The year 2009 may be remembered as 365 days of harsh reality. The economy, political strife and the general pall of our nation certainly contributed to that feeling. We were also “treated” to a film adaptation of the weepy novel “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult, which was the least feel-good hit of the summer. These works dealt with pediatric disease, a subject that tends to be only whispered and grieved about in private.
When such a malady struck the musical community, shirking celebration of the victims’ lives was not an option. In the most dire of situations, some choose hope. That was what the Pablove Foundation Benefit at the Avalon sought to inspire, as there is power in remembrance, but more so in moving forward to make sure the scenario doesn’t keep replaying.
Equipped with mostly acoustic instruments, a wide variety of artists including Sea Wolf, Band of Horses and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello sang tender tunes to honor Dangerbird Record’s Jeff Castelaz’s dearly departed son, Pablo, and his noble struggle against cancer.
“We were blessed to call him a friend,” said emcee Justin Meldal-Johnsen. “He was a wonderful, vibrant, child of 6. The basic and profound truth to all this is kids get cancer, too.”
The audience was introduced to Destiny Himmel, a 17-year-old beneficiary of the foundation. Though living with leukemia, she appeared onstage as steadfast and serene as a Shogun warrior. Attendees learned of her battle that originally paralyzed the left side of her body, but with assistance from the program and some unique healing techniques (James Valentine of Maroon 5 taught her guitar lessons), she seemed as resilient and strong as any healthy young woman.
Angeleno quintet Rooney attested to that brand of vigor. “Holding On” somberly conjured up imagery Himmel might have empathized with: “When I was young, I seen it all / A cemetery in a super mall.” Things ripened into their characteristically sunny sound with closer, “If It Were Up to Me”. Singer/guitarist Robert Schwartzman reverently urged a sing-along to the revamped chorus “Pablove is the best love.”
Levity and mourning alternated the entire concert. The jovial mop top Josh Rifkind, a mainstay on L.A. Children’s Hospital’s entertainment roster, led everyone in an elementary classic, “The Wheels on the Bus”. This segued into local brooders Black Rebel Motorcycle Club delivering their twangy dirges, which in turn gave way to a Tom Morello we’re not accustomed to seeing: crooning balladeer. He paid homage to his late Aunt Isabelle with a tribal drum and guttural lilt, before diving into a harmonica-infused version of his band’s anthemic “Guerilla Radio”.
Also trying on the acoustic renegade cap was Against Me’s Tom Gabel. His signature growl was calmed to a mature huskiness as he performed a few stripped down punk numbers from his 2008 Heart Burns EP. The normally fiery front woman from Garbage, Shirley Manson, appropriately toned it down when recreating David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”, which she said was “Pablo’s favorite song in the whole wide world”. (She sung it at the boy’s funeral earlier this year). Manson and fellow Garbage man Butch Vig, accompanied by Gabel and Greg Kurtsin, also mellowed out with a new original, “Witness” which was written with young Castelaz in mind. “We were masters of the universe”, the lyrics emoted tenderly. Her outfit, however, was radiant as usual: long brown furry coat, pink stockings and a jean skirt.
Each of the remaining acts had their own bittersweet qualities. Jarrod Gorbel of the Honorary Title drawled on with heart-wrenching words like “One day you woke up 10 years older” as his guitar clucked out sad strains. Indie popsters Sea Wolf set the stage jangling with wintry tales. Butch Walker, flanked by the melancholic Chapin Sisters duo, meandered into country-ish fare, as he reflected on his love for his own two-year-old son.
Masters of mope Band of Horses concluded the evening. Like their haunting oeuvre, including the last song of the night, “The General Specific”, the program ended with a spark of positivity. Their songs always seem to crescendo into something beautiful, no matter how drearily they begin. They take us on a journey – much akin to Jeff Castelaz’s, when he embarked on a cross-country bike trip in November to raise awareness for Pablove and the remarkable youths involved. To celebrate life is to endure.