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Wednesday, June 4, 2014 09:34 am

SOHO turns 10

Eric Welch’s passion project celebrates music and charity

“SOHO is a vehicle to expose Springfield to its own unique talent”


Twenty years ago, Eric Welch had a vision.

“I was 21 years old,” he recalls, “and I’d started going out to the bars and seeing local bands that I was thrilled by. Then I would go downtown to all these music festivals – most of them don’t even exist anymore – and they would just have a lot of cover bands and bands from out of state.

“And I thought, ‘Why don’t they at least have a stage with the local guys on it?’”

Now the executive director of the recently incorporated nonprofit Springfield SOHO (Service Organization for Humanitarian Opportunity), Welch has seen his initial vision come to fruition and then some. Its 10th year finds the SOHO festival having grown from humble beginnings into a two-day, three-stage, 40-band extravaganza with its own separate golf tournament, 10K race and Guinness Book of World Records ambitions. The music festival is this Friday and Saturday, June 6-7, with the 10K set for Saturday and the SOHO Open happening Saturday and Sunday.  

The idea of a downtown festival with a focus on local music stuck. Welch, who plays in “outlaw country” band Locked & Loaded and works for the state as a revenue tax specialist, spent much of the next 10 years nursing his dream. “From age 21 until age 31, I just kept talking about it and talking about it, to anyone who would listen. They would think it was a cool idea if we were out drinking in a bar, but nobody actually wanted to get involved.”

Welch decided to make his dream a reality in the summer of 2004 but also came to the conclusion that just having a large-scale, outdoor showcase for local talent was not going to be enough. “I thought, if I was gonna actually make it happen I wanted to do something more for the community. Which was when I decided to bring in the charity idea.”

Smiling on the radio: SOHO’s Eric Welch, left, and DJ Johnny Molson of Alice 97.7.

At the time, Welch was minoring in Women’s Studies at UIS, where one of his classmates was involved with the Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault. Welch’s mother, an attorney, happened to be on the board of the Sojourn Women’s Center, providing the fledgling festival with two of its first charities. In addition, Welch had done his thesis on Sojourner Truth, who he venerates as an iconic women’s rights figure, having been involved with both the suffrage and abolitionist movements. In fact, the festival’s original name, for its first two years, was Sojo Fest, named for both the human rights legend and the women’s shelter.

A conversation with then-mayor Tim Davlin, which Welch struck up while bartending at an event at the Hilton, helped move things along. “I explained what I really wanted to do: put up big stages, bring in some beer trucks. So he sent me over to talk to the people at Downtown Springfield, Inc., where they gave me a bunch of great information about who to contact with the city. So I just started pulling it together.”

In order to get the festival rolling, Welch took out a $5,000 personal loan. That first year, 1,000 people attended. “That was really good, I think, for a first-year thing,” he says. “Of course, I lost so much money.” He repeats the phrase like a mantra. “So much money. So much money. Along with the $5,000 loan, add probably another four or five thousand on top of that. It was rough. I really wasn’t gonna do it again.”

As spring 2005 approached, Welch was surprised when he began receiving numerous phone calls from volunteers, musicians and attendees from the ’04 festival inquiring about the upcoming summer. “They were like, ‘You gotta do it!’ So I started looking into it and found ways to really cut costs.” That year, attendance went up to 1,200 and the festival only went a mere $400 in the red. “I saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

After The Sojourn Center parted ways with the festival after two successive years of minimal donations, all of which came straight from Welch’s pocket (“We weren’t making money but I’d still scrape together a hundred bucks,” he says), the SOHO Festival name was born. In 2006, the sole charity was the Mini O’Beirne Crisis Nursery and instead of showing a loss, the festival turned a profit of $1,500, with an increase in attendance to around 1,700 people. SOHO’s success and ambition have been growing ever since.

At its root, Welch says, he regards SOHO as “a vehicle to expose Springfield to its own unique talent that otherwise doesn’t get a lot of support, and at the same time utilize it towards positive community development through the charities.” It has also been the basis for numerous personal connections, none stronger than the one that has grown between Welch and volunteers Dave and Barb Peterson. Their son John, a member of the band Gypsy Collabo, had been a performer at the festival before his untimely death from a heart condition. The following year’s festival was dedicated to John, and since then his parents have been faithful volunteers. “They come every year, both days, show up early in the morning on Friday and don’t leave until it’s absolutely over Saturday night. Every year I get up and thank them on the microphone. Their presence evokes how important [John] thought it was that he played at SOHO,” says Welch emotionally.

From left: Springfield SOHO Development Director Jolene Aldus, Welch, Pam Williams and Terri LeVeque LeMasters at last year’s festival.

Joe and Shayne Clennan are another pair of longtime volunteers. “Eric’s one of the nicest guys I know,” beams Joe, who became president of SOHO’s board of directors. “He’s very dedicated to SOHO and very determined about it. He puts in just a tremendous amount of hours and it is a whole lot of work. Compared to what I do, he’s working 24/7 on this stuff.” Indeed, Welch estimates that between February and July he has logged 60 hours per week working on SOHO, in addition to a 40-hour workweek at the Willard Ice Building.

“Another thing is, I have never been turned down by Eric,” Clennan continues. “I’ve volunteered a lot for Habitat for Humanity, for instance, and some days I’ve shown up where the help is very thin and I’ve called Eric because I got cement coming in and I need somebody who can at least push the wheelbarrow around for me. And he’s always come over.”

You won’t hear Welch complain about overwork, though, even as he hits the pavement on weekends leading up to the festival with a street team to distribute flyers. “I think it’s worth it and I’m excited about all these developments we have going on. It’s come a long way and I think that making this step will make our impact on the community bigger.”

After 10 years, and aside from a few setbacks like the city’s threatened early curfew last year, many of the nuts and bolts of putting SOHO together have settled into a comfortable routine. Never one to rest on his laurels, Welch has pushed things to a new level for the anniversary. Along with taking on an unprecedented 10 charities, the addition of a third stage in the Alamo’s beer garden has swollen the number of performing bands to 40, compared to last year’s 26 (“There are still so many more bands, though,” he says ruefully). And as if all this weren’t enough, SOHO has also added to this year’s slate of events a 10K run, the SOHO Open golf tournament, and an attempt at inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The SOHO Open, largely handled by Welch’s associate Miles Parkhill, is actually a tiered PGA event leading to larger tournaments. “Professionals are coming from all over,” explains Welch, “and if they qualify here, then they qualify for the next tier and then it goes on to Nashville so that’s kind of a big thing.” Welch says he is a fan and likes to play golf as much as he can, but not competitively. “I played one tournament and I lost horribly.”

A minimum of 600 musicians are required in order for SOHO to qualify for the Guinness Record of “World’s Largest Rock Band” (Saturday at 2 p.m.) but only 150 have signed up. “I hope to have it build, just like the festival, over the next few years,” Welch says. The still insanely big band will perform “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett, “What I Got” by Sublime, and “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. “Easy, two- or three-chord songs,” says Welch. “We even made tutorials for the players and stuff. I’m kind of relieved a little bit that we didn’t get 600 people,” he admits with a chuckle.

Eric Welch and friend presenting a great big check to Mini O’Beirne Crisis Nursery in 2012.

“One recurring question is, did I ever think it would get to 10 years?” muses Welch. “I don’t know how to answer that. I just do it, I don’t know. I don’t think about how long it’s gonna last, as long as SOHO can happen, it will happen. I’ve got even bigger ideas that I’d like to do. The question becomes what can I do, realistically? Now it’s actually turned into a vehicle where some of the ambition that was always there can be realized.

“And if it rains both days I could still owe people thousands of dollars.”

For further details about this weekend’s various SOHO events, visit http://www.springfieldsoho.org  

Welch chatting with long time SOHO supporter Dr. Gary Swee of Lincoln Land Community College at SOHO’s booth at PrideFest, May 2014.

Illinois Times staff writer Scott Faingold’s “acid reflux rock” band Epsom is playing at SOHO at 1 p.m. Saturday.

List of 2014 SOHO Charities:Share the Spirit Foundation

  1. The Matthew Project
  2. Mini O’Beirne Crisis Nursery
  3. The Phoenix Center
  4. Downtown Springfield, Inc.
  5. St. Patrick Catholic School
  6. Kumler United Methodist Church Outreach Ministries
  7. Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois
  8. genHkids
  9. Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation

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