There's a strange dichotomy at work. Apocalypse Meow has always been the flagship event Midwest Music Foundation's Abby's Fund for Musicians' Health Care. Between the concert and the associated raffles and auctions, it was the largest source of funding for the nascent foundation. Today the volunteer-run Midwest Music Foundation is bigger than ever, providing $80,000 in medical assistance grants to local musicians in 2023 alone. But while Abby's Fund has grown, Apocalypse Meow has shrunk.
In years past, the event spanned multiple days or operated in venues with multiple stages to allow a dozen artists to perform – and more importantly to draw in their fans who can contribute to the cause. When Covid forced the event to go virtual it streamed both live and pre-recorded segments to its audience. While live audiences are again possible, they haven't fully returned. The 2023 version had scheduled only five performers; however, by the day of the show, only three bands were available – the others, ironically, had to cancel for medical reasons.
Silent auctions have long been a part of MMF's fundraising efforts. In the past the auctions were labor-intensive affairs that required swaths of space for tables displaying the items for bid. And of course, the post-event settlement process was labor intensive. During Covid the auction also moved online. It remains there today. While certainly easier, the sea of tables with tempting goods and the promise of immediate gratification is missed. Also, it's not nearly as easy to manipulate two drunk friends into a bidding war for a donated ukulele when the auction is online.
Now for the good news. Midwest Music Foundation is growing. It has gotten more creative, its funding base has grown, it has engaged with symbiotic local organizations, and it no longer depends solely on Apocalypse Meow like it once did. In 2023 the event is less benefit concert and more fundraiser – it's a chance for those engaged with the organization to gather and celebrate its successes, recognize its contributions and contributors, and, well, also see some bands and raise some money. With all that preamble out of the way, we can now dig in.
Apocalypse Meow 16 was emceed by Sarah Bradshaw of local radio station 90.9 The Bridge. She started her work by receiving the seasonal flu and Covid vaccinations live on stage. It's a rite of passage. Dr. K. Allen Greiner of "The Rock Docs" performs the vaccinations free of charge to those in attendance. After getting poked, she quickly turned the stage over to the opening act.
Seeing True Lions on a flyer could mean about anything. It could be Alison Hawkins performing solo on an acoustic guitar or it could be a dozen members performing chamber folk, but on this night, it was Hawkins on fiddle, Fritz Hutchison on acoustic guitar, and Carly Atwood on upright bass. That may be the happy medium lineup. The band's set of folk and fiddle tunes featured the vocals of both Hawkins and Hutchison. They sing together, but their voices don't blend or harmonize. They're just both there, simple and communal. Hutchison was chatty with the crowd, dragging the giggling Hawkins along on his charming ride.
The trio's music was anchored by Atwood's clean, full, and round bass, with Hawkins' scratchy and homey bowed tones defining the sound. Hutchison both picked and strummed his acoustic guitar, often joined by Hawkins' own plucking. The results won over the seated audience immediately. "Carrot Cake" was catchy, featured an excellent flat-picked solo from Hutchison, and had the audience singing along. The traditional reel "That's My Rabbit" had a few of them clogging. The cover of "Oo-De-Lally" (originally performed by Roger Miller as Alan-a-Dale in Disney's 1973 Robin Hood) was a gift to the Generation X audience that made up the bulk of the audience. Finally, a late-set cover of Big Thief's "Red Moon" was polished and made me wish NPR's "Live from Here" could be rebooted just so True Lions could be invited on and shared with the world.
Between acts, emcee emeritus Mark Manning of KKFI and MMF Director Sondra Freeman took the stage with Dr. Greiner. It was time for "shots and shots." The tradition begins with flu and Covid vaccinations and ends with a different, more spirited type of shot. Afterwards, executive Director Rhonda Lyne joined Freeman on stage to announce the winner of several raffle items as a prelude to the bigger raffle items coming later that night.
Another tradition followed. Each year MMF Founder Chris Meck performs at Apocalypse Meow. Meck was married to Abigail Henderson – the Abby for whom Abby's Fund is named. The Abby whose medical crisis precipitated their founding of the Midwest Music Foundation, and the Abby whose battle with cancer inspired the first Apocalypse Meow benefit. This year, like years past, Meck performed as part of Nathan Corsi and My Atomic Daydream. The band is embedded in rock & roll's roots, dripping with both blues and soul. Some songs are bombastic, some are slow ballads, but it's drummer Tom Hudson that guides the band through them all. Rhythmic counterpart Benjamin Hart plays bass. And dances. There's a bit of funk stank to his playing, and his high falsetto provides a nice balance to Corsi's vocals. Of course, it's Corsi who defines the sound. His rhythm guitar is the skeleton of the songs, and his vocals are the meat on those bones. His vocals might be soulful and honeyed or they might be insistent and energetic, recalling the great Jimmy Barnes. Through the set, Meck's lead guitar provided counterbalance, adding his contemplative bending solos to every song. This was particularly true with the squealing solo played in closer "Shangri La" from that band's 2023 album of the same name.
In the break between acts, Lyne returned to the stage to recognize the staff and board members of MMF. One by one, a dozen members took the stage and collected their accolades. The official toastmaster Amy Ferrand was not able to attend due to illness, so instead local musician Cody Wyoming offered the toast in memory of Henderson and to thank her for the important work she set in motion. These are traditions. Afterwards, there were more raffle pulls. Every winner was a known to the organizers, further cementing the notion that the event has become a celebration for those already a part of the MMF family. I didn't win the tacos I went all in for. I'll have to ask Lazlo Hollyfeld how that's possible.
And now we arrive at the final act of the night. Local party band The Phantastics. I'd like to think "party band" is a genre, but if it's not, know that The Phantastics mix soul, funk, disco, hip hop, cumbia, and rock to deliver a set that is built to move bodies. And that's what it did. The crowd suddenly rose and came forward for the band, crowding the stage and dancing. Dancing to an improbable seven-piece band built from two vocalists who hype one another, sing and rap, from a funky rhythm section that includes a lively drummer and a five-string bassist, from a trombonist (who also came forward to show his flow during one song), from a keyboardist, and from a guitarist tapping up the neck of his seven-string guitar. Every song in the 70+ minute set was long. Grooves were established and luxuriated in for the benefit of dancing bodies. The vocalists traded verses and egged each other on during banter that frequently erupted into impromptu freestyle sessions. The band was all too happy to drop beats and play along.
The Phantastics' set of original tunes pulled in organic samples, drifting into The Temptations for bits of "Papa was a Rollin’ Stone" or including a verse from Lil Kim’s "Crush On You." For the final song, "Bananas," Edvard Grieg’s "In the Hall of the Mountain King" introduced a bit of belated Halloween spirit. When the tempo sped up, the band hit Inspector Gadget levels of zaniness while frontman Kemet Coleman danced around, knees high, energy off the charts, looking ready to front a ska band. The audience got the party it had come for.
After sixteen editions, it's natural that Apocalypse Meow is showing its age. Today the event and the group that organizes it are both smarter and quieter than ever. While Abby's Fund continues to serve a broad audience, its flagship fundraiser has become an insular celebration of the organization itself. Is that a problem, or just the sign of a mature organization? Surely there can't be anything wrong with friends gathering to celebrate the organization's advances, those who have made it possible, and to raise a little money for the best cause. And speaking of which, you can still pour yourself a drink, and visit the auction site to try to outbid me on a ukulele.