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Some bands are born from a group of friends who are looking to play together in some configuration. Others are formed when someone has an idea, a concept, so compelling that they can’t wait to take it to a stage. The latter is decidedly how Gypsy Bandit came to be just about a year ago. Kirk Johnson, a longtime music veteran, started putting together his idea for a new band last April, a fairly ambitious approach he felt he could put into action. “I put a concept together in April, and it was the original concept for the band,” says Johnson. “I grew up going to concerts at the Coliseum, bands like Mötley Crüe, Kiss, Rush. It was a show, it was a performance. I wanted to see if I could take the concert concept of those bands and move it to a smaller venue here in town. Something that would feature great music, great vocals, and a real show. Performance art.”
Johnson is now joined by Rob Thunder on bass and vocals, Rich Davis and Steve Kerns on lead and rhythm guitars and Trent Bowers on drums and vocals. It has taken him some time to come to that lineup, but it seems to be a good fit all around.
“I had two original partners when this began, and they aren’t there anymore. I was the sole operator when they left, so the lineup has changed, but we’ve kept that same theme.”
The other band members, like Johnson, have a wealth of experience from various places in northern Indiana, primarily the Fort Wayne and South Bend areas. While they juggle commitments with Gypsy Bandit and other bands, there was precious little time to get their feet wet before the first time they played live.
“Our first gig was also our third practice, but we started playing a lot right away. Sometimes it can take years to get to the point that we did last year. Between April and December, we played 36 shows, and we have more than 40 already scheduled for this year. And we’ll keep adding to that number. In some ways we’re the best kept secret in Fort Wayne, but we’re also the hardest working band in local show business.”
Johnson says that Gypsy Bandit define themselves as a “rock band. Period.” They focus on audience-pleasing music performed in an energetic style that exceeds the sometimes tight quarters in which they play. They’re serious musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously.
“We like to take some songs and personalize them, make them our own,” says Johnson. “If we’re not enjoying what we’re doing, then what’s the point of doing it? We’re not making a ton of money so we better be having fun.”
The band is quickly establishing itself in a fairly crowded field of local music performers, one which is packed with veteran favorites and new bands which join the fray every day. Johnson thinks it’s more important all the time to find a unique way to bring people into the fold.
“I think the local music scene is going through a transitional time, and not just here but all over – and rightly so. The competition for live music is overwhelming because great music is just a click away on your phone or hand-held devices. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have upped the ante too.”
Standing out in the crowd is the best way to compete in that environment, and that’s where Johnson’s original concept for the band comes into play.
“When I pay money to see a band at the Memorial Coliseum, I want to see some action. I want a performance that’s a little dangerous. If I go to a local club, I want to see more than four people cemented in place while the front guy is glued to the microphone stand. I want to see a real performance. I want some physicality. You can turn on a radio if you just want to hear a song. If I’m paying a cover charge to see a band, I want to see something inspiring.”
In putting together the lineup for Gypsy Bandit, Johnson wanted to see that same energy and enthusiasm from everyone, not just from his performance on lead vocals. He also wanted to put together a setlist that reflected that same energy.
“What we play on any given night is 100 percent audience-driven,” says Johnson. “We have about 150 songs that we play right now, and we can do anything from classic rock to country, but if someone says ‘I’d really like to hear some blues,’ most of us have been playing for 20 or 30 years at this point and can give the audience what they want to hear.”
With options from 80s rock to funk, Johnson says Gypsy Bandit can play Guns N Roses one minute and Tom Jones the next. He expects they’ll be adding more songs by Aerosmith, Queen and Sammy Hagar in the months to come as well. But while pleasing their audience is a top priority, Johnson says giving back to the community is also important to the band. In June they’ll participate in the Ride for Robbie benefit event at Fort Wayne Harley-Davidson, and Johnson says they’ve already been involved in other charity endeavors in their short history together. Still shy of their first anniversary, Gypsy Bandit are ready to take on the music scene in northern Indiana and beyond.
“Since we formed in April, we’ve played every weekend, and many weekends we’re double booked. If you want to know where to catch us, just check out our website. We’ll have plenty of shows coming up this year.”