Sindacato has played original bluegrass on the Indianapolis music scene for a half dozen years. On this hot Saturday night in June, they"re releasing their fourth CD, The Gospel Plow, filled entirely with gospel songs.
At first blush, Frank Dean doesn"t look like a songwriter of gospel music. Before the show, he lounges on a couch in the lobby of the Artcraft, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His goateed, weathered face is topped with swept-back, shoulder-length hair. If you didn"t know better he might be a biker, a factory worker, a truck driver or the guy who kicked your ass in a bar last night. Instead, he"s the leader of Sindacato, arguably Central Indiana"s most talented bluegrass band.
Sindacato has done other big shows on the Artcraft"s old vaudeville stage, opening for Ralph Stanley, Dock Watson and Norman Blake, all legends in the world of traditional music. Though many listeners have come late to this style of music, thanks to the popularity of O Brother Where Art Thou?, Frank has been there all his life.
"I was born in West Virginia in 1953 and grew up around Appalachian music," Dean said. "As a kid I never heard Perry Como or Sinatra. Instead, I heard old time music and I always liked it. Appalachian Pipeline [Sindacato"s first CD] was an outgrowth of that."
But he"s not beholden to the national trend that"s found bluegrass. "To understand Sindacato is to know it"s about exploring music. The only constant is the art - first. We don"t cater to the trend. I"m never gonna try to write a hit song."
Dean laughs at the thought that he"s played both the Vogue and the Patio in each of four different decades. "I"ve never not been the leader of a band since 1975." One of those included Blue Deville, an R&B band.
Now the leader of Sindacato, he"s written music for four CDs. The first, Appalachian Pipeline, 1995, was all acoustic mountain music, influenced by the Carter Family and Doc Watson. Their second, a 1998 self-titled release, was an uptempo take on the same theme. Logan County, recorded in late 2000, was traditional bluegrass. The new CD is gospel. Though a consistent bluegrass thread runs throughout all four releases, Dean refuses to be pegged. "Hell, we might do an R&B album next," he jokes. "When I hear Sam Cooke singing, "Bring it on home to me," man, that kicks my ass. What more could you ask for in a song?"
All the great jobs
Though he"s the leader, Dean doesn"t dominate performances, most often quietly playing rhythm guitar and singing lead on roughly a third of the songs. Gary Wasson, an original founder of the band with Dean, plays bass and picks up vocals on another third. John Martin plays mandolin and his smooth tenor rounds out the rest of the vocals. Steve Woods is an accomplished banjo player who fills in on guitar and harmonica. Troy Seele is a sober-faced lead guitarist who routinely astonishes audiences with his unique, melodic, rapid picking style. Anchoring the rhythm along with Wasson is Carl LoSasso on snare drum.
If Sindacato has any detractors, they point to LoSasso"s snare drum. "The bluegrass crowd wants to preserve the sound," Dean says. "That shouldn"t mean you can"t make room for variety. But we"ve got a snare drummer, so to some people that counts us out. It doesn"t take much to irritate the bluegrass Nazis."
Dean is unapologetic. "If you could melt down bluegrass to two guys it would be Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. They were mavericks. What they did originally bothered people because it didn"t fit the accepted norm of that time." Recently, Dean confronted a member of a local traditional bluegrass band, and asked why he didn"t like Sindacato. The answer: "Because you guys get all the great jobs."
The man was referring to the shows Sindacato has opened for legends like Stanley, Watson and Blake, not to mention other acts like Emmy Lou Harris, The Del McCoury Band, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and Junior Brown.
Dean shrugs off the notion of envy, knowing it"s a comparatively good problem to have. "We"ve always been in demand, even before O Brother. Sunshine and Clear Channel have always supported us. We have kids, Deadheads and Phishheads and older folks who come to our shows religiously. And," he adds, "we"ve done four albums in six years and only had glowing reviews."
A half hour before the show starts, mandolin player and vocalist Martin relaxes in a theater seat at the Artcraft, looking at the stage as he talks. His round, friendly face is framed by long wavy black hair. Born and raised in Indiana, he"s played in a variety of bands.
"I once played guitar in a hard rock band but got kicked out because they said I wasn"t rock "n" roll enough." Martin is amazed by the odd places Sindacato"s music has taken hold.
"Miles of Music is selling our stuff and somehow, accidentally really, we developed a following in Italy." He"s particularly proud of the bigger crowds the band is seeing here in Indiana. "Our following is building," Martin says. "Still, as much as I like this new gospel album, I worry that the variety of music we play will hurt long-term fan growth. But Frank isn"t worried," Martin laughs. "Frank likes to say, "What Bill Monroe and the Stones have in common is they"re both good." Maybe that"s all that matters." The bespectacled and soft-spoken Wasson says. "John"s concerns resonate with me, but really the music ... the sound, isn"t much different from what we"ve done before. Gospel is just another strain of bluegrass."
And Wasson is quick to agree that the new CD isn"t filled with "praise the Lord" songs. "I think the songs are more to the point of what that pursuit in life is all about Ö searching for meaning and direction amid the horrible things that can happen."
Thicker than guitar pickers in hell
The large crowd filing into the Artcraft Theater is diverse. There are families with small children, college-age couples and elderly people. Band members mill around, greeting relatives and old friends. Mike Redmond, humor columnist for The Indianapolis Star and close friend of Dean, talks beneath an art deco light fixture. Redmond will play a part in tonight"s show.
Sindacato"s new CD, The Gospel Plow, replicates the format and sound of old Sunday morning gospel TV shows. Redmond acts as announcer, introducing the songs and filling in with mock commercials. The band recorded the entire CD in one night at the Pop Machine on Indy"s Northside. Each song was recorded using just one microphone, which they all gathered around.
Sindacato opens the show with an instrumental piece as Redmond welcomes the audience, addressing them as "The White River Township Women"s Christian Temperance Society."
Anyone expecting Bible thumping soon discovers that music and musicianship, in all their spiritual glory, are the centerpiece instead, expressed through songs written on a common theme: sin and failure, glory and redemption, soul searching and destinations. The whole is delivered with a comfortable, self-deprecating style. Throughout the show, Dean trades vocal duties with Wasson and Martin, easily stepping back to let them shine. Wasson"s understated, honest voice seems especially well-suited for Dean"s songs, gathering some of the biggest reactions from the crowd. Martin"s clear tenor is at home, too, piercing and plaintive in songs about loss and loneliness. In a bouncing, uptempo chorus, Sindacato"s voices unite, calling out, "Don"t cry for me, I"m going to Canaan." The harmony vocal high point of the show comes during a Staple Singers-influenced tribute to Pops Staple called "Walk Right Back," with Redmond helping out on bass - a singing lineup Dean jokingly refers to as "The Humidaires."
Between songs, Redmond provides comic relief with commercials for sham advertisers like "Sun Rise Dairy Products" and banters with Dean, teasing him about song titles like "Backsliding in Reverse."
Woods, Seele and Martin trade solos, fluidly blending banjo, mandolin and finger picking guitar with remarkable soulfulness. Woods and Seele are such unassuming bookends on stage that their solos arrive as joyous surprises. LoSasso"s snare drum so gently and precisely complements Wasson"s bass that you"re left wondering what all the "bluegrass Nazis" are complaining about. LoSasso squeezes a variety of moods from the snare, at times covering the drum skin with a towel and playing with brushes. All together, the six men remind the audience why Sindacato is widely considered one of the most technically proficient bands playing Central Indiana.
The show is also a reminder that Sindacato"s live performances have a casual, soulful groove that hasn"t been entirely captured on their CDs After the show, Dean mentions that a Christian musician friend had insulted him with the question, "Did you do this album for God or art?" Dean"s emphatic response: "Both."