As it turns out, Healing Sixes didn't have to play an acoustic set when opening for Cowboy Mouth at the Rathskeller Biergarten.
When playing smaller venues, Cowboy Mouth generally asks for an acoustic opener because there's not much room for two full bands to set up. But Healing Sixes, a bruising blues-rock band from Indianapolis that's earned serious cred among its peers, find out too late that going fully electric was an option.
So Healing Sixes do what they always do — make do with what they have. On a comfortable September evening, the quartet forgoes their usual blustery sound for some dusty grooves that guitarist Eric Saylors adds nimble accoutrements to. The song "Grass and Gasoline" off their recently-released fourth record, Bluejay, plays as funky as it is bluesy. Another new number, "Superhot" (inspired by seeing Angelina Jolie on a magazine cover), has an appropriately slinky lounge cool to it.
Saylors, wearing a "Richard Dreyfus hat" to protect himself from the setting sun, gives "Loretta Left for Racine" a distinctive bluegrass flavor. "That's Alright," another new track, was originally played on piano. Here it's guitar, complete with flamenco flourishes by Saylors.
Singer Doug Henthorn's voice projects a weary soul in a youthful package. Indeed, each member (including drummer Wade Parish and bassist Jeff Stone) has longish hair and looks a bit like a Lebowski disciple. Parish adds the biggest visual curveball; he's dressed in a dark red shirt, brown tie and grey vest with jeans. His use of a parmesan cheese can filled with peppercorn as a tambourine adds yet more quirkiness.
"We generally don't do the acoustic thing," Henthorn says after Healing Sixes' set. They did record a DVD in 2007, Live at Harby's, that was an acoustic performance. And Henthorn writes most of his material on acoustic guitar. "But I always envision, when I'm working something up, that it's going to be a full band, electric thing," he explains. "But it seemed to work well tonight."
Parish admits the group dreaded dropping the volume from 11 for this gig.
"You're always afraid it isn't going to work or it'll feel flat and uninspired," he says.
But the nice weather, coupled with a laidback audience, made it seem natural.
"If it was in some shitty club after midnight, after three other bands, it wouldn't have been any fun," Parish says.
Healing Sixes aren't solely a blues rock band, though that genre has come to be their bread and butter. Henthorn says he's always been inspired by the blues, "I think even before I really knew what it was."
The Crawfordsville native remembers listening to Stevie Wonder, whom he considers to be steeped in the blues, when he was a toddler. Before Healing Sixes, Henthornwas in a band called Pod in the late '90s that signed a deal with Columbia Records.
"It was that pipe-dream bullshit where they flew us to L.A. and put us up in apartments for like three months, gave us rental cars," he says while sipping a beer in a darkened, empty banquet room at The Rathskeller. "It was awesome. I was driving a Volvo. Then the whole thing fell apart."
Pod played a form of prog rock that wasn't exactly popular at the time. The label ultimately shelved their album, and the group disbanded soon after. The experience didn't totally deter Henthorn though.
"It was a real dark time, but I wanted to continue writing," he says. "I found out through that experience that this is what I'd do better than anything else."
The music that came out of him after that fell in the blues-rock realm, though that wasn't necessarily his intention.
"I just had some ideas together, and wanted to make them happen," Henthorn says.
Creating the Sixes
Henthorn knew Parish from his work in the covers band Oliver Syndrome. Saylors came on board next, having met Henthorn through a Broad Ripple engagement he was performing.
"Eric just kind of showed up at a gig," Henthorn says. "I hadn't talked to him in a couple years and didn't really know him. But he showed up with some demos wanting to know if I'd want to sing."
Saylors, who lives in Fortville, started playing guitar at age 16.
"That's when I got the bug for sure," Saylor says. "I always wanted to be a drummer but my dad said absolutely not. Get in the car, we're gonna go see Jerry Reed. It worked out."
Bluegrass was his main influence, having attended numerous such festivals.
"It didn't really matter (what the music was)," he says. "As long as there was a drumset, some lights, a PA and a soundboard, I was there."
Stone replaced original bassist Chaz Winzenread (Jon E. Gee from Mellencamp's band also was in the mix for a time) after a couple albums. Henthorn knew him from around town, but he was brought on as a temp initially.
"It became clear over time that he was the right guy," Parish says. "He and I just locked in immediately groove-wise. We hear time kind of the same way."
The original lineup was always sort of there, but an unfortunate accident initially derailed it. Parish had only been riding a motorcycle a couple months in 1997 when he broke both of his legs in an accident.
"I ran into the back of a pickup truck that had come to a stop at maybe 50 mph," he says.
It was going to be at least three months before he could walk again. That was bad timing for Henthorn. His first baby was on the way, and he wanted to finish a record before parenting took over his life.With Tony Medeiros on drums, Healing Sixes released their debut, Maple, in 1998. A subsequent slot opening for Jason Bonham's band ended with the great Led Zeppelin drummer's son liking what he heard. When Medeiros took off for Florida, Bonham expressed interest in replacing him.
The Bonham years
As it turned out, having such rock royalty in your band can be both a blessing and a curse.
"He wasn't a square peg in a round hole," Parish says of Bonham. "He was exactly the drummer the band needed."
Indeed, Bonham brought plenty of thunder to Healing Sixes' second album, the aptly-named Enormosound, in 2002. But there were logistic problems too. Namely, Bonham lived in England at the time. That made it difficult to record much, and one-off gigs were impractical. Henthorn laughs at memories of Healing Sixes (named after the healing power of six strings and the six pack) getting offers to play Birdy's and pocket the door profits.
"What am I gonna fuckin' do, call Jason? 'Hey man, we got a gig at Birdy's next fuckin' week! Fly over and let's do it,'" Henthorn says. "It became this diminishing return kind of thing. As crazy as it may sound, having Jason Bonham as the drummer in your band is not the most practical thing."
Parish, while still not in the band, remembers hearing many people about town question why someone of such pedigree would play in a group from Indy.
"I think there were people who acted like it was a weird thing – like those guys thought they were cool because they had a famous guy in their band," he says.
Henthorn says that was never the intention.
"(Bonham) joined the band because he liked the fuckin' band," he says. "Yet we encountered quite a backlash when Jason joined. I feel like we got a lot of 'who the fuck do they think they are?' But if the son of the greatest rock drummer of all time says he wants to play in your band, do you think it would be a good idea to say no?"
In the short time Bonham was part of the fold, there were plenty of what Parish calls "Spinal Tap marquee moments," including one that read "Jason Bonham's Healing Sixes." Henthorn's favorite was in New Jersey. It read "Healing Pixies featuring Jason Bonhouse."
"I've got a fuckin' picture man," Henthorn says. "It was unbelievable."
Between Bonham's international address and his more lucrative gigs with Foreigner, UFO and the London Choir Boys, it soon became apparent that the arrangement couldn't continue. Parish never lost contact with Henthorn — even filling in for Bonham when he couldn't make a show — and soon returned to the band.
"We kept in touch because I always loved his stuff," Parish says.
Still, the Bonham connection gave Healing Sixes some renown outside the Midwest. As disastrous as the Pod experience was for Henthorn, he still made friendships that proved fruitful later on. One was with Kevin "Caveman" Shirley, the producer at the helm for Pod's lone album who was still riding high from his work on Silverchair's Frogstomp at the time.
Shirley produced Enormosound for Healing Sixes and eventually became the regular producer for acclaimed blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. Henthorn was invited to sing lead on a cover of Zeppelin's "Tea for One" that both Bonham and Bonamassa were recording for a record by the latter. Bonamassa later contributed guitar to the song "Fine Time" from the Bluejay album.
In the past many bands would've used such connections to spring for greener pastures. Yet Healing Sixes continue to keep base in Indianapolis.
"There's not been a real impetus to leave," Parish says.
Henthorn adds, "I remember back in the day people telling us, 'Man, you guys gotta move to L.A. or New York or Nashville or something.' What the fuck for? Particularly now with the Internet. The world is so small now."
Not to mention technology exists today that makes it quite possible for anyone to produce record-quality material themselves.
"Not to be cocky, but we've done our records ourselves," Parish says. "If you've got somebody with good ears who mixes well, you don't need all that. And the record industry in the shape it's in, those people are barely holding onto their jobs. They're not going to be any more excited about us if we're from there."
As far as the Midwest, Henthorn notes that, "I think there's something legitimate here. As much as I hate (mid-America), I also love it. I think there's something very real about this area, in comparison (to L.A. and New York)."
Parish says they could move somewhere like San Francisco, but then they wouldn't have anything to rage against.
"Everybody's open-minded and gets along (there)," he says. "We wouldn't be pissed off about anything."
Heartland provincialism aside, there's also the typical problem of finding decent venues in which to play. Indianapolis doesn't have enough. Traveling the state is required.
"There are enough places to play to keep you busy within two or three hours," Parish says.
This time, though, they've scheduled a lot more touring, putting more focus on promoting an album instead of playing bars to nobody. Stops so far have included New York, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Not that it's easy to put together a more ambitious tour. "We're all a little stressed out and we may lose our houses," Henthorn jokes.
He imitates a child's voice.
"Mommy, why can't we have Christmas this year?"
"Because Daddy's tryin' to be a fuckin' rock star."