High & a little bit lonesome

BY STEFAN JURAN | JULY 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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On Jan. 27, Iowa was hit with one of the biggest snowstorms it had seen in many years.

Unfortunately, musician Brad Engeldinger was one of the victims of the storm, and he lost his life in a car accident. For Iowa musicians, that day will be remembered as one in which rock ’n’ roll lost a local drumming legend.

Friends, colleagues, and former band member David Zollo said the thought of Engeldinger being gone has yet to sink in.

“It is hard to imagine that he is actually gone,” he said. “We shared a lot together on the road, and it is tough to look back on, but it’s comforting knowing there will always be a great musical legacy associated with his name.”

Engeldinger drummed for the Iowa City band High and Lonesome in the early ’90s, and the band will reunite Saturday to perform a benefit show for Engeldinger’s family in his honor at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St. This show is one of many reunions the band has planned, but this performance will have special meaning: Iowa City was the last place Engeldinger played with High and Lonesome.

Unlike many local bands, High and Lonesome was an influential group that helped shape the direction of Iowa City’s music scene. When band members Zollo (vocals/keyboard), Dustin Conner (bass), Ruairi Fennessy, Darren Matthew (guitar), and Engeldinger met during their time at the University of Iowa around 1992, they started exposing Iowa City audiences to their interpretation of a blues, soul, alternative-country, and rock ’n’ roll.

“The shows we played as High and Lonesome were something like I had never experienced since then,” Zollo said. “It was the perfect time for bands like us, because people actually took time to come to a late weeknight show; regional musical movements were what fueled the industry then.”

Before the band was touring at venues all around the Midwest, some of the members were in a jazz-improvisation course together at the university. With this class being one of the first places in which their musical ideas started to mesh, instructor James Dreier knew they could become something exceptional.

“We did a lot of learning together,” Dreier said. “I was a first-year teacher, and they were first-year students, and from the times they were together in the class, and the occasions they asked me to play with them, it was always a special experience.”

Like a majority of bands, High and Lonesome experienced the many ups and downs that can be expected when bands start gaining popularity. Selling thousands of albums nationwide, traveling across the country, and selling out venues night after night became regular occurrences for the band.

“Back then, it was all about who could use a staple gun the fastest and put up the most fliers around town,” Fennessy said. “Places around the Midwest started hearing about us selling out bars, so people kept booking us, mostly because we gave them more people to sell alcohol to.”

The good experiences were contrasted at times by differing opinions among the band members.

Although resolved shortly after, differences among Engeldinger and other members led him to leave High and Lonesome after the group’s first record.

“When we got heavy into touring, tension was definitely there among some of us,” Fennessy said. “Some of the guys wanted the performances to be as close to the album as we could get, while others like Brad wanted to focus on more improvisation.”

The band got a new drummer for the remainder of its time together in Jim Viener, another local Iowa City drummer who had been part of other local bands. Although he was part of the band for a remainder of its run, his role as a new member posed a different vibe in the band.

“When you join later, you try to fill a role, but the guys who started the band, they kind of have a special place,” Viener said. “It was tough from my standpoint to try to get a feel for their ways, because I wasn’t around when they put in the hard work together years prior.”

The band continued to make albums and tour off and on until 1998. Zollo was interested in taking a different route with his solo career and eventually formed the band Dave Zollo and the Body Electric. Eventually, Zollo asked Engeldinger to team up with him once again, but this time on his new musical project.

“The second time around, we made some pretty good music together,” Zollo said. “We were together touring all the time, and that experience we shared together on the road performing for a common cause brought us even closer together.”

Since the ending of High and Lonesome and the start of Zollo’s solo career, the band members have played together in many reunion shows over the years. The experience of causally playing with each other is one that seems to affect them in a bittersweet type of way.

“It is great getting back together with the guys, but at the same time, I realize that Saturday could be the last time I play these tunes,” Fennessy said. “When people stop playing, their tunes tend to die as well, and that would be unfortunate, because these songs were the driving force when we started; they kept us going.”

Dreier has closely followed the progress and success of High and Lonesome since the beginning. The band members have asked him to play on a few of its records on various percussion instruments and have gone to him for suggestions over the years as well. Dreier recalls that at first, he had a more professional relationship with Engeldinger, but it wasn’t until later in the drummer’s life where they developed a more personal relationship.

“At Brad’s wedding, he asked me to sit in as drummer for him, and it ending up being one of the best gigs of my life,” Dreier said. “It was a very pivotal point in our relationship, because I finally got to see who he was, and we became more personally acquainted with him after that.”

Saturday’s show at the Mill will be the second gig of a two-day benefit tour for Engeldinger’s family. With this being the first benefit show and the first time the band members have played since his passing, the emotions will be high, but the guys are sure it will bring back some fond memories from High and Lonesome’s past.

“We were promised night-in and night-out that we were going to meet new people and party with friends while playing music we loved,” Viener said. “That was a feeling we all, even Brad, loved.”

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