It's one of the oldest forms of entertainment: the traveling minstrel, a singer/songwriter with nothing but a guitar and a voice, going from place to place singing for his supper. In an age of Internet downloads and stage spectacle, the art of the singer/songwriter remains alive and vibrant in Indianapolis.
Mieka Pauley performs at the Abbey Coffeehouse, one of many venues now supporting the singer/songwriter scene in Indianapolis.
For several years, Nora Spitznogle, booking shows at the Cath Coffeehouse in Broad Ripple, was the godmother of the scene. In the wake of Cath's closing last year, the scene has spread out among a wide array of venues. Boulevard Place, the Abbey Coffeehouse, IndyIndie.com, Vic's Coffeehouse, Indy Hostel and Out Word Bound are only a few of the places picking up the slack, and even venues such as the Music Mill are getting into the act, booking performers like Melissa Ferrick.
Robin Coleman, who booked shows for Indy's Music House before it closed down late last year, now books acts through her new site, segmentofsociety.com.
"You've just got to know where to look to find stuff like that," Coleman said. "Ever since Cath closed, a lot of us really stepped up to the plate and have carried on the Cath tradition. They loved Nora in Chicago. Cath became a real weigh station. You weren't necessarily going to make hundreds of dollars, but it was a place to break in and gain new fans. I would go just to find new music. A lot of times people get in their familiar zone of who they like to listen to. Most of the time independent artists, you're either going to pay nothing to go see them or very low cover charge, and you can't beat that. And to me a lot of times the music is better."
Coleman said that the various promoters are forming a strong bond and network with each other, helping each other line up and cross-promote shows, as well as communicating with each other to find venues when one of them gets an offer that they can't fit into their own schedule.
"It's really exciting," she said. "Sometimes I feel like the kid in Almost Famous. I wouldn't mind continuing this as long as I'm able and can keep my sanity about myself. I think there'll always be room for stuff like this, because you'll always have the indie scene. You'll always have kids coming up. It's a never-ending pot of gold. It's where everybody starts out. Stuff like American Idol makes me mad, because it's mass-produced entertainment. That's why there's independent artists out there. They're people who want to do their own."
Cathy Schneider and Joyce Walker, who operate IndyIndie.com and book acts at their neighborhood clubhouse as well as Out Word Bound, started up their work in order to give a stage to female artists such as Michelle Malone, Aerin Tedesco and Andrea Bunch.
"At the time there was no place in Indianapolis for independent female musicians to play," Walker said. "There's a lot of really good little groups out there and no stage for them to be on. And it's really about women's community. We can't seem to sustain a meeting place. We had Utopia, we had a few places in the past, and they just go by the wayside.
"It's to keep the culture alive, keep the art alive," Schneider said. "We're in a Republican situation right now, and art is the first thing that suffers. This is our way of supporting art and keeping it alive. I want people 30 years younger than me to understand."
Tammara Tracy works with Schneider and Walker to coordinate the "Music in the Stacks" biweekly series of shows at Out Word Bound book store.
"The frustration that I heard from many performers saying that there wasn't anyplace to perform," Tracy said. "IndyIndie is a monthly gig, and there are so many other traveling musicians that needed a place. And capitalizing on Indianapolis' geographic location, as being the crossroads as the musicians are traveling the country, they need gas money and stuff like that. I'm hoping to contribute to the viability of the independent musician, and I'm hoping to introduce their music to more and more people."
John Newton promotes frequent events in the intimate living-room setting of the Indy Hostel (Indyhostel.us), including a recent appearance by Jason Wilber and an upcoming series of Sunday afternoon classical performances at 1 p.m. every Sunday from March 13 through all of April.
"These house parties, it's really a different scene. It's more relaxed, people have a good time. I don't make a lot of money out of them, sometimes I lose money, but it gets the place's name out there," Newton said. "Jason Wilber was a standing-room only crowd. Everyone enjoyed it, it was a wonderful show, it was low-key, smoke-free, lot of good food, good drinks. A lot of people made new friends. Another neat thing about a house party is kids can come. I can have high school students visit that are into music and gain admission because there's no age limit."
Spitznogle herself continues to promote the occasional show and a monthly series at the Harrison Center. She also runs an information hub of singer/songwriter events at her Web site, queenbeemusic.com.
"I think it's amazing how from the ashes of Cath so many more venues have popped up," Spitznogle said. "People who weren't doing singer/songwriter stuff are doing it now, which I think is wonderful. There was a big outcry of people, wondering where, and maybe it was people who hadn't thought about doing it before and saw some value in it. A lot of people still contact me and I try to contact different venues."
She started running singer/songwriter events at the Cath five years ago; by the time Cath closed, she had performers nearly every day.
"It was like an underground railroad where they'd find a venue out there," she said. "There were these New York singer/songwriters and all these people from across the country. We couldn't afford to pay them, so we'd pass the hat and I'd put them up for the night and feed them. That was the hardest part for me, when we closed Cath. I felt like Cath had built itself into a great singer/songwriter venue, and I hated to see that go."
Nonetheless, she sees a renaissance in the scene as more and more promoters take up the banner.
"I think it's only getting better and better," Spitznogle said. "The first year Midwest Music Summit was here, they didn't have many singer/songwriters, and last year Cath was a venue for two days. More people are appreciating the value of original music. It's warmed my little heart how many people have picked up where Cath left off."
And ultimately, according to Coleman, the scene's strength is in those who come out and take a chance on new music day in and day out.
"The new venues have given a new opportunity to the local artists and traveling artists who pass through," Coleman said. "There's a lot out there. Just go out there and give a chance to somebody maybe you haven't heard of."
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