Back in October, Jennifer Vigran, a Big Kahuna at Second Helpings, asked me if I wanted to emcee a Tonic Ball stage.
I responded in the affirmative, and on Nov. 21, I found myself on stage at the White Rabbit for Tonic Ball 2014, the 13th annual benefit for Mrs. Vigran’s laudable charity. For those not in the know, Tonic is a big ol’ mashup of many local bands, all of whom are required to cover well known acts both present and past. Each year brings a different set of artists to cover, and each venue comes assigned with its own group: performers at the Rabbit were required to play Velvet Underground and/or Lou Reed tunes.
This is exactly as awesome, weird and beautiful as it sounds.
The acts began shortly after 7:30 p.m. with The Icks leading off. By 8 p.m., the bands had emptied a huge cooler of Sun King beer. Emergency cases of Hamm’s were brought in. As roughly nine bands wedged themselves and their instruments into the 400 square feet of green room backstage, one guitarist announced that the place now smelled of “art and ass.”
Also overheard: “My wife thinks my Truman Capote impression is HILARIOUS,” and “David Lee Roth and Steven Tyler dress like old women.”
I can, without fear of contradiction, report that all of the above statements are most assuredly true.
Sometime after 9, the band Phyllis took the stage. An hour later, the bass player from Phyllis — a very tall dude in a tie — returned with an act called The Lovemeknots. He informed me and the crowd that this particular group hadn’t played out together since 1995.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” I proclaimed from behind the main mic (which was decorated with an actual real life banana in tribute to the Velvet’s debut), “The Lovemeknots have been practicing for 19 years just for tonight! CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE THAT KIND OF DEDICATION?”
That was one of the very few laughs I got that night.
Emceeing Tonic, as I quickly discovered, is about patter, not material. No one is paying attention to the host that much. The crowd reacts thusly: band is on = FULL ATTTENTION TO STAGE/host is on = TIME FOR DISCUSSION GROUPS!/BAND IS HAVING PROBLEMS WITH SETUP = YELL AT EMCEE!
Actually, the “yelling at emcee” portion of the evening was my favorite part of the night. I actually got the chance to riff with drunks, and after having spent a few years touring as a standup comic back in the day, it was satisfying to once again do what the folks in the business call “crowd work.”
See, there’s a moment at Tonic — somewhere between 10 and 11 — when the crowd turns from “engaged music fans” to “really drunk people.”
Tonic Ball 2014 (Slideshow)
A trip through Tonic Ball in the eyes of photographer and artist Bryan Moore.
Click to View 18 slides
Might I provide some examples?
EXHIBIT A: One dude in a baseball cap kept exhorting me to “B-BRING UP RAW McCARTNEY BECAUSE RAW McCARTNEY IS TH’ BES’ BAND IN INNIE-APPLES!” This was happening as Raw McCartney was literally PLUGGING IN THEIR INSTRUMENTS.
EXHIBIT B: A woman named Sunni told me, in very loud tones, how she’d driven from Illinois just to be here and she’d never been to Tonic before and she used to live in Brownsburg and the people who were playing at Fountain Square Theatre were awesome because STEVIE FUCKING NICKS, MAN, STEVIE FUCKING NICKS! This entire monologue took place while I was thanking the sponsors. I’m sure our duet played like surrealist poetry.
OK, OK, the evening wasn’t all about comic stupor: Tonic is a one of the Great Warm Fuzzies in the history of Warm Fuzzies. It’s a night of musicians without egos, all donating their time to feed the hungry. It’s about club owners donating their space and Sam Ash donating gear and people working and playing well with others to try and fill the tummies of those folks who don’t have enough of a basic necessity.
And it’s also loaded with incredible moments: The Icks sounded beautiful, Raw McCartney was (yes, drunk guy) transcendent, the Lovemeknots DID sound like they’d been practicing for 19 years and Ben Shine, who labors long each year to put this night together, sang “Walk on the Wild Side” with maybe two dozen of his friends backing him up.
And at the end of the night, after Skin Conditions had ground out a cover (?) of what may have been one side of Reed’s double-LP of feedback called Metal Machine Music — which must have been really rough for anyone on psychedelics that evening — Shimmercore took to the stage in front of the last dozen fans who were determined to close out the Rabbit. Abandoning Lou after one number, the band dove into a pair of tight, tasty original pieces. The diehards danced and swayed. As the fellas bade goodnight to the crowd and the lights came up, Shimmercore’s guitarist and drummer both extended a hand to thank me. Me, of all people. Me, no instrument, no vocals, just blather.
“This thing is just great,” said the drummer.
I nodded, trying not to get misty. “Just great.”