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Indian City carries spirit of founding member onstage

Late frontman Vince Fontaine’s passion project will play on

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A decade ago, musician Vince Fontaine had a vision for a new project: a collective of Indigenous artists coming together to create a soundtrack to Winnipeg’s past and future, reflecting on life in the city — its virtues and its problems.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/03/2022 (316 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A decade ago, musician Vince Fontaine had a vision for a new project: a collective of Indigenous artists coming together to create a soundtrack to Winnipeg’s past and future, reflecting on life in the city — its virtues and its problems.

Indian City was born.

“He looked at Winnipeg as an Indian City,” says friend and bandmate Lawrence (Spatch) Mulhall, who played with Fontaine in both Indian City and Eagle and Hawk. “He wanted everyone to come together and move forward. He was a leader, a songwriter. He always had a vision.”

SUPPLIED Indian City in 2021, from left: Neewa Mason, Lawrence (Spatch) Mulhall, Vince Fontaine, Jeremy Koz and Don Amero; founding member Fontaine died in January of this year.

As a collective, Indian City had a shifting membership: musicians and vocalists came and went, some moving on to focus on solo careers but never straying too far from the band’s central node. Things changed, as was always the plan.

One constant in Indian City was Fontaine: his strumming, his lyrics, his preambles to the audience explaining why the song the band was about to play was written and what it all meant.

On Jan. 11, when Fontaine died suddenly at the age of 62 (though he’d have said 59, according to his obituary), the band had to figure out what Indian City looked like without its leader.

There was no replacing him, that was for sure, says Jeremy Koz, a vocalist whom Fontaine invited into the collective about eight years ago.

“He was a leader, a manager, a father figure, a brother, a friend, a knowledgeable resource,” says Koz.

But the band was fresh off an album, Code Red, which Fontaine had poured himself into. The ensemble had felt it was one of their best releases ever when it came out in October 2021. Fontaine was excited about taking the music on the road and sharing it with audiences.

So in January, the collective faced a decision: how do we move forward without that steady strumming?

Nobody wanted Indian City to end, and the band decided that ultimately, neither would have Fontaine. The band played its first gig since Fontaine’s untimely passing on Thursday, and on March 22 plays the Rady JCC’s Music n’ Mavens concert series, with tickets still available.

Two days before the first show, the band gathered for a rehearsal. The women of Indian City, including Neewa Mason, Karen Barg and Fontaine’s daughter, Gabrielle Fontaine, were anxious and excited, but also saddened, about their upcoming gigs.

“It’s bittersweet,” says Mason, a vocalist and keyboardist. “As a group, we all decided we were going to continue on with his music. It’s a therapy for us.

Barg, a violinist, says Fontaine used to take a solo and then, without much warning, look over to her and tell her to take one too. Now, her solos will have to fill some of the gaps Fontaine’s once did.

“It would freak me out,” she says with a laugh. “This isn’t so different.”

Gabrielle Fontaine, who sings and plays guitar, is taking on some of her father’s duties, playing the rhythms he’d helped to create.

“I do feel kind of nervous, just because whenever I played it was always with him,” she says. “I do feel that onstage we will definitely feel his loss and it won’t go unnoticed.

“But my dad built a community. That’s what Indian City was and is. It’s a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.”

She still feels her father’s presence. The whole band does. It’s undeniable. His lyrics are him, as is the music. No matter who’s playing, Fontaine is still there in every note.

Mason says Fontaine often likened Indian City to a hockey team: sometimes, certain players would dress, others would sit out, but it was always about the team first. And if a player needed to take some time to go out on their own, there was no hard feelings. They could always come back.

“Vince called himself the coach,” says Mason. “I don’t think we’ll ever replace the coach, but we’ll take that mentality and keep it with us. His entity and his spirit will be with us all when we play.”

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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