Downhome Fest is all about the music
Festival puts the power (and money) in the hands of local musicians
“Our idea was to gather up all these smaller, original bands and give them a chance to get up on the big stages, make some money and get their name out there,” says local musician Josh Catalano, explaining the rationale behind starting the Downhome Music, Beer and Arts Festival, which is happening in downtown Springfield for the fourth year in a row, this Friday and Saturday, Aug. 1 and 2.
“When I first came to Springfield, I noticed that a lot of these festivals around here didn’t pay the bands,” says Downhome cofounder Shane Turnidge, shaking his head disapprovingly. “Bands played for free. It was kind of amazing to me.” Knowing that playing original music independently is always a financial challenge, Catalano and Turnidge envisioned Downhome as a way to empower bands, both financially and in terms of exposure. Utilizing a model that Turnidge had previously employed when running similar events in Carbondale, Downhome artists are provided with tickets weeks in advance of the festival, which they are encouraged to sell to fans and keep the profits. “It allows individual bands to go out there and make money themselves, versus somebody else taking it all and giving them a cut out of it,” says Turnidge. Downhome also gets volunteers to keep track of money collected at the door during the festival, allowing musicians a chance to make even more.
This attitude toward the financial realities of making music sets Downhome apart from other festivals. For instance, SOHO does provide great exposure for local bands, who agree to play for free because that festival’s focus is largely on raising money for various worthy charities. This year Downhome is presenting 31 bands, whittled down from about 125 requests to play. In addition, 36 different breweries will be sending representatives to the festival to present several special-release craft beers. As in previous years, the event is also geared heavily towards families, featuring waterslides and shaved ice treats from Sno Biz. In addition, local sandwich-slinging favorites Head West are not only sponsoring one of the music stages but will also be serving up their wares at a full-service mobile restaurant.
Springfield resident and music scene mainstay Micah Walk has played at Downhome every year so far (in 2013 as a member of the Blue Gs) and will be performing for only the second time ever with his new, eight-piece band on Friday at 7:30. “It wasn’t a dramatic thing but the old band kinda just fell apart,” Walk reports. After being together for five or six years, that band’s guitar player relocated to Nashville while the drummer started playing with another band which eventually claimed the lion’s share of his time. Walk didn’t put together another band for a couple years, instead concentrating on solo, acoustic material. He describes the new band’s sound as “still pretty Americana, based around songs. It sounds like the other band, just more of it.” Walk will be playing songs from his CD, simply titled Micah Walk. “It’s cool that something like Downhome exists,” he says, appreciative of the festival’s showcasing nothing but Springfield talent exclusively. “The beer selection’s awesome,” he adds.
If the Springfield music scene were a sports league, this issue’s cover subject, Damon Soper, would be a definite contender for MVP, currently playing in four bands. On Saturday at Downhome, Soper will be pulling triple-duty, starting off with a 4:30 p.m. set as singer-guitarist for self-described “psychobilly, rockabilly, hard rock trio” Los Injectors and ending with an 11 p.m. set playing lead guitar with first-wave punk stalwarts NIL8. “I didn’t book ’em,” he says of the multiple sets. “I was just told and I was like, ‘What? Wait, hold on.’ I’ll be kinda rushin’ around a little bit. I’ll probably go home at some point and take a nap, that’s what old people do.”
In between the Los Injectors and NIL8 sets, Soper will also be handling drum duties for workingman’s post-punk band The Seething Coast, which singer-songwriter Jason Perry explains is in the process of doing something rather uncharacteristic in the studio. “We’re not one to pander to our audience so we’re recording a cover version of that old country song ‘16th Avenue’ by Lacy J. Dalton,” he says, deadpan, reveling in the implausibility of a punk-bred indie outfit like The Seething Coast coming within a thousand miles of covering an ’80s country hit. Never satisfied with merely doing the minimum, Perry took it upon himself to contact the multi-Grammy-nominated singer’s management, and Dalton has now actually agreed to sing the final verse on the Seething Coast version. “Hey, the last duets she did were with, like, George Jones and Willie Nelson, so I figure The Seething Coast is in good company,” Perry snickers.
Popular blues-rockers Brooke Thomas & The Blue Suns will be doing a set at 6 p.m. Saturday. “We’ll be playing mostly our originals,” explains Thomas. “Usually the beginning of our sets are a little softer, I get to sing in a little more of a jazzy kind of style. Then we kind of progress into our party mode but at Downhome it’ll probably be a little different because we only have about an hour to play.” Some of those originals can be found on the band’s new CD, which will be for sale at the festival. “It’s called Every Little Moment,” says Thomas, “and one of our songs is called ‘Little Moment.’ It’s a great song. I’m really proud of the album. We worked really hard on it and writing songs is a lot of fun.”
Festival cofounder Josh Catalano and his band, The Dirty Thoughts, will be performing at 8 on Saturday. “The band is doing really great. Our last album did really, really well for just a small, little indie band that tours long weekends and stuff like that,” he says. They are getting ready to record another album soon and the crowds at Downhome this weekend can look forward to a first taste of some new tunes. “What we are really trying to do is fine-tune them by playing ’em live before we record them in the studio,” says Catalano. “I know a lot of bands don’t do that, but my mindset is, if Bruce Springsteen used to do it, I can do it too.”
Square of the Roots, which will be playing at 9 on Saturday, is a four-piece band led by Brian Steinhauer and his father, the Rev. Michael E. Steinhauer. “My dad started off teaching me how to play music as a kid,” remembers Brian. “I think I finally got interested in my teenage years, maybe a little sooner.” He was encouraged by his father to attend music school but the advent of file-sharing technology and the resultant near-decimation of the music industry caused a shift in career goals. He now makes his living as a diagnostic cardiovascular sonographer. “I kept playing a lot and it’s always been something that my dad and I have shared and enjoyed dong together.” After Brian finished college, the filial duo played in a number of bluegrass bands with what Brian diplomatically characterizes as “a lot of somewhat flaky musicians that didn’t show up for practice.” According to the Rev. Michael, “Those musical experiences were fine but then he got to where he wanted to start something of his own.” Father and son started writing a lot of music, which has been the modus operandi for Square of the Roots ever since. Even when they do covers, it’s all about expressing a unique vision. “We’re doing an Emerson, Lake and Palmer song, ‘Lucky Man,’ and that’s a real smooth vocal tune as it was originally recorded. But the way that we do it is just a little more rowdy and raucous and I changed some of the words. I feel like I have liberty to change ’60s words and make it a little bit more relevant to today,” says Brian with a smile.
Saturday at 9:30 will witness the return of a hybrid of (count ’em!) two whole 1980s-era Springfield new wave legends, The Strand and Condition 90, both fronted by IT’s own Tom Irwin. The lineup for this show will feature two guitar-playing Toms in addition to the bass-playing Mr. Irwin (namely Tom Kinney and Tom “Dooley” Woolsey, the latter of whom can also be seen at Downhome Friday evening at 8:30 co-leading Owen & Dooley Present:) and drummer extraordinaire Tony Berkman. “Nearly every band I’ve ever played with had three Toms,” says Irwin bemusedly, noting that he only discovered after the death of longtime running partner Raoul Brotherman that his real middle name had been Thomas. Now, a mere 30 years after The Strand became Condition 90, Irwin has been spending time in a Chicago studio with longtime Wilco bass player John Stirrat, recording songs which date all the way back to the mid-’80s. Fans of the original output of these bands have reason to rejoice as well, as archival tracks from both Condition 90 and The Strand are being digitally mastered for upcoming re-release. Watch this space for further details (probably).
Dog of Panic will perform at 10 p.m. on Saturday, fresh off an extended residency at the Tin Can Pub. “Of course we’re progressive rock,” says guitarist and vocalist Dan Rohde. “I like to say it’s like a mix between metal, alternative rock and jam music. We used to call ourselves ‘too metal to be hippie, too hippie to be metal.’” Started by Rohde in 2009, Dog of Panic has seen its share of personnel changes.
“We started in a dorm room in Macomb and we kind of built it into this new sound. This is probably the best lineup we’ve had,” Rohde says. “I think we’re all dedicated and we all listen to what the other person’s doing, we try to complement each other,” says drummer Reggie Miller.
As for the overall festival, “we try to keep the focus as local as we can,” says Shane Turnidge.
“I think the name ‘Downhome’ really says it all for us.”
More artists to look for: Skibbereen (5:30 Friday) promises elements of blues, jazz, reggae, world and a “bombardment of Celtic;” Murder of Crowes (6:30 Friday) touts itself as a combination of blues, old school country, bluegrass, folk and rock; Looming (10:30 Saturday) is a staple of the vibrant Black Sheep scene with music that is youthful, moody, dynamic and charismatic; this writer once described Owen & Dooley Present: (8:30 Friday) as “two generations of masterless rock guitar Rōnin joining forces to slay all comers” and am inclined to stick with that description; NIL8 (11 p.m. Saturday) has a list of influences on its Facebook page name-checking Black Flag, Flipper, Gang of Four, Minor Threat, Bad Brains and something called “Backwards Day” whatever that is; Pimpin’ Henry (elsewhere at 11 p.m. Saturday) bills itself as an “original funk rock blues reggae jam band;” Go! Tsunami (5 p.m. Saturday) is just your average hockey-mask-and-overalls-clad “monster surf rock” band; The Station (10:30 Saturday) describes itself bluntly as “contractually obligated to rock that ass;” in a somewhat contrasting tone, The Good Companions (2 p.m. Saturday) describe themselves as having been “founded out of a mutual love of good songcraft and honest live performance”; Jukebox Casanova (3:30 p.m. Saturday) is an original rockabilly, honky tonk, Americana band; The Mojo Cats synthesize many influences into its signature “soulful blues style” through a process of simultaneously “honoring the masters” while “keeping it all current;” The Sun and the Sea (7:30 Saturday) claim to be a “household name in the St. Louis music scene” and who are we to argue?; Hot Bag of Donuts will bring its “psychedelic home groove” to the Brewhaus stage on Saturday night at 8, at the same time as acoustic troubadour Matt Skinner, whose Facebook page describes him as interested in ”drinking, smoking, general debauchery” hits the singer-songwriter stage; local punk-rocking faves The Timmys (9 p.m. Saturday) will undoubtedly be playing songs from their new full-length album Sangamon County Minefield which is “now available on iTunes, Google+ Store, and more;” finally, entertainment for the Downhome after-party (12 a.m. Saturday/Sunday at Brewhaus) will be provided by honky-tonk heroes the Wolf Crick Boys. Whew!
Scott Faingold is a staff writer for Illinois Times.