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Tonic turns ten 

click to enlarge Ken Honeywell of Tonic Ball

Tonic Ball
Friday, Nov. 18
7 p.m., $25

The concept was simple: local bands would cover popular national artists for their friends and fans. All funds raised would be for Second Helpings, a “food rescue” organization that provides meals for thousands every day. An increasingly philanthropic music community has embraced the Tonic Ball mission and made it successful for ten straight years.

This year matches three venues and three artists: Michael Jackson at the Fountain Square Theater, R.E.M. at Radio Radio, and David Bowie at the (just added) White Rabbit Cabaret. One wristband will allow the audience entrance into all three venues, where 42 artists will be performing throughout the evening.

Tonic Ball hit the sweet spot in 2002. Since then, the ever-growing arts event has raised over $100,000 for Southeast side nonprofit Second Helpings.

In the Beginning

Expectations were fairly low in the first year. The inaugural event featured the music of country-crossover artist Gram Parsons.

“The first few years, we were begging bands to play. They were our friends, and we were pleading with them to play. Now, bands are campaigning with us to play at the event, and we are having to make hard decisions about scheduling,” said Nora Spitznogle, programs director for Second Helpings and long-time member of the Tonic Ball board.

After the first event, organizers handed a check for around $4,000 to Second Helpings, feeling very proud. They never expected how big the event would become.

Ensuing years covered the music of Elvis Costello, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, Prince, The Talking Heads, Madonna, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Led Zepplin, Elvis Presley and Queen.

Now, as the event rings in a new decade a founding member is stepping away. This will be Ken Honeywell's last year as an organizer of the Tonic Ball.

“Ten years is plenty of time to be in charge of the event. Thankfully, we have a really strong committee and people working on the event,” Honeywell said.

Two of those strong people are Spitznogle and Ben Shine, manager and communications director for Second Helpings. Remarkably, both became involved with the nonprofit they now both work for because of previous participation on the board for Tonic Ball. Spitznogle is working on her ninth Tonic Ball as a member of the board, and her seventh as an employee of Second Helpings. Shine is participating in his fifth Tonic Ball as a board member, and his third as an employee of Second Helpings.

Why Tonic?

The name Honeywell chose for his event symbolizes a lot of different things. A tonic is something that one takes to get well or alleviate pain; it is an important note in musical composition. It also has an oblique reference to drinking.

Honeywell will be once again MC-ing at Radio Radio on the R.E.M. Stage.

“I sometimes have trouble getting to the other rooms, which is a shame, especially this year. In the David Bowie room at the White Rabbit Cabaret are just some of my favorite local bands,” Honeywell said.

“It has been life-changing for me. I have volunteered at Second Helpings for a number of years, delivered food every Friday and was on the board. It is amazing when you see the need in the community and see how many people that you are helping. You see how many kids wouldn't have a hot meal without Second Helpings,” said Honeywell.

Second Helpings has grown enormously during the years that Tonic Ball has been donating to the program. They've moved locations, rescued their 15 millionth pound of food, and are preparing to launch a massive kitchen renovation, allowing them to serve many more agencies. And Tonic has grown too, adding variations on their core event, including the Tonic Gallery, Tiny Tonic, the Tonic Preview Party and the Tonic Ball Compilation CD.

The Tonic Expansion

Tiny Tonic is in its second year. Tonic Ball organizers wanted parents to be able to bring kids and be a part of the Tonic experience. Last year, children's performer RudiToonz performed Beatles songs while the kids ate fish and chips (for a British pub experience). This year, RudiToonz will return to play the songs of Jackson, Bowie and R.E.M. while the kids that attend create their own artwork inspired by the artist.

Tonic Gallery began during Tonic II in 2003, and is co-curated this year by Kirsten Eamon-Shine and Nikki Godersky. This year, 40 artists will exhibit at the Tonic Gallery, including (but, of course, not limited to) Justin Cooper, Mab Graves, Laura Kivela, Wug Laku, MaryAnne Nguyen, Eric Stine and Erin Swanson. The artists are encouraged to use Tonic Ball's featured musicians and bands as inspiration, and many do. The artwork in the gallery is hung salon-style, with pieces arranged in small groupings that relate to one another, creating narratives throughout the space.

The Gallery, located in the New Day Meadery, culminates with a live silent auction, running from 5 to 8 p.m. on the night of Tonic Ball. Bidding starts at $100 for each piece and tops off at $500; whomever has the highest bid at 8 p.m. on the evening of the auction wins the piece (although each piece is available for purchase for $500 until the start of the auction).

This year, a sampling of Tonic Ball musical artists also donated a track to the Tonic Ball Compilation; the 17-track album is available for $5 and was released November 4th. It includes tracks from Red Light Driver, The Calumet Reel, Skyhunter, Ryan Williams, Chindi, The Common and many more.


click to enlarge Red Light Driver at Tonic IX
  • Red Light Driver at Tonic IX

A Different Kind of Show

Programming the Tonic Ball is no easy feat; this year a record 42 bands will perform between the three stages. Each band only plays two songs, so the on-stage act is constantly revolving. The venues each claim an artist, and all bands performing on that stage cover said artist. Although the performers have the opportunity to play an original song as well, most stick to covers.

“Last year almost no one played anything except covers because we were all eager to exhaust The Beatles' catalogue,” Shine said.

Selecting bands can be tricky, but this year the selections, which were narrowed down from 60 options, seemed a natural choice. One board member in particular is very happy.

“I've been campaigning for R.E.M. since my first vote nine years ago,” said Spitznogle.

The bands scheduled to play Tonic Ball are wildly diverse, giving bands and audiences alike a chance to see a variety of different genres in one set. The night is also a type of local musicians' reunion.

“The bands call it their little reunion because bands that never usually play together get to hang out; they are usually playing out [on weekends]. We always say that at Tonic you bring your A-game; they all show off for each other. The audience really appreciates it too,” said Spitznogle.

The Power of Second Helpings

A nonprofit like Second Helpings is remarkable because it fills in the very real hole that exists between providers of food and those who don't have enough food.

“It doesn't make sense that we throw away food, but it also doesn't make sense that there are a lot of hungry people every day, and people that don't know where they are going to eat next,” said Shine.

Shine, who refers to the day-to-day operations at Second Helpings as “Iron Chef for 3,000,” said that work continued at the organization even during the city-crippling ice storms of last February.

“We front-loaded people before it was happening and then for two days only staff came in. We did all of the cooking and got it out,” said Shine.

Second Helpings not only provides healthy meals to agencies; it also trains unemployed and under-employed persons with culinary aspirations for free. The 10-week Culinary Job Training Program prepares its students for entry into the culinary industry.

“This is what we call ending poverty at its source; we are not only giving them a skill, we are helping to give them the attitude to go be successful and embrace a career in the culinary industry. And it works,” said Shine.

Perhaps the program's most famous graduate is DeWitt Jackson, the executive chef for the Colts, but graduates of the Culinary Job Training Program can be found in restaurants all over town, employed by some of the same guest chefs that once instructed them.

These chefs from the community have embraced the program whole-heartedly. Chef Roger Duran of Barcelona Tapas once brought in a fifteen pound salmon to demonstrate how to prepare the fish. Elizabeth Garber of The Best Chocolate in Town teaches a truffle-making class. Chefs from US Foods bring in a side of beef and show how to break it down.

“And we all had steaks for lunch that day,” Shine recalled, of the day chefs from US Foods visited.

Graduates of the Job Training Program also sometimes stay at Second Helpings. Chef Sam Brown, who leads the program, is a graduate himself.

click to enlarge Marquee for Tonic VIII
  • Marquee for Tonic VIII

A Supportive Community

Venue operators in Fountain Square have supported Tonic Ball from its inception. David “Tufty” Clough offered Radio Radio as a location in the first year for free.

“He is really supportive of anything good in the community,” said Shine, of Clough.

Fountain Square Theatre was added for the fifth iteration of the Tonic Ball.

“Priscilla [Erickson], who runs the theater, loves the theme as much as I do. Last year, she was buying Beatles' memorabilia; she dresses up her staff. She really gets into it,” said Spitznogle of the Fountain Square Theatre's operator.

Erickson knew that the Fountain Square Theater had a great opportunity to get involved.

“Shortly after our arrival [at Tonic Ball IV], we found a small spot to squeeze up against the wall, near the stage; I looked over at Fern [Calvert, the owner of Fountain Square Theatre] at the same time she turned toward me, each of us having the same thought: ‘This needs to be in the Theatre next year,'” said Erickson, looking back on a previous Tonic Ball.

This year brings another venue with the White Rabbit Cabaret. The Tonic Ball board knew that they needed more space last year when tickets sold out before the night of the event for Tonic Ball IX.

The board never considered moving the event away from Fountain Square.

“It has grown to the point that it kind of takes over Fountain Square for the night. It is really a great night for this part of town. In another ten years, I would love to see it be even bigger. With five stages, maybe eight stages, it could be a little one-night music festival in Fountain Square,” said Honeywell.

An increasingly tight-knit and supportive music community could support such growth.

“I've seen the music community become more aware and more philanthropic. I think a lot of that has happened through various economic circumstances, but I also think that Tonic Ball really set the bar for a nice way for musicians to give back,” Spitznogle said.

Although Tonic Ball is not an easy feat to pull off, the event seems to be something of a magical combination. The community enjoys a wonderful evening seeing their favorite local bands, musicians get to show off for one another while performing for a new audience and the crowd can sing along to their favorite tunes. Riding on top of it all is the realization that everything that is happening is for a larger cause.

“I always felt that feeding people was the most important thing,” Honeywell said.

The continued success of Tonic Ball shows that people can be fed through the power of the musical community.

“It's a lot of work, but I've never gotten tired of it, because [Tonic Ball] is everything that I love about this city,” said Shine.

Tickets are available online at tonicindy.com.

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