Matt Kelley has made his presence known in Fort Wayne in a variety of ways. His company, One Lucky Guitar, has grown into an advertising juggernaut, changing even local signage into something hip and cool. His commitment to making Fort Wayne equally hip and cool has taken a variety of forms, including his concept to put local bands on the Embassy stage to cover iconic artists from the Beatles to Queen.
Down the Line has since become a two-night event and has spawned spinoff versions devoted to hard rock and country.
And all the while, Kelley has pursued his passion for music both through his own erstwhile (and recently revived) group, The Legendary Trainhoppers, and by bringing some of his own favorites to town for performances.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Kelley continues to diversify and conquer various areas of commerce and creativity. He handed the reins of Down the Line over to the Embassy several years ago, secure in the knowledge that the fundraiser was a success, and he could move on. He’s happy, however, with the way that project continues to evolve and broaden in scope in the years since he ceased involvement
“You know, I haven’t attended since the fifth year,” says Kelley. “OLG ran the first three Down the Line performances and co-produced the fourth, before handing the keys over to the qualified team at The Embassy. As for the broadened scope, as a fundraising event, that’s kinda what happens. An organization naturally tries to figure out how it can raise even more funds. I get it.
“For me, that was probably at the expense of the narrow artistic focus of the first few years, when it was very specifically about bands that were slugging it out at The Brass Rail on a weeknight, playing original songs to 40 or 50 people – and doing the hard work of raising our community’s quality of life and helping to put us on the map, musically – and rewarding them on the city’s finest stage where they would pay tribute to the artists that inspired them. OLG’s model wasn’t really sustainable—frankly. We ran out of bands we liked at the time.
“The event is probably more fun now than it was when we ran it,” he adds. “I’m not sure if it’s better, but the bottom line is, I think it’s terrific that the series has raised so much money for The Embassy, which is a real treasure in our community and has created such amazing moments and memories for performers and audience members alike.”
While Down the Line has gotten bigger over the years, Kelley has started focusing on returning to that original concept: to provide exposure to bands that are on the cusp of major success, providing them with a way to reach a larger audience. To that end, he developed The B-Side, a performance venue within the confines of One Lucky Guitar. An intimate area, perfect to fully experience the music, The B-Side was more or less a reaction to all of the large scale projects he was tackling.
“With Down the Line, a thing we did with The Phil called Fortissimo and some of the block party things we helped the Downtown Improvement District with, we were kinda doing ‘big shows,’” says Kelley. “And that was great. But these days I tend to be of the mind that sometimes the smaller things, the most niche and unique things, are as important, in fact more so, to a community and an arts and cultural scene than the bigger deals. It’s great that Elton John played the Coliseum, but where hasn’t he played? I think Titus Andronicus at the Brass Rail was a bigger deal, and probably saved us from losing at least a dozen people to ‘the brain drain’ in a single 45-minute set. I love going to TinCaps games, but I never saw one change a life like Rayland Baxter did at The B-Side. Know what I mean?
“The idea for The B-Side came from us feeling like Fort Wayne finally had some killer venues for touring bands that used to skip Fort Wayne – specifically The Brass Rail and The Tiger Room at CS3 – but that we lacked an intimate ‘listener room’ for quieter, solo shows. We landed a David Bazan [Pedro the Lion] gig when he was on a living room tour. We e-mailed in saying we didn’t have a living room, per se, but we had an office, and we could move the desks.
“At that show, we found that our space sounded ridiculously amazing, without us having done a single thing to make it so, and that the 50 people in the room were hanging on every word, every picked guitar string, every breath, treasuring each moment of being so close, so intimate, with one of their favorite performers. And that’s happened again and again, with performers that I’m still absolutely shocked have played in our office – Lloyd Cole, Rayland Baxter, Eef Barzelay, Tim Rogers, Ike Reilly, Marah and on and on.”
If that weren’t enough, Kelley also jumped into the arena of fashion design, specifically teaming up with Denise DeMarchis at Matilda Jane to launch The Good Ones, a line of boys clothing which proves that the little guys can rock a stylish look too. This past year, DeMarchis lost her battle with cancer, leaving the future unclear. Kelley says he’s trying to determine where to go from here.
“We’ll see. The reality is, Denise and I just wanted to start a company and work together. She was my friend, my soulmate, and will be part of whatever I do, for the rest of my life. Definitely gonna write a book about working with her.”
And his Trainhopping past has finally caught up with him, too. With plans to return by the end of this year and make a push for glory in 2016, Kelley is excited to pursue something he thought he had long and permanently abandoned. But following a Lovelines show he booked at the Brass Rail, a tribute show for Kelley’s favorite band, The Replacements, he was bitten by the bug and began imagining the return of the now ever more Legendary Trainhoppers.
“At the very end of 2014, I ran into my old friend Phil Potts, guitarist from the Trainhoppers. And Phil leaned in close and whispered in my ear, ‘It’s time we make that second Trainhoppers record. Well, that became all I could think about for several weeks. Phil and I hatched a plan and I sent letters – and lyrics to a new song – to each of the Trainhoppers, and everyone was in. We got together in March, the first time we were all in the same room since 2007, to talk about maybe getting back on the tracks. And now we’re making a new album. We’ve spent the last four months writing songs, and I have to say that it’s been really, really incredible. I could not be more excited about the new material.
“We could have pretty easily just dusted off some old live favorites that we never recorded, but we wanted to write new songs, too. We went fishing, not sure what would happen, and we have truly landed some whales. There are some big songs here that will inspire, entertain and challenge, in a great way.
“The plan is to record through the fall, then start learning how to play live again. I think our return to live performing will be at The B-Side in late-December, with an album release loosely targeted for February 2016, exactly 10 years after Ramble On came out.
“On a more personal note, I didn’t really think this band would ever play again. Our bass player, Damian Miller, was killed last January, and I never wanted to play in this band without him. But with friends who had fallen ill, and my own dad having a stroke in December, I really just felt like, if we can do this, we have to do this. And it has been beyond magical so far.”
With plenty on his plate, it’s Kelley’s devotion to the Fort Wayne community that shines. Hopes for a large-scale musical festival are but one of his dreams for the future. And when asked what benefits have come from having a musical venue in his own office, one thing that strikes him is again to the benefit of the area rather than his own bottom line.
“My favorite moments are those when someone says, ‘Oh my, I moved back from Portland three months ago to help take care of my mom, and this is the first night I haven’t missed the Pacific Northwest,’ for example. We hear that more than you’d think, and it’s always an incredible feeling. And even better when one of the artists overhears the statement and echoes it.”