The 1000 Islands is a land lost in time. The place has a singular physical beauty but perhaps an element that is just as critical to it’s charm, is in it’s ongoing harmonious relationship with the people that live there. Not a whole lot has changed up there in the last 100 years. Back in the late 1800s, it was one of the most popular vacation spots in the Northeast for residents of not only upstate New York, but also NYC, Boston and Philadelphia.
Almost every positive memory from my youth and formative years came from the time that I spent on the St Lawrence River. I grew up and went to grade school in Manlius, a small village, just outside of Syracuse, NY however, I spent much of my summer and nearly every weekend from May through November in the 1000 Islands in Clayton, NY.
I remember the feeling as a child that it almost seemed impossible for the River and Syracuse to exist on the same planet…let alone the same state. The 1000 Islands seemed to be a place almost entirely insulated from the negative trappings of everyday life. It was just the opposite – with people running around in boats, permanent smiles plastered upon faces and the constant soundscape of boats, breeze and the gentle echo of water kissing the shoreline.
The emotions, sites, sounds and even the smells that I associate with this place have permeated much of the music that I have written over the span of my career. I am sure that a similar phenomena is true with many songwriters – the circumstances that affect you most during your formative years informs the art that you create.
Back in early 2004, I had been living in Los Angeles for nearly three years. It was an amazing time be in that city making music. I found myself immersed in an amazing burgeoning community of songwriters, musicians and creative people. It was supportive, challenging and inspiring. Still though, as it did every year, with the first whiff of Spring, my heart ached to be back at my spiritual and emotional home place, the St. Lawrence River.
So I had this crazy little idea early that Spring, to merge the two worlds that I held so dear. Inspired partly by repeated viewings of The Last Waltz, I thought that it could be a truly powerful experience to bring some of my favorite musicians and songwriters home with me to the River and to put on a ‘one night only’ benefit concert in the historic, Clayton Opera House. I conspired briefly with my friend, Stephanie Weiss who was at the time, the executive director of Save the River*, and we decided that it would be mutually beneficial to join forces on the venture.
And so I set out inviting some of my favorite songwriters (and all around people, in general) to join me on this 3,000 mile journey across the land to help me ‘Save the River’. It was a bit of a “hard sell” at first. It was a long way to go for not a whole lot of money. Furthermore, it was a place that none of these people had ever even heard of before. Still, through conjuring images of a remote paradise beyond their wildest imaginings, I managed to convince Gabriel Mann (The Rescues), Bennett Cale, Joe Purdy and the blues rock outfit, Paper Sun into joining me on my crazy mission.
I was excited.
As the date of that first Rock for the River concert drew near, I must admit that my excitement was tempered slightly by some nervousness. I had some fear that these Los Angeles based musicians might not be as enamored with River life, River times and River folk as they were in the landmark summit of worlds in my imagination . . . and vice versa.
My fears were largely unfounded. I realized this instantaneously when, upon arrival, the entire group made it’s way to the dock and jumped into the water. Suddenly, all of our individual relationships had changed. We were, for a moment, all the same and connected in a way that we had never been before. Only our heads were visible, bobbing gently above the serene and healing waters that I loved so well.
It was a foreshadowing of what was to take place musically a few days later onstage at the Clayton Opera House. It was also a foreshadowing of the musical and personal bond that we would all share for the rest of our lives.
So as it turned out, my initial hunch was correct. Each and every one of those artists fell madly and deeply in love with the place AND the people. (It didn’t hurt that we all went to the show together, by boat.) The first Rock for the River concert at the Clayton Opera House became a night that none in attendance would ever forget. It was a kick off of summer, a celebration of the place that we all held so dear and it was a great coming together for kids of all ages.
Nine years and ten concerts later, not much has changed. The evening still feels as magical as it did that first night. We just sell a whole lot more tickets and I feel a whole lot more sure that I am doing the right thing with the right people** in my favorite place in the world.
*(Started in 1978 by activist, Abbie Hoffman, Save the River is a non-profit, member-based environmental organization whose mission is preserve and protect the ecological integrity of the Upper St. Lawrence basin. In practice, a lot of what they do is actually stand as a voice for the people of the River community and hold in balance the interests of the Seaway (which is the main shipping channel connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean) with the environmental AND socio-economic interests of the River faring public.
The way that I like to simplify it is that Save the River is the sole organization striving to preserve and protect the place that I grew up loving, so that my children . . . and their children may experience that same sense of wonder from the place that I did.
** – Rock for the River alumni: Jim Bianco, Brian Wright, AG, Meiko, Amber Rubarth, The Milk Carton Kids, Sara Bareilles, Chris Seefried, Joe Bouchard (Blue Oyster Cult), Monica Behan, Garrison Starr, Joey Ryan, Sally Jaye, Eliza Moore)
Get tickets for the 9/1 Rock The River concert here.