click to enlarge Tonic Ball performers (from left) John Orr, Vess Ruhtenberg, Cari Ray and Cara Jean Wahlers recreate the "Help!" album cover. Photo by Stephen Simonetto.

Tonic Ball performers (from left) John Orr, Vess Ruhtenberg, Cari Ray and Cara Jean Wahlers recreate the "Help!" album cover. Photo by Stephen Simonetto.

Second helping of Beatles at Tonic Ball 9 

Ken Honeywell, the founder and chairperson of Tonic Ball, remembers exactly how the annual fundraiser for Second Helpings started.

He was at a local bar with the woman who became his wife. They were having one of those "what are we going to do with the rest of our lives" conversations.

"I said, 'Well, I kind of have this idea for a benefit show.'"

It was loosely based on what The Loser's Lounge in New York does — get a bunch of musicians together to play the songs of one artist.

When asked whom he'd do this for, Honeywell said, "'I don't know, but feeding people is probably the most important thing I can think of.'"

Tonic Ball was born. Second Helpings, a United Way agency that rescues perishable food, prepares it for the hungry and offers culinary job training, became the recipient.

The first Tonic Ball, in 2002, covered Gram Parsons and included the acts Bigger Than Elvis, Dale Lawrence and Jennie DeVoe, among nine others. Last year's edition, the eighth, featured more than 30 bands on two stages playing the songs of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin.

To demonstrate just how much Tonic Ball has grown since it started, the first year it raised $4,600 for Second Helpings.

"I thought we were pretty special for doing that," Honeywell said.

Last year the tally was $45,000.

"It's grown tenfold in the eight years we've done it," Honeywell said.

They thought we were crazy

The creative director of Well Done Marketing, Honeywell has been in the advertising business for 30 years. But aside from sales meetings, he had never organized something on par with Tonic Ball.

"Most of the people we had talked to thought we were nuts and we would never be able to pull off this kind of a show, let alone raise any money or get anybody to it," Honeywell said.

He took his idea to Jean Paison, one of Second Helpings' founders. She was enthusiastic about it. After it brought in $4,600 to her organization, Honeywell remembers her telling him, "The difference was we get a lot of people coming to us and saying, 'Hey I have this great idea for you. You should do this as a fundraiser.'"

"What we did was come in and say, 'Hey, we have this great idea and we would like to do this for you.' The genesis of the event as an outside, grassroots, buncha schmos, your dad has a bar, let's put a show together – that is one of the things that really made it successful."

Getting talent for Tonic Ball was another matter. Honeywell had a loose affiliation with the local music scene.

"Todd Robinson who owns Luna Music is a friend," he said. "He was one of the first people I went to and said, 'I have this idea for a show.' He said, 'I think I can get a room for you and help you in other ways.' That started that snowball."

As for getting musicians to participate, Honeywell said, "We had to twist a bunch of arms the first year."

The grievous, obscure angel

Gram Parsons was the subject matter because Honeywell loves his music. It may not have been the best choice for the first go-round, however.

"From an artist profile standpoint, he was certainly the least popular, recognizable artist that we've covered over the course of these nine years," Honeywell said. "Initially there was a little bit of 'I don't even know who that is.' There was also, 'Really, I only get to play two songs? You're asking me to give up a Friday night to play only two songs?' So we met with some resistance. But we also had some really enthusiastic supporters the first year."

The first group to say yes was called Citizens Band.

"There are still guys who were in that band that are still associated with Tonic Ball to this day," Honeywell said. "That was really fortuitous for us."

Many of the same artists perform every year. Bigger Than Elvis, The Vulgar Boatmen, Otis Gibbs, and DeVoe are some of the regulars.

"There are a lot of people who look forward to it every year and want to participate," Honeywell said. "We also want to mix it up a bit every year and get some new people involved. We try to reserve at least a quarter of the slots every year for new artists."

This marks the third year that local singer-songwriter Luke Austin Daugherty has participated. Tonic Ball ranks high among the charitable shows to which he donates his time and talents.

"As far as a reciprocal, well-known thing, it's probably at the top of thelist," Daughtery, who will cover "In My Life," said. "I've done a lot of benefit concerts, but they're usually a one-off type thing."

Mysterious backroom negotiations

Aside from Parsons, Dylan and Zep, the other legends that have been spotlighted at Tonic Ball are Elvis Costello in 2003 (an excellent choice since Tonic Ball's venue, Radio Radio, is named after one of his songs), Neil Young in 2004, the Rolling Stones in '05, Prince and Talking Heads in '06, Madonna and The Clash in '07 and Elvis Presley and Queen in '08.

Honeywell said the way artists are chosen for Tonic Ball is "a mysterious, arcane, backroom negotiation."

Ben Shine, Second Helpings' communications and development manager, added, "There's usually blood and broken glass."

In reality it's merely something the committee talks about each year and ultimately reaches an agreement upon.

"It has gone everywhere from multiple votes and much handwringing, bordering on animosity," Honeywell said. "Not that we've ever really gotten to that, but certainly there are passionate opinions."

This year The Beatles finally get their due. It's back to one artist for the first time since going the event expanded to two stages in 2006 (the other being the Fountain Square Theater next door to Radio Radio).

"We thought instead of covering two artists, The Beatles have such an over-the-top appeal that it would be hard to match somebody with them and have it make sense," Honeywell said.

Said Shine, "And there's 120-some Beatles songs out there, so there's plenty of music to go around."

More bigger Tonic Ball

Tonic Ball really became too big for its home in its second year.

"The third and fourth years we had people lined up for an hour, hour and a half to get in the room," Honeywell said. "We didn't want to take the show out of Fountain Square or really Radio Radio because that's part of the event's appeal. Radio Radio is a great place to see a show."

By year five the Fountain Square Theater was added to accommodate the overflow.

"That gives us double the capacity for bands and way more than that for the crowd," Honeywell said. "We still have a bunch of people standing in line to get into Radio Radio. People want to be in that room. But there's an awful lot of great music in the Fountain Square Theater too."

There's also a misconception that because Fountain Square Theater is all ages that no alcohol is served there. Honeywell said that's not true.

Tonic Ball has become known for more than just music. By the second edition an art show called Tonic Gallery was added.It features works by some of Indy's best known visual artists, all of which is also for sale through silent auction. Some of the participating artists include Kyle Ragsdale, Casey Roberts, and Mab Graves. Admission is free and Tonic Gallery is open 5-9 p.m. the same night as Tonic Ball at New Day Meadery, across Prospect Street from Radio Radio.

"Just as the bands donate their time to play the show, we have about 40 artists giving their time this year," Honeywell said.

New this year is an event catering to children called Tiny Tonic. It includes crafts, Beatles music and fish-and-chips meals from The Red Lion for $5. It's scheduled 5-7 p.m. the night of Tonic Ball at Big Car Gallery.

Rescuing food, building careers

All of Tonic Ball's offshoots were created to raise more money and awareness for the cause. Paison and two other chefs started Second Helpings in 1998.

"They worked in the restaurant industry and saw an awful lot of waste," said Shine, who has been with the organization two years and on Tonic Ball's committee for four. "They also worked downtown and saw a lot of poverty and untrained kitchen staff."

It's based on the idea behind D.C. Central Kitchen in the nation's capitol.

"That whole model of rescuing food and using it to feed and train people made too much sense to them," Shine said.

They trained one person and sent out 16 meals to one organization in their first month. Today Second Helpings has trained more than 400 people, sent out 5 and a half million meals and rescued 14 million pounds of food. Fostering partnerships with wholesale food distributors like U.S. Foods and Sysco, as well as with grocers like Costco and Kroger and locally-owned establishments like Taylor Bakery, have helped make that possible.

"It's really all about cultivating relationships with these places," Shine said. "All of them get it."

More than half of Second Helpings' annual donations come in the form of food. The rest of their $4.5 million budget is made up through grants and individual donations. Shine said they've focused in recent years on cultivating the latter.

"That's really important to us, especially in times when we know corporations can't support things the way they used to," he said.

Those donations help produce almost 3,000 daily meals for organizations that assist the homeless, indigent, veterans, seniors and more. Shine said they've seen a 20-25 percent increase in their partner agencies just in the last year.

"We expect this holiday season to be just as busy as ever," he said. "The need is always going to be there. I don't ever want to say we're doing well. It's a constant cycle for us. We're always inviting people in to see what we do. Once you experience it – students learning incredible things and the hunger relief kitchen with 25 volunteers putting meals together – it's really hard to deny we're doing incredible work."

Reader-approved

Tonic Ball has emerged as one of two big annual fundraisers for Second Helpings. In the past NUVO readers have ranked it as high as No. 2 for best nonprofit fundraiser.

"It's our most visible event in the community because it is so unique and a fun event," Shine said. "It also gives us more exposure with a younger audience than we normally get."

Honeywell has witnessed that emergence firsthand. He says there were three kinds of people at the first Tonic Ball: friends of his or other committee members, stakeholders of Second Helpings and four people who love Gram Parsons. Fast forward to last year, a little more than a thousand attended and Honeywell didn't know any of them.

"Clearly the show is no longer just about the committee, just about Second Helpings or even just about the artists," he said. "It has become a cool event. I always joke we could cover Paul Williams and Barry Manilow and it wouldn't matter."

This year's Tonic Ball lineup:

At Radio Radio: Rodney Boys, Jon Strahl and the Get Downs, Everest, We're Not Squibnocket, SuperMoneyTrain, CW and the Working Class Trio, 8 Track All Stars, Tad Armstrong, Yoko Moment, The Common, Red Light Driver, Everything, Now!, ESW, Tremendous Downtime, Low Flying Helicopters

At Fountain Square Theatre: Hotfox, The Last Domino, Alice Chalmers and the Stick a Cork in Your Jug Band, Brian Deer, Scott Rudicel, Kate Lamont, #9, Last Drop Jug Band, The ReachArounds, Cari Ray and the Loaners, Bat Tattoo, Luke Austin Daugherty, Marmoset, Rooms, The Perennials, Rob Vargo, Odyssey Favor

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