by Donovan Wheeler
Every time I’ve been to Fountain Square (and granted I haven’t been there very many times) I experience this pseudo-time-travel feeling where I no longer feel like I’m sitting in a Mexican-themed taco bar. Instead I’m hunkered down in a post-war café, and rather than sipping on a local craft beer, I’m working my way through a gin and tonic sporting a double-breasted blazer, my oiled hair combed back, and my fedora hanging from the hook on my booth. I can hear the sounds of the conversations that had to echo through all the diners, pool-halls, and dance joints in the era: the talk about Eisenhower, the Russians, another Yankees title, the newest Elvis hit, and straight-six engine blocks. I’m not sure what triggers this phenomenon…probably several factors. The “old-days” signage, dangling off more than a dozen storefronts throughout the district, hearkens one back to that time. And the compacted, pedestrian-oriented, concentric arrangement of the neighborhood adds to the feeling as well—unlike, say, Mass Ave which runs along one of the Circle City’s long, sprawling spoke-streets framed by over a hundred easy-access parking spaces. Whatever produces the effect, Fountain Square has grown on me as an eclectic part of the city, one that doesn’t want to be another bohemian Broad Ripple or touristy Mass Ave, but instead embraces the Indianapolis we only see in black-and-white photos and state museum displays.
—–My party and I (me, my fiancé, my son and his roommate) had traveled there to see a band I had written about before for the old blog, and as I wrote about a year ago, Red Wanting Blue appeals to me for a host of reasons. For starters I remain inspired by lead singer Scott Terry’s force of will. Since forming the act in the mid-1990s, he’s endured no fewer than a dozen shakeups and lineup changes before finally settling on the quintet which has graced the stage for the last half-decade. As a result, the stability and continuity has been a boon for the band and their followers—allowing us to personalize our affection for them. Some fans dig the energetic efforts behind the drum set of Dean Anschutz, a “near-hyper” percussionist who gyrates and contorts aggressively to even mellow tunes like “Hope on a Rope.” Others might be captivated by the disorienting juxtaposition of Eric Hall’s near-expressionless face contrasted by his frenetic work on the lead guitar. Still more of us perhaps enjoy the inviting comfort emanating from the amicable grin Mark McCullogh wears every single outing (even though he sometimes plays in considerable physical pain due to recurring battles with gout).
—–And while most listeners fixate on Scott Terry’s baritone, contorted facial expressions, hand gestures, and overall control of the stage…I’m often struck by all the “under the radar” work performed by keyboardist Greg Rham. Balancing both the keys and secondary guitar duties, the bearded redhead is arguably the band’s workhorse. Before each gig, Rham is the first on the stage getting gear ready; he’s often the first to strike the set after a show ends; and he’s almost always moving headlong for the merchandise booth putting up a face for the band while working the group’s books as well. Compound those small details with the fact that Terry often turns to him between songs, as if to confirm the set list, and it becomes obvious that Rham is central to Red Wanting Blue’s continued success.
—–As they put on their Friday night performance at Radio Radio (the back half of a two-night stop in Fountain Square) the band embodied everything for which I’ve praised them in past. An act which had made it all the way to a Letterman appearance, RWB’s Americana style of rock and roll is a form Terry spent years’ worth of trial-and-error molding and developing. If you listen to the early albums (they’re not included in the band’s current canon) you can hear the experimentation—the hard ‘90’s rock with a grunge edge and dark themes. Eventually, starting with a handful of tracks in 2003’s Souvenirs of City Life and fully blossoming in 2004’s Pride: The Cold Lover—Terry’s unit had evolved into a distinct band with their own sound. So much so that when I scan iTunes, record stores, or Spotify looking for similar bands with that “American” rock sound, I can rarely find one: Bob Schneider…sometimes; nelo…occasionally…The Alternate Routes…closer than most others. Playing a balanced set-list drawing from many of my personal favorites from their last four records (including “Spies and Lovers” with McCullough on the Chapman Stick and an incredible acoustic rendition of “Audition”), Red Wanting Blue huddled around each other on that tiny stage and latched onto the energy in a small, intimate nightclub and allowed all of us who were there to revel in the moment.
“Arranged almost shoulder-to-shoulder downstage, The Morningsiders mix a sound that seems part Mumford and Sons, part Yonder Mountain String Band, with Ferguson’s vocals offering everything from a dash of John Legend to a touch of Adam Levine.”
—–But as has been the case for the last three or four RWB stops in Indiana, the warm-up act also resonated with us. From our intro to Blue Moon Revue months ago in Bloomington to our happenstance luck catching an encore gig from Rodeo Ruby Love at the Vogue, we often end up spending the next day chatting about the opener as much as the headliner. Friday’s introduction to The Morningsiders proved no different.
—–Hailing from New York, the band mixes a string-heavy sound (Reid Jenkins’ fiddle, Cody Gibson’s upright bass, and Mangus Ferguson’s vocals and acoustic guitar) with David Su’s play-anywhere percussion work. In fact, because Radio Radio’s small stage didn’t allot the room needed for the warm-up band’s full drum set, Su sat on his bass drum and brilliantly set the rhythm for the group from a spot no larger than what you’d get in a seat at Lucas Oil Stadium. Arranged almost shoulder-to-shoulder downstage, The Morningsiders mix a sound that seems part Mumford and Sons, part Yonder Mountain String Band, with Ferguson’s vocals offering everything from a dash of John Legend to a touch of Adam Levine. Their signature tune, “Empress” connects with its upbeat keyboard intro, strong vocal harmonies, and a solid melody. And while my fiancée became a huge fan of “Dots,” I particularly enjoyed the mellow sound to “25” and the defiant undertones in “Lucianne.”
—–But early in the band’s set-list, one yet-unnamed member captivated me. Standing among this collection of enthusiastic twenty-somethings stood Reid Jenkins’ father, Rich, a wavy grey-haired keyboardist and trumpeter, and a man who played with an energy which easily rivaled his younger bandmates. I know next to nothing about the man standing behind his son, but the manner in which the elder Jenkins worked the keys through the lead bars of “Empress” and then skillfully nailed his horn solos in “25,” all with a “time-of-my-life” air about him spoke volumes to me with each note. As a middle-ager myself, carrying around all the unfulfilled dreams and lost expectations which often haunt us, watching the fiddler’s dad share grins with his group and then turn that youthful cheer to us out on the floor drove home the theme that was converging for me in front of that stage.
———-Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
———-The present only toucheth thee:
———-But och! I backward cast my e’e,
———-On prospects drear!
———-An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
———-I guess an’ fear!*
—–The laughter, side-jokes, and the soft overtures of love people once shared decades ago on the sidewalks of Fountain Square—when the signs were a bit brighter and the brass more polished—are now nothing but wisps of the imagination. Those harried souls once had their moment, and now it has long since passed. What Scott Terry and Rich Jenkins get (and what we should learn from them) is we are living in our moment right now. This is it. Given that, it seems fitting watching two musicians grab every beat they can and celebrate it with us, there in that quaint neighborhood which reminds us that we can leave our stone and mortar behind, but the hands of the clock never stop.