It's rare that a band gets hyped without so much as a demo disc or single public performance under their belt. But hype is all there is surrounding the Legendary Trainhoppers. Unless, of course, you consider the work each member of this local supergroup has to his credit. Then it's easy to turn such ballyhoo into expectation.
The Legendary Trainhoppers, whose eight members include Matt Sturm, Matt Kelley and Jon Gillespie, face an audience for the first time as a unit Thursday at Columbia Street West when they debut their brand of old-time country-folk music. The band is the opening act for the Pipeline, an event presented by Jeff Britton's Monkey Wing Records and featuring Grammy-winning music producer Scott Mathews, who will talk about what it takes to make it in the music industry. Mathews will also be accepting promo packages from any area band that shows up so prepared.
For the Legendary Trainhoppers, the night is doubly auspicious. Not only will the band make its public debut, it will do so as a sort of first interview with Mathews. If Mathews likes what he hears, the Trainhoppers will likely make a record with him.
Using the word "supergroup" to describe the Trainhoppers may seem overblown or even platitudinous, and such a designation has geographic limitations - it would be a stretch at this point to lump the Legendary Trainhoppers in with, say, Blind Faith or Strength In Numbers, but within the confines of the Tri-State area it's fitting.
The group comprises members of popular local bands Go Dog Go, Brown Bottle Band, and Sturm and Gillespie. The Brown Bottle Band contributes Dan Smith on guitar and vocals, Damian Miller on bass and vocals, Phil Potts on lead guitar and Rick Weilbaker (formerly of BBB) on drums. From Go Dog Go, who are currently on indefinite hiatus, there's Chris Dodds on piano, guitar and vocals, and Kelley on mandolin and high-strung guitar. Sturm fronts his own band and adds guitar, piano and vocals, and Gillespie, who owns Monastic Chambers Recording Studio, plays organ.
That's a big band. So what brought these guys together? Basically the band started as a fun side project for everyone involved," Kelley said. "We're all really good friends, and it gave us a chance to make this kind of music that we love, that we couldn't or didn't really make in our main bands." Kelley described the music as "a sort of jangly, rootsy rock with elements of country and folk thrown in."
Dodds, who's been gigging with Mike Conley of late, said the fun for him is going to be in the vocals. "One of the most attractive qualities is you've got Dan Smith, Matt Sturm and me, so automatically you've got three lead singers. Usually it's just one guy with whatever support we set up. Everyone is clamoring to do harmonies, so I'm geeked about that. It's fun to be in a group this large. Everybody knows their position. The whole is greater than the sum."
Besides just having fun, Kelley said his motivation for assembling the group has much deeper meaning. While attending his grandmother's funeral last fall he came across a photograph of her father from the early 1900s. The picture showed a group of guys holding banjoes, fiddles and guitars, hats cocked, with attitude - a classic string band. Kelley had been researching his father's side of the family around the same time and came across a story suggesting that his other great-grandfather had written "Wabash Cannonball." The image and story hooked him.
"Then my wife and I had a boy, and that picture got me thinking about how things get passed down," Kelley said. "The band got put on hold for awhile, but the idea of the band seemed to fall together for all the right reasons."
Gillespie said his expectations for the band keep changing. What started as a simple side project to play and record some fun music has quickly turned into something with potential. He credits the Mooncrikets with contacting Mathews several years ago to promote not only themselves but the Fort Wayne music scene as a whole.
"When we started it was just a lark," Gillespie said. "We had no expectations. We were just going to record a fun little record, just a bunch of musicians who respected each other and each other's abilities. Then all of a sudden it came to the attention of Jeff Britton. So here we are with an empty slate. It's not a sure deal yet. There's so much talent in this group. Everyone has written songs. There's a distinct possibility that something could come of it. I think we're all just taking it with a grain of salt."
Mathews' interest in the Trainhoppers stems mainly from demos of Matthew Sturm Band and Go Dog Go, Britton sent him. Like everyone else, he has yet to hear the band. "It's truly a blind performance," Dodds said. "I'm not really sure he has any indication of what we're about."
Along with the Mooncrikets, Dream Rodeo and Pheen have contracts with Monkey Wings Records and have already been selected by Mathews for production. For the Legendary Trainhoppers, if the showcase goes well and a deal with Mathews emerges, the material is already written. "Everybody chipped in three songs," Kelley said. "We've got 14 originals ready to go."
But if their 30-minute performance fails to impress ... "With or without Mathews, we'll release an album before the end of the year," Kelley said. "And we're going to close it with ‘Wabash Cannonball.'"