There is something magical about the tintinnabulation of a steel drum. Without warning, the sound quickly transports you to a sun-soaked tropical island with a cocktail in hand and not a worry in the world. 

That is the feeling steel drummer Doug Laughlin wanted to capture when he created the local outfit Island Vibe, a popular party band who gives country, rock, and pop numbers a tropical twist. 

“I wanted to be the getaway for all those people working hard all week and ready to unwind,” he said. “Island Vibe is your Key West connection.” 

Close your eyes and let Laughlin and Rod Bowers whisk you away to an island paradise when Island Vibe performs at el Azteca on Thursday, June 1, and Club Paradise in Angola on June 14.

Musically diverse

Laughlin, a percussion connoisseur, is a longtime instructor at Sweetwater Sound where he not only teaches various instruments but also runs the community Drum Circle every first Tuesday of the month. 

He cut his teeth in the music business at the age of 15 when he performed in a wedding band. 

“I would put my gear in our Chrysler New Yorker and Mom would drop me off at the gigs, which wasn’t the coolest thing for a teenager, but it worked,” he said. 

Laughlin remained musically active at North Side High School. In fact, his senior year just happened to be the first year for Whatzup Liddell Award honoree and band director Ed King, who retired in 2019 after 46 years. You do the math. 

From there, Laughlin went on to tour with a disco-funk band, joined a Christian rock band, did percussion work for Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and played drums on comedian Heywood Banks’ 1999 album DifErnt.

He is currently a member of Dumpster Drummers, a group of percussionists who educate children about the importance of recycling and environmental conversation through musical performance where they play different types of drums. 

Finding a perfect fit

The résumé he put together led him to his longest stint yet, Island Vibe. 

He and keyboardist John McCormick formed Island Vibe in 2007. Their first show was at Dicky’s Wild Hare and soon they were getting gigs all over town. Four years later, McCormick relocated to Florida and Laughlin was left to find a new sidekick. 

“It was devastating when John left as we built this thing like a business and things were taking off,” Laughlin said. “I auditioned a few guys before my buddy John Forbing told me about guitarist Rod Bowers, who was doing some solo stuff at the time.” 

Laughlin always wanted a guitarist because he wanted a little more rock in the band and the fact that the guitar is something people can easily relate to. 

Bowers, a Huntington native, brought a new dimension with his guitar wizardry and strong vocals. 

He got his start at the tender age of 7 performing in a family band with three older brothers and a sister. While in high school he was in a rock band called Thrill that had the pleasure of opening for such acts as Black Oak Arkansas, Wishbone Ash, and Uriah Heep. 

Bowers eventually joined the country act Close Range, which some of you may recall was one of the house bands at The Picker here in town for a while. 

He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, for a bit before returning to Indiana doing solo gigs, which he still occasionally does. 

When he teamed up with Laughlin, it was something special. To say these two have a strong bond is an understatement. Their connection sees them performing about 200 shows a year.

They have about 700 songs in the bank from hit-makers such as Tom Petty, Bruno Mars, Bob Marley, Toto, Zach Brown, Hall & Oates, Bob Seger, and Justin Timberlake. 

You name an artist, and they probably cover them with their own tropical burst. 

They even have a few originals, including fan-favorite “Love in the Water,” which includes the lyrics, “Not on Champagne time, it’s Mexican beer and a bottle of wine,” which is sure to get anyone in the tropical spirit. 

Focused on having fun

Whether you see Island Vibe at a bar, wedding reception, or special event, what makes them so special is that you never know what they will have up their sleeves. 

“We don’t use a setlist. W`e shoot from the hip and play off the audience,” Laughlin said. “We also toss in a lot of humor, self-deprecating jokes, and make it fun for all.” 

It’s these sort of things that keeps folks coming to their gigs. 

They both will be the first to tell you that they are complimented all the time on how deep their catalog is and how unpredictable their shows are. 

And when fans speak, venues listen. Such is the case for Dave’s Lake Shack in Angola who had the band performing every Wednesday for 13 years. They even had a long stint at el Azteca, performing weekly.

One thing is for certain, Island Vibe does it their way and want nothing more than for you to have a good time.