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Dream team of musicians brings soul, R&B to life

Sweetwater All Stars to perform at Club Room

Steve Penhollow

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published February 17, 2021

The Sweetwater All Stars have been around for a few years now, but from the very beginning, their goal has been clear.

“Ultimately,” said guitarist Bob Bailey, “we want to have fun – and play some great rhythm and blues!”

The Sweetwater All Stars are a ten-piece R&B band featuring some of the best players and singers in Fort Wayne, most of them recruited from distant climes to work at Sweetwater Sound. 

The band, filled with musicians who distinguished themselves nationally and internationally before coming to Indiana, each brought decades of experience with them and put that experienced to good use with the All Stars.

Starting at Sweetwater

The band’s origin story begins at Sweetwater, of course, with a group of musicians in Sweetwater’s Studio A working on a recording project featuring vocalist Kat Bowser. 

“It started as a blues record,” said Dave Martin, who was playing bass. “And basically, during the course of the recording process, it became more of a band record.”

At about the same time, Chuck Surack, Sweetwater Sound’s owner, started thinking that a horn-rich R&B band might be fun. 

Fortuitously, some of Sweetwater’s recent hires included exactly the right musicians for this sort of project, and all the narrative threads came together. What started as Kat Bowser’s CD became the first Sweetwater All Stars record.

The members of the Sweetwater All Stars rhythm section are musicians who are not primarily known for playing soul and classic R&B. Drummer Nick D’Virgilio built his reputation playing progressive rock, keyboardist Jacob Dupre is recognized as a great jazz musician, and bassist Dave Martin’s traditional country and western swing credits are substantial.

The newest member of the All Stars, percussionist Will Brown, has an extensive background as a both as a producer and as a vocalist. Although guitarists Bob Bailey and Don Carr are known as rock and pop musicians, each has played more than their share of blues and country guitar.

It might not seem to make much sense at first glance, but with the Sweetwater All Stars, there’s is a lot more to them than what they’re primarily known for.

“Each of the members have had success in a wide variety of genres without being pigeonholed by that success,” Bailey said. “Here’s the thing. All the people who are in this band, myself included, have a pretty varied background. So what they’re known for isn’t everything they’ve done. It’s just what they got known for.”

Yet this seemingly disparate group of musicians banded together to perform horn-driven soul and R&B tunes.

The Horn Section

The All Stars Horns, with sax player Chuck Surack, Brett Kelsey on trumpet, and trombonist Marcus Farr, bring magic to the Sweetwater All Stars’ sound.

“I love the sound of solid players playing great arrangements,” Martin said. “The horns make the All Stars special.”

While Surack is best known these days as the owner of Sweetwater, he’s been a professional sax player for more than 40 years. That experience shows, whether he’s playing with the All Stars or working with Prime Time, a trio that he and trumpet player Kelsey have performed with for years.

Additionally, Farr is much loved as an educator and band director in Fort Wayne.

‘That’s the One’

The last major change to the Sweetwater All Stars line-up happened at the beginning of 2020 when Kat Bowser, the All Stars original vocalist, moved out of state.

The Sweetwater All Stars auditioned 20 to 30 singers. 

“Fort Wayne has some great singers and there were quite a few that auditioned who were more than capable of doing the job,” Martin said. “But we were looking for that ‘special something,’ and we found it in Lisa McDavid.”

“When Lisa sang the first line of the first song at her audition,” Bailey said. “Chuck and I looked at each other — I swear I’ll never forget this — our eyes met and it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s the one.’”

Lead vocal duties in the Sweetwater All Stars are split between McDavid, drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and guitarist Bob Bailey.

“Nick has an amazing range, Bob has a wonderful texture to his voice, and Lisa is, quite simply, a force of nature,” Martin said. “Between the three singers, the All Stars can cover a huge amount of ground. From the Temptations to Chaka Khan, from the Isley Brothers to Sam and Dave, and from Aretha Franklin to Tower of Power, we do it all.”

McDavid joined the All Stars in January 2020 but got to play only a couple of dates before the pandemic closed the doors of the All Stars’ original home base, Don Hall’s Guest House. Fortunately, a few outdoor gigs opened back up in the summer, and by fall, restrictions eased enough that the All Stars were able to play for a socially distanced crowd in the newly expanded Club Room at the Clyde. At the beginning of 2021, the All Stars began playing twice a month at the new venue.

The All Stars will return to the Club Room at the Clyde on Feb. 20 and on March 6. Reservations are strongly recommended.

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