Songwriter Frank Dean is taking his band in a surprising new direction, which should come as no surprise. Aside from Dean himself, change has been the only constant for Sindacato, the local roots ensemble that shuffles its sound and roster on a regular basis, practically daring its fans to revolt.
In that light, the band's staying power is all the more unusual. This year Sindacato will mark its 10th anniversary and deliver its fifth album - the sixth, if you count last year's Dean solo effort, which also featured the other band members. Even last year's departure of founding bassist Gary Wasson did not spell the band's demise.
But before the newly reorganized quartet plunges into its next recording project, an exploration of Memphis R&B, Sindacato will review its past with a marathon concert Saturday night.
"Mainly, this show is about the fans of the last decade," says the 51-year-old Dean. "It's time for us to move on, but thanks, everybody, for the last 10 years. Here's the songs you wanted to hear. Here's the stuff from the records you bought."
That decade brought mixed results for the band. Thanks to solid writing and performing, a multigenerational appeal and the fortuitous timing of a nationwide roots revival, Sindacato has enjoyed high-profile gigs, a loyal following, consistent praise from local critics and repeated best-band and best-album honors from local publications.
On the other hand, those hometown successes haven't translated into a record deal, or significant national recognition, or even the kind of money that a hot bar band can make.
"There are bands that come along every year here locally that make tons more money than we do," Dean says, "and that's because there's no way that a thousand people are going to come into the Vogue on a Friday night to dance to Sindacato."
Still, some people love Sindacato, or at least one of the band's various incarnations, and Saturday's show will attempt to encompass them all.
The current lineup still includes longtime members Carl LoSasso on drums and Jon Martin on mandolin and guitar, along with new bassist Brent Bennett. Joining them for the Saturday show will be guitarist Troy Seele and banjoist Steve Woods, both of whom were band members during Sindacato's bluegrass phase, and pedal steel guitarist Herb Clarkson, who played on Dean's 2004 honkytonk album, ... And Back Again.
The show will begin with the core band on electric instruments, followed by some solo acoustic songs from newcomer Bennett, also known as the lead guitarist for the band Stones Crossing. Bennett has a sizable catalog of original material, and Dean looks forward to having a new writer in the band.
"One of the reasons I chose this guy was, 'Wow, I don't have to come up with 13 good songs every year," he says.
Other portions of the show will see an acoustic trio of Dean, Seele and Woods playing songs from the debut album, Appalachian Pipeline, followed by the six-man bluegrass configuration playing songs from the Logan County and Gospel Plow albums. The show will close with another electric set.
"It's going to be a long evening," Dean warns.
Fans might also hear a couple tunes from the next album, due out this fall. Dean says the project is all about Memphis, Tennessee, but don't expect a travelogue.
Instead, the focus will be Memphis' symbolic resonance as a breeding ground for blues, R&B, rockabilly and soul; the home of the small but mighty Sun and Stax record labels; and a crucial career stop for music giants like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, to name but a few.
"What we call rock 'n' roll was born of black people and hillbillies playing together," Dean says. "It's almost like a guideline for life. Why can't the rest of the world do that?"
Indeed, he argues that humble Memphis is the true birthplace of rock 'n' roll, supplying the vital juices that made American pop culture a force for youth empowerment and social change, from the U.S. civil rights and antiwar movements to the collapse of totalitarian regimes around the world.
"It's so much more powerful than people ever give it credit for," Dean says, "and it all started in this little corner of the South that most people just dismiss as a shithole."
Don't be surprised, then, to hear Sindacato dabbling more in R&B and rock sounds, and less in the country territory that has been its trademark. Yes, Dean seems determined to alienate another batch of fans, but he says he's been suppressing this side of himself for too long.
"I have a vastly larger collection of rock 'n' roll and blues and R&B at home than I do country music," Dean says. "My two favorite bands were always the Band and the Rolling Stones."
Losing a friend?
And make no mistake: Although Dean is always quick to praise his bandmates' talents and contributions, he makes the big decisions for Sindacato and doesn't spend much time debating alternative views. He describes the group's political structure as a "benign dictatorship."
"I try to listen to everybody's opinion, but I believe in every band somebody's got to have the last word, and I'm it," says Dean, who has a reputation for blunt talk and a sometimes prickly personality.
A clash of visions seems to explain Wasson's absence from the group since September, a serious change that both sides still find troubling. The professorial bass player and vocalist had been the only other original member, having played with Dean since before the band was named.
"The guy was my right-hand man for nine years. We went through a lot of shit together," Dean says. "Gary and I were always the yin-yang of this thing. I'm an aggressive personality and I want things done right now, and it takes me about five minutes to make a decision on anything. Gary's a lot more introspective."
As Dean recounts the dispute, the talented Wasson was getting offers from outside the band, needed some room to grow, and was encouraged to pursue those options after he made clear that Sindacato would no longer be his top priority. Dean acknowledges some lingering ill feelings and says he hopes to repair the relationship.
"I think Gary was ready to call some of his own shots, of where he wanted to play and what weekends he didn't want to play," Dean says. "I wish him all the best and everybody does. We still consider him a dear trusted friend."
Wasson is indeed staying occupied and happy by playing bass for Greg Ziesemer's Spud Puppies, running a Sunday night open stage at Barley Island Brewing Company in Noblesville, and performing with friends in various combinations as Gary Wasson and the Wonder. He also has a family and a day job.
Not surprisingly, however, Wasson has a very different take on leaving Sindacato.
"I was fired," he says. "There's no two ways about that."
The band had a pretty light schedule in 2004, Wasson says. He grew concerned that Sindacato had reached a plateau and that his bandmates were content to leave it there. He wanted to pursue more out-of-town gigs, among other strategies.
"We'd pretty well saturated central Indiana," Wasson says. "I felt that Sindacato was losing its way. I think the ambition was beginning to wane."
But when he brought his concerns to the band, hoping to spark some enthusiasm, he says, the talk turned unpleasant and he was asked to leave. Though the decision was presented as a consensus among band members, Wasson has his doubts, and he still regrets the outcome.
"The confrontation came about rather unexpectedly for me," he says. "I have tremendous respect for every member of that band. I'm sorry not to be with them anymore."
Even a personnel change as significant as this one, however, is not going to derail Sindacato, Dean says. They still have plenty to do.
"There's a lot more guys that used to be in Sindacato than are in Sindacato, but it still goes on," he says.
And if the commercial music industry never plasters the band across the nation's airwaves and CD aisles, well, who expected that anyway?
"You can only have sour grapes for a couple of minutes, and then you slap yourself and say, 'You know what? People have been really good to you, pal,'" Dean says.
"It doesn't matter, especially with my fragile ego, that we're not the coolest band out there. As long as we think we're vital and we've still got something to contribute, then that's all that matters to me."