kept reassembling his band as his original mates (as well as many of their replacements) hung up their guitars and moved on. While O.A.R. was playing large concerts for major record labels, Terry and Red Wanting Blue were self-releasing and self-marketing CD’s, slowly and methodically building on an already loyal fan base by word-of-mouth and good, quality music.
My entrance to the Red Wanting Blue “fan club” came rather inauspiciously. While heading home from one of those afternoon, strip-mall shopping trips, I caught the tail-end of a bluesy-rock recording from an under-the-national-radar band out of Chicago dubbed the Freddy Jones Band. That song, “In a Daydream,” complete with not one, but two intricate lead guitar riffs impressed me so deeply, that I spent two hours sitting on my beloved deck swing tracking down the tune on Pandora. Despite an algorithm that seemed to obsess over the Dave Matthews Band, Pandora did occasionally introduce me to more obscure groups, many of whom I realized were as good, if not better, than the mainstream crap most radio stations insisted we should all listen to.
Red Wanting Blue’s “Walking Shoes,” aptly enough, started my own journey into the band’s world. I will admit, after a long series of guitar-centered tracks from a half-dozen other bands, I was surprised when Terry’s tune opened with a soft ukulele chord, followed by a vivid example of the songwriter’s effective use of common metaphors:
I am a blurred out background spot,
In that photo on your wall.
Immediately this theme of forced anonymity moved me. Throughout the song, the speaker implicitly argues that life on the road not only reinforces the isolation between the artist and the audience but also emphasizes how the lines of familiarity and intimacy we all feel at home become “blurred” as well, underscoring the real-life sacrifices our favorite bands must make if they want to keep playing.
The band reiterates this motif in many other songs including “Pour It Out” (it’s not enough to “pour it out and pen it down…you gotta take it town to town”) and “Hope on a Rope” (“I am the captain of this rusty bucket ship/I left my home in search of big gold”). But the best songs echoing this declaration are the most defiant, determined, and even belligerent ones. “US Bumper Sticker” stirs us claiming “It’s been a long time coming to this” leading to this powerful refrain:
We are a long way down from the top of the list,
We ain’t introduced ourselves,
We are a long way down from the top of the list,
We’re kings of the heap my friend,
But the most evocative anthem on the frustrations that come from trying to climb music industry’s ladder resonate in “Finger in the Air,” a powerful song which ranges emotionally from despondency to resolution to rage and back again.
Ultimately, what makes any group connect with its followers always lies deeper than beats and rhythms, and Red Wanting Blue’s appeal fits that definition. In song after song we are constantly reminded that the best way, in fact the only way, to live life well is on our own terms. Obviously, RWB’s above titles emphasize this assertion as they break down the challenges that come with trying to make it big in the fickle world of the music industry. But even the band’s “love” songs evoke this spirit of unconditional living. One of those, “Running of the Bulls” reminds us of this:
We will not apologize for this.
We are what we are.
We will not compromise for this.
Punctuating nearly every tune in the group’s repertoire are references to basic Americana which dovetail effortlessly with all of the music’s over-arching themes, and what Terry uses most effectively to pull this off are his patiently extended metaphors and crafted allusions to pop culture. This stands out most clearly in RWB’s 2011 remake of “Audition” (originally from the band’s 2000 CD Model Citizen):
And by the way Veruca,
Do you remember flying to heaven with toad,
Or staying up late, waiting for Godot?
I’m just a friend.
I want a larger role.
I’m just a friend.
I never told you though.
I’m just a friend,
Cast me in your show…
Here, the speaker’s missed opportunities at his big shot at love appear comparable to the typical actor’s aspirations for stage glory, all meshing well with a solid rock beat that hearkens back to the classic style of the post-synthesizer 80’s. Given that this song combines all the elements of what makes Red Wanting Blue a strong “American rock band,” it’s no surprise that it became the one they showcased for the nation when they reached one of the pinnacles of their career: their 2011 appearance on Letterman’s Late Show.As great as the lyrical quality is (detractors be damned…all of them), what eventually sells the band for me is less what they sing and more how they sing it. In an age when the next great recording artist can sign on to a reality TV show and transform from an auto mechanic into a rock icon in fifteen weeks, here’s a group who’s been working the streets, making a name for themselves the hardest way possible. Recording and releasing their own discs; designing, printing, and stapling their own flyers to campus bulletin boards; and taking turns driving themselves across the nation, Red Wanting Blue doesn’t just play rock and roll, they work rock and roll.
Furthermore, when it seems that most of the bands I hear on Spotify all sound like ambient noise at a nearby American Eagle, RWB plays a variety of rock-and-roll that was long ago all too common, but is now better than distinct, stronger than refreshing. Two songs in particular, the aforementioned “Audition” and its sister track, “White Snow” simply rock. Period.
Finally, the group draws me most powerfully by simply embodying what they stand for. In some way, shape, or form all of their tunes harken to our collective sense of independence and celebrate (if not outright encourage) us to dictate our lives on our own terms. They don’t glamorize it, and they don’t delude us. Red Wanting Blue makes it expressly clear that cutting your own path through life’s vegetation is exhausting, testing, and loaded with land-mines, but they also remind us that, really, there’s no other way to truly live.
Likewise, for a group that often plays up the “just a simple rock band” image quite well, Red Wanting Blue’s constant pursuit of artistic perfection is perhaps the most inspiring element of their design. Buried several minutes after “The Band” is a softly edgy bonus track reminding us that seeking perfection wears us down. It was so for the likes of Shelly, Keats, and Byron and remains so for any of us who are never satisfied with our daily pursuits. This is best accentuated at the end of the hidden song, when Terry dangles an incomplete reference to the band’s moniker, a name Terry has declared more than once which functions as a metaphor itself, a color-coded representation of art’s most ambiguous abstraction.
To date, I’ve seen the band three times now. I first saw them give a great performance at Indy’s Labor Day Warm Fest, and most recently Wendi and I saw their February gig at the Vogue in Broad Ripple—a spectacular show in front of an energetic, electric crowd. And this summer, much is happening for the group and for their Hoosier fans. A new album releases on the first of July, and a few nights before that the circular hand of fate loops its way back to the beginning when RWB opens for their old Ohio friends, O.A.R. at Indianapolis’ the Lawn: a big-ticket venue playing before a big-ticket crowd. We will be there, just not as close to the stage as we’ve been accustomed. It’s great to see them get a taste of the success they’ve worked so hard for and deserve so earnestly, but when I see them this summer I’ll miss the intimacy that the small clubs offer.
Still, that night in Bloomington stands out for me. Playing on that cold school night in front of small half-dead gathering, the band worked through the missing energy from us and put on a great show anyway. Here’s a band that only a year-and-a-half earlier played on Letterman…Letterman. But here I was standing five feet from Eric Hall and a little over a dozen from Terry. As they worked through the final songs of their set, the diesel engine warmed up their bus outside. Once they were packed, one of them was going to have to drive the first leg of an all-night trip to New York for a gig the next evening.
Real rock-and-roll is extremely hard work.