This show was originally billed as the pre-holiday reunion show of Koerner, Ray, and Glover that the local blues-folk legends had performed the last year few years at First Ave. in December. Sadly, blues fans lost the expressive, passionate vocals and clear, precise guitar playing of Dave Ray on Thanksgiving Day after a long bout with cancer. Since the show was already scheduled, right away his family, friends, and many local musicians decided to turn this into a tribute to a man who spent most of his life playing the blues and exposing new fans to the music he loved right up until he died. Many of the tributes to Dave mentioned how stoically he handled the news of his diagnosis. How he kept his friends and fans informed of his progress, and how despite the pain and discomfort, he kept getting up on the stage to play and sing, because that was what he wanted to do.
The tribute show started with a children's choir singing American folk and old, old blues songs backed by their teacher on keyboard and Willie Murphy lending a hand on guitar. Included were such songs as "Rock Island Line" and "Bring Me Some Water." The young singers were from a school where Dave had volunteered his time to bring his love of blues and folk music to a younger generation. The spirit and joy with which they sang were tributes to Dave's efforts. You could tell that he had given them an appreciation of music that will stay with this group a long time. Long time band mate John Beach then led a small group of five players led by Beach's solid keyboard work and rough vocals, backed by talented two sax players, drums, and bass. Their selection of old blues songs created a smoky, emotional atmosphere filled with sadness and joy at the same time.
The highlight of the show for me and many fans, judging from the enthusiastic crowd response, was Willie Murphy doing what he does best: singing solo and accompanying himself on keyboards. Murphy's powerful, moving set included a stretched out version of "So Long" with Murphy adding his own wrinkles and interpretations. He went even farther on the emotional "People Get Ready," where he had many in the crowd sniffling and tearing up. He added his own verse about the unlikely possibility that politicians who claim to care about people when running for election but don't do anything when elected will have a real hard time getting into heaven. Willie went on to explain the definition of curmudgeon, as in someone who is dissatisfied about the way things are, speaks out about it, and tries in their own small way to change things. He proudly declared he was a curmudgeon, and Dave was, too. He explained how he first met Dave, and how they became friends one night when they were sitting in two chairs with a bottle of whiskey between them.
Between sets Dave's widow Mary Jane, and many others, delivered remembrances and tributes about the kind of man Dave was. It's been said that the true measure of a man's life at the end is not how much material wealth he has managed to acquire, but the number of true friends he has made, the positive influences he has had on others, and the legacy he leaves behind. By any of these measures, including the large, friendly, emotion filled crowd on hand, Dave died a wealthy man indeed, far more wealthy than any billionaire could ever hope for. A lady who had published a number of Dave's poems read some of them. While her delivery may have been overly dramatic, which she apologized for in advance, the strength and spirit, as well as the humor, of Dave's work shined through.
One of the most heart-felt tributes to Dave was by Conrad, the long-time, dread-locked, stage manager at First Ave. Conrad made it clear he is not a public speaker, but he had so much love and respect for Dave that he said he had to explain what Dave meant to him. Conrad's rambling, choked up tribute, punctuated with humor and profanity, came from the heart and let everyone know how much Dave meant to him personally. Judging from the large, emotional, and enthusiastic crowd on hand, Dave, his love of music, and the music he gave his fans had that effect on a lot of people.
The final set was by "Spider" John Koerner and Tony Glover. Koerner first read a letter from Bonnie Raitt, a long-time friend of Dave's. On the stage was an empty chair with a fedora and scarf next to an unused microphone and 12-string guitar, representing Dave. Koerner and Glover worked their way through a set of mostly traditional folk songs such as "What's the Matter With the Mill?" along with a few traditional blues songs. Koerner's stinging, expressive 12-string playing and rough vocals were complemented by Glover's rich, fluid harp, with Koerner taking the lead most of the time. Their playing seemed to convey their loss and love for Dave, while bringing everyone back to the reality that the music goes on with Dave's spirit strongly felt in the room. As was heard many times this night, Dave is somewhere in heaven now, free of pain and earthly concerns. I can just picture him sitting in a folding chair, 12-string in hand, singing and jamming with Lead Belly to produce some incredible blues music.
From last year's First Ave. show 2002
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