On Saturday night, my band is going to perform the music of Bruce Springsteen on stage at the historic Embassy Theatre, as part of an event called Down the Line.
This event marks Down the Line’s tenth anniversary, and that downright blows my mind. This band I’m so lucky to be in—The Legendary Trainhoppers—played the last show of our first run in February 2007, at the inaugural DtL. That night, we played the songs of Bob Dylan. (70+ bands in, we’re still the only one to play Bob’s music at a Down the Line, oddly enough, and will be the first to take on Mr. Springsteen. Bands sure love The Beatles for some reason, though.)
Down the Line came out of a thing we used to do with Columbia Street West, called the RRevolutions Concert Series. I did that series with my old buddy, Richard Reprogle.
The deal was, Tom Borne was on The Embassy’s board, and called us up looking for ideas for a show that could be part of a yearlong anniversary celebration for the theatre. He said they had the high-dollar box checked, with an $85/hr Martin Short gig, but needed an event that could get a youthful, non-traditional audience into the theatre. Tom, a good guy who owns Asher Agency, felt they could get that black-tie crowd, but didn’t know how to reach the low-dough folks. He asked if we had ideas about how to do so.
The idea with Down the Line was to take the hard-working and excellent bands who were breathing life into our community’s underground music scene, put them on one of the Midwest’s finest stages, and challenge them to perform the music that inspired them to be a musician in the first place.
The event was an unlikely and overwhelming success.
OLG produced the first four Down the Lines, then handed the keys to The Embassy. (In the 2,400-capacity Embassy, we filled 1,800 seats the first year, 2,100 the second, and sold out the third and fourth.)
Ten years on, with yearly DtLs and extra hard rock and country versions of the event, the thing has raised what accountants call a “shit-ton” of money to help keep the theatre thriving—more than $300K.
That’s pretty great, but also, and more importantly, Down the Line has created some of the most memorable live performances in Fort Wayne over the last decade, and maybe ever.
It’s a unique community that creates and supports an event like this, and one that we should all be proud to call home. (This isn’t happening in Des Moines IA, much less Portland OR, and I’ll take Down the Line over Whole Foods any day. (I can get hummus at Target.))
Photos by the great Joel Faurote:
Thinking back on that first year, for late-February, we were blessed with the most beautiful day. Midway through the concert, though, an ice storm hit. I still remember us packing up and loading out at the end of that night, slipping and sliding and so, so badly wanting to go for a beer, but watching slack-jawed as cars skidded through stoplights on black ice. It was a weather emergency!
As we loaded our cars, still in disbelief over the show we’d just played, we did so under the lights and shadow of Bill’s Palace restaurant and a liquor store. That dive restaurant and bottle shop are now a Courtyard hotel and a baseball stadium.
Down the Line 10? It can take your breath away how fast time moves.
As for Bruce Springsteen…
I’m not sure how tired this story is at this point, but the fact—and I mean fact—is that my entire life changed on the evening of December 5, 1992, when I got to see Bruce Springsteen in concert at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, IN.
One Lucky Guitar would not exist if it were not for that concert.
Before that night, I was a math major at IU, on track to become an actuary who puts in 39 hours and 59 minutes a week at the office and then races home to work on his landscaping. Bigger house, nicer car. Instead, my life blew up, particularly in the penultimate moments of the song “Light of Day,” which I had never heard before that night. I returned to McNutt-Bordner late-late-late that night and in the wee wee hours proclaimed to everyone within earshot that I was changing my major the very next morning—to art, or English lit, or anything that would allow me to have a sliver of the passion and belief and message of Bruce Springsteen—and that I would never look back.
That concert delivered the magic, the majesty, the ministry of rock & roll, and it felt I’d been waiting my entire life to hear it. Born again? I don’t know, but to this day, I still make a bigger deal out of December 5th than I do February 23rd, my birth-birthday.
After that night, I became obsessed with Bruce’s music. First I bought all of the albums. Lucky Town was the new one (along with Human Touch), and I loved it, and still do. (I wish yearly that Bruce would just make another four-piece, recorded-in-a-week rock album.)
I’d walk all over Bloomington with Lucky Town in my earphones, poring over every word, daydreaming that maybe someday I could be in a rock band.
20 years to the day after that concert, December 5, 2012, my son and I went back to where Market Square Arena was—it had since been razed and turned into a parking lot—and recorded this little video for a Springsteen documentary some fans were working on. Here it is:
Lucky Town has this one song on it, “Local Hero,” where Bruce muses on his own career. Bear in mind LT came out in 1992, seven years after the Born in the USA hysteria, five years after Bruce’s last record, and accordingly a fair bit of the Lucky Town album wrestles with what happens when you reach where you never dreamt you’d be, and how you go about living your life after that happens. (Our band has got this song “Flow River Flow” that’s about the same thing, more or less, though not nearly as good, and even then it’s pretty great.)
Anyway, there’s this bit in “Local Hero” where Bruce sings:
I was driving through my hometown,
I was just kinda killin’ time,
When I saw a face starin’ out from a black velvet painting
in the window of a five & dime.
I couldn’t quite recall his name,
but the pose looked familiar to me,
So I asked the salesgirl who was that man
‘tween the doberman and Bruce Lee?
She said, “Just a local hero.”
“A local hero,” she said with a smile.
“He’s a local hero, he used to live here for awhile…”
In concert, Bruce confessed that was a true story.
A few months later I’m home for Spring Break, probably listening to that very song, or “Better Days,” which I hadn’t lived long enough to understand, but had certainly lived long enough to love. Driving down Coliseum Boulevard on an early Friday evening, I glanced to my right. The broken concrete parking lot corner near the closed-down Grease Monkey had been taken over by a guy with a box truck and a hundred or so black velvet paintings on display and for sale.
Bruce was a little out of style at this point, but I thought I’d give it a shot and careened into the lot.
Sure enough, between an Indian sunset, a lion and a Harley-Davidson, there he was. The Boss. It’s not a great portrait; not accurate, not flattering, and it plays to the stereotype—clearly a Born in the USA caricature.
Nonetheless, I had to have it.
Guy running the operation wanted $75. You gotta be kidding me! I was working as a cart attendant at Target, making $5.40 an hour.
(Yeah, I went home and worked on Spring Break; and also, kids, this was before we had any motorized device to help you push the carts, too.)
$75? I passed, said No way, man. Take care.
All that night, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about that painting, and that song “Local Hero.”
The next day, Saturday, I go back, and I say, “C’mon man. Nobody’s gonna buy this Bruce painting, it’s the 90s!” Guy won’t move on the price. And he says he’s leaving town in the morning, fast, so this is my last chance.
No way. Pissed off, I roll away.
After my Sunday shift, I take a chance.
It’s out of my way, but as I drive up on that Grease Monkey, sure enough, there’s my guy. I get out of the car. We both laugh. I say “I thought you were leaving? Not so fast, huh? Fifty bucks.” He says “Seventy-five.”
I pay $75 for the painting.
We almost embrace.
That was 1993.
Since then, I’ve had that painting in every apartment or house I ever lived in, in Bloomington and then Fort Wayne, and it’s been hanging up at One Lucky Guitar for about a decade now, the last few years in The B-Side. I wink at it every day, sometimes I talk to it, and always I marvel at everything its seen.
Sometimes someone will see it and say something like “Is that a chipmunk?” Or once, “Man, I love Jimi Hendrix.”
If they ask who it is, I usually reply, “Oh, it’s just some local hero.”
When I got back down to Bloomington, I had all of Bruce’s records, and started trying to chase down the live stuff. I needed to hear and experience those sounds that had so captured me, again. Well, you start getting into live Springsteen recordings and man, you just don’t ever turn back.
As a kid, I would skip lunch or just drink one of those little boxes of milk, and use my lunch money to buy football cards at Hook’s drugstore after school.
Ten years later, I’m in Bloomington, and doing the same thing. I’d buy a loaf of bread and dress it with Taco Bell hot sauce for a week’s worth of dinners, just to save my money for rare Springsteen bootlegs.
In these pre-Napster days, you had to actually buy bootleg CDs on the underground market. In Bloomington, that meant Roscoe’s Records, above The Discount Den.
Bootleg CDs were about $25-30 a disc. And from the very beginning, Bruce played long shows—enough music for two and even three CDs—so you were looking at $50 or $80 per show, cash on the barrelhead.
I did it, again and again and again.
My favorite of all was a Great Dane Records 2CD set called The Saint, The Incident & The Main Point Shuffle, which was a play on the second Springsteen record’s title. This show, from February 5th, 1975, was performed after The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, yet before the recording of Born to Run.
The show was broadcast live on local Philly radio, WMMR, with host Ed Sciaky. The sound of this band in The Main Point, a small club in Bryn Mawr, PA is just spellbinding. It’s probably my favorite collection of music ever recorded, even if it never intended for release. (Don’t worry what the tattoos tell you.)
This band sounded desperate and dangerous, full of street poets and joke tellers, hanging on threadbare but powerfully and courageously full of passion and belief.
From the nascent “Born to Run” to songs like “Wings for Wheels” — later rewritten as “Thunder Road,” probably the best song ever — to a nearly 20-minute version of “New York City Serenade,” to a solo piano reading of “Incident on 57th Street,” to a cover song for an artist I’d never heard before at that point in my life (“I Want You,” written by some cat named Bob Dylan)—THESE are the sounds a young man breaks his heart to, and never, ever forgets.
I’d lie awake with the lights off and the windows open on the third floor of the dorm and listen to this show, over and over. I’d smile, I’d cry, I’d dream. One time, I kissed a girl while it played. For a boy with no idea where the world would take me or what I’d have to do with it, my earliest ideas of having some control over that very thing were born in this music.
Those words, and that sound, it changed everything for me.
I could see in color. Cinematic color.
I’d soon run out into the night, eyes burning, and Bruce Springsteen’s music in my head.
On my best days, I’m still running.
The Legendary Trainhoppers at Down the Line.
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Just Like a Woman
Tangled up in Blue
Like a Rolling Stone
I Shall Be Released (w/ all bands)
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (w/ all bands)
Yeah, we opened with “John Brown.” Bring it.
Ummmmm…tell ya Sunday.
Like Dylan, Bruce is a great American songwriter, and he’s got songs on the Mount Rushmore of American music; his songs will live on like those of Woody Guthrie and Hoagy Carmichael. Which is to say, you can bend ‘em and you can beat ‘em and you can fight ‘em, but you can never break ‘em.
We’re looking forward to trying.
Oh, by the way—we’re the first band up, at 7PM sharp. Here’s hoping it’s not a rainy night, because we wouldn’t want the audience to get wet when the other bands are playing.
I mean, with the damn roof blown off and all.
Sometimes I wonder if we were a little smug when we included “Legendary” in our band’s name. (We were, and that’s alright.)
Reality is, we’d probably settle for being local heroes.
– Matt Kelley