Music and Charity: The Light of Day Winterfest 2016 festival

LOD '16 Finale
Photo courtesy of the writer

The Light of Day Foundation recently wrapped up its 16th annual season of music events with its Winterfest 2016 festival in Asbury Park, NJ. The New Jersey non-profit organization’s mission is to raise money and awareness and help find a cure for Parkinson’s disease and its related illnesses ALS and PSP through the power of music. The event is unique among music festivals in that it is charity-based: artists are donating their time for the cause. Since its inception in 2000, the event has grown from one small concert in New Jersey to over 80 events in 14 countries on three continents- Canada and Europe in November/December, New Jersey/New York and Philadelphia in January, and Australia in July. Artists who have performed include Bruce Springsteen, Jesse Malin, John Rzeznik (Goo Goo Dolls), Ed Kowalczyk (Live), Alejandro Escovedo, Darlene Love, Steve Forbert, Suzanne Vega and a multitude of unsigned and indie artists.

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Music has often been a catalyst and lightning rod for social change. A common phrase among fans in the 1960’s Greenwich Village folk scene when discussing an artists’ performance was ‘what did they have to say?” American Songwriter spoke with several artists about Light of Day and playing music for a cause. Joe D’Urso, a New Jersey-based artist who founded Light of Day and has released 13 indie records; Willie Nile, a critically-acclaimed NYC artist who has been releasing records since 1980 and cited by Lucinda Williams, U2’s Bono, and Jakob Dylan for his insightful lyrics and passionate performances; Richard Barone, a former member of the Bongos, an underground and critic’s darling band from Hoboken, NJ. Barone also teaches at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music; Blake Morgan, an indie artist from NYC and founder of ECR Music, a record label where all artists own 100% of their master recordings. Morgan is also the driving force behind #IRespectMusic, which champions artists’ rights; John Easdale, the founding member of Dramarama, who hit it big in the late 1980’s with the MTV and indie radio smash “Anything, Anything;” Anthony D’Amato, a young Americana folk troubadour whose New West Records debut The Shipwreck From The Shore earned praise from NPR and the New York Times.

1) Tell us about your specific reasons for getting involved with Light of Day.

Joe D’Urso: My personal involvement with Light of Day came once my music manager, Bob Benjamin, told me he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It wasn’t too long after he decided for his 40th birthday that he wanted to have a party in Red Bank, NJ and instead of having folks bring him gifts, they could donate to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. I remember that night very clearly. A full room of folks, Bobby Bandiera (Asbury Jukes, Bon Jovi) performing with his band, me jumping up and singing some old rock and roll standards, and Bob being elated that we raised and donated $2,000. After this night it took about another year for the first official Light of Day to take place and that was at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. Since Bob was my music manager, and friend, it was never asked if I was taking part in the show, it was just assumed and understood. Bob’s other client is Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. Willie Nile joined us that night as well as Bob and Joe’s old friend, Bruce Springsteen. And from that moment on, we never looked back.

Willie Nile: My good friend Bob Benjamin called me 16 years ago asking if I’d come and play a party for his birthday where all the proceeds were to go to Light of Day, a charity he was setting up to raise money for Parkinson’s research. He had been diagnosed with it not long before that. I was happy to help out any way I could.

Richard Barone: I was asked by LOD member Joe D’Urso to go on the UK portion of a European tour several years ago. I had heard about Light of Day before and was thrilled to be asked to part of it.

It was a great in the round format with Joe, Willie Nile and Alejandro Escovedo and others. Each artist gets to know each other on the stage and collaborate for the first time right there.

Blake Morgan: I was honored when musician Ben Arnold invited me to perform at the show in Philadelphia this year. He reached out to see if I’d be interested in coming down from New York to do the show, and I’m so glad he did. Interestingly enough, he had no idea that Parkinson’s disease does, in fact, play a large role in my life and my family’s history.

John Easdale: First and foremost, Tony Pallagrosi, a concert promoter and board member of Light of Day originally invited me years ago. But after meeting Bob Benjamin and everybody else involved, it was an easy decision to stay involved.

Anthony D’Amato: At first I got involved with Light of Day because of the music. I began attending the shows as a fan and was blown away by the artists, the community and the mission. I met Bob Benjamin when I was in high school and interviewed him for a local New Jersey publication, Upstage Magazine, and I was so impressed with his resilience and drive and everything that he’d accomplished that I wanted to be involved however I could. I started playing LOD shows when I was in college, and now I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years. Since I began my involvement with LOD, my own grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so the cause and the quest for a cure hits even closer to home now.

2) Do you have a personal connection with Parkinson’s disease?

D’Urso: My cousin Annette, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years back after being misdiagnosed with MS. Besides her, my personal involvement has always been because of Bob Benjamin. Over these past 16 years, I have made good friendships with folks who are afflicted and have had a few folks in my life, including some musicians, who have been diagnosed. It seems that the professional medical field is getting much better at diagnosing PD early on, and I hope the work we have done over these years has lent to that.

Nile: I have had some older relatives who have had it.

Barone: Not directly but several of my artist friends have the personal connection, so I was more than happy to get involved. At the shows, both people who have the disease and family members who have lost people to the disease came up to discuss how important and meaningful the event was to them. It is so fulfilling. I’ve been feeling for a long while that music serves a purpose greater than just entertaining. That’s an underlying part of our job as artists and musicians. We connect things. You can see it in some of the larger benefit concerts over the years, and now Light of Day has become a huge thing in itself.

Morgan: I do. My grandmother died from complications due to Parkinson’s (the disease itself isn’t fatal, but the complications very much can be) and my mother, Robin Morgan, was diagnosed with the disease six years ago. She’s been open and courageous about her own relationship with the disease, doing a major TED Lecture on the subject last year. We’re on the journey together, navigating the landscape that the disease presents. She’s doing great, and is incredibly healthy and active currently––but we’re mindful of what the future holds, and how it holds it, too. I’m her son, her partner in this challenge, and her caregiver as well. Neither of us would wish for this challenge (Michael J. Fox has said, “Parkinson’s is the gift that keeps on taking), but we’ve found deep and even profound beauty in meeting this challenge together, and in each other, as we do so.

Easdale: Just some very dear friends and their loved ones.

D’Amato: My initial connection was to Bob and the musicians. They were the ones who introduced me to Parkinson’s and the amazing charity work they’re doing to find a cure. Since my grandfather’s diagnosis, it’s only strengthened my determination to do what I can for the cause.

3) How has Light of Day helped build your audience? Any memorable moments, musically or perhaps interactions with fans who are there for the cause?

D’Urso: I think for many of our LOD family of artists there are several ways. They have crossed paths with fans who mention LOD, either because of how PD has affected their own families, Bruce Springsteen being involved as a performer or just hearing about these great nights of music we supply in many cities and countries along the way. So by doing this “work,” we have met fans that never would have known about many of us and our music. And what a great way to get “repaid” for good work. It’s something that I was not unfamiliar with as I had been involved with World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger) for years before Light of Day started. I’ve always said it makes an evening have more importance than just “buy my CD/t-shirt.” It becomes something bigger and it’s a wonderful interaction that goes on between fans and artists and it has become very much a family over the years. There are too many moments for me to list, but all I can say is that when someone with PD comes up to you and thanks you for helping them have a voice in their personal fight and journey, you walk away being very clear about why you do what you do.

Nile: There are so many memorable moments. Having Bruce Springsteen join us numerous times on stage during our sets surely are up there at the top of the list. He’s given so much to LOD by coming and playing for 11 of the 16 years. His friendship and respect for Bob Benjamin are at the root of his participation. Anybody who knows Bob knows what a great and good man he is.

The other highlight for me is the community that’s developed around it. Over these years there’s a community of people that now know each other from all over Europe and Canada and the northeast, all with this good cause in mind and all coming to enjoy the music and seeing old friends. It’s really beautiful to see.

Morgan: This was my first time being involved with LOD––I’ve partnered with PDF on several occasions in the past but I certainly hope it isn’t the last.

Easdale: The idea of being accused of trying to build our audience through our association with a charity prevented us from getting involved with anything for many years; working with Light Of Day took away those fears and we have been much more involved in many other events for worthy causes as a result. Every year we meet new people, and I’m also happy to say I have made many friends who I look forward to seeing every year at Light of Day.

D’Amato: I still hear from LOD fans in Europe and Australia on a regular basis, and I hope to make it back to perform for them again soon. They’re some of the most wonderful audiences to perform for because they’re true music fans who believe in the power of art to make a real difference in the world and they want to actively be a part of that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget being on the beautiful opera house stage in Lugo, Italy, with a roomful of generous and enthusiastic Italians singing their hearts out for the cause.

4) Do music and social causes mix together well?

D’Urso: In my world they do! There has never been a social cause that did not have music at its core. From Civil Right marches in the 1960’s to the Women’s Lib movement and Gay Rights later on, music has always been a part of it. Music is the most powerful of all the arts and the fact that it plays a lead role in movements make absolute sense to me.

Nile: When done the right way yes, they can mix. No one’s interested in somebody on a soapbox ranting about whatever, but if the cause is good, as it is in this case in finding a cure for a horrible disease, and if the music is good (which in this case it is), then you’ve got a good mix and a good festival. Personally, I like music that has a conscience. There’s a lot wrong in the world and as a race of people we can do better. Sometimes a song or two can be of help and if so, that’s a good thing.

Barone: I got to work with Pete Seeger several years ago on his last single “God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting On You.” I was producing a benefit concert centered on the BP oil spill and contacted him. He had written a song that was specific to that event. I had great conversations with him about what music can do. I was always a fan. He was message-oriented and everything he did was charity-driven, from the Hudson River cleanup to Occupy Wall Street.  I walked with him down to Wall Street and he was in his nineties in a cane! He was a living example of what a musician can do. I saw it in action. It was a great lesson in the direct correlation in what an artist can do to help and combine it with music. Pete Seeger taught me that the Power of Song is a real thing, not a myth. The right song can make a difference, and putting our songs to good use as we do with Light of Day is an example.

Morgan: I think artists of all kinds––musicians are no exception––mix and operate well with the issues and challenges we face in society. Art and music are meant to captivate an audience for however long that audience has been asked for their attention, and the passions and pitfalls of societal issues offer the chance to do that, to be sure.

Easdale: Absolutely. Look at the history of folk music and protest songs, right up to “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”…or charitable events like Live Aid or the No Nukes concerts back in the ‘70s. Music has helped bring attention and/or awareness to many worthwhile causes over the years. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be included in Light of Day.

D’Amato: I think music and social causes go hand in hand. Music (and any kind of art really) requires a certain degree of empathy and interest in the lives of those around you. Music is an amazing way of bringing people together and utilizing that care and empathy to try and improve life for everyone around you. We’re all in this together.

5) What have you gained from the experience of playing the Light of Day festival?

D’Urso: Probably the biggest thing I have learned is that you can never set out to think you are going to be part of something unique, special and wonderful. It just happens on its own with hard work, friendships, commitments and loyalty. No one within the Light of Day “walls” every expected it to be in 14 countries and three continents with 80 events this year. I mean, this was a birthday party in a small bar just 16 years back! I have learned that hard work, combined with true and unwavering beliefs can move small mountains.

Nile: I’ve learned that it’s better to give than to receive. I’m grateful for all the hard work everyone puts in to pull this off, and one day there will be a cure found and we’ll party till the sun comes up and the next day we’ll pick another disease and go after that one.

Morgan: It was powerful, not only to perform and stand with other artists I admire, but to do so at World Cafe Live, and to do so for such an uplifting and even defiantly positive event. I won’t forget it, ever.

Easdale: A better knowledge of Parkinson’s and a great many friendships. Not to mention the satisfaction of playing our music for all the right reasons.

D’Amato: I’ve gained so many friendships and something like an extended family around the world of people who give of themselves, whether it’s their time or their money or their talents, whatever they’re able to share. Coming to LOD in NJ every year feels like a special reunion and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

6) What is your most current or upcoming record release?

D’Urso: My last release, Sway, was in 2013 and it was very well received in my “little world” that I have been very fortunate to live in and tour in for many years. I don’t worry about radio play and record companies. I put records out for me first and foremost. I gotta like it and then hopefully our fans will enjoy, and they have been great in supporting 13 records since 1991. So with all that said, I am hoping to make two records this year, one with Stone Caravan which will be a good ole rock and roll record and then one quieter acoustic record since both “sounds” of music are what make up what I do in life. Finding the time these days is the toughest between touring, Light of Day, WhyHunger, Dan Sullivan Foundation, regular shows, presenting the Rockland-Bergen Music Festival and being a dad and married…so maybe two releases is being a bit over optimistic!

Nile: I’ve got a new studio album of original material coming out April 1 on River House Records. I’m pretty excited about it. We’ve captured a lot of the energy of the live shows on these tracks and I’m very happy with the new songs. Can’t wait to get it out there.

Morgan: My recent album, Diamonds In the Dark, has me about to embark on a month-long tour of Germany, in February. And my current artist-in-residence concert series here in New York City continues at Rockwood Music Hall on March 9th.

Easdale: New music coming this year (fingers crossed).

D’Amato: I just finished recording a new album with Mike Mogis and some of folks from Bright Eyes that will be released on New West later this year. I can’t wait to start sharing the new music!

Barone: My upcoming project “Sorrow & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” is bringing light to some of the lesser-known artists and songs of the early ‘60s folk movement. When the revival started in the late ‘50s, artists were singing traditional songs. It transitioned in the early ‘60s to artists writing their own songs. You would go to see someone like Bob Dylan, Janis Ian or Paul Simon and you were there to see and hear what they had to say, how they were observing society. It wasn’t just to be entertained. They were cranking out their feelings and thoughts on where the world was heading. Before that, artists were covering traditional songs or ones written in rooms by professional songwriters. This was a new movement. And we still feel that today through guys like Bruce Springsteen and the Light of Day artists carrying on that tradition.

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