The annual Tonic Ball charity show began four years ago more or less on a whim. In the subsequent years, it's grown to be perhaps the most prestigious and most-anticipated benefit show of the year.
This year's show will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday at Radio Radio and will feature 16 local artists performing the songs of the Rolling Stones. Among the acts scheduled to appear are Ann McWilliams, Loretta, Otis Gibbs, Zero Boys, The Common, Blueprint Music and Brando.
The $15 admission fee will benefit Second Helpings Inc., a local food rescue, job training and hunger relief program that serves more than 45,000 meals a month to people in need.
According to concert organizer Ken Honeywell, the idea for an all-Stones show came to him at last year's show, at which Neil Young songs were performed. "It was a great event," he said, "the room was packed and the crowd was passionate. But it was not as upbeat and danceable as it had been in the years past. The acts erred on the side of folky Neil Young as opposed to rocking Neil Young. The year before, when we did Elvis Costello songs, it was much more of a dance party. I thought that if we did the Stones, it'd be a much more lively show."
While Honeywell and his associates had to recruit acts to perform at the first Tonic Ball in 2001, since then there's been no shortage of artists wanting to perform.
"We're solicited all year long," he said. "While we've always sat down and thought about who we're going to ask to play, it's gotten significantly easier to get those people. We have seven or eight acts this year who've never played with us before, which is about half the number. I think that's a healthy number. We've always had the early adopters, the people who've played with us every year, but it's nice to get new blood in there."
More than that, the acts who play Tonic Ball not only believe in the charity they're helping, they believe in the spirit of the event itself. Each act gets to play two songs by each year's featured artist, then most of them stick around all night for the camaraderie and fellowship.
"There's just a lot of love in the room every year," Honeywell said. "It gives these acts a chance to hang out. A lot of musicians don't get to hang out with each other at shows, because they're playing, so it's like old home week for those folks. The other thing we always set out to do was to cross-pollinate and allow people who would go out to see Jennie DeVoe, but would never go to see the Zero Boys, a chance to have that experience and get a taste of that as well."
Another important component of the fund-raiser is the Tonic Gallery, which will feature 100 works of art at the Wheeler Arts Community, 1035 Sanders St. One hundred local artists have each donated a piece of art to be sold for exactly $100, which is, in some cases, a fraction of what the work would cost in a gallery.
Now in its third year, the Tonic Gallery has been an "amazing success," Honeywell said. "To have that many artists give us something is significant. People can buy a great piece of art from someone who's a leading artist in the city and only spend a hundred bucks doing it, all the while having a great time."
DeVoe has played all of the Tonic Balls except one, and she said she clears her calendar each year for the event, even though she could probably book a paying gig for that night instead.
"Everybody's playing but nobody looks at it as work," she said. "That's what makes it so fun. Everyone is so relaxed when they're playing. We'll be doing 'Sweet Virginia' and 'Shine a Light' and I'm really excited about it."
While DeVoe does plenty of charity work already, Tonic Ball has a special appeal to her. "I feel like I'm very fortunate that I'm in an area that has allowed me to have success, and I've got a growing fan base here. It's just good karma. Not that making a living of music is selfish, but to have people like Ken call me and think I can help them somehow is a great feeling. I think of it as flattery, but it's just the right thing to do. We don't have to do anything but show up and play. How hard is that to do? Not at all."
Each year's event has grown upon the previous year's and, in 2004, more than $20,000 was raised. Fully aware that the tsunami and the hurricanes have caused "donor fatigue," where potential donors have already given all they can, Honeywell's still confident the event has built enough momentum to sustain it through this year.
"Hurricane Katrina took a lot of the charitable donations that people would have otherwise given to local charities," Honeywell said. "Everybody saw their donations drop critically after 9/11, for example. This is a critical time to be able to help a local charity and not have to spend a lot of money."
About Second Helpings
Kristen Cordoza, Bob Koch and Jean Paison founded Second Helpings Inc. in 1998 and provided food service to a small handful of non-profit organizations. In their first month of operation, 37 volunteers helped to rescue 7,099 pounds of food and prepare 3,074 meals. Second Helpings is serving over 45,000 meals and rescuing more than 100,000 pounds of prepared and perishable food product a month.
They also run a 10-week professional culinary job training program in order to help persons in need acquire job skills. More than 70 percent of its graduates find work in the field.
Lastly, Second Helpings preserves food that would have otherwise been thrown away by grocery stores, restaurants and catering companies despite not being spoiled.
For more information on the show, and on Second Helpings, visit the group's Web site at secondhelpings.org.