Friday, August 12, 2016

Originality Plays a Big Role in Southern Illinois Music Scene

The Ivas John Band performs at John Brown's on the Square on Tuesday evening in Marion
Originality, and a love for live music, is what you will find in Southern Illinois.
Those looking for a live show in Southern Illinois don’t have to look very long or hard to a find young, local band paying its dues to play for a crowd. Most of the shows take place in Carbondale, but venues are available in Marion, Murphysboro, and several of the smaller towns that make up this region.

Southern Illinois is full of artists who are looking to play for somebody, or jump in with a band that has a vacancy, and the ones who reap the benefits of a vibrant, energetic region are the music lovers filling up the venues.

In Carbondale, the city has recently started hosting the Live on Main shows, which have been a success since the Jason Isbell concert in August 2015. The Carbondale Music Coalition also takes over The Strip once a year with the Carbondale Rocks Revival. The festival takes over several bars and music venues with several bands and artists playing live music for three nights.

Coalition President Curtis Conley said this year's Revival on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 will feature two large stages in front of the Newell House in an effort to draw more attention to music downtown.
Several of the professionals in the industry point to a mix of personalities moving to the transient communities — like Carbondale — that has resulted in the original sound being played.

“It is a different animal in Carbondale than the rest of Southern Illinois,” Conley said. “What plays well here (Carbondale) isn’t necessarily what gives in other parts of the community.”

John Brown, owner of John Brown’s on the Square in Marion, said the population influx from other areas of the country has resulted in a more demanding audience.

“That is what is helping to fuel the music scene in Southern Illinois,” he said. “There are people wanting to see what they were used to seeing in their former location.”

That results in different venues attempting to appeal to different music lovers, which is a win for the music scene in Southern Illinois, Brown said.

Those who play

Ivas John made the drive up Interstate 57 Tuesday from southeast Missouri — eating his traditional apple before each show — making his way to the newly renovated John Brown’s on the Square.
The venue has live music on the first Tuesday of each month as a special promotion. This one is particularly special because it is the first, first Tuesday since the bar caught fire in January.

Ivas John, lead singer of the Ivas John Band, says John Brown’s is his favorite venue in Southern Illinois, saying the owner — John Brown — knows what is needed to make sure musicians have a successful gig.

“He was a former musician. He runs the sound board,” Ivas John said. “He has done a lot to bring outside music to the area. He gives local musicians plenty of opportunities to play.”

John has been playing music as a career for more than 10 years. He has a similar story of how he made it to Southern Illinois as many of those in the community — he came to Southern Illinois University from the Chicago area — then after school, he never went back.

He graduated from SIU in 2005 and played several shows with various bands throughout the region — only playing guitar, not singing, he said. After building up some equity in the Southern Illinois music scene, he progressed into wanting to do his own thing, he said.

“I knew what venues I liked, and was able to get my foot in the door with my own band, and it has been forward momentum since then,” Ivas John said.

Since then, he has played about 200-250 gigs a year for more than 10 years, he said.
“I feel like it is a big privilege to have music be the centerpiece of my life, and make a decent living doing what I love to do,” he said. “I really feel like we have gotten a lot of support from both venue owners and fans in Southern Illinois.”

Ivas John warms up during a sound check for his band's performance at John Brown's on the Square on Tuesday evening in Marion.

John said the Carbondale music scene seems to be particular about what it likes to see. The crowds will support bands, but it has to be an original sound, he said.

“I have played in a lot of different places and been in plenty of college towns,” he said. “The thing that really stands out about the Carbondale music scene is that I feel there is an emphasis on original music.”

Also, he commented on the sense of community between the music lovers in the region.
“I know that if I play in Carbondale or at a winery, I am going to see 30-40 people that I know and they all know each other. It becomes a social outlet for people and they enjoy the music,” Ivas John said. “I think that is something that is kind of unique to Carbondale.”

Those who host

John Brown said having live music “is a defining factor in the image of the bar.”

“It was the first thing that we tried to do to set up apart from other places,” he said. “We wanted original live music of high caliber that you weren’t going to see other places.”

Those artists who play at John Brown's get more than just a venue to play — sometimes those bands get a bed and breakfast added into the occasion. Brown said several of the bands that he has worked with know him and his wife. They even stay at his home instead of a hotel, and enjoy breakfast the next morning.

“It then becomes a very personal thing, and then it kind of spills over to the stage,” Brown said. “We have bands that look forward to coming back and playing for us, we become like family to them.”
First-time bands at John Brown's are booked typically through a booking agency, but afterward, Brown said many of them call him directly.

Close relationships at Brown’s bar aren't new to bands that have played there before — the stage is inches away from the crowd. The intimate feel is something that adds to the ambiance of the venue, Brown said.

“It adds to it a lot,” he said. “You are able to be in a very intimate setting with a band, and you feel much more a part of the show that way.”

Conley, who also serves as the booking manager for PK’s in Carbondale, said PK’s is the type of bar where bands have been getting their first start.

“That band may not become a huge band, but some musicians within the band may catch on with another band and then who knows what may happen for that person,” he said.

At PK’s, 80-90 percent of the bands playing are local, and Conley says sometimes the bands call him to check if there is an opening, and it works the other way around. He called booking the bar more like a machine.

However, while booking shows for the coalition or revival, he typically is going through the booking agencies. Also, he pays close attention to when the band is coming through the area.

“We are not going to compete with the Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, and Memphis,” he said. “They have bigger venues and more can happen, but a lot of times those traveling come through Carbondale so we catch those bands when they have an open date.”

Conley explained that the coalition has developed relationships with agents and bands over the years and has been able to secure more money, but he said the timing of the show determines the price to bring in a band.

He said Sunday shows can be 20-30 percent cheaper than Friday and Saturday, and if that band is coming through the area anyway, it could be easier to catch them at the right time.

Those who promote

Jim Smith IV, owner of Wordsmith Records in Marion, called the music scene in the region “always evolving.”

Wordsmith is a record label, and can be a promoter for a band. Those bands with a label have a leg up on getting booked, because it has an entire company at its backing, and something that will stand by their name, Smith said.

He said venues also know that booking a band with a label will most likely result in promotion for that show.

“Whenever we get a show, the bar doesn’t just hire a band to entertain the normal crowd, they want a band that will bring in extra bodies,” Smith said. “That is what we do.”

For the younger artists, or a newer band looking to break into the scene, Smith says to contact an established band and attempt to open for them. If that happens, they have a chance to be noticed by the bar owner and book their own gig.

Also, getting something professionally recorded will be a plus, he said.
“Having the venue listen to something before you even play is a definite plus,” he said.

Those who teach

The music scene wouldn’t have too much importance if there wasn’t a younger generation to carry on the tradition. At The Practice Pad in Carbondale, co-owners Chad and Jamie Shaffer are shaping the next generation of musicians.

Chad Shaffer, who is also the percussionist for The Swamp Tigers band, said that the younger — middle school to high school — generation doesn’t listen to music as much as previous generations.

“They don’t listen to music. If they are in a band they only play what is given to them,” he said. “I talk to them a lot about listening to music. If you can’t practice turn on the radio. That is what will help create your own voice as a musician.”

Jamie Shaffer said there are five instructors that cover a wide range of instruments — percussion, guitar, bass, woodwinds, piano, vocal and possibly violin and cello soon.

The Practice Pad in Carbondale offers music lessons, new and used instruments, and instrument repair
 Chad Shaffer said the younger generation wants to learn how to play, but are easily discouraged when they find out how hard it can be.

“A lot of times, if it is hard, they aren’t pushed to better,” he said. “I tell them that if music was easy, everybody would do it. It takes work.”

Over at the Axe Monkey in Carbondale, Instructor Dakota Holden says he has more students who are older in life and looking to cross off “learn to play guitar” off their bucket list.
“I want to be able to help them fulfill that hole in their life with music,” he said. “I am always learning and I am trying to expand my knowledge of the instrument. I just want them to be able to do the same.”

He gives guitar, banjo and bass lessons, mostly.

“It is one thing to play a guitar to where I can play a couple chords and songs, but to be a guitar player in another thing,” Holden said. “To be able to create your own tone, rather than recreating someone else’s.”

Chad Shaffer says he is excited to see his students get out into the music industry in the region. He is preparing many of his students for a student recital. He said he is constantly encouraging them to get out and play.

“Music is not meant to be played in a bedroom for yourself,” he said. “It is meant to be played for people.”

He said the future is still bright, but the next generation has to want it.

“I look forward to seeing where they go. We are always positive. But it is getting them to want it as much as we want it for them,” he said. “I want all my students to love music as much as I do.”

The Practice Pad in Carbondale, IL

Duncan, Dustin. "Originality Plays a Big Role in Southern Illinois Music Scene." The Southern. Accessed August 08, 2016.