Speed Read: Tonic Ball

What began as a concert dreamed up over beers has, 15 years later, grown into one of Indy’s biggest nights of music and charity: Tonic Ball.
So there was this gal a guy wanted to impress … Around the dawn of the new millennium, some friends were sharing a beer and discussing their mutual love of an artist, which snowballed into creating a tribute show in his honor. Local bands could do some of his covers. One friend knew of a venue that could host. The woman the event founder hoped to win over? Well, she knew of a worthy cause that could use the support.

Tonic Ball rocked from the start. The first event was in 2002 at Radio Radio with bands celebrating the music of Gram Parsons, a pioneer in what we’d now call alt-country. Roughly 150 people showed up, and the evening ended with the final group, Citizens Band, distributing lyric sheets to everyone in the audience to sing along with “Hickory Wind.” As the popularity of the event grew, the need for more venues increased.

Think of it as a giant cover-band concert. Local musicians have 15 minutes on stage to perform songs of that evening’s designated tribute artists. If you don’t like the music that’s currently playing, don’t worry—another band is coming up shortly, and chances are, they’ll reinterpret a favorite song of yours that will knock your socks off.

Today, there are five venues (and five chaotic backstages). Radio Radio, where bands will pay tribute to Wilco on November 17, has since been joined by the Fountain Square Theatre (featuring the music of Simon & Garfunkel), The White Rabbit Cabaret (The Cure), Pioneer (Dolly Parton), and The Hi-Fi (James Brown).

That means hundreds of musicians performing for thousands of attendees, so the execution has to be precise. Some musicians appear in different bands on multiple stages performing varying music styles. Luckily, everyone seems to check their egos at the backstage doors.

What’s up with the name? The gig’s founders have been known to mention how tonics were used in medicine as a method of improving the prescribed elixir. “Tonic” also refers to a type of musical chord. Then organizers threw “ball” at the end of it to indicate a special occasion. However, we prefer the reasoning that it just sounds cool.

Rocking for a cause. From day one, Tonic has supported Second Helpings, which provides Indianapolis with hunger relief, food rescue, and culinary job training. Each dollar donated and each $50 ticket sold helps the organization provide 4,000 meals every day at no charge to local social agencies like the Julian Center and Wheeler Mission Ministries. The first Tonic generated a $4,600 donation to Second Helpings. Last year, having grown to five stages and with Eskenazi Health as primary donor, the event raised $125,000.

New this year: buskers, food, and heat. Since organizers have mostly maxed out venue space in Fountain Square, they hope to take the energy to the streets with robust outdoor programming. That means musicians busking on corners, video installations, food from Fountain Square restaurants, and interactive performances. Warm up under the temporary heat lamps while moving from place to place.

Follow the man in the “Nudie suit.” Tonic Ball organizers gave one to the event’s founders, Ken Honeywell, for Tonic Ball 10. The white ensemble was inspired by a “Nudie suit” donned by Gram Parsons. It’s elaborately embroidered with a guitar fashioned out of a fork (a nod to Second Helpings), red roses, the words “Tonic Ball” outlined with rhinestones.

And that woman Honeywell wanted to impress? It worked! They’ve been married since 2004.