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Hip Pocket
In 2006, Hip Pocket became the first live band to perform on the restored Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts stage prior to its official reopening. (Pantagraph file photo)

BLOOMINGTON -- In 1993, someone crunched the numbers and guessed the nine musicians comprising Hip Pocket had logged around 100 groups between them.

The point being: Bloomington-Normal is a tight music community of near-incestuous proportions in which, at some point, everyone plays in everyone's band.

For Hip Pocket, the comings and goings, and the coming backs, have been a key part of making music the past quarter century.

Even before the blues-loving band was born in '86, its recruits were seasoned vets of the Twin city music scene, having sown their musical oats at venues like The Galery, Red Lion Inn, Mosey's, Scotty's, Lazy J Saloon, and on and on.

As a result, Marc knew JT knew Roomer knew Gary knew ... everyone else.

After 25 years, it would take a family tree the size of a sequoia to accommodate all the branches of the band's musical lineage.

This weekend, however, the skyward growth will cease: Hip Pocket, the dean among local bands, is calling it a night.

After a year of preparatory farewell concerts, the last hurrah will be sounded Friday from the stage of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

"It's like a relationship ending, and it's ending on a good note," says lead singer Marc Boon, Hip Pocket's founding father (the band's name hails from a song on a CD of "generic background music" he once stumbled across.)

"We're not all ticked off at each other or bummed out," he continues. "We're still playing well, and it's kind of nice to be able to say goodbye to this chapter of our lives."

The reasons are not surprising: The band that began life when most members were in their mid-20s, with time and energy still on their side, is now 25 years older.

Hours are less free. Responsibilities are more pressing. The spirit is willing, but sometimes the body cries "uncle."

When Boon hatched the Hip Pocket concept in '86, he was musical director at blues-leaning WGLT-FM on the Illinois State University campus and already a veteran of other bands.

Blues were in short, or even no, supply locally. So he wallpapered ISU with fliers, seeking accomplices.

Many of the respondents were musical acquaintances of Boon and/or each other. In relatively short order they were ready for a public unveiling, via pre-uptown Normal's late, lamented The Galery.

"We had about 15 songs we could play, and we used to play each one as long as 15 to 20 minutes -- kind of a jam band thing, with really straight-ahead blues and not a lot of soul or R&B or funk. It was strictly B.B. King, James Cotton and a little Stevie Ray (Vaughn)."

In later years, Hip Pocket broadened and tailored its horn-layered sound to meet its audiences' needs, including incursions into those forms (funk, soul, rock, R&B) eschewed in the early going. "It was a lot of fun doing something nobody was doing at the time," says Boon.

Several dozen members came and left during the first six or seven years, with only Boon and keyboard/harmonica man Tom "Roomer" Wiedrich still on board today.

Alto sax man JT Payne is almost there, having joined in '88. Also in for the long run is bass player Chris Briggs, who signed up 20 years ago, followed by 13-year guitarist John Kerner. Drummer Gary Erwin has been driving the beat for 10 years, while Jeff Estes has been at the baritone sax reed for seven years.

Though Hip Pocket carved out a niche locally, the defining gigs in the early years were at a Peoria blues club, Duffy's Rooftop.

"That's where we really solidified our sound," says Boon. "The next thing we knew, we were hanging with these guys, listening to what they were doing and then bringing it back to Bloomington."

The band weathered some lean years, as Boon recalls, and "we went through drummers like water -- seven in the first three years, the 'Spinal Tap' syndrome. They'd played rock and country, but not blues. You play these 10- to 15-minute songs and that tends to wear you out."

By the early '90s, however, Hip Pocket had hit its stride and was headed for its glory days of summer festivals, regular gigs at downtown Bloomington's Scotty's and opening for a succession of blues greats (B.B. King, Delbert McClinton, Etta James, Lonnie Brooks, etc.).

In January 1997, they played the first of three successive presidential inaugural balls in Washington, D.C., where they were invited to play as a band representative of Central Illinois, no less. There will be no fourth ball. But the memories will linger.

"We're all getting a little older," confesses Wiedrich, "and it does get a little harder do some of the things we used to do. But 25 years ... that's amazing. I don't know how that happened."

Payne, who took a four-year hiatus in 2007 for health issues, was able to hop back on board the past year.

For someone who started playing sax in fourth grade and wound up on the same stage as B.B. King, "it's been a dream come true for me."

No mean feat for a man whose Carlyle high school garage band was the Boyd Bros., the earliest incarnation of what would become Midwest rock favorites Head East.

"It has been a very special ride," adds Briggs. "We've gotten to do so many things that other groups never get to do."

Kerner says, "yes, it does have a little to do with age, even though I don't feel 57." But the days of playing a bar on a hot summer's night and coming home reeking of smoke and alcohol ("I'd have to leave my guitar in the garage with the case open, it smelled so bad") are never going to happen for him again.

Gary Erwin will miss the camaraderie that has marked Hip Pocket in its many incarnations over the years.

As one of the "newer" members, Estes confesses that "my favorite thing about Hip Pocket is when we screw up. A bad group crashes and burns on stage when they screw up; a good group recovers immediately." Hip Pocket, he notes, goes in the latter category.

Though most members agree that Hip Pocket will never exist again as it has for the past 25 years, neither are they ruling out some future permutation, be it in the form of a possible all-band reunion or perhaps the occasional private wedding reception.

The key to that possibility, says Boon: "We're all still friends, and I mean everyone who's gone through this band. We have this connection with each other, in some way, shape or form, that will never go away. And I really do think that's kinda cool."


At a glance

What: Hip Pocket's Farewell Concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St.

Tickets: $16

Box office: 866-686-9541


Hip-shooters

Farewell concert lineup

• Marc Boon, original member: lead vocals, rhythm guitar

• Chris Briggs, joined 1990: bass

• Dewaine Ellis, joined 2010: tenor sax

• Gary Erwin, joined 1998: drums

• Jeff Estes, joined 2004: baritone sax

• Tom Fatten, joined 2008: trumpet

• Larry Harms, joined 2010, but sat in "many, many times" over years: tenor sax

• John Kerner, joined 1998: lead guitar

• JT Payne, 1988-2007, rejoined 2010: alto sax

• Tom 'Roomer' Wiedrich, original member: keyboards, harmonica, vocals

Elsewhere, too

• In the wings: Darwin Koester, sound man/road manager since "before the beginning"

• Alumni: Jeff "Shooey" Shoemaker, drums; Jeff Paxton, lead guitar; Tim Durham, harmonica/vocals; John Filkins, trombone; Jim Kozak, tenor sax; Jim Boitos, tenor sax; Christopher Rollins, tenor sax

Discography

• Frame by Fame, 1989 (cassette only)

• This Ain't Normal, 1995

• Twice in a Blue Moon, 1997

• Gotcha Covered, 2001

• Kicked Back, 2004

• This Ain't Normal Neither (double DVD), 2004

• This Ain't Normal II, 2008


High five

Marc Boon's Top 5 Hip Pocket moments, in chronological order:

1. Up on the roof: In the late '80s, HP found a home away from home at Duffy's Rooftop, the area's only bona fide blues bar at the time, now long gone. Located in Peoria Heights, it allowed the boys from B-N to open for the likes of Bernard Allison and Albert King. Moreover, "it's where we really solidified our sound."

2. Stan the man: Jamming with guitarist Stanley Jordan at The Galery in downtown (yes, downtown) Normal following his Braden Auditorium show, circa the late '80s. Boon had interviewed him for WGLT and, afterward, said, "Hey, we'll be at The Galery after the show, so why don't you bring ax and jam a bit?" He did, and they did.

3. King for a night: Opening for the King among blues kings, B.B., in a 1995 show at downtown Peoria's Madison Theater. "The pivotal moment," says Boon, in HP's career. "I don't remember my feet touching the stage the entire night."

4. Disc-oh!-fever: The band's first big CD release party, in 1995 at Bloomington's now-defunct Paragon Ballroom, was expected to attract around 100 HP devotees. Instead, many, many more turned out to the tune of wall-to-wall fans. "My father had just passed away months earlier, and it was a really emotional time," Boon recalls. "To see that kind of support, it became a kind of Sally Field moment for us -- they liked us, they really liked us!"

5. Having a Ball (x 3): Though HP has played three swank inaugural balls in D.C. (Januarys '97, '01 and '05), the first sticks in the memory most indelibly, of course, per the invitation to perform at the Illinois Inaugural Gala at the Grand Hyatt Hotel as a band evoking "the flavor of Central Illinois."

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