For this, the seventh year of Tonic Ball, the annual concert at which local musicians tackle rock and pop legends to benefit food reclamation and education nonprofit Second Helpings, the sacred cow has finally been rolled out on stage: Elvis, a performer difficult for some musicians to cover without resorting to hackneyed mannerisms (pouting lips, trembling legs), whose influence on American popular music in the last half of the 20th century is so great that it’s hard to conceive of a time when Bill Haley was the best thing rock had to offer. And in a pique of symmetry, the Tonic Ball organizers chose to give the King a Queen, or at least a British rock group by that name. If Queen was a little less influential than Elvis — their camp arena rock was an unlikely hybrid fuelled by the charisma and talent of Freddie Mercury — their music can be equally difficult to interpret: Should one try to match the bombastic excesses of the band and Mercury’s voice or go for something a little more tongue-in-cheek à la Wayne’s World? But covering well-known bands is always a challenge, and if past Tonic Balls are any indication, local musicians (both those that work regularly and those that only come out for a yearly gig at Tonic Ball) are up to it, balancing the need to play the familiar — and there’s plenty of hits to draw from — and explore the nooks and crannies of each artist’s catalogue.
The music of Tonic Ball is split between two stages: Elvis reigns at the Fountain Square Theatre in the early evening, and Queen takes over at Radio Radio past the midnight hour. Twenty-seven bands will take the stage for two or three songs (at least one cover, then sometimes an original or more covers), rushing to get on and off stage during five- (FS Theatre) or 10-minute (Radio Radio) intervals between bands. All bands use the same backline and the only soundcheck is at the beginning of the night, making it feasible for such short scene changes.
“It’s humbling that bands actually campaign to play, to give up a Friday night for Second Helpings,” Nora Spitznogle, Second Helpings director of operations (and contributor to several local publications, including NUVO), says. “I think it is also cool for the bands to see that many other musicians in one night. The room always has a reunion vibe.”
Guitarist and singer Mandy Marie (who will perform on the Elvis stage with her Cool Hand Lukes) echoes Spitznogle’s sentiments: “I look forward to this show like it’s Christmas because it’s a great time with great friends for a great cause. Not coming from Indiana, Tonic Ball is one of the things that makes me proud to live in Indianapolis.”
While the majority of bands slide Tonic Ball into a busy schedule, some groups reunite once a year for the event. Tonic Ball founder Ken Honeywell’s band Yoko Moment — performing “Killer Queen” and a Queen medley at Radio Radio — has played every Ball since the beginning, and is, according to Spitznogle, “easily the most popular act” of the night. We’re Not Squibnocket, a band formerly known as Squibnocket that features former Peterson Deputy Mayor Steve Campbell, revives their old band once a year, and is also the only group to play both the Elvis and Queen stages this year (though not at the same time). And the defunct band Everest (formerly John Byrne, Stasia Demos, Mark Kocher and Todd Fisher) reunites for one night only on the Queen stage.
Several Elvis classics turn up on the setlist — “Suspicious Minds,” “Return to Sender,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel” — but bands are also digging a little deeper into Elvis’ catalogue. Susan and The Desperate Seekers — which has become a genuine band since being created as a one-off project by bandleader Cara Jean Wahlers for last year’s Tonic Ball — will draw on Elvis’ Sun Studios work, playing the hauntingly minimalist ballad “Mystery Train.” And Mandy Marie looked towards an Elvis band member when she picked her band’s setlist: “chicken pickin’” guitarist James Burton, who joined Presley’s band just after his post-TV special creative rebirth in 1969 and stuck around until the King’s death in 1977.
“This show is a dream come true for me, I get to stand up there and pretend to be James Burton,” Marie explains. “I’ll probably be much more like James Burton’s not-quite-so-talented-third-cousin-by-marriage, but still! Plus we thought it might be fun to do the complete opposite of what people would expect us to do — you see an upright bass and you’re automatically going to think ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ so it’s going to be fun to cruise on into ‘Polk Salad Annie’ instead.”
For better or worse, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is dispatched with early in the night at Radio Radio, performed by the first group hitting the stage at 8 p.m., The Misprintz, an acoustic rock/bluegrass group playing their second gig ever. (Spitznogle emphasizes that the Tonic Ball selection committee likes to “have a balance of new and recurring acts,” with one-fourth of bands new to the event this year.) But there’s a few album tracks (or at least, songs that aren’t hit singles) in the mix as well. The Odyssey Favor pick up Cold War-era, nuke-conscious ballad “Hammer Will Fall,” Bigger than Elvis will try out the delicious hooks of “Tie Your Mother Down” and Vess Ruhtenberg digs deep for the synth-friendly “Play the Game” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” prelude “In the Lap of Gods.”
WHAT: Tonic Ball VII
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 21, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Fountain Square Theatre, 1105 Prospect St., Radio Radio, 1119 E. Prospect St.
INFO: Tickets: $20 at Luna, Future Shock, Second Helpings (online and at headquarters) and at the door
Elvis Stage: Fountain Square Theatre
7 p.m., The Turnipseeds — “Little Sister”
7:15, Luke Austin Daugherty — “Don’t”
7:30, Fair and Square — “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Promised Land”
7:45, Susan and The Desperate Seekers — “Mystery Train,” “Blue Suede Shoes”
8, We’re Not Squibnocket — “In the Ghetto”
8:15, The Innate — “Poor Boy, Blue Moon”
8:30, CW and The Working Class Trio — “Suspicious Minds”
8:45, Brian Deer — “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”
9, Creepin’ Charley and the Boneyard Orchestra — “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” “Burning Love”
9:15, Bars and Tone — “Jailhouse Rock”
9:30, Sanuk — “Return to Sender”
9:45, Jennie De Voe — “Love Me,” “One Night”
10, Frankie Camaro’s Atomic Bombay — “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Viva Las Vegas”
10:15 Mandy Marie and The Cool Hand Lukes — “C.C. Rider,” “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” “Polk Salad Annie”
Queen Stage: Radio Radio
8 p.m., The Misprintz — “Bohemian Rhapsody”
8:20, Mars or the Moon — “You’re My Best Friend”
8:40, The Odyssey Favor — “Hammer To Fall”
9, Everest — “I Want To Break Free,” “Bicycle Race”
9:20, Jeff Byrd and The Wingmen — “Somebody To Love,” “Radio Ga-Ga”
9:40, Bigger Than Elvis — “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Need Your Loving Tonight”
10, We’re Not Squibnocket — “Under Pressure”
10:20, The Common — “Another One Bites the Dust,” “One Vision”
10:40, Retromeo — “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
11, Yoko Moment — “Killer Queen,” A Freddie Medley
12:20, Dale Lawrence — TBD
11:40, Vess Ruhtenberg — “Play The Game,” “In the Laps of Gods”
12 a.m., Everything Now! — “Fat Bottomed Girls”
12:20, Red Light Driver — TBD