Editor's note: Be advised both Woomblies shows this weekend feature the original quartet, not the entire Rock Orchestra.
It happens after the set break. The crowd, just seconds before lost in their Facebook newsfeeds, griping about Little League soccer coaches — maybe arguing about Donald Trump’s wall idea? – shifts when something rings out from the Rathskeller Biergarten stage. Conversations stop mid-sentence throughout the packed house as the audience collectively turns to face The Woomblies Rock Orchestra on stage, where keyboardist Greg McGuirk is banging out the opening riff to “Baba O'Riley.”
Or, as McGuirk likes to say, “It kills.”
The Orchestra, which McGuirk candidly admits is not a “dance” band, nonetheless spurs a visible cadre of people off the raised patio and down to the dance floor in front. And they dance to the sounds of The Who. Everyone else – literally, everyone — stands rapt, watching Paul Holdman work through a perfect Pete Townsend solo. Five minutes later a few hundred arms thrust upward, fist-pumping the song’s finale as they and yet a few hundred more cheer the band on.
Before any energy is lost, frontman Phil Pierle switches from his solid Roger Daltrey and to a strong Dave Matthews. That’s right, the Woomblies have segued from the teenaged wasteland to “Ants Marching.” And it works. Before the night ends, they’ll have punched in renditions of bedrock hits from Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and an impressive pre-Thriller Michael Jackson.
“With this group we pick songs which are big production songs because they lend themselves to the interpretation whether it’s something we’re doing verbatim or something we can modify and add strings to,” McGuirk says. And we’ve found that the songs which resonate with our audiences are the things we like to do, big pieces like ‘Point of No Return’ or ‘Immigrant Song.’ ”
As a four-man act, The Woomblies dates back 15 years, when Holdman and Pierle began improv-jamming in Franklin. By the time they added bassist and vocalist Brant Milholland and drummer Jamey Reid they had emerged as one of the city’s premiere club bands. Eventually, after several years working gigs at the Biergarten, Rathskeller owner (and Woomblies fan) Dan McMichael came to them with an idea.
“Several years ago, I had witnessed [an orchestral arrangement playing with a rock band] at the White River State Park,” McMichael says, “a Led Zeppelin tribute band set to strings, and I fell in love with that show. I immediately got the itch to put together a band here with a similar feel and style to it. I had no hesitation about who the band would be. The Woomblies is, note-for-note, the best classic rock cover band in Indianapolis.”
But nearly a year after agreeing to move on the project, the band still lacked the strings they needed to actually put the act on stage. They thought they had their answer when they landed the talents of violinist Cathy Morris. Then Morris and the group parted ways, grounding the project once more.
“We do an annual Christmas show with Gene Deere,” McMichael says. “And he brought Allison in here, and I watched someone just tear it up on stage. She was working her way into each song, and she was making it work for her. She was new to town and was open to trying anything, and she eagerly agreed to give The Woomblies a try. That January she, Phil, and I sat down to talk it out, and I instantly noticed a synergy between them to the point where I thought, ‘I guess I’ll just excuse myself from the table and let you guys work your way through this.’”
That Allison to whom McMichael refers is the orchestra’s current first chair violinist, Allison Irvine, a Miami native whose role among the cast has grown dramatically of late.
“When she started, she was a bit shy and timid,” Pierle said. “She would even play with her chin tucked very close and her eyes looking down away from the audience. Not anymore.”
“She is through-the-roof good,” McGuirk added. “She’s developing an awareness which is allowing her to take a crowd and ride with it, and as she matures and blossoms she’s going to figure out how to completely own a place.”
Happy as she is to embrace more of a “face of the band” role because, as she says, “I’m a musician, so of course I enjoy that experience,” Irvine actually defers the genius of the orchestra’s success to the collection of talent arranged on stage, a sentiment best summed by cellist and chart-arranger Grover Parido.
“I’m working with really top notch professionals. So I actually hesitate to say ‘I do the charts.’ I think what I really do is make the presentation and say ‘Here are the parts’ and then let all these talented people put their imprint on it.”
“I’m the kind of guy who, if he sees a wave, he rides it for a while,” Holdman says. “There’s clearly been a lot more interest in the rock orchestra recently. We’re getting spots in bigger venues, and the experience is more a ‘show,’ which is what I’ve always wanted for this band.”
Pierle agrees, and crystalizes the Woomblies transition with this: “We’ve become more of a concert and less of a party.” By the end of the night, when the Biergarten is packed and people are standing on the tables to see you play … then you are indeed putting on a concert.