After a half-century of music, and a one-year hiatus, The Average House Band converges for yet another reunion gig in Greencastle: a town which has changed a great deal since the group’s early days as a band, but also a town where wisps of that past are circling back to the present.
by Donovan Wheeler
Featured Image by Ginny Kersey
“When they walked toward you, you could stomp your foot and kick at them, but it didn’t make any difference,” Michael says. “They just kept coming. They were relentless.” When he brought up his encounter with those orange critters, Michael was ruminating on something much larger, more abstract than arachnology. Sitting in a corner booth—a cream ale at his fingertips, an IPA at mine—we talked about time. For his part, Michael is utterly matter-of-fact when he mentions it. He doesn’t sit over his beer frittering away the present so that he can latch onto the filaments of the past lingering in the air about him. It’s all very simple. He’s 68 years old. He’s played a lot of rock-and-roll. His life and his music have been great, and as far as he’s concerned he’s got a lot more of both to do.
Still, when Michael and his former bandmates who comprise Greencastle’s legendary Average House Band reunite this weekend, past and present will converge in a way it has not likely done before. Sure, the band has played reunion gigs aplenty, for last decade running. But when all those boys-at-heart stepped onto their first reunion stage in 2007, Greencastle—like a lot of small towns—had lost the late ‘70’s music scene which had propelled them into existence. When they walk onto those boards this year, a semblance of that lost scene will have returned. And when they strum their first chords in front of the plate glass along Wasser Brewery’s north windows, they will tie time’s knot. Here, in the very place where Bill Hamm once sold auto parts, he’ll work his bass guitar one more time. Here, at one of the venues which has once again drawn established talent from Indianapolis to Greencastle’s streets, two long separated ends of the same rope will meet.
It began in 1975 when Tony Harmless opened Old Topper’s on the city’s south side. Looking for something to fill his Wednesday nights, Harmless discovered that he could attract well-known bands out of the Circle City and beyond, acts looking for a short-term booking to pad their accounts and hone their skills before their big shows on the weekends.
“On Wednesday nights, you could get really good bands,” Michael says. “You could get Cold Kitchen you could get Murphy Henderson…a lot of really good bands.”
When a booking fell through, or when no one was available, Harmless began fronting a local group, harnessing the skills of Danny Martin as well as Michael. Eventually the act grew cementing itself around what Michael calls the band’s “core unit” made up of himself, Hamm, Martin, Rod Kersey, Hoosier great Sandy Williams, and Fred Badalli.
“By the time The Average House Band formed everybody had played along with each other in one way or another,” says Williams. “It was kind of this musically incestuous relationship of sorts.”
As it always does, however, life happened and in the early ‘80’s the band fragmented. By then, of course, they had played their way into the fibers of the community becoming one of those mutually joyous experiences people talked about for years afterward. Theirs’ was lore so powerful that two decades later when local bar owner Rick Rhine offered up The Rock House (his reimagined take on the city’s basement hangout long called Hathaway’s) for a reunion, the band—and the city—bit on it.
“The Average House Band is about the most fun I ever get to have playing music,” says Williams, who would go on to play alongside an emerging Henry Lee Summer before settling in Indy and establishing himself as a guitar legend in the Circle City scene. “When we’re firing on all cylinders, the synergy is an amazing quality to be a part of. I almost feel sorry that other people can’t have that much fun and experience the close-knit family we became.”
“It was probably one of the better rock band experiences I’ve ever had in my life, echoes bassist Bill Hamm. “The Average House Band struck such a chord with the community. They really supported us, and everyone had a great time.”
To a man they all fell in love with music as boys, started gigging by high school, and never completely put away their tools. They breathed in everything they could related to the music world. Some of them saw the Beatles in ’64 at the state fair grounds. Some of them ran into Jimi Hendrix shortly before he became an international phenome. They played because it was fun. They played because it offered a release. They played because it allowed them affordable dreams. And they played because it brought them attention.
“[When I was in high school] I got a call from Rod Kersey, and he asked me if I wanted to play. They had a gig, but their bassist was in jail,” Michael says. As a sixth-grader he had rejected his father’s offer to play clarinet in his school band. Still very much in love with music, he nonetheless gravitated to the other things most young men turned to. But when he took his friend up on the offer to play that show, life changed. “This was the early fall, I was getting ready to try out for basketball, but I thought ‘What the heck.’ I got paid $8.00—this is when a gallon of gas cost a quarter. I also had all the free Cokes I wanted, and two girls walked up and talked to me. After that, it was decided. No more wind-sprints for me.”
That early band, dubbed Me and Them Guys, would go on to press a “45” in Indianapolis.
“We wrote an original called ‘I Loved Her So,’” Michael explains. “And then we came up with the second song for the B-side…kind of a Kinks knock-off.” The disc’s “A” and “B” sides would prove to be the bulk of the band’s original recording, but it became the stuff of legend, anyway.
“The last one sold on Ebay,” he adds. “Not because it’s an exceptional record, but because it was one of the last records from a Greencastle label called Gre-Tel. If it went back up there, it would fetch about $250.”
“In the 60’s and 70’s, everybody and their brother wanted to be in a band because it was all brand new,” Hamm says. Two years Michael’s junior, Hamm didn’t play alongside his future bandmate, but their circles still wound very tight. “When I was in high school, there were probably seven different working rock bands. Sometimes we would rent the armory and hold a ‘Battle of the Bands,’ and there would be five or six there. The crowd would decide the winner, and the winner got the gate. And they were all good.”
“It was a long shot anyway when we picked up guitars as kids, but the reason we did it was because we wanted to be rock stars,” Williams explains. “Now the nature of the music industry has changed. It started with Napster, which kind of just knocked the bottom out of everything. So today, you don’t have many big record labels out looking for talent like you used to see.”
So much has changed that even in the local scene, modern bands must work harder to stand out. As Michael puts it, the work current bands create has to be better than it ever was: “When the Beatles came out, that was so new and so great that I would lay in bed at night and stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning because the radio always played a Beatles tune at the top of the hour. It was just so cool, so different. Today you can get something different every week.”
From Williams’ observation that “guitar-based music really isn’t as popular as it was 30 or 40 years ago” to Hamm’s interesting point that music loving crowds are more sedate and more likely to hit the doors early because “[in the past] the drinking and driving laws basically didn’t exist, so people just cut loose,” the members of Greencastle’s legendary rock act have lived through the best moments of days long gone, yet they also get to experience this century’s local music renaissance and enjoy what has arguably been some of the best days in decades to be a troubadour. To what extent the Boys from Old Toppers reign as the greatest local band in ‘Castle history is probably still a subjective point of contention. No doubt younger night-life patrons see the original work coming from the likes of War Radio and think “the local music renaissance is today.”
And maybe they’re right. Maybe what passed for great local music three and four decades ago was too mired in the suffocating layers of control wielded by the recording industry giants who (as Williams notes) asked for the disruptive implosion which befell them. But talk to anyone who traveled to the south side of town for a lively Wednesday (and eventually Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) night and they’ll probably set you straight. The greatest music scene in this small city’s history went down when handful of Baby Boomers picked up their guitars and brought back that bottled up energy they had nursed along since the ‘60’s. A time when The Average House Band was anything but average. A time when dozens of lively, fun-loving, drunken fanatics had the night of their lives and—in the words of Hamm—eventually “got home…somehow.”
Steve Michael’s high school band, Me and Them Guys.