The late 1990s marked the beginning of Iowa City’s independent rock glory years and the emergence of Vidablue, a four-piece, hardcore punk band that would eventually become one of the most important musical acts to ever come out of Iowa.
In 1998 there was a strong venue scene in Iowa City. More national acts were playing at local venues as they travelled through the midwest corridor and more local bands were leaving the nest and going out on the road. Bands could sell merch at a show, they could afford gas and they could do things only larger acts can afford to do these days. And, many of them did it all themselves.
There were quite a few very talented punk rock bands of various sub-genres that were making the scene. Burmese was at the top, along with USA USA, Canary in the Mine, Island Woman, The Horrors, Bottle Dog and others. Vidablue, which would eventually change its name to Ten Grand, was formed by members of some of these bands, but there was something unique about them.
Ten Grand artwork by Luke Tweedy
“Everyone who came together [in Vidablue] was hungry for music at the time,” explained Luke Tweedy, who started ft(the Shadow Government) with Vidablue alumni. “They were more than your average, cookie-cutter screamo band. They had more melody, they were closer friends, they had more inside jokes.”
Vidablue’s first show was October 23, 1998 at Gabe’s Oasis. The band consisted of Zach Westerdahl on bass, Bob Adams on drums, Joel Anderson on guitar and vocals and a handsome, 21-year-old, black punk rocker named Matt Davis on guitar and lead vocals. He was an intelligent, self-aware, socially-charged punk from Wichita, Kan., who lived and breathed music. Davis would keep a detailed record of every show the band played from that first show on, for the next four and a half years.
Vidablue also had a network of friends like no other band in the midwest. In the spring of ‘99, they adopted a young banjo player with the “world’s tiniest suitcase” who listened to the same music and went to the same shows as the band members. This musician, William Elliott Whitmore, became a close friend of the four musicians and soon joined Vidablue, touring with them as their opening act. Performing with just his voice and banjo, Whitmore was a contrast to Vidablue’s sound.
“Everyone was supporting everyone else, there was a true sense of community. The mingling of art and music, people trading their work with each other,” said Tweedy. “They could feel the sense of friendship and how much they loved each other was very clear. That really drew people into their scene. Not that there wasn’t little problems. But, they rarely showed.”
As Vidablue began to play more shows together, they took a loose, raw, cacophony of punk noise and honed it into a tight, frenetic, emotional frenzy. Then they began to record.
“We were fairly prolific, so we’d record stuff and be ready to put it out,” explained Westerdahl. “But labels would make us wait, so we had to sit on songs for quite awhile. By the time they came out on record we’d be sick of them.”
Vidablue’s first full-length album, Our Miracle Point of Contact, was a 10-song collection recorded in a dark Chicago basement with wild-eyed rock and roller Mike Lust. The title was a reference to a religious poster Anderson found that showed a bright red hand enticing the viewer to touch it to receive a miracle. The Minneapolis label Blood of the Young released Our Miracle Point of Contact, along with many other midwestern hardcore records at the time, with money won during a single night at a casino.
Their second full-length record, The Comprehensive List of Everyone Who Has Ever Done Anything Wrong To Us, was recorded in October 2000, again with Lust in Chicago, though it would not be released until 2002. It had songs with titles like “Never Let Your Girlfriend Go Camping With That Guy She Met In Pottery Class” and “The Face I Make While You’re Crying.” The record is smart, funny and wholeheartedly aggressive.
At that point, Vidablue was touring constantly, playing at least several out-of-town shows a month. The four band members and Whitmore developed roles on the road.
“Joel had the contacts, put together the tours, booking. I did t-shirts, websites, photos and layouts. Matt initially kept all the shows jotted down in a notebook and had his journal and Zach kept the morale up,” said Adams.
“Will was different. But, even though he was different, kids understood genuine, real music no matter what genre it was, and they loved it,” said Adams. “At the merch table they would buy his records and totally gloss over ours. I really think of Ten Grand as Ten Grand and Will.”
Then on September 22, 2001, Vidablue played their first Farm Party.
The Farm Parties were massive, private soirees that acted as part political rally (with a heavy Libertarian slant, although the band members shared many different political viewpoints), part balls-to-the-wall rager, part concert festival. They were held on the Whitmore/Tweedy family farm (Will and Luke are cousins) on most occasions and they were a celebration of friends and freedom. The members of Vidablue would make long standing friendships and musical connections over the years at the annual Farm Parties, including Jenny Hoyston of Erase Errata, the Minneapolis band STNNNG and Tom Loftus, owner of the Modern Radio Record Label.
“The band had different ideas of what politics were about. But we dug the fact that the Lee County folks had super strong ideals, even if they were different,” said Westerdahl. “ . . . And, it was the closest thing to home without having to sleep in your mom’s guest bed.”
Vidablue began to gain momentum from their relentless touring after the release of their second album, leading the band to make several life-changing decisions. In 2002, all four members decided to ditch their safety net, quit their jobs and devote an entire year to the band and nothing else. They released The Comprehensive List on Chicago’s Sickroom Records—the label’s sixth release and their biggest one to date. A third LP, This Is The Way to Rule—a unique, catchy and flawless hardcore record—came out on Southern Records later the same year. And, they changed their name.
Southern Records contacted the band one day in 2002 and warned them that there was another band called Vidablue that was stealing their press.
“This was in the earlier days of internet, so Bob did some research and found out it was a guy—Page McConnell—from Phish using the name Vida Blue,” explained Anderson. “At that point, we were picking up momentum with Southern, and there was an article about them in Rolling Stone. So, it was getting in the way of what we were trying to accomplish.”
With a few recordings under their belt, Anderson and the other members of Vidablue had already solidified the copyright to the name before the Phish side project ever started. Meanwhile, Phish’s Vida Blue had received permission to use the name from Oakland A’s southpaw pitcher, Vida Blue. After much deliberation, Vidablue decided to change their name to Ten Grand and forget about McConnell and his noodling side project. Anecdotal and numerous online accounts suggest a connection between those deliberations and the band’s new name, but the official story leaves those details to the imagination.
As Ten Grand started anew, they continued to tour with Whitmore—who had started his own successful solo career—in tow, in their van, Lucy. They played shows with Paul Cary from The Horrors, Indiana indie-heroes Murder By Death, Minneapolis mainstays Signal to Trust and others. As they toured, they built close ties and strong relationships with the people they crossed paths with.
In the spring of 2003, they went on their first overseas tour. They blazed across Europe, playing 30 shows in one month. Their last show, with Whitmore opening, was in Kortijk, Belgium, a beautiful town with elaborate bell towers, giant bowls of potato fries covered in gravy and cavernous record stores. Davis tallied it as their 394th show.
“One Night in France” footage by Will Whitmore and Ten Grand.
Ten Grand returned from Europe triumphant. There was talk of renting a cabin in the woods and seeking solitude to write and record another album. Larger labels were beginning to contact the band and court them with offers. Adams went to New York and got to meet Ric Ocasek, lead singer of The Cars, to talk about the possibility of making a record.
Ten Grand started to realize that what they loved more than anything in the world could become sustainable and actually support them.
Then, sometime during the night of Aug. 10, 2003—the night before the band’s homecoming gig at Gabe’s—Davis passed away in his sleep.
“In a blink of an eye it was all over. When Matt passed we had started to cross this threshold, we were starting to lock-in on another level,” said Anderson. “We had to figure out how to start our lives over again.”
“We were supposed to play a show the next day at Gabe’s and Bob and Joel and I went into Joel’s bedroom in his house on Church St. and talked about it,” said Westerdahl. “It wasn’t really a meeting. It was obviously over and it was very confusing. I thought I was going to drive around in a van with my friends forever, so I was extra lost.”
Without their singer, guitarist and friend, Ten Grand knew that they couldn’t go on. The band members eventually split and moved to Chicago one by one.
There were other amazing bands like Tornavalanche and ft(the Shadow Government) that rose from the ashes of Ten Grand. But no subsequent group could capture the musical, emotional urgency and deep friendships that Davis introduced to the members of Ten Grand and their many friends and fans.
“Matt was, without a doubt, the most committed musician I’ve ever met,” said Anderson. “Others came close, but nobody I’ve met could just let go of everything but the music like him. He gave music all he had. I know if he was still around today, he’d be on his way to a show or practice or studio this very day. He lived the DIY ideology until his last breath.”
On August 10, 2013, the 10-year anniversary of Matt Davis’ death, the remaining members of Ten Grand started a website in honor of their friend. At ten-grand.com, the band is curating rare footage, photos, show flyers, entries from Davis’ tour diaries and other ephemera. The site is also taking contributions from friends and fans. Material has been added almost every day since it’s inception, but the band wasn’t always sure that they should look into their past.
“We struggled with the idea of having a retrospective,” explained Anderson. “It sounds vain that we’re putting out all this stuff. For me it seems silly. But, over the years we talked to people who were interested in our stuff. And, when we found out that even a couple people cared we were surprised. It was flattering and gave us the final push to do the website.”
Ten Grand doesn’t have grandiose plan for any re-issues. As Adams mentioned, the band is compiling some original recordings for re-release and is thinking about including live tracks and unreleased recordings as well. But nothing has been set in stone.
“We wouldn’t have felt comfortable (releasing) a five CD box set with a 500 page book,” said Adam. “We’ve done the records, artwork, flyers, etc. for all these years on our own and we’re just used to doing everything ourselves and having it be ‘us’ doing it. It was a group participation thing between the band and our friends.”
So whatever the band chooses to release, and whatever medium it may be, we can rest assured that it will stay true to the Ten Grand DIY style.
In Their Own Words
Ten Grand members, friends and fans sound off on their experiences with Matt Davis and the band.
Molly Freeman (Sergio Leone)
“Matt and I had a little band called Sergio Leone. I played keyboard and Matt did everything else – guitar, drum machine and vocals. We made some dark, poppy and melodic noise jams. We were influenced by Joy Division and The Cure.”
“It was an amazing experience for me to just travel around the Midwest meeting dear friends, eating pizza, drinking pop, laughing a whole lot and crossing our fingers that our tiny car wouldn’t break down.”
Luke Tweedy (ft(the Shadow Government), Flat Black Studios, poster artist)
“The farm parties, many times referred to as ‘Freedom Fest’ because of some of the political content tied in with the fest (and the anarcho-libertarian and volunteer-ist speakers we had), were a great place to showcase liberty and co-existence on some interesting, social experimentation levels.”
“One prime example of this was having a festival, in the middle of the sticks, in rural, backwoods Iowa and having a hardcore screamo punk band with a black lead singer/guitar player come and violently thrash around and scream and holler on stage to an audience of 1,000 people, many of whom were straight-up, red-necked hillbillies.”
“Matt was a champ. He did not change his stage show for anybody. He carried himself with a self confidence that allowed him to capture even the most skeptical and jaded audience member.”
“A lesser man would have not agreed to play. Or, once they realized the situation they had gotten themselves into, would have backed out. They played the fest multiple years, and everybody always loved it.”
Zach Westerdahl (Ten Grand, Tornavalanche, Sweet Chariot)
“Luke’s dad was the patriarch of the whole farm deal. I remember meeting him and the first thing he said was that he dug our music. He was such a huge contrast to meeting other people‘s parents, who would usually say, ‘you guys are really loud.’ We really gravitated towards that.”
“There was a weird thing in (Lee County) that I had never seen, coming from Cedar Rapids, where people had this pride from being from a particular place. It was kind of a cool change.”
“You could literally do anything you wanted, whether is was blowing things up or playing all night or drinking yourself to oblivion. It was a weird Disneyland kind of thing for us knuckleheads to experience. You could just go fucking crazy. And, it was the closest thing to home without having to sleep in your mom’s guest bed.”
“The band had different ideas of what politics were about. But we dug the fact that the Lee County folks had super strong ideals, even if they were different.”
“I was the last guy in the band to see Matt. We went to the university discount store to buy an apple computer and he was going to return to Normal, Illinois, where he was living with his girlfriend, Molly. My old man actually passed along the news to me because he worked for the City of Normal.”
“We were supposed to play a show the next day at Gabe’s and Bob and Joel and I went into Joel’s bedroom in his house on Church St. and talked about it. It wasn’t really a meeting. It was obviously over and it was very confusing. I thought I was going to drive around in a van with my friends forever, so I was extra lost.”
Joel Anderson (Ten Grand, Tornavalanche, ft(the Shadow Government))
On the lyric, “the National Guard has surrounded the farm” during the song “Sometimes You Say The Wrong Thing” from the Mike Lust/Ten Grand split 7” single.
“At the height of the Farm Party era, they were huge events with big top circus tents. There was a scenario in my head where we were playing a Farm Party show and the National Guard surrounded the farm and (I wondered) ‘what would happen then?’” (laughs)
“We spent those first five years busting our humps doing everything on our own. Then we were at a point where a booking agent was helping us. We were going to New York to check out some interest from some bigger label. It was a point where all our hard work would allow us to . . . It’s not as if everything was going to “pay off.” But, we could concentrate on the music more.”
“In a blink of an eye it was all over. When Matt passed we had started to cross this threshold, we were starting to lock-in on another level. We had to figure out how to start our lives over again.”
On William Elliott Whitmore
“Will was at all the same parties and shows with us. But when his mom passed away, he went off the radar during the winter and spring around ‘98 to ‘99. Then, all of a sudden, this CDr shows up at the Record Collector in a bag of oregano to make it look like a bag of marijuana. It said William Elliott Whitmore and had six songs that he recorded during that time away. Red Buds, an instrumental – early stuff.”
“We were getting ready for a tour with the Plastic Constellations, our second summer tour, and it’s always great to have another influence, another personality in the car. Here’s this guy with the world’s tiniest suitcase and a banjo and it just worked out so incredible well. So, eventually the band just let him start playing a couple songs before the set.”
Bob Adams (Ten Grand, Tornavalanche)
On the band’s last few weeks
“This was the first time where we were going to let someone help us, and then it never really happened. It sort of solidified how sad everything was. I got to talk to Rick Ocasek (about producing our next record). How cool is that? Rick Ocasek likes our band. What a proud moment. But we didn’t want to jinx it, so we didn’t tell anyone. Just the possiblity of the band allowing us to support ourselves was exciting. It was a one-two punch, we had the biggest meeting we could ever have and then a second later it was over.”
“But, Vida Blue’s only goal was a 7” and a tour, which we accomplished in 6 months.”