Think of the USA’s great soul music cities and Bloomington, Indiana may not spring straight to mind. Yet this thriving Midwestern college town has a rich history with the music. It saw America’s first collegiate pop ensemble, the Indiana University Soul Revue, founded back in 1971 – and now claims birthplace to Durand Jones & The Indications. A young quintet - carrying the torch left behind by the likes of Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones - combines their love for the soul genre with a DIY punk ethos and an emphatically persuasive live show, all of which is evident on the act’s eponymous debut album, Durand Jones & The Indications, released early 2018 by Dead Oceans/Colemine.
The Indications’ story starts earlier this decade with, ironically, a “loud rock 'n' roll band,” Charlie Patton’s War, formed by four under-grads attending IU’s Jacobs School of Music. Guitarist Blake Rhein (from Michigan) and drummer Aaron Frazer (from Maryland) soon bonded over their additional love of hip-hop, and a quest for the source of the genre’s more intriguing samples found them digging out obscure soul records. Understandably, when offered a chance to work sound for IU’s famed Soul Revue, Rhein seized it.
Enter, stage left, Durand Jones. A native of rural Hillaryville, Louisiana, Jones was a self-composed childhood “introvert” brought out of his shell when his grandmother gifted him an alto saxophone, which he played all the way through a BA in general music education from South Eastern Louisiana University, and on up to post-grad study at Jacobs. Once in Bloomington, he joined and toured with the all-sax Kinari Quartet, performing complex chamber music, and winning international awards in the process. “I always felt I was going to be a classical musician,” he says of his ambitions.
Fate, however, had other ideas. First, Jones was recruited to write and arrange horn parts for the IU Soul Revue. Then, when the act fell short of singers, he was asked to step up to the mic. Doing so unleashed the other side of Jones’ musical upbringing – that which had sung gospel in church, watched his dad dance around the house to Earth, Wind & Fire, and worked the classic soul repertoire in Louisiana bands. Turned out Jones had the voice, the presentation, the whole package. Fronting the Revue also brought him into contact with Rhein, and subsequently to a basement space known as “The Hideaway” where, joined by Frazer, they spent Sunday evenings preparing for college classes by deconstructing deep soul cuts.
Inevitably, the trio began writing their own, recording on a trusty TASCAM 4-track, with the addition of CPW’s organist Justin Hubler (from Illinois) and bassist Kyle Houpt (the group’s only Indiana native). From the outset, they knew what they were doing. Four years performing together on stage had schooled the CPW musicians to playing live and loud. Intense study of hip-hop had demonstrated, as Frazer observes, how “often times there’s a minimalism that just satisfies what the song needs.” Immersion in classic soul taught Jones, Frazer, and Rhein the craft of songwriting and arranging. As evidenced by the social consciousness of “Make a Change,” Jones’ raucous party piece “Groovy Babe,” Frazer’s falsetto vocal on “Is It Any Wonder?” and the instrumental battle between Hubler’s Hammond M3 and Rhein’s Harmony Rocket on “Tuck ‘N’ Roll,” the recordings emerged suitably sparse yet precise, with stereo separation emphasizing the crisp simplicity, and the volume needle hovering around the red zone throughout.
Ohio’s acclaimed soul specialty label Colemine was certainly impressed, offering to release a limited edition vinyl LP accompanied by a couple of 45s. And with that, you might be surprised to hear Jones recall… “We all went our separate ways.” Despite a thrilling one-off show in Bloomington, Durand Jones & the Indications had only ever been intended, in Rhein’s words, “as a standalone recording project,” Jones planned on a career in music education, Frazer headed to New York finding work as a freelance drummer, and Rhein began a transition to the label side of the industry.
But then fate dealt another hand: the Colemine release generated the kind of positive press reaction most groups can only dream about, earning comparisons across the historical spectrum, from Al Green to Lee Fields. The band reacted accordingly, taking to the road and delivering emphatic club, in-store and radio performances that further increased interest and created a following with it. As Rhein puts it, “Once we saw other people get excited, it reaffirmed to us that this is what we should be doing.” For front man Jones, there was recognition of being presented with a genuine musical opportunity. “I really want to embrace the legacy of the predecessors before me, the soul musicians that paved the way for our band to exist,” he says.
Cultivation of that legacy is evident in the 7” that accompanies the LP’s full release: covers of 1967’s “Put A Smile On Your Face” by E.J. and the Echoes, and the early 1970s Penny & the Quarters “lost” classic, “You And Me” (made famous by the movie Blue Valentine), as sung by Frazer in his signature falsetto. “Durand tends to bring the fire,” says the drummer of the group’s two-pronged vocal attack, “and then I tend to cool it off.”
This summer will find Durand Jones & The Indications on a lengthy tour where they will bring that fire nightly: the group’s blistering live shows have done much to seal their reputation. Songs for the next album are already backed up, and recording sessions loom. Chances are they will be mobile ones. “Bloomington is always a home for us,” says Frazer of that under-appreciated soul city, where Houpt still lives, before paraphrasing a Marvin Gaye classic. “But really, any place you set up a 4-track, that’s home.”