Remembering Don

It is the kind of email you never want to receive: a long-time friend was injured in a serious car accident on Monday. Wednesday he was taken off life support. Funeral on Friday.

So Candice and I left early this morning to drive the three hours to our old Shenandoah Valley home of Staunton to remember Don, mourn his death which came too early, and celebrate his life with his wife Ruth, son Philip, and many other friends.

The service began in the beautiful Temple House of Israel, designed in 1925 by Staunton architect Sam Collins in the Moorish Revival Style. The haunting Jewish melodies sung by a trio of women rolled around the wood, plaster, and tile interior.

Rabbi Joe Blair nailed Don in the eulogy.  There was much laughter and more than a few tears.

Don was one-of-a-kind.  He loved telling jokes while sitting around a table filled with wine, food he had cooked, family, and friends. I had my first pomegranate one evening after Don sliced the fruit and passed it around for all to enjoy. I can still taste the wonderful garlic from Don and Ruth’s table.

Don loved classical music, so I was surprised one evening when I walked in his house and heard the David Grisman and Andy Statman Songs of our Fathers CD coming through the speakers. We began talking about the Jewish melodies and mandolins and one thing led to another.  All of a sudden Don announced that he had gone to high school with Dr. Banjo!  “You’re kidding,” I replied, “You went to school with Pete Wernick?” Yep, said Don, matter-of-factly. Then he proceeded to talk some bluegrass for a while.  As the rabbi said today, Don had an amazing ability to remember a sometimes annoying amount of information – even for music that would have been obscure for most Jewish kids from Brooklyn.

Don loved his family and teaching.  The rabbi told stories today to illustrate both. When Ruth was losing her hair in a successful battle with cancer, Don told her not to worry because he had married her, not her hair. When asked how long he had been married, Don would invariably reply, “Not long enough!”  Don also loved his physics students at JMU, “except for those pre-med students who were only taking physics because they had to.” In those cases, Don would say “I saved a lot of lives by failing them.”

Don died much too young, but by being an organ donor he gave the gift of life on Wednesday to another patient at the University of Virginia medical center.  That’s not the only way his life continues, but it was a comforting thought today.

Rest in peace Don. You lived a good life and have a whole community you touched in ways you could have never realized.

More to come…


MerleFest Day 4

Missy Raines and Angel BandI’ve now arrived home and cut off my MerleFest wristband…so it is officially over.  (I’m sure the organizers are glad to know that’s what it takes.)

Sunday at MerleFest is a short day, ending at 6 p.m.  If you live 7 hours away, as I do, it ends even earlier unless you want to get home at 1 a.m.

Nonetheless, there were some good final day acts that I was able to work in before the heat and the prospect of the drive drove me out the front gate and headed north.

I arrived a little later than planned (must have been that early morning post), so I skipped Doc and the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s traditional gospel show and caught up with the Dixie Bee-Liners at the Hillside stage.  I’d seen them the day The Dixie Bee-Liners at Merlefestbefore as part of the New Generation Super Jam and wanted to see a full show.  They had a very entertaining set, with strong harmonies and interesting arrangements.   They are worth a look if they are traveling to your town.

Afterwards, I stopped by the Americana tent and caught the end of Happy Traum’s show.  While most people think of MerleFest as primarily a bluegrass festival, it really showcases all types of music including a strong strand of acoustic blues.  Traum sat on-stage with his guitar and took requests, picking such classics as Step It Up and Go.  Because of his Homespun Tapes series of instructional DVDs, Traum deserves a great deal of thanks from everyone who cares about acoustic and traditional music. 

Pete Wernick and The Gibson BrothersOn the Cabin Stage, Pete Wernick (a.k.a. Dr. Banjo) brought out The Gibson Brothers for a short but strong set.  These guys are exceptional singers in the brother duo tradition, and Wernick added a warm presence (no pun intended) as the MC and experienced performer.  I have a good friend in Staunton who went to high school with Wernick and even my friend – who is a physicist – calls him Dr. Banjo.  Wernick – a founder of Hot Rize – is a giant in the progressive bluegrass field, but in recent years he’s focused more on the traditional side of the music.  It was nice of him to use his time to showcase The Gibson Brothers.

Next came the highlight of the day for me.  I’ve written recently about Missy Raines and the New Hip’s performance in the Washington area.  But today she was even better.  The New Hip came out smoking and never let up.  They sounded just like a jazz quintet, with lots of great interplay and strong individual solos.  The addition of mandolin star Matt Flinner just made the band that much better.  This guy has serious chops.  Check out his new CD Music du Jour, as it is a strong work by his normal trio. 

Raines also called up Angel Band to help out with the vocals on Cold Hard Business (see photo at the top of the post), and did they ever take care of business!  After her show, I actually had four different people – three of them strangers – ask me if I’d heard Raines’ show…she was that good.

The Carolina Chocolate DropsFor me, the day ended with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  These three musicians have a real love for the old-time string band music of the African American community, and it shows in their infectious set.  Truly, a great way to end my MerleFest 2009.

I just checked the MerleFest Forum board to see how others were viewing this year’s festival.  There were some complaints about the relatively weak line-up (I would agree to a point), and also some notes about the repetitive nature of many of the acts.  It wasn’t my strongest MerleFest, but I have a hard time complaining when I get to spend four days in the Carolina hills (even if it is hot as Hades) listening to great musicians play what they love.

More to come…