The dark sky has been threatening to open up all day, but Rob Davidson's anxiety seem driven by more personal demons. "Don't call me shrimp," he half-sings, half-snarls into the mike. "I'll rip your head off."
With his severely clipped hair, slight moustache, and shadowy eyes behind granddad glasses, Davidson looks like James Joyce on an amphetamine bender.
Behind him, Carl Saff is slashing out chords on a Fender. With his edgy guitar attack stabbing into drummer Matt Wagner's powerful, shifting rhythms, and bassist Ryan Wilson's heavy funk lines, the music is controlled but ferocious. Davidson's performance is electrifying. Except for one disheveled kid moshing alone in the damp grass, the crowd just stands and stares at him.
The band, Pencil, has the crowd transfixed, but it's only one of 16 playing in this year's Culture Shock, Indiana University's annual spring concert. And if the size of that lineup seems impressive, consider that most of the acts are local.
Bloomington is a small, southern Indiana town bordered by Indiana University on the east and the Westinghouse factory on the west. Like lots of college towns this one has a thriving boho community, the artists and musicians who mostly came here to go to school and never left. But what distinguishes this familiar mix is the way it has established itself as distinct from the school, and the way it's dominated by rock and roll.
The scene takes up a couple dozen square blocks. Exit the campus and head west down Kirkwood Avenue and you'll find yourself in the heart of it. Musicians are everywhere. Rusty Sulzmann, guitarist for Sons of Regret, waits tables at Le Petit Cafe, a few blocks west of the town square. James Combs, whose band, Arson Garden, has tasted more commercial success than just about any other band in town, subs at the Uptown Cafe when he's not on tour. The Village Deli gives Ian Brewer his day job, so he can play with the Walking Ruins at night.
I got my first band together in Bloomington, waited tables at Le Petit Cafe, lived in the Allen Building above the Uptown Cafe. My band rehearsed in a handful of spaces around the square that have now been gentrified out of existence: a cruddy studio above Tovey's Shoes, a room next to the old American Spectator office, a dive above a vintage clothing store. Like every other musician in town, I dreamed big dreams there. We played in town, and toured around the midwest and the south. But after working out of Bloomington for five years, we decided to try our luck in a bigger city and left for good.
Paul Mahern, who has sung intermittently with midwest punk band the Zero Boys, is one of the people responsible for forming Egg, an Indianapolis label interested in regional alternative bands. He's signed the Bloomington band Speed Luxury, and he's negotiating with another local act, El Nino. Mahern has seen a lot of bands come and go, and he blames it on the isolation. "Even in a market like Chicago, there are some record companies and large management groups and clubs and scouts and other bands putting out their records as an example to you to do something. Here, you practice in the basement and you're at point A, and you come up and you turn on MTV and there's some billion-dollar video and that's point Z. You can see it, but you have no idea how to get there at all."
But after years of nurturing bands that left with few or no recordings to show for it, Bloomington is starting to put itself on the alternative music map. Four local bands have recently been signed to independent labels. Lisa Sorg manages half of them.
She says that in Bloomington "there have always been a lot of good bands, but there have been very few behind-the-scenes people. If anything is lacking it's not bands, it's people who aren't musicians who love music. It requires a specific blend of art and business." Sorg may be finding that blend.
People here point to a handful of other factors that are helping to pull the loose ends together. There's Second Story, the only club in town that regularly books original-music bands. There's an all-ages club, Rhino's, that now provides a second venue for bands not on the cheap-beer/cover-band circuit. The Bloomington Voice, a free alternative paper that started up not too long ago, covers the shows. WFHB, the community radio station, provides airtime for bands that can't get played on commercial radio. In the summer bands play outdoor "street dances." And today, there's Culture Shock.
The wind is stiff , the ground too soggy to sit on, but the crowd hangs on. A group of kids in grunge flannel are kicking a hacky-sack around, their hands plunged into the pockets of their baggy shorts. A few dogs dash and tumble in the Jordan River, a picturesque but smelly stream that cuts across the meadow. Student organizers worried about the heavy sky tuck sheets of plastic around amps and monitors.
There's a stage on either side of the meadow, one marked by a papier-mache dinosaur, the other by a fish. Both are running behind schedule, but the dinosaur stage is having technical problems too. The Smears are bearing the brunt of it. The all-girl punk trio launches into their first song, but halfway through, the mikes go dead. Bassist Gretchen Holtz screams soundlessly into the air. They try to continue, but without vocals it's sort of pointless and the music quickly grinds to a halt. "Fuck!" Holtz snaps. The word carries on the breeze without the help of amplification.
A photographer approaches to take pictures of the band while they wait for a sound man to fix the problem. Holtz lights a cigarette and converses with the crowd. Kathleen Gregg dangles her legs over the edge of the stage and hunches her shoulders around the guitar that rests in her lap. She sees the photographer snapping away and makes a face into the camera.
When they get a go-ahead, the band renews their attack, launching into a raw, three-chord blitz. Holtz and Gregg shriek out the lyrics, making noises that occasionally swing together into unexpected harmony. No one loves it more than the four-year-old girl standing transfixed in front of the stage.
Across the field, on the fish stage, the pop trio Antenna is doing a set composed almost entirely of 70s radio hits. Their version of Abba's "Dancing Queen" is a lovely wash of strummed guitar and snapping drums that elevates the Swedish pop confection into a sound both sad and majestic. Guitarist John Strohm is outfitted for the memory, his bell-bottoms flapping in the breeze. A nearby grill is an ersatz smoke machine, providing an appropriate billow.
Every other band in the meadow is working hard to win an audience, but Strohm can afford to goof off. By this scene's standards he's hit the big time--he doesn't even have a day job. Several years back Strohm moved from his hometown of Bloomington to Boston, where he helped form the Blake Babies, an indie rock success story. The band split up and Strohm's back in Bloomington, but Blake Babies records remain strong sellers, and Strohm collects royalties from them and from the records he drummed on during a stint with the Lemonheads, who have recently hit the charts.
It's enough to live comfortably on in Bloomington, Strohm says, and he's happy to be back. He's refreshingly unimpressed by his own success. "I wanted to do a band here, to set something of an example," he says. "To say, 'It's really not that hard to put out a record and tour. It's just a matter of getting the resources together to do it.' The best thing about Antenna getting reviewed in Rolling Stone, or being on MTV, is people can see that and say, 'They're just schmoes around town. We can do that too.'"
Over on the dinosaur stage, Tom Shover has concerns more immediate than getting signed. "Brown Betty needs her drums," he shouts at the sound man. "She can't rock without her drums." Shover's right. His muscular drumming powers the pop onslaught of Brown Betty, a trio with a penchant for a hard, fast melody. He doesn't just play his drums, he attacks them--slamming and punching, lunging off his stool, one stick cracking the high hat, his other hand snatching out to deaden it. The band's timing is flawless, but Shover's the one you watch.
Band after band sets up, plays, and breaks down, while the schedule keeps getting pushed back. It's after six o'clock, and the crowd has thinned down to several dozen people huddling in small clusters. Jim Knowlton, singer/guitarist for the Rasters, looks out across the meadow. "Thanks for staying instead of leaving to go eat dinner," he says. But the air has grown colder and the stragglers are losing their good cheer. Rasters guitarist Judy Augsburger somehow manages to look fresh and happy despite her band's rotten time slot.
The Rasters play tough, guitar-driven pop rock, loaded with catchy hooks and bright lead lines. Knowlton's voice is deep, raspy, slightly ragged around the edges. When Augsburger comes in on the harmonies, her lighter, slightly flat vocals add a haunting twist. The band plays gamely in the dimming light. In a few weeks IU's semester will end and the students will depart en masse. The streets will clear out, time will slow down. The bohos will take it easier too, swimming naked in Lake Griffey and drinking on front porches. Bands will form, break up, re-form.
Bloomington's not a scene like Athens or Seattle or Chapel Hill. But all it took to make those places the indie-band dreamlands they became was a label or two and a band that hit big. Bloomington's got lots of bands. And they all want to be that band. Maybe it'll be Pencil. Maybe Speed Luxury. Maybe Go Mango. As long as they keep trying, it's a scene.
I left Bloomington six years ago, but my first morning back I bump into Jeff Lee, who plays in the Submersibles. We start talking like we're picking up a conversation we just left off. It's a beautiful spring morning, and the town square is the cleanest, safest, smallest place I've seen in a long time. I remember why I left, and I'm starting to realize why a lot of people don't.
While Lee fills me in about his latest band, his six-year-old daughter, Alexandra, her blond hair tucked under a miniature black leather biker cap, shoves a stick into a crack in the sidewalk. Overhearing our conversation, she trots up and interrupts her dad. "I like the Smears," she tells me. "One of 'em's my friend."
I ask if she plays an instrument.
"I play kids' music," she says, then skips off to poke at some buds sprouting up between the stones. She's growing up in Bloomington.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alex Moulton.