Well, South Bend, Indiana, how does it feel? You have possibly the best grassroots rock scene in the nation. And IIII’ve lived lots of places, and IIII’ve listened to a lot of rock music, and IIII have 1,000 CD’s sitting on my bedroom floor right now, having discarded 1,000 more in the last four years. You are the epicenter of what’s thrashing and crashing.
Four years ago, in late summer of 2010, a gang of four forty-somethings ran through an unassuming rock set at the Rum Village Inn on South Bend’s west side, nestled aside the fabled Rum Village disc golf course, past which lies pastoral oblivion. Their style was of unquestionable clarity, and erred on the side of gimmick-free expression. The songs were four to five minutes, with minimal guitar or drum soloing, and they played no covers.
This “jam night” at RVI fell by the wayside sometime in the fall of 2010 or winter of 2011, and South Bend plummeted without mercy into an arctic musical famine. The next few years would yield an abominable plethora of atrocious, unsavory “country/folk” guitar waste, and monsoons, and MONSOONS, of cover bands. Men in flannels and jeans heaved Bud and Miller Lights down their throats and stood in the tampon aisle to rub in the fact that they had a girlfriend, and solidarity was a figment of the collective imagination. The rain fell cold on bowling alleys and keltic bookstores in which the owner had never heard of James Joyce, and down in Nashville, lipsticked maidens with veiny necks crooned out to cellophane wax that would go to define northern Indiana’s culture for the next two years. Local hipsters even admitted to liking Beach House’s album Bloom. It was truly a dark day in aural expression.
It looked as if rock music were doomed. But there was Black Milk, from Detroit. Maybe that’s where South Bend will get its musical reference from, we all thought. The motor city emcee lambasted forth with cutting-edge verbal artillery over beats that could have only come from the capital of Motown and murder. But all the time, there was a bartender in the middle of South Bend at the Irish public house whose forgiving eyes of promise seemed to say, We will return, we will do well. The star of rock luminescence will shine on us yet again, here in this small town that can’t seem to decide if it’s a Chicago suburb or an autonomic mid-state console of blue collar belligerence.
Sometime during 2013, the Anchor Inn, which was also on South Bend’s west side, closed its doors never to open them again. This is significant, and it isn’t. The pub, while in existence, staged NATIONAL punk acts. One of them I saw, which I went to purely by virtue of their name, was Still Pissed at Reagan, from Minnesota. It was one of the best punk shows I’ve ever seen, though Bloomington, the college town in the southern part of Indiana, also had a great punk scene, from pop like Prizzy Prizzy Please to hardcore like The Accidents.
Anyway, this SPAR show was in 2011. By 2012, I went back to the Anchor Inn for an open mic and they actually ASKED ME IF I WANTED TO PLAY SOMETHING. This is the state South Bend music was in. I’d gone there just to spectate, and was all of a sudden called upon to express. Nobody in the world can express all the time. It’s easy to see why some touring artists go insane — no matter who you are, I don’t care, Michael Jackson, Sinead O’ Connor — you’ve got to take things IN in order to put things out. Nobody, but nobody, is above this universal law.
So you see how things don’t emerge out of some astronomic vacuum, they feed off of what’s around. I never got a chance to perform hip-hop at the Anchor Inn (to be honest I was a little nervous because there were so many black people and Mexicans there), but I did it one key time at McCormick’s, a place which will set itself as the premiere music venue in South Bend, for the reason of its open mic night. I think the fact that the most gravitational venue in South Bend currently is its open mic place speaks volumes to the pedagogical aspects of the scene’s growth — it hasn’t been one evil genius or some phenom with “chops,” it’s been the product of collective will deciding that something needs to manifest. And what it is, to put it exactly, is a brand of rock that emphasizes wall-draping, opaque, uncompromising guitar sound, influenced by Bad Brains and the Melvins, among others. It’s important to note that in no way is this new brand conventional punk rock music. Such thing is a veritable museum exhibit, at this point.
This brings me, though, to the best band I’ve heard from the area, The Go Rounds, from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I caught them at Evil Czech, one of the new breweries in the area. They’re every bit as visceral as the South Bend bands, but not as loud, which speaks to their credit. Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket are the influences; chops and a sense of humor are the vehicles.
This past Friday night, I was at this bar that sort of borders on white-trash — the clientele is very tattooed and the beer selection is very poor. They were advertising “3 Bands Saturday,” and I figured, what the hell, it might not suck. And to be honest, this past spring, I just had this FEELING. There was just this feeling evaporating up from the St. Joe River as I visited an east side grocery store that some scope of focus, of URGENCY had shone down onto things. People had had enough country music, people had had enough sports addiction, people had had enough staying in and watching movies on Tuesday nights during McCormick’s open mics, people had had enough of corporate America dictating their cultural life, their cultural landscape, for them. Something was turning over, a conifer of crunge was spreading its veins and inundating this worn, tarnished, blue collar soil with its talons.
Sure enough, I went in the other night to Kelly’s Pub, and the band rocked out. They only did one cover, and it was a very turned-up version of The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog” (which pi**ed me off a little because it’s a staple of the perennial hippie favorite Yellow Submarine movie, but they pulled it off). The band was a duo, just electric guitar and drums, but damn did they fill the room. There was no honky tonking, there was no rubbing relationship valor in anyone’s face, it was all an understandable but unique vertex of rock music ecstasy. I’d seen enough. I wanted to savor this. I left after the first band, and went back to that downtown public house, where the music is mellow and ambient, over which you can talk. I had a lot to say.