By Mark Wright
- Contributing Writer to National Road Magazine
On March 26, 1927, a crowd estimated at 10,000 people gathered at 7th Street and Wabash Avenue, the heart of downtown Terre Haute, Indiana. Hometown boxing hero Bud Taylor, who had captured the hearts of Hauteans much as Larry Bird would 50 years later, was fighting Tony Canzoneri in Chicago for the National Boxing Association’s World Bantamweight title. At the end of each round, in something akin to the 1927 version of Twitter, a Terre Haute Tribune employee leaned out of one of the upper-floor windows of the newspaper’s building on the corner and announced through a megaphone the results of the round, reading the information from a ticker-tape feed (see John Wright’s excellent book, The Terror of Terre Haute–Bud Taylor and the 1920’s).
It takes something special to draw a crowd of that size to a street corner, but Connie Wrin may have found it. Connie organizes and runs The Blues at the Crossroads Festival, which will be in its 15th year when it commences the weekend of Sept 11-12 this fall. “It would be wonderful to see 10,000 people this year. We have been up around 8,000.” Connie Wrin has helped revitalize downtown Terre Haute with her enthusiasm and love of music.
A couple of doors west of the 7th and Wabash intersection, in one of Terre Haute’s older buildings, you’ll find The Verve, which some would call simply a bar with music. But since Connie Wrin opened the establishment January 1, 2001, it has become arguably Terre Haute’s most unique music venue, the place to go have a craft beer and open your ears to some cool sounds that you don’t generally get to hear in most bars.
In spite of what you may hear from naysayers, the music scene is alive in Terre Haute. Almost every night of the week, you can catch one of the area’s plethora of talented local bands performing somewhere. Venues such as Al’s Sports Bar, Ambrosini’s, The Apple Club, Archie’s, Bohannon’s, The Cabin, Cuz’n Eddie’s, Haney’s, Joan and Yogi’s, Mogger’s, The North Star, Ripley’s, The Teepee, Show-Me’s, The Speakeasy, Stables, Stephens Inn, TGIFriday’s, Twiggy’s, the local VFW, American Legion, Eagles and Moose lodges—wow, there are more than I thought when I started this sentence—all offer live music, much to the delight of local musicians and fans. But if you are looking for something different, go say hi to Connie at The Verve.
Tackling the ownership of a nightclub was never part of Connie Wrin’s life-plan. A nurse by profession, she moved back to Terre Haute from Indianapolis in Terre Haute in 2000. Accustomed to being able to go out and listen to bands on a regular basis, she was disappointed when she looked around locally. “I wanted to go out, but there was nowhere to go, so I thought, I’ll just have to open my own place. I had never even worked in a bar or restaurant.” So she found an available building in the heart of the city, worked her ass off, and opened The Verve on January 1, 2001.
The Verve may be best known for the variety of eclectic of bands that perform there. It took some work for that to come about. Connie looks for something different, for bands with a passion for music. Many such bands toil away, playing small venues, hitting the road not for the money, but for the love of what they do.
“At first, I went out looking for acts. Eventually I established a base of bands who would stop by on a regular basis.” One early booking was Guy Forsyth, a Texas blues/rock singer who has opened for Ray Charles and B. B. King, among others. Forsyth liked what he saw and how he was treated enough to recommend The Verve to others he knew, and before long, the talent was seeking Connie. Willie Nelson’s son Lukas likes to make The Verve a stop in between gigs in larger cities, as do many of the bands she now books. “I get about 6 emails a day from bands looking to stop in and play. We are booked through May.”
Most bands hit The Verve on Fridays and Saturdays, but if someone she knows is coming through town on a different day, she’ll book them on any night. Monday nights she opens the club to local jazz musicians to gather and delight themselves and the crowd, and other nights might offer open-mic opportunities or whatever seems to be right.
Check out The Verve’s website: http://www.thevervenightclub.com, and you will find an impressive list of bands of all genres who have played there and/or will be playing there soon.
Most bands who land on The Verve’s stage aren’t getting rich on the road. They generally play for the door. They might have their families with them, or the band might just be the entire family. For these traveling troubadours it’s a way of life, a way to share the joy music brings them. And they like the way they are treated and the reception they receive in Terre Haute, so they keep coming back. Connie has opened her home to some of them, and she credits The Hilton and Candlewood Suites, both relatively new additions to the next block east on Wabash, for providing generous rates for her acts.
As if opening The Verve from scratch weren’t enough, Connie decided right away she was going to move outside the box, and outside The Verve. Thus, The Blues at the Crossroads Festival was born in 2001. “At first it was just a little street party in front of The Verve, but it caught on, and 5 or 6 years into it I decided to start a non-profit so I could get some sponsorship and help it grow.”
Grow it has. For two nights each September, three blocks of Wabash Avenue are closed, a stage is erected in the middle of the intersection, and up to 8,000 fans, many toting blankets, lawn chairs, kids, and a love of music, are treated to two days of tunes, food, drink, and music-related activities. Last year 17 bands, along with some local choirs and groups, performed on both the outdoor stage and the one inside The Verve.
Connie estimates she spends just over a hundred thousand dollars to put on the festival each year. She charges just ten dollars a ticket for adults, and considering what that sum provides and where the money goes, no one should be bitching about it. Sometimes the festival shows a little profit, sometimes not, but if you talk with Connie for even a few minutes, you will see that doesn’t matter to her.
In years when she doesn’t lose money, profits go to the local Boys and Girls Club or other community agencies reaching out to people. Last year she was able to help fund 10 guitars and lessons for students with the help of Petra Nyendick, director of Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts. According to ISU’s website, “The school provides hands-on arts learning experiences for children, youth, and adults in the Wabash Valley while providing ISU students who are majoring in the arts opportunities for experiential learning through teaching.” Wrin credits Nyendick with being a major positive force in the local arts community, someone she can reach out to when she has an idea; she has many. “If even one kid gets inspired and into music from something like this, then it’s all been worth it.”
The word “verve” is a noun. Merriam-Webster says it means “great energy and enthusiasm” and “the spirit animating artistic composition or performance.” One day while she was reading a Village Voice, that word jumped off the page at Connie Wrin and became a huge part of her life. It’s one of her favorite words. She loves not only its meaning, but the way it sounds and the way it looks. Yeah, it looks very cool on the sign hanging above the front door at 677 Wabash Avenue, Terre Haute, Indiana. And it fits perfectly what’s going on inside. Check it out.