It is often interesting to learn the history of local bands, particularly those that feature veteran performers who have worked on the stages of Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana for many years. Typically, the members have each worked individually and together for a long time, sometimes tracing their history back to high school where they first found happiness in playing music in front of an audience. While one member of Joe Five, singer Heather Davis, is relatively new to the group, three of its members – guitarist Patrick Madrid, drummer Brian Digman and keyboardist, singer and bassist Rich Gardner – have been playing together since 2001. At that time, the band was not Joe Five, but it is that core of three players that eventually became Joe Five. Since that time, three other female singers have shared vocal duties, with Davis joining the quartet in 2013. 

Gardner thinks the presence of a female voice has given them greater versatility.

“Having a girl in the group gives us more depth, more variety of music,” says Gardner. “It’s not exact, but Heather probably sings about 45 percent of our songs, I sing 45 percent and Patrick about 10 percent. We’re able to do a variety of musical styles – rock, pop, country, dance.”

The band didn’t start out that way, beginning its life as a 1990s alternative rock band, but they quickly learned that broadening their appeal provided more opportunities to play.

“As we started playing different places, we saw we could get more people if we play more music instead of sticking to one musical style. If someone doesn’t like one song we do, then they’ll probably like something else. It’s like the weather in Indiana: if you don’t like it, wait a minute because the music will change. And I think most people appreciate that we don’t play just one style of music.”

The three men all currently live in the Fort Wayne area (Gardner and Madrid are natives while Digman is originally from Muncie), but Davis lives in Lima, Ohio, making her commute for rehearsals a sure sign of her commitment. That geography also provides some additional venues to play since they frequently hit stages in Fort Wayne and Angola but also play regularly in Lima. While she isn’t from this area, she wasn’t an unknown to one member of the band.

“Heather and Brian were in a band together in the early 90s,” says Gardner. “When our last singer moved to Georgia, we started auditioning singers and she was looking for a band. It all fit together pretty quickly. We told her ‘Here are the girl songs we’re doing – what songs do you know?’ It was a good acclimation. Actually, when each girl left we had minimal down time because they all fit in so quickly.”

Although Joe Five have some original music, mostly from their early alt-rock days, Gardner says most of the places they play tend to focus on covers, since the ultimate goal is to keep people on the dance floor. But those covers run the gamut, and Gardner says the band members are in constant contact even between rehearsals about possible additions to the setlist.

“We’ll text each other if we have ideas for something to add to the list, and we try to learn one or two new songs a month, if possible. We all work full-time jobs and have to work around those commitments, but we want to keep adding new material regularly. We try to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s new and popular, so, for example, we added ‘Uptown Funk’ as soon as it came out. But we also do a lot of classic rock from the 70s, too. Everybody brings ideas to the table.”

Sometimes those classic rock songs get hot again, providing a reason to bring them back to the front burner.

“We just brought ‘Barracuda’ back into the show,” says Gardner. “There seems to be a Heart resurgence, and with their upcoming concert at the Foellinger, there’s a lot of interest in them again. So we mull ideas like that, and then sit down to make sure we can make them work.”

Gardner also sings lead on a number of songs, many of which are well-known classics from different eras. But there are a couple which catch people by surprise.

“There’s nothing on our setlist that I don’t like, and we try to have a different set each time we play. One song that’s a lot of fun for me is when we do ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang. We don’t do the full seven-and-a-half minute version; we do a shorter three-and-a-half to four minute version. The audience doesn’t expect to see a middle-aged white guy rap. The funny thing is how many people know that song. It doesn’t seem to matter who they are or how old they are, everybody seems to know ‘Rapper’s Delight.’”

The band’s dates are set to work around everyone’s busy schedule because Gardner says Joe Five is “like a family” and the friendship among its members is strong enough to make it work for each person. They all have a long history playing in bands – Gardner says he’s been playing in bands since he was 14 and started playing in bars in 1984 – and credits a supportive community for providing an outlet for a city filled with talented musicians.

“This area has shown a willingness to support the arts. It’s great that places are open to trying new things. This is really an arts mecca, and it’s been great for us to have all these places to play.”