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“I Might as Well Sum up the History of South Bend’s Music Scene Now, Since it Seems to Be over and Done with at This Point”

I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, a sort of moderately-sized rust belt city that masquerades as the college town hosting the University of Notre Dame. It’s recently come into fame as being the home of “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg who I believe became the first openly gay presidential candidate in the history of our fine nation. 

The nearest big city to South Bend is Chicago, which I believe is a metropolis with a musical culture that’s quite misunderstood and very likely downright overrated. With this being said, part of the purpose of this post is to issue a narrative what I believe might come as a surprise to a lot of people, which is that my little old bumfu** hoosier town four hours west of Cleveland on I-80/90 has a pretty respectable musical history to it. What’s more, the bands, venues and general attitudes that have manifested here are not cinematically borne, contrived or relocated from another part of the country in any way, which I see as being the case with some other cities. 

Now, another topic I’d like to bring up are the recent developments in culture which are designed to protect women and minorities from heinous atrocities, some of which, perhaps, make up part of the unfortunate and lurid moral fabric of our country. I would like to take great pains to say that I’m appalled by both of these movements. The reason why I’m appalled by them is that I hate that they’re necessary and I hate that human beings are so callous and self-serving as to discriminate against another because of their race or gender. I have an absolute zero-tolerance policy on not only rape but pressuring women into having sex, as well as even associating with anybody who engages in that. And I don’t want black lives to “matter.” I want black lives to shine. I want black lives to educate. I want black lives to reach out and touch me. I want to know what blackness is, by way of the black lives around me. 

Now, I think that part of the purpose of these movements might have been to debilitate what’s seen by some as a sense of entitlement, or sovereignty, perhaps, on the part of white males. With this being the case, I suppose I run the risk of a sort of fallacy in my endeavor to meditate on and manifest what rock and roll truly is, which is part of what I’m doing here. And maybe it’s true that some of my readers imagine me as being minority or female, which I think without question would be to my advantage. 

But creation is always going to amount as a sort of assertion. Rock and roll and hip-hop were both borne within manifestations of de facto rebellion. In this way, vital things in life often come along in the form of something like the antithesis of cooperation, particularly if these things are to act as artistic, or “cathartic,” exactly. 

So here it is. Here’s my pompous, arrogant, bigoted, selfish, schizophrenic and “played-out” snapshot, replete with especially irksome qualitative analysis, of what’s been a-goin’ on in my hometown, musically speaking.

To my knowledge, South Bend has never been a huge jazz place [1], this to definitely say nothing of the college town Bloomington, which lies four hours south and houses the #2 ranked music program in the U.S.A. Jazz is something for which I have a huge respect, however, in general, and I’ve been elated to see the reemergence of the art form in recent years in the form of Kamasi Washington, the U.K.’s Nubya Garcia and various others who have, precociously and necessarily, fused the genre with other permutations such as world music, salsa, blues and of course rock and roll [2].

The next movement after jazz in the U.S.A. is quite clearly rock and roll and though I don’t necessarily connect the genesis of this style with my hometown, I do without question associate it with St. Louis, another modest-sized Midwestern city, with said locale being of course the birthplace and lifelong home of Chuck Berry. We start to observe some germination of the rock and roll tree in South Bend with the initiation of the unfortunately named Vegetable Buddies [3], a small concert hall downtown that probably opened up sometime in the early 1970s and hosted, notably and at least, both Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band [4] and Muddy Waters. Two other anecdotes I’d like to mention from this era are respectively The Rivieras, who recorded the authoritative version of “California Sun” and hail from South Bend, and Tommy James and the Shondells, arbiters of the masterpieces “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” [5], among others, who called Niles, Michigan, just across the state border, their stomping grounds. As far as the 1980s go in South Bend, I’m going to go out on a limb and say there was a lot of rampant hatred for gay people and Michigan football [6].

I started listening to music in 1992 at age eight. The radio station I listened to was U93 and they played artists like Jesus Jones, Da** Yankees, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Tom Cochrane and Sophie B. Hawkins. The first song I really fell in love with was “Just Another Day” by John Secada. Somewhere in there I got into Kris Kross, which I’m less ashamed of than my later Puff Daddy habit, definitely. 

Around 1995, my older sister, who was a freshman in high school at the time, got heavy into punk and indie rock. Some of her favorite bands were the Buzzcocks, Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses. Another band she listened to was called The Crutches. They were actualy a local band. 

Here’s where we tie in a venue called The Hoi Polloi [7] [8], which could be found in the ’90s in Mishawaka, the primary commercial suburb of South Bend. Hoi Polloi was about as punk as things get around here. Eh, I mean, in the ’90s it wasn’t completely unheard of to see a dude walking around town with spiky red hair… today it would be a little more eccentric, or just too “white male,” to be exact, maybe. Another band that played there I remember was Walker, Texas Punk Band. I don’t think I ever heard them but I remember this one dude in jazz band making fun of them for always playing the same like Minor Threat drum beat. Below I’ve provided a link to what I’ve found to be the menial sum total written online on “The Hoi,” excepting the one obituary I found, which I took to be a little grim for these proceedings. 

When I was little I used to go to this camp called Camp Eberhart, in Three Rivers, Michigan. One year when I went, on the last night, they staged a concert for all the campers to go to, if we so desired. I was already a huge music buff, devouring CD’s by Matchbox 20, Fastball, Everclear, Third Eye Blind and the likes thereof with an ardent voracity, so brainlessly I obliged. The band was called The Whistle Pigs. Generally, the music was a little soft, slow and just old-people-y for me to really go gung-ho on them, but I did by and large enjoy the concert, finding the band to have sort of this subtle professionalism about them behind what was unquestionably an ingenuously “rock and roll” performance module also reflected sufficiently in their dispositions. They were actually a South Bend band that wrote their own songs, too: I don’t remember them playing any covers and their song which I believe was called “Stand by Your Woman” is still a denizen of my consciousness at least by way of that distant memory. In this way, they have given me something special and I’m to this day grateful to them for that. As far as I know, The Whistle Pigs are still together and tend to frequent the Blues and Ribs Fest, or whatever it’s called, as performers, for a fee of somewhere arounnd $22, typically. 

My first experience with Umphrey’s McGee, other than marveling at how stupid the name was [9], involved, of all things, the radio. I had things tuned to 103.9 WBRB The Bear, hoping for some Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, I’m sure, and all of a sudden got wind of this song by a local band I just found hopelessly “folksie.” My first impression was to do an eye roll: local bands never really do ok and they get unjustified preferential treatment from the media, within the community. 

It was then my privilege to incur countless annoying episodes of my hippie friends abruptly beginning to worship them. This was nothing new: though we connected on grunge, I veered toward the pop-punk of Goldfinger and The Suicide Machines around this time in my life, which would have been about sophomore year in high school, so I saw this as just another boring endorsement of endless flowers in your hair, just like Leftover Salmon, or Widespread Panic, or whatever other flavor-of-the-week nice guys they happened to be into at a given time. 

Now, my memory gets a little foggy somewhere around here, but I do remember that in February of 2001, my junior year in high school, was the first and only time I’ve ingested the drug LSD. Somehow, then, by some weird shift of the cosmos, I was up and at ’em at Umphrey’s’ March show at the downtown Morris Performing Arts Center, to then thereafter jump at a chance to see them at a free show down in a neighboring town of Plymouth, Indiana, that very June, and then back at the Morris later that November, around the beginning of my senior year. Clearly, sometimes working a job in high school isn’t as worthless as it seems. 

My favorite song by them, or I should say, the one I really clicked with, the one that made me really “get” them, was “2×2.” It’s jam-rock through and through, not quite as “funky” as a lot of their awesome dirges like “Andy’s Last Beer” and “Push the Pig.” It’s mellow, narcotic and sublime, all in all, with Brendan Bayliss’ vocals cloaking the mix in this syrupy sheen, almost like the Band of Horses or Fleet Foxes lead singers’ might do. “2×2” is a song that’s similar to “August” [10], another deliberate, mellow folk-rocker where the drug-tinged “And it comes on slow” lyrics are replaced by the interesting, precociously Midwestern mantra of “I will walk slow” [11].

By the time it was all said and done, I would have frequented a total of 13 Umphrey’s McGee concerts, between March 2001 and September 2003, believe it or not. This was of course facilitated by the band’s common habit of doing two-night stints in Bloomington, where I was working on my BA in English and a bunch of other wayward things, at the time. The pinnacle of the band’s career was probably their 2004 performance of Bonnaroo, by which time they’d gathered enough popularity by word of mouth and tried and true hippy communication avenues such as nugs.net and Relix that they were placed in the headlining slot on the first night. I remember this music-loving friend I have [12] who’d gone to the festival and seen them relate of the after-show banter from a staff member to the fact that Umphrey’s had been a great “appetizer” for the rest of the festival to come, in response to which my friend quipped that “No, Umphrey’s was the main course.” You can look up their set for this show on setlist.fm, a favorite practice of mine. Umphrey’s McGee is still together today, both recording and touring, in just about it’s original lineup of South Bend dudes plus lead guitarist Jake Cinninger from Niles, and they sometimes conduct live streams of their concerts, which cannot be missed if at all possible. 

It would be tempting to ruminate as to why this huge jam band could materialize from a city with otherwise apparently no jam traits in its musical fabric otherwise. Well, as I allude to before, The Whistle Pigs could veer toward the slightly jammy on certain tracks. As well, it sounds menial but the open mic scene at this cafe called Higher Grounds, which is not defunct, was circa 2002 home to this group prone to long songs, soft, acoustic textures and of course the pertinent wisdom that “Elmer got stuck in the glue!”, administered about 10 minutes into one of their tunes after endless guitar and keyboard noodling. But stuff like this helps establish the groundwork of an Umphrey’s Mcgee, I do believe — these little open mic jams where the stakes are low and the opportunity for pedagogy is high. I can assure you around town today, there are other who remember this random jam band that used to play Higher Grounds, guys and girls who like Phish, and who still hope for another burgeoning artistic wrinkle in the musical chronology of our hometown. 

Short of getting into any more bands that have sprung from the city by the St. Joe River and been really vital, since there honestly just aren’t any, I’d like to bring up a couple of venues that have been important to the local genus. One of them is another open mic locale, a 21+ one, in fact, which would often serve music until past two in the morning, and this would be McCormick’s Coney Island. I’ll get to McCormick’s in a second. 

But actually, right when I moved back here from Colorado in 2010, this place on the west side called the Rum Village Inn, which is located right down the street from Rum Village Park, was staging its own sort of open mic/schedule band hybrid which to be honest is pretty common down here and is actually still an active element to this day at Mishawaka’s The Phoenix, although more and more these days it seems like just about all the bands are cover bands, albeit sometimes enjoyable. In contrast to the jam scene out in Denver, which I just found hopelessly bland and contrived, the band that played the Rum was composed of these 40-something men and was nothing if not refreshing in its music lover’s disposition and crisp, genuine approach to songwriting. As far as I remember, they did not play any covers, and all their originals were pretty enjoyable. Unfortunately, and toward what is kind of the grim, overarching thesis statement of this article pertaining to what I observe as a suffocation of local culture under several Mayor Pete initiatives, the Rum no longer offers this open jam and doesn’t stage bands in any regard, as far as I know. This brings me to the Anchor Inn, also a west side constituent, which used to stand somewhere around Western and Olive but is now derelict. The Anchor, when it was up and running, used to regularly house punk bands on Friday and Saturday nights, one of which I remember as being called Still Pi**ed at Reagan and as having crisp, impressive songs, at that. This other house on Lincoln Way between Twyckenham and Ironwood used to around 2011 and 2012 hold punk shows, which were pretty well attended but which came to an abrupt halt when, per report, one individual struck another in the eye with a glass bottle, hence precipitating a pretty gruesome sight. Anyway, a couple bands I remember as playing here were Chicago’s City-Wide Fire, who were excellent, and South Bend’s own Urinal Mints, who would eventually, upon their record release party, play the first ever punk show at the typically blues and rockabilly Midway Tavern in Mishawaka. Then as for McCormick’s, it was usually just an open mic in there but I remember them one time hosting the excellent rap duo from Chicago The Highest Low, who really put on a great show. Even regarding the open mic itself, I remember this one summer, 2014, following a particularly cold and brutal winter, as it were, perhaps uncoincidentally, where the local scene just exploded and it seemed every Joe Shmoe and his dog were forming some rock duo or trio around town. They ranged from punk, to blues-rock (I remember seeing a killer blues band at Kelly’s this summer that covered “Hey Bulldog” by the Beatles), to instrumental jam, and so proliferated were the musical acts around South Bend around this summer that when this touring punk band from Colorado who had been doing paid shows around the Midwest came into McCormick’s, they didn’t even let them go on first. For time and patience constraints, now, I’m giving Cheers Pub in Roseland (another South Bend suburb) a hopelessly cursory and insufficient mention, but along with the metal shows they used to house and of course their great shirts and logo (of which I own two, one sweat shirt and one t shirt), they too used to have both and open mic AND a blues jam, the latter being primarily composed of one faux-professional band of black dudes but also into which anybody could infiltrate, given some naive musical confidence at the time. Cheers has now changed ownership and as far as I know doesn’t house any band, administering karaoke every night, instead, if you can believe it. McCormick’s likewise no longer holds their open mic. The only one that can be found in the community is The Phoenix. Pulling up next to cars in South Bend in 2021, you’re sure to hear that douche bag neo-soul sh** with the trap beats, someone unleashing the startling concept of wanting to fu** his bit**, somewhere in the process. Downtown is littered with douche bag bars that have no character, where people listen to this swill, the result of Mayor Pete shoveling a bunch of slimy dollars toward them toward granting South Bend a veritable curb appeal, this being money mind you that could have gone to help the public schools [13], which are complete sh**, or the YMCA, which recently had to close [14] for lack of funding. Hanging out at The View recently, I was shooting it with this bartender who’s been there forever and she asked me if I’d heard of that actress, Reese, getting stabbed, to which I responded interrogatively “Witherspoon” to hear her rebuttal “No, with a fork.” Yup, that pretty much sums up the scene these days, you might say. 

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[1] Now, understand, it’s not like jazz has been non-existent here, or that we the people are ignorant of it. In fact, my high school, John Adams, in addition to all the other high schools in the city, offered “jazz band,” which I exuberantly took part in. Until recently, as well, this place called Merriman’s Playhouse sold musical instruments and also hosted live jazz performances every Monday night. Also Notre Dame annually plays host to one killer jazz festival. 

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[2] I realize that the “jazz fusion” movement in the ’70s entailed a fusion of horns and rock but what I’m talking about here is more like jazz that’s catered to a blueprint of rock and roll as it was in its original form, which was something closer to gospel than the kitschy, noisy “mod” or “art rock” movements that were popular in the 1970s. 

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[3] Indeed, the nomenclature of this recently revamped venue might have something to do with our music scene being so moribund these days. 

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[4] That’s one band: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band

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[5] One thing to understand is that around this time, when rock and roll was starting, there pretty much was no respect of other people’s property: once a band heard a song, they would bee line it to learning it and trying to score a studio and a producer toward landing a big hit. This being said, both of these nuggets were actually at least co-written by lead singer Tommy James. 

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[6] Notice how I don’t say “love of Notre Dame football”: I literally work with this boss who right when I told him I was a Michigan fan went on this lengthy rant about how we suck, this despite the fact last time we played them we beat them 45-14, and who when I try to broach the topic of Irish football as a way of filling the silence, exhibits basically no ability to carry on a conversation about them. 

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[7] That’s Greek for “common people.” 

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[8] This is about the most I could find on Hoi Polloi online… pretty modest stuff, or “punk,” if you prefer: https://www.angelfire.com/oh/theconnerys/diary.html.

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[9] I’m guessing it’s the band’s impersonation of some old chain-smoking bastard articulating “Humphries” in his own provincial way, sort of like “Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

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[10] In terms of the CD’s I’d get my slimy hands on my these guys in the next six months or so, they were both burned (2001 was about the temporal epicenter of burning CD’s, from what I remember), Songs for Older Women and Snow Barn. Both were live bootlegs. The former had the authoritative version of “2×2” on it and the latter the same of “August.” Get your grubby hands on these muthas and you put your finger firmly on the pulse of Umphrey’s history. 

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[11] By the way, sorry for this depressing tale of this nice young dude growing up to be a weird hippy kook. Hey, I never said this post was for the faint of heart. 

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[12] Think maybe this guy takes music seriously? One time I said I didn’t like “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles and he goes “Dude, eat a DI**!”

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[13] And isn’t it interesting that Buttigieg went to St. Joe for high school and showed a basically no signs of life toward helping them, or taking the blame for any of their problems, even when one of the schools actually ran out of food for school lunch. Excuse me but how is that not the mayor’s responsibility? How? 

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[14] Pathetically, Niles now has a YMCA and South Bend doesn’t. 

519 thoughts on ““I Might as Well Sum up the History of South Bend’s Music Scene Now, Since it Seems to Be over and Done with at This Point”

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